This Expat Life – Far Away from Family

If you poked a hole on a globe through where I live to the other side, it would not land too far from my childhood home. I’ve been away for over a decade now, but I am still regularly asked how it feels to be so far away from family. I always make an effort to answer honestly, even though it’s probably one of those questions that people ask in a throwaway fashion, not really expecting a genuine answer. I say, most of the time I don’t think about it all that much, but whenever something really good – or really bad – happens and I miss it, I feel the distance acutely, and painfully.

I realise it may sound a bit odd to say I don’t think about something that seems so monumental all the time, but it’s been my day-to-day reality for a third of my life. I imagine it is sort of like how you might feel after a loved one dies. At first their absence looms large in your mind every minute of every day, but as time passes you learn to push the emptiness to the side, to brush your teeth, to focus on your job, to go out with friends and even laugh, although there will always be triggers and quiet moments where the magnitude of what you have lost floods back. And I am lucky – while a grandfather and two beloved aunts have died since I have lived abroad, my parents, sister and a number of extended family members are alive, and we live at a point in history where international travel is within reach and there are myriad (free!) ways to keep in touch in real time, unlike only a generation or two ago where leaving your homeland meant a very real chance that you would never see your family and friends again. However, just because it’s something I’m used to, and in fact something I chose, it doesn’t mean that I don’t stop to consider the alternative.

My parents are currently visiting, for only the second time and the first time since our wedding nearly 8 years ago. They’ve been here for nearly a month and, considering it’s been 2.5 years since I last saw them, we have settled into a very normal routine. It’s been wonderful to see them in ‘proud grandparent’ mode with my little girl, and so refreshing to have an extra pair of hands to do some dishes, or change a nappy, or fold up some clothes that otherwise would probably sit in a pile until we eventually wore them again. And I have to admit, sometimes when I’m preparing food and watching my mum entertain little girl on her playmat, instead of running back and forth trying to do both as usual, I think, is this what everybody else’s life is like? Am I an idiot for missing out on this?

I don’t know if it’s that simple. For over 2 years I lived one block away from my mother-in-law. We did not hang out at each other’s houses every day. We caught up every few weeks, which occasionally stretched out into every few months. Would things be different now that we’re all a bit older and there is a grandchild in the mix? Probably. But I still don’t think constant togetherness would be realistic, or even desirable. She works and has her own life and friends and interests, as do we. Also, when you hardly ever see someone, it’s kind of a no-brainer to metaphorically ‘take the phone off the hook’ for a few days or weeks and focus on them when you are together. But when they’re just down the road, I think it’s human nature to let the ebb and flow of life get in the way, to put the catch ups off until next weekend, and then until the weekend after. Would this sort of sporadic togetherness be enough to justify uprooting our lives here and moving closer to family?

While my parents’ visit has brought these thoughts to the forefront, it’s really always relevant for us. While we reside in my husband’s home country, we live over 1,800 kilometres from the nearest relative.

Our town is a bit of a dichotomy. About a third of our population is Aboriginal, and many families have lived on the land for generations and remain deeply connected to their traditional law and culture, which is rooted in a firm sense of place. The non-Aboriginal population, however, is mostly a mix of sea changers, nomads, hippies and government workers who do a two to three year stint in the town before moving on. I do know a handful of non-Aboriginal people who were born here, but they are few and far between, and fewer still are lucky enough to have many, or any, of their extended family nearby. Because of this, I think many Aussies living here are basically expats in their own country.

There are some benefits to this unique situation. I have found that because most people don’t have long-standing ties in the community, they are more open to making new connections, and your friends tend to become more like family. In the four years we have lived here, we have developed some amazing relationships. And whenever I think about leaving, I think about how hard it will be to start from scratch and find ‘our tribe’ again. I feel like I’ve started over a lot in my life – I moved interstate for uni, then overseas, then to three different towns in less than 7 years and I don’t know if I have the energy to do it again, especially considering that I’m a natural introvert and I now have a small child. Children are sort of friend magnets, as you are forced to interact with other adults who have offspring of similar ages, but they also take up the time you might once have been able to spend trying out new yoga classes or ukulele bands or whatever your thing is. Plus, the fact is that we have jobs here, and we like it here, which are not insubstantial reasons to stay. But are those enough to keep our daughter away from her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins indefinitely? And if we did choose to move, where would we even go, as our relatives are scattered between cities, states and countries?

I realise that we are incredibly lucky to have freedom of movement and the ability to choose where we make our home, as there are so many people in the world who are denied these things. And we’re also lucky that our family relationships are for the most part positive. But damn, it does feel like the paradox of choice – a theory where having more choices leads to greater unhappiness – sometimes.

I suspect this is something I’ll be revisiting in the months and years to come. But for today, I’ll just say if you are someone who has family that you enjoy spending time with around the corner, go and hug them (or at least pop by for a drink or a meal, if you’re not the hugging type!) And if you are even luckier to have the quinella of family nearby AND a home in a place you love, take a moment to breathe deeply, think of an envious expat and appreciate your good fortune.

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