Thoughts and insights into the life of a temporary visitor
The temporary visitor makes up a large group of non-natives in the Bay Area. With all the world leading educational institutes and tech companies, there are many post-docs, interns, and others regularly arriving for short-term appointments, whether for a few months or a few years. My husband and I are just such visitors, our current visa is for a 2-year stay while he is a post-doc at Stanford, and before this, we had a two-year stint in Denmark for the same reason. But now as this period comes to an end, we are at the point of deciding, where do we go from here?
Whilst a lot arrive as a sojourn from their ordinary work or education with definite plans to return to there are many for whom the future is far less clear. As a temporary visitor without plans you begin to ponder ‘what next?’ almost as soon as you arrive but that doesn’t mean the answer is easy, or that life does not come along to throw all manner of obstacles in the way. As an exercise in organising my own thoughts on what comes next, as well as sharing some insight into the life of a temporary visitor, here are some of my thoughts and questions that I know many others in the same situation have also pondered.
Home or away?
The first thing that comes to mind when considering where to go next is do we go home or stay abroad? This is always a complicated consideration, home is after all, where the heart is, and for most of us it is where family still are (more on family later). But while home will always be home it also isn’t anymore…bear with me here. Home becomes a very complex thing when you are abroad. Home was always such a solid concept, it was the place you were born, the place you grew up. Then when you chose to leave your country of origin behind, everything got unexpectedly complex. Home becomes an intangible thing, a thought, a feeling, a memory, a person but no longer a physical place. And while your thoughts about what is home change, you do too. I do not feel any less Welsh or British than I ever did, but conversely, I do feel more…other. This is a regular conversation between expats, that others just do not understand. I don’t see home through rose-tinted spectacles anymore, not like when I first left, and homesickness prevailed, I now see the strengths and weaknesses of each of the countries I have lived, including my home country. But if not home…where? Well, that opens a whole world of possibilities and even more questions.
Temporary visitor or permanent place?
The next consideration is, do we go somewhere else for a short period of time or find somewhere more permanent? Though my husband and I are still relatively young we have both moved between 8-10 times between the ages of 18 and 30, and begin to yearn for a more permanent place to call our own. Finding a permanent position in academia is a far more difficult task, and then we wonder, what if we find a permanent place and find our feet beginning to itch and wanderlust kicking in? Do we just think we crave permanence as the grass is always greener, only to find that we enjoy the nomadic lifestyle to which we have become accustomed? This is something many expats have pondered.
Family and Life Circumstances
Life often throws curveballs, we had always intended to head home after this appointment, then my mother became ill strengthening this resolve to head home. Family continues to age, you’re missing out on things, feeling an almost daily tug of guilt that you should be there, but you are not. While home may not be the place you most desire to live it almost inevitably holds the people you most desire to live near. But, if like us, all of your time abroad has been with the aim of building a better life in the future you don’t want to just settle for anything just because it takes you home, undoing everything you’ve worked for. Add to this the current global climate and upheaval and choosing where you go is not always just your decision. Whoever you are, whenever you are making such a decision, there will inevitably be something that gets in your way. We had always planned to return home, but the political climate and instability of the UK in the context of Brexit certainly renders it less attractive and you will likely have your own obstacles be they political, financial or other.
The trailing spouse – what about me?
And finally, if like me you are the trailing spouse in this scenario, you may not always admit it, but there will often be the question of ‘what about me?’ These international moves have been for the betterment of my husband’s career, but with the aim of improving our future. Every decision has been made by us, as a team, as a two-person family but when he is going out to work each day in a new place, I am the one who will be sitting at home, alone. And you have to consider how this will be in your new life. Will you find work? Will you be allowed to work? Will you meet people? Join clubs? Is there a language barrier? There will certainly be a learning curve, and this is often felt more profoundly by the partner left at home with no routine.
Despite all this, and what feels like an insurmountable question in front of us – ‘Where do we go from here?’ – this life of a temporary visitor allows you to see the best of places. Enough time to know a place as more than a tourist, to decide if it is a place you could settle, to learn of the cultures and ways of a place in-depth and first-hand whilst never being tied down.
I offer no solutions, only an insight into my current thoughts as life pulls in so many directions. We don’t know where we are going, or even when but that’s often the expat life! Are you a temporary visitor? How do you cope with such a transient life? Let us know below.
I know now that I’m not alone, being homesick is just another part of the rich, fascinating and sometimes challenging experience of being an expat.