I recently had a conversation with Toni Hargis, another Expat Focus columnist, about the lonely position we sometimes find ourselves in as expats. I’m not lonely because I’m the only American in the area, and I’m not lonely because I’m the only person who doesn’t share the cultural history in a group of people at a dinner party or other gathering.
The true isolation happens when the people closest to you, your partner and children, have no real idea of the whole swathe of personal history and events, the cultural history of your past.
It’s a lot to expect a partner to understand what an expat needs if they have no training, even if the expat understands their own needs (which we often don’t). So I thought I would put together a guide!My tips for the perfect expat partner, he should:
1. Have patience.
Of a saint, I should add.
2. Have an interest in my home country.
Even feigned is fine.
Take an interest in whatever form you need to—the sports, the history, the literature, the weird roadside attractions (yes, the largest ball of string really is in the States, and yes, Area 51 really does exist)… whatever catches your interest about my home country, please do grab it and run with it! Having an interest will mean you have something to read about when we buy a paper there, or an easy entry into conversation when we visit my home or when my relatives visit, or a way to just get excited about our visits there, if seeing my relatives isn’t enough for you (I can see some of you partners smirking).
3. Have an interest in my personal history.
Knowing that I travelled across the States on the Greyhound (and the hardship and adventure that this kind of travel actually means) or that I was a flag girl with the marching band (and that this included all that crazy but fun American school spirit that you saw in the movies), or that I frequently canoed on the Mississippi that ran behind our house (and that this was really cool because where I lived the Mississippi was just a small, meandering river, with little islands and inlets) all gives me a backstory, and means I am someone other than just your wife.
But I know it’s a lot more difficult to learn my backstory when we’re a thousand miles from where any of that ever happened. When we drive past your school once a month during a visit with your family, it’s a lot easier for your backstories to flow.
Us expats spend our days and years learning all of the references and in-jokes of our partner’s cultural history, but all that time our cultural history is still a big unknown to those closest to us, as if we appeared out of the blue one day. Eventually our family and friends begin to forget we’re not from around here because we don’t stop them mid-story or mid-joke to ask for an explanation.
4. Have a good memory.
Ideally I’d like you to remember that a low happens every time I say goodbye to my family and friends after they’ve visited me or after I’ve visited them in the States. Best to remember how booking that special meal for two—while normally fabulous, when I am dwelling on all the things I’m sad about, is not great timing. The romantic silences just get filled with me remembering that I’m sad. And the following argument about my Bad Mood, will not reinvigorate any good intentions you had. See number one.
5. Have an awareness of my unique needs.
Making plans to do something busy and fun, like going to dinner with friends when I am trying to get over homesickness is a top idea. It will take my mind off things and remind me of the good stuff I have here.
Another idea, if we are returning from being in the States don’t go back to work the next day, but instead, spend the day helping me sort laundry, go to the grocery store and cook with me, or better yet, go get the takeaway. I don’t need to dive right into hard labour as soon as I return, that’s a surefire way for me to start feeling a swarm of self-pity.
6. Be nice.
Extra nice. When I’m homesick I want to be reminded of why I chose to live in another country.
When I get homesick I know it seems unreasonable to you. ‘This is your home,’ is what you probably want to say. Why am I sad when I return to the home I’ve made with you? On a logical level perhaps you understand, but not always on a deeply emotional level. It probably seems to you like I would prefer to live in my former country (and yes some of us expats would), but the fact that I have chosen to be in the UK with you means I have chosen you over my home country!
I know, that goes for both of us. You’re right.
If you’re fed up or don’t understand, talk to me about it. Sometimes I may dwell on something longer than I should and I need to hear that too. (Gently!)
And if I need to talk about it, listen. For a while anyway. Maybe open a bottle of wine and just curl up on the sofa with me for an evening and let me talk and get it out of my system.
8. Learn about Culture Shock and Homesickness.
If I recommend books or websites or blogs, don’t pretend you’ve read them, read them! I promise it will make your life easier too.
The expats who move for love don’t have the cultural support that often comes with the relocation package of people who move for work. There’s no one guiding them or their partners in the ups and downs of culture shock and homesickness. It is an easy misunderstanding in mixed-nationality couples that when the foreign partner is homesick, he or she is feeling negative about the native partner, or their life with their partner. And when the native partner has never experienced culture shock or homesickness, it’s really difficult for him or her to not take these emotions personally.
9. Help our kids understand.
They need us both to explain what it’s all about but they may find your explanations more useful as you’re coming at it from the same angle, the native.
Yes, again. It’s that important! And I promise to be patient with you too.
I have to say, a combination of number one and number seven have helped my partner and I to achieve all the rest! Over to you readers, what traits would you add to this list?
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.