So I know I still owe an entry or two about our trip to South Island, NZ, and I swear it’s in the works. But for right now I’ve got some other more pressing stuff to cover. Bear with me to the end, if you can stand it.
The above photo was taken of my paternal grandmother in 1909. She was born in Osaka, Japan in 1906, while my great-grandparents were there doing missionary work. Seeing as my dad’s side of the family has now been pretty much areligious for three generations, the family joke was that my great-grandfather arrived, eventually realized that the Buddhists were on to something and ultimately grew indifferent to Christianity. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I’ve always chosen to believe that’s what happened.
I never knew this grandmother, who died very young in the 1950s, and so grew up enchanted by this photo. How gorgeous (and tiny?!) are her two Japanese nannies? I’ve always looked at this photo and been filled with questions: did people still wear traditional outfits like that in 1909, or were they posing for a photo to exaggerate the exotic? What would it have been like spending the first five years of your life in a country that had only re-opened itself up to westerners about 50 years earlier? I wonder if she learned any Japanese, and what kind of food she ate? What did Japanese people, who could so easily spot them as foreigners, think about them? I know that they stopped off in Hawaii during the long sea voyage back, and I marvel to think what modern-day Waikiki must have looked like (surely they stayed at the Moana, which was the only hotel there until 1927). It’s crazy to think Hawaii was still an independent kingdom that was mostly a buggy, tropical paradise at that point, and not scarred by a thin strip of sand overrun with ugly high-rises.
There have been many times over the past two years when I’ve considered how much easier it is being an expat in the age of Internet and cell phones and A380 jets and credit cards and chain stores and international beer distributors. For instance, my mom’s best friend lived in Melbourne for a couple years in the 1970s, and from what I’ve heard it was like moving 25 years back in time. She had to write letters, and send away for books (ha we still do that now), and organize trips back with stops in Hawaii and Fiji (not that that part was so bad) via a travel agent.
For all the times I’ve complained about the stupid capped Internet here, or the lack of Dunkin Donuts, or having to watch football on tape delay, I’ve very obviously had it easy. It may sound corny, but whenever I’ve felt particularly lonely or isolated – and we all know those can be pretty common feelings as an expat – I’ve thought about my grandmother, and my great-grandparents, and how brave they were to venture to the other side of the world (ON A BOAT!) to a country that even 100 years later is still tricky for outsiders to penetrate or understand. I’ve tried to embolden myself by thinking I inherited their sense of adventure, and sometimes it works. My great-grandfather in particular must have loved something about the expat experience, as 25 years after returning from Japan he moved back to Asia to work for Goodyear in India. India in the 1940s; what an amazing experience for a guy born in Warren, Ohio. When my dad was born my grandfather notified my great-grandfather in India by telegram. I can barely fathom such a life.
So here we are. Before all of this began I never thought I’d live in Australia, particularly for two full years. It all happened so fast I barely had time to think about the distance, or how long two years really is. One year, even 18 months, into our time in Australia all I could think about was moving home. About hanging out with my friends, buying groceries at Whole Foods, paying at the pump when I got gas, eating $5 pancakes at IHOP, watching the Patriots for real on a Sunday afternoon. All those easy, familiar things that I’ve missed so much here.
And yet, in the midst of all that there were things I came to like about being an expat. First and foremost, the ability to travel – and fall in love with – new places that I never thought I’d even want to visit. Cambodia and Laos were afterthought add-ons to our Thailand trip last year, and to this day I’m equally haunted and enchanted by them, and beyond keen to go back. Aussies pride themselves on their love of travel and their “work to live, not live to work” ethos, and I think that mentality has definitely rubbed off.
To an extent I’ve enjoyed the “otherness” of being an expat; having the freedom (and sometimes the necessity) to get out there and meet different kinds of people with a background and life experience so different from my own. Whether through lacrosse, or volunteering with the Benevolent Society, or my job, I’ve met people with experiences I never would have comprehended from the comfort of my life in the Northeastern United States. And sometimes, I’ve been able to share my own wacky history in turn.
Being an expat widens your perspective in such an amazing way, and although the circumstances are different and the creature comforts have increased exponentially, I think that’s a common thread that I share with my great-grandfather and my grandmother, and it’s something I cherish.
Of course, perspective goes both ways. Living abroad, I’ve certainly thought more about what it means to be American – and what it means to the rest of the world – than I ever did living at home. I wince more when I see a story about Sarah Palin or the Westboro Baptist Church or the Kardashians, because it saddens me that that is the crap that makes headlines and gets people’s attention abroad. And of course, part of me also thinks, I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that crap, what is wrong with our country? I still get a little huffy when I see Australian TV commercials mocking Americans for being fat, but I also bitch about how sodas are too small at McDonalds and the concept of “unlimited” doesn’t exist when it comes food and drinks. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve learned things about myself, and I’ve thought more about how to be a good global citizen than I ever thought I would.
As cliche as it sounds, a lot of the toughest parts of being an expat have ultimately made me stronger. Through work and lacrosse and the shared experience of being an expat, I’ve made some great friends. I’ve become a much better cook. I’ve learned to make due without shopping at Barneys or Saks (seriously, the only clothes I’ve bought in my time here have been gym clothes, and the only shoes have been flip flops). I’ve become a master of finding free shows to watch on the Internet.
Over the last few months the hubs and I talked a lot about moving home, and about our careers, and about where we saw ourselves in five or ten years. As much as we both miss home and our families and our friends, we know they will still be there when we get back, no matter when that is. We agreed that there was more in this part of the world that we wanted to explore and discover, and came to realize that we really had nothing to lose.
And so, almost exactly two years to the day after I began this blog, I can say for certain that the adventure will continue. The next chapter won’t be in Australia, but rather in Singapore. It’s another place the hubs and I both fell for at first sight (it’s hyper-modern and sparklingly clean). Its two national pasttimes are shopping and eating (definitely my kinda place). It’s less than two hours (and usually less than $50) by plane from Thailand, Cambodia, Bali, Vietnam, Burma and Laos. It’s four hours from China and India. In short, it’s a traveler’s dream base of operations.
I’m lucky enough that I’ll get to keep working in my same job, with the same fantastic people. We’ve got a few friends in Singapore already. I’m hopeful that these two facts, combined with our past expat experience of making a big move and adjusting to a new place, will make the transition easier than it was last time around. I don’t doubt that there will be new challenges (least of all the tropical weather — did you know the coldest it’s ever gotten in Singapore was 69 degrees?). Thank goodness for the many new expat blogs that I’ve been able to stalk (like her, and her, and them, for starters). But I think after all this time I’ve learned that dealing with the challenges – and ultimately figuring out how to overcome them – is part of the fun of the whole experience.
I recently came across a travel quote from Bill Bryson, who’s basically a demigod to all Australian expats since he wrote our Bible (In a Sunburned Country). Anyway, he’s a fabulous travel writer in general, and the following quote from the intro to The Best American Travel Writing 2000 really resonates with me:
““To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”
The same goes for being an expat. We might love Singapore, we might hate it, but I know we’ll learn and grow from it, just as we have in Australia.
*Lah is the ultimate uber-word in Singlish. See here for more information.