This past July my husband and I returned to the United States. During the weeks leading up to our departure, I was eagerly anticipating our return. I desperately missed so many people…and well… mostly frozen pizza. Heading back meant being able to overload on the things I had been deprived. I was so ready.
Now, here I am. My summer of overload has come to a close and real life has trickled back in. Real life brings stress, confusion, worry and – dare I say it? – boredom. After being gloomy for the past few weeks of job hunting, I’ve come to an important conclusion. I don’t have to sit around and bemoan what I’ve lost, I just need to bring the joy and adventure of living overseas back into my life. Hasn’t it been said the best adventurers are the ones who don’t even need to step out of their house?
Here is my new operation. Over the next month, I will intentionally take each of the five things I desperately miss most about my life overseas and incorporate them back into life. I may have said goodbye to life as an expat, but the truth is I don’t need to say goodbye to the things I loved most.
So here are the 5 Things I Miss Most About Living Overseas:
1. Foreign goods.
The United States is huge. I was reminded of that fact for a good long week when my husband and I drove a U-haul from Washington to New York. Not only is it huge, but its filled with people from every corner of the globe. Unfortunately, I don’t currently live in a big city, so finding delicious foreign foods is nearly impossible. Not only did Beijing have delicious Chinese food from all the different provinces, it also had some of the best foods from all over the world. Leif and I were just discussing how the best nacho dish we have ever had in our lives was at the Sandy Pebble ( a Mexican place in the hutongs of Beijing). I, and my stomach, miss all that amazing food.
If you’ve seen me over the last month or two, you might have noticed that I wear a brightly colored phone cord around my wrist or in my hair. It’s not really a phone cord; it’s a hair tie. In China, everybody wears them. It’s really the only kind of hair tie I saw. They’re practical. Compared to normal hair ties, they get stuck less frequently and are certainly more exciting. I get teased about my weird phone cord, but I don’t really care. I love them. And I am sad that, of late, I have no new foreign trends to add to my collection.
What I will do: I will either explore and find the best foreign food restaurant I can or I will attempt to cook a foreign dish. Oh dear. And, I will find a new foreign fashion trend to incorporate into my daily life.
2. Freedom to be uniquely me.
In Beijing, no one cared what I wore. Or if they did, they spoke in Chinese, so I didn’t have a clue. I have never felt so free from the world and self-consciousness. Everyone was completely different from me no matter what I wore or how I did my hair, so I was free. Free to be myself, free to be exactly the way I wanted to be. The one day I wore a sparkly flapper dress to a 1920s party, I received the same amount of stares as every other day. It simply didn’t matter. Now that I’m back in the US, I realize how behind I am in regards to my clothes. When I first returned, I felt pangs of embarrassment for my out-of-date fashion. It wasn’t as if my clothes had actually changed in the week from leaving Beijing to being in the States. It was that I felt the chains of materialism latching around my neck. I felt and still feel their heavy weight.
We also live in the day and age where social media dictates what makes us interesting. Everyone knows our business all the time. So if you’re traveling, have an awesome job, or just met someone famous – everyone knows it. While living abroad, I felt pretty special. I knew that my picture on the Great Wall or on the back of an elephant would get a number of likes on Facebook. I knew my instagram of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul would be popular even if it wasn’t the best picture I’d ever taken. Since I’ve returned to the States, I struggle to want to post anything at all, because I feel boring. I feel like I’ve let myself down.
But I realize now that I don’t have to have it all together to move forward. I don’t have to know exactly what’s coming around the bend or be the coolest person on the internet. I just have to be unashamedly me. That means even the boring stuff, because maybe the boring really isn’t so boring after all.
What I will do: Express my colorful roller coaster life no matter what. And, while doing this, I will find a tangible way to throw off my American self-consciousness.
3. Being surrounded by different people, languages, and culture.
Airports are, by far, one of my favorite places in the world. I love the feeling of being lost in a world of languages. I studied Arabic for four years. I studied Mongolian as a child. Leif and I learned some basic Chinese in order to get around. Seriously, I wish someone would just pay me to learn languages all day. Back in the States, I find myself going through my entire day without hearing one word in a language other than English. Over the last few weeks I’ve been so desperate for other languages that I downloaded the (free!) app Duolingo. Leif often finds me sitting on a couch studying French and reviewing Arabic. I miss languages.
In Beijing, we lived a five minute bike ride from a foreign district. That meant just a few minutes on a bike and we were surrounded by people from all over the world. I believe that connecting and learning from people of different backgrounds and cultures is necessary for growth. I have learned so much from people and how they view the world. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having met and spoken with all these different individuals and that is something no one should give up.
What I will do: I will seek out opportunities to do things with new people, especially people with a different story or viewpoints from my own. I’ll give special focus to continuing language study and maybe I’ll watch a foreign film or two as well. That might just be an excuse to make Leif watch a foreign film with me. 😉
4. Every aspect of life being an adventure.
Grocery runs meant shopping for vegetables at a kiosk next to our apartment building. They meant going in a back alley to an open tent with fruit. And they meant biking ten minutes away to an import store with overpriced foods like macaroni and cheese. Paying bills meant waiting for the landlady to knock on our door and look at our water meter. Getting electricity and internet meant running back and forth between our apartment and the buildings that offered them.
It may sound like a hassle, but we loved it. I loved how everything was always an adventure. Nothing was ever a mundane drive to the grocery store to fill up a grocery cart. It was always the question: can everything fit in our backpacks? Do we have enough cash on hand to pay the landlady? Did you see the girl walking her rabbit on the leash? I miss seeing every aspect of life as an adventure.
What I will do: I will try to not just go for what is easy. I’ll take the extra step so that an average day errand may become more difficult but also may make it more memorable in the long run.
5. Living simply.
Leif and I had a crappy apartment in Beijing. When people ask us about what our apartment in China was like, we just look at each other and laugh. Our bathroom was the size of a closet. The shower was only an inch lower than the rest of the floor and at a slight slant. There was no shower curtain, because there was no space for one. In every room our walls were moldy and the paint was peeling. Our kitchen didn’t have an oven and all the cabinets were so low that Leif hit his head daily. Our living room had a bed for a couch which was preferable over our other couch which was as hard as a rock. But, guess what? That apartment was one of our favorite things in the world.
Whenever we would travel anywhere we were always anxious and excited to get back to our home. It wasn’t a palace by any means. But it was ours and it was perfect. Living in that apartment taught us a lot about living simply. We learned we really didn’t need much to make us happy. As long as we had some food, a bed, and each other, life was good. I don’t want to lose the lesson that living simply is, simply, living.
What I will do: As Leif and I are looking at new apartments and starting our life in the U.S. together, I will keep this lesson in mind. Instead of trying to have as much as I can, I will try to only meet the needs we have as we come to them.
Over the next month, I will try and accomplish at least one of these points each week. I’ll post updates on Operation: Ex-expat, so stay tuned. 😉