expat confessions: reflections on 3 years abroad

I'm only leaving Taiwan for a few weeks. but with our move and my flight to the US looming this weekend, I'm getting all nostalgic. this is my third year living in Taiwan, the third time I've been an expat returning to the states for summer, the third time I've had to calculate how much space to leave in my suitcase for bringing things back with me.

but this year is a little different. I have to be packed in advance, since tomorrow a moving truck is carting all of our things to Taipei. when I return, our home will be there - not here. and just to make things interesting, I'm flying back to the states on monday. 48 hours after we do this moving thing.

maybe this sounds crazy to you. or maybe you think it's no big deal. but I can tell you that for me, it is a HUGE deal. three years ago I would not have been able to handle this. I would be curled in a ball on the couch right now, probably crying into a beer, so stressed that I couldn't breathe.

but instead I'm sitting here in Starbucks typing. [sure I forgot to bring my headphones and some dude stole "my" spot. but at least the volume on the playlist today is low enough that I can think.] all the dishes are clean and the dirty laundry hamper is empty. there's a detailed list on my phone of what to buy this summer, so I won't have to try remembering what I left behind. crates and boxes of things are stacked around the apartment waiting for the movers. I have a small but coordinated pile of clothing that will go into my suitcase to the states.

I'm not saying that the past few weeks have been a breeze. but the level of anxiety I've felt and the number of panicked moments have been significantly less than what used to be "normal" for me. and I know that it has been our time abroad that has facilitated this change. it allowed me to grow as a person, and the freedom to [98% of the time] be uniquely myself because I'm in a place where I'll never blend in.

and honestly, I've started to notice that people really don't notice as much as you'd think.

aside from this - for which I will be eternally grateful to Taiwan - there are a handful of other lessons [both good and bad] I have learned here. and, well... you had to have known that at some point this post would devolve into a list. so here are my words of wisdom gained from my 3 years of expat life, and just general thoughts as my pre-travel brain tries to put off packing the last of things.

travel will change you, but only if you let it. keep an open mind and an open heart. anything can be an adventure if you choose to see it that way.

in 80% of situations, the language barrier can be overcome by smiling, nodding, and hand gestures.

the best way to find yourself is to get lost. this is true in both a literal and metaphorical sense. [just be sure you have a working cell phone and money for a cab in case it takes a little longer than you anticipated.]

always be aware of the toilet situation. most of the world - even in Europe - does not always use the American restroom setup. sometimes there will be the option of [or only] squat toilets. sometimes you won't be able to flush toilet paper. other times, you'll have to pay for toilet paper. and sometimes toilet paper will just not be there. bring tissue packs, and know what you're walking into.

in my experience, you'll never regret paying more for the direct flight.

some days will be an adventure, in the best of ways. and some days you will need to hide in your apartment and pretend you don't live someplace so strange. some days you will miss home so much it hurts. and some days you'll consider never going back. that's all normal.

it's ok to spend $80 on a bread maker and $12 on each bag of gluten free bread mix. in fact, it sounds downright reasonable when you're on the verge of tears because you just want a damn grilled cheese. some days it will feel like you have nothing you need. and others, that you have everything. because when you realize that all you want your mom to mail for your birthday is vitamins and deodorant - that's ok, too.

living abroad had shown me some of the best and worst things about being an American in this world. I was born to privilege that so many take for granted, and many back home don't understand why I would give "that" up. I've even been told that moving abroad means I've relinquished my right to express an opinion on or even care about my home country.

I've encountered other Americans on my travels that have made me ashamed to show my passport. I've encountered cultures who idolize us as "the land of opportunity" and cultures who demonize us as the land of "meddlesome cowboys." I've been mistaken for a Canadian and [a time or two] pretended that I actually was.

I don't love everything about America. but I'm not about to renounce my citizenship. [there's a lot of things I don't love about expat life, too.] though I don't currently live there, I am grateful for being an American. in 95% of the world I am granted entry and acceptance into a country just based on my passport. and I'm glad that I can come from the life I had, and appreciate everything else I've been able to see.

some friends are meant to drift apart over time, but nothing brings this on more quickly than moving abroad. lots of your friends and family will say "I'm totally coming to visit" but most won't. lots of your friends and family will say "let's catch up on Skype!" and few will, but most won't be able to find the time, at least not often.

you'll quickly discover which friends are meant to stick around - the ones who listen and accept, even when they don't understand. the ones who will sit up all night with you, no matter how long it's been since you've seen each other last. and you'll appreciate them all the more.

and that moment where you want to text your best friend for an opinion and she's asleep because it's the middle of the night on the other side of the world? that's when you learn how to decide for yourself. [and maybe text her for reassurance anyway.]

I've made new friends too. I've met people from all over the world, who have experienced both wildly different and eerily similar things. had we met in another place and time, we might not have become friends. but our common struggles as expats have brought us together. that - and Thanksgiving potlucks, forming a scooter gang, ghost festival KTV, Cards Against Humanity, and that time we accidentally stayed in a love motel. I'm so grateful for the people who have made this place feel like home.

the effect of expat life on my marriage has been profound. not that it was necessarily bad before - but sometimes we look back at our relationship and cringe. the level of trust and intensity of communication we were forced to develop when we moved abroad has brought us closer than ever. when your entire on-hand support system is whittled down to one person, it can be a lot to deal with. but we've figured out how to balance honest communication with personal boundaries, to be clear about our needs and when to ask for help. we've both grown through this experience, and thankfully we've grown in the same direction.

but the biggest lessons, and the biggest changes, have been within myself. I've redefined who I am and how I see the world. I've changed my thoughts on my self-worth and gained a boatload of confidence through the challenges I've faced. I still have days that I struggle - because I am human - but those days are fewer and the struggles different. I know now that I am capable of things beyond my wildest dreams. and I know what it is that really matters to me, and what I can live without.

there have certainly been moments when I doubted our decision to move abroad, but it has turned out to be one the best things in my life. from the people it has brought me to the places it has taken me - these past 3 years will be ones I hold forever dear.

thanks for following along on this journey... and for making it to the end of this post.

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