Ex-Pat Living: Am I Missing Precious Moments?

Over the past week I had an opportunity to drive down to northeastern Tennessee to visit my daughter for a long (and I do mean, looooong) weekend of stripping wallpaper, sanding and painting walls in the new home she just moved into.

Piles of old wallpaper- out with the old and in with new memories

Piles of old wallpaper- out with the old and in with new memories

As we worked long into the night side by side, both wanting to quit but not able to concede until we finished, I got to thinking how many of these moments had I missed while I was away?

People talk often about the amazing opportunities of being an ex-pat; we talk about the hardship postings or the cultural experiences we gain through travel. Friends often envy our “exotic” memories.

Mirro image in bathroom before remodel

The Flip Side… Before

But what about the flip side of being an ex-pat? How do we weigh the extended family cost? What do we miss in the way of family memories? Sure some families can catch memories as snippets in photographs of the kids without adults. But even they’ll tell you, Skype can only replace so much.

Some ex-pat kids find themselves away at boarding schools. The sons of my friends were in Switzerland while their parents were in Baku- the boys had ski holidays while their parents sweltered on the Apsheron. Some companies try to prepare employees for the cultural transition, and by extension the family, but how many resources exist to prepare us for kids who don’t want to be “portable” anymore, who want to settle into a routine of one school and one group of friends to grow up around? And what prepares us for aging parents or the loss of grandparents?

Bathroom interim progress

Halfway there

I left Houston when my daughter went away to college. I didn’t think I was missing all that much since she was out of state anyway.

Final paint color- a collaborative effort. (Cool Elegance)

Final paint color- a collaborative effort.

I found out how wrong that notion was when I came home and visited with her after her freshman year. I had to ask, “Who are you? And what have you done with my daughter?” Over the course of that first year away, she had blossomed into an outgoing, funny (and fun) young lady who had found her place on a campus of thousands- without me… What else had I missed? Cue the heartstrings now, please.

Thankfully we kept in touch regularly over the internet and the occasional emergency phone call, but still, that’s maintenance, not real life. Some things even the internet can’t fix.

When my mother called and told me she had been diagnosed with cancer, certainly terminal, I took time off from my teaching and flew home to figure out what the plan would be. She had been given 8-18 months to live, and I would have chucked it all to stay but she wanted me to go back to Baku until it was time. I returned with the understanding that I would be back every 3-4 months and/or anytime she needed me.

At about the 18 month mark, my uncle, her older brother, decided to get remarried at 74 up in Alaska. Mom knew this would likely be the last time the family would all be together so she decided she wanted to go. I flew into Portland and she and my second brother picked me up and we continued north in rented van to collect my daughter from the airport in Seattle. The four of us drove 5 days (each way!) to get to the wedding and family reunion- a bittersweet event, to be sure.

That was the trip from hell for the most part. It was fraught with tension. No one knew my mom had developed a brain tumor that was affecting her behavior in some odd and unpleasant ways. And it was the last memory I have. My mother would pass away a few months later.

When the time came, my eldest brother called and told me if I wanted to see Mom I’d better get home soon. He had no way of knowing that in Baku flights didn’t happen on a daily schedule. Saturday’s flight had already left, so I had to wait until 4am Monday, hoping against hope that I would make it in time.

The banks were already closed for the weekend so I had to find a friend with $900 in spare change laying around so I could buy the ticket- credit cards were not widely used at that time in Azerbaijan.

The only flight I could get was one that went from Baku-London-Boston-Detroit-Minneapolis-Seattle- and finally, Seattle to Portland and then a 6 hour drive to my mom’s. Beggars can’t be choosers- it is what it is at the last minute.

These life situations are difficult enough to deal with from across the state or across the country, but from 12 time zones away, it’s maddeningly tough. How can we talk to doctors and make arrangements? Make calls at 9pm or rely on email and wait for replies that never come. This is when being an ex-pat is anything but “fun” and “exotic”. You feel helpless and frustrated. You wonder if you’ll carry guilt over lost time or make it with minutes to spare, as I did with my mom. I never wanted to miss out again.

So when my daughter called, of course I came. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, literally. A chance to make memories out of the lesson I learned, sure, whatever it took.

As my daughter and I sweated over our shared labor, she commented that we needed a motivational song to get to the finish line. We laughed and thought, Okay, why not. We went through Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (it was all I could think of at the time- it was late, we were tired- it seemed like a good song at that late hour!) Then we decided we needed something more uptempo so we gave it our best in a rendition of the kids round that we learned in school, “Once an Austrian Went Yodeling.” As we laughed, I thought, “Now that’s what I’m talking about- THIS is the memory I was missing… being together, bonding over a shared experience, putting it all out there for each other.” (Uh, full disclosure- Once you see the camp video, you’ll understand why there is no personal video of us doing that song at midnight… just sayin’ some memories are better left in the dark…)

Beyond that bit of levity is the lesson we’ve all learned of sharing resources, so here are some I like:

  • http://expatchild.com/renaming-culture-shock/ Renaming Culture Shock
  • http://expatchild.com/happy-expat-family/How To Have a Happy Expat Family
  • Aging Parents and other topics from a Peace Corps ex-pat.
  • Judy Rickatson had a great post a few years ago that bears revisiting, especially for some who haven’t read Judy’s “ExpatriateLife” blog. Check it out here:  ExpatriateLife: Expats and elderly parents
  • http://youtu.be/ZQlw-8WYdiQ – An interview by Peter Sterlacci with Anastasia Ashman, on finding your niche abroad. Anastasia’s personal mantra is, “You have what you need; use it where you are.” In his introduction to the interview, Peter says, “As a long-term expat, she had to learn from the ground up how to build a global life and work solutions to survive. Her years of experience led to the creation of a holistic approach in building one’s global niche, or what she also calls a ‘global personal brand’.
  • Another resource, a free downloadable ebook, is this one: http://petersterlacci.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/PBAC-eBook2.pdf “Personal Branding Across Cultures” curated by Peter Sterlacci. The 18 contributors to this eBook are considered experts within the cultures and countries they represent.Though you may not be interested in “personal branding” per se, the essays from these 18 writers give us much insight to how other cultures think and view others. It’s an interesting read on several levels if you work with a diverse group.

I hope these links give you some new food for thought and spur you to try new ideas.

How are you dealing with the potential for missing memories? Or, do you have ideas for trying to make memories where you are? Share your thoughts with others here, as well as links to any resources you’ve found useful. We’d love to add them to the Ex-Pat Links Page! I’d love to hear from you!

6 thoughts on “Ex-Pat Living: Am I Missing Precious Moments?

  1. Hi, I popped over here out of curiosity and, well, this post touches me. I’m not an ex-pat, I live in my own country…but…my family & relatives live in other countries. It’s the same for most of the population here. We face similar woes you’ve mentioned here…we miss out on the lives of nieces, nephews, siblings, parents being ill in other countries.

    It nags at me all the time, this missing out.

    I have a friend from Azerbaijan who lives here…she shares the same heartache.


  2. Hi Guyana_gyal! So glad you popped over. This is the one way we all get to share, and empathise with each other.

    I know while I was living in Azerbaijan, I had close friends there who were like family. When I returned to the US after 10 years away, I had lost my mother and my father here, and had left my close friends behind. I truly felt like I had lost it all. But in this space, sharing with others in the same situation, I find ideas I can use to reach out and I see my same feelings in the words of others.

    I hope you will also find hope and help in reading these words and the posts of others who have experienced the long distance nagging that you mentioned. #Judy Rickatson has some great information which will apply even if you’re not an ex-pat ( http://expatriatelife.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/expats-and-elderly-parents/). #Suresh VK over on the expatblog has a nice blog that you might like (http://sureshvisualnotes.blogspot.com/). I mention these ideas because I started this blog as a way to keep my family informed of what I was doing and seeing, especially my daughter. You didn’t mention if you had thought about it, but a free wordpress blog or a blogspot blog like Suresh VK uses might be a fun way to keep everyone more connected, a lot like Facebook but more like a long letter with visuals.

    My heart goes out to you, living far from family members. Please stay in touch and let me know if any of these ideas or other blogs help!

    P.S. Please tell your friend from Azerbaijan Salam, privyet, gunaydin (whichever version of hello works best!) and that I miss my friends in Baku, too.


    • Thank you, Karen. I appreciate the feedback and certainly agree about the times of sacrifice in the life of the average expat.

      Some postings are quite fun, if you’re posted to the Embassy in Stockholm, or Paris. But by and large, I wouldn’t say life in Yerevan or Baku was all that easy. (In those early days there was a lot of hard work, packing in your own water and supplies, figuring out what could substitute for missing products- cucumber (or actual beef?) on a hamburger, not so much when you really want pickles; tomato sauce doesn’t quite do for ketchup…). But for all that, it was still fascinating.

      With the advent of the internet and bloggers sharing experience, there are lots of resources that would have been a god-send then. I’m happy to be part of sharing our experience, for entertainment or for reflection, especially if it helps others.

      Thanks again for sharing- I’m loving your musings! (Wondering why we don’t have a Coif’ Mobile here?) (http://www.lifeintheexpatlane.com/2013/08/living-abroad-the-fun-of-small-stuff.html)


  3. I feel like a big baby — while I am not in Canada, and left in in 1988, I return 2-5 times a year, heading north this weekend for two weeks visiting friends and some family. I’m a 90 minute direct flight back to Toronto and a six-hour direct flight to BC where my mother lives.

    I am in awe of those who are willing or able to live so far away from the comfort of old friends and the lives they knew. My family is not close, so my friends really are my family…and I want to see them! We’ll be staying with my best friend from high school and a woman I’ve known since I was 20. What has been weird is missing, completely, my friends’ children — now grown and gone. I have none, so that’s sad. It would have been fun to know their kids, but being away made that impossible.

    Social media is a blessing, now, as I have friends all over the world and can stay in touch.


  4. You know, this is an interesting thing, this notion of family -and who gets to be it. I would love to have friends that were like family. I’m glad you’re getting to go for a visit! Enjoy.

    When I came back from Baku, my mother had passed away and in all the turmoil of selling property and relocating, no one thought to tell me where they moved. Phone forwarding messages only stay active for 1 year, so when I came home there were no longer any messages to tell me where to find them. I had this moment of panic thinking this is what it feels like to truly be an orphan… not a pleasant feeling at all.

    I totally agree about the internet and being able to connect like this. Sharing from my grandmother’s book, “No Dude’s, Few Women” about her life on the Navajo Indian Reservation in 1930s Arizona and New Mexico so perplexed a little girl that she asked me, “How do they get their emails?” 😉 Gotta love kid’s minds, don’t you?


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