In this post, I want to wrap up the Expats in Lockdown series that I’ve been curating for the past month. Through the series I wanted to understand how people living abroad are coping with the coronavirus crisis.
Each interview has given me reason to pause and reflect on the mad life that we as expats have chosen for ourselves, and how the madness of it is highlighted by this global pandemic.
So, in this final post in the series, I want to share with you the four main themes that repeatedly cropped up in my interviews with the wonderful people featured in the Expats in Lockdown series.
But before I jump right in, I also want to thank each and every one of you who were part of the series. I am deeply grateful for your trust in me and for opening up your inner world to a complete stranger.
I have never felt more connected to other people as I have in the past month while working on the Expats in Lockdown series. Making meaningful connections is a gift that I do not take for granted as a long-term expat!
What’s more, your very personal stories have brought a sense of validation to very many living abroad around the world. In a strange time like this, the sense of relief experienced from having your new reality mirrored in someone else out there cannot be underestimated!
With all that said, here are the four lessons I’ve learned about living abroad during the coronavirus outbreak.
1. THE NEVER-ENDING TENSION OF CHOOSING BETWEEN LIVING ABROAD AND PROXIMITY TO FAMILY AND FRIENDS
People who move abroad are a strange bunch (myself included).
Regardless of your reasons for moving abroad – to be with someone you fell in love with, build a career, find a better quality of life for yourself or your family, or just to experience something different, one thing is common for all:
Try as you might, you’re going to miss your friends and family as well as obsess over not being with them.
Before this series, I thought that it’s just me who has this non-stop nagging voice in her head. This voice periodically flares up and makes me question my choice to build a life abroad rather than “settle down” in my passport country.
But I’ve been wrong – it’s not just me.
Most expats have these thoughts and feelings, just in different ways.
For some, friends and family are the most important thing in their lives. These expats will have it hardest living abroad because that nagging doubt will often overshadow the whole living abroad experience.
For others, the benefits of expat life outweigh the distance. It’s mainly during celebrations and hardships that the questioning rears its ugly head the most.
For others still, living far away from friends and family (who are often spread across the world) is all they know. But there is often the dream of what it would be like to just have them all in one place that can cause emotional pain and confusion.
And speaking of friends and family being spread around the world…
2. EXPAT LIFE IS ONLY POSSIBLE WITH OPEN BORDERS
Border closures have been a major slap in the face for the vast majority of people living abroad during the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s forced people to get stuck in countries they don’t live in, cut short their vacations, leave their adopted country out of the blue, rush back to help out family in another country, postpone their long-planned moves etc.
Border closures have painfully revealed just how much expat life depends on open borders.
- We need open borders to meet our need for adventure and exploring the world.
- We need open borders so that we can, alongside our explorations, still nurture our closest relationships in other countries.
- We need open borders to feel that we always have a way out, a backup plan in case life abroad turns really sour.
None of that is on the table any longer.
Personally, this loss of freedom has hit me the hardest. In relation to that, one fear that the coronavirus outbreak has brought up in me is the question…
…whether this crisis will pave the way for a world that is even more closed up than it was already slowly in the process of becoming pre-coronavirus.
Fears are just that – fears. They are not reality.
But in my darkest moments I can’t help but wonder whether the life that I’ve been so grateful for will have to change drastically once the dust from the economic (and potentially political) upheaval has settled.
3. LIVING ABROAD (DURING THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS AND OTHERWISE) PROVES WHY RESILIENCE IS IMPORTANT
There is nothing quite like moving abroad to learn how to cope with a major life change.
And there is nothing quite like living abroad during a really challenging time (let alone a global pandemic) to show the relevance of building psychological resilience.
Resilience is a fluffy word and I don’t intend to get into a long discussion about what it means in practice. I’m neither a coach nor a therapist and there are far more qualified people out there to show you the way.
I just know what works for me.
Because resilience is something I had to intuitively learn from a very young age as my parents whisked me around the world (until I was old enough to explore the world on my own terms).
No one needs a lesson in how to enjoy good times. But you only learn how to survive difficult times by going through them first-hand.
My conversations with several expats proved to me that once you know how to support yourself through a hardship, you’re set for life. Because there will always be further hardships and nasty surprises in store for all of us.
On the bright side, though, there will always be more good times, too.
4. YOU WILL STRUGGLE LESS WHEN YOU’RE AT PEACE WITH WHO YOU ARE
The biggest lesson that living abroad has taught me, and which I feel is being reinforced by this lockdown, is that at the end of the day you’re always stuck with yourself.
But we’re all at different stages of feeling settled in our adopted countries. We’re all at different stages of our lives. We’re all at different stages of knowing ourselves and the direction we want to go in.
Where you are in your life is going to have a huge impact on how bad the lockdown is going to affect you mentally (putting aside financial worries).
What I see and hear over and over again is how these enforced lockdowns are pushing people to turn inward and ask:
- When all of the social status and identity markers are taken away, do I really know myself?
- Am I at peace with myself and the choices I make or have made?
- Am I on the right path in life or have I followed someone else’s idea of what my life should look like?
- Do I dare to make the changes I know deep down are long overdue?
None of these are easy questions to ask, let alone implement once the answers have been found.
For some, this is the first time to ask these questions for real. While for others, it’s a time to revisit some of these questions.
So while we wait for what the future is going to bring in several aspects of our lives, let’s use this time to work on the relationship we have to ourselves and make it a good one.
Comment below – what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far from being in lockdown?
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat. Based on her professional work, PhD research and personal experience, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, where to should settle down or whether it’s time to move back home.