The Wall Street Journal Expat Blog just published an article titled Strategies for Coping as an Unhappy Expat. While I loved the suggestions provided by the author, the thing that struck me most about it was the focus. The idea of the unhappy expat.
Unhappy moments are not the sexy sort of thing we’d like to plaster all over our blogs and social media accounts.
Even I’m guilty of it. I’d rather you see these beautiful pics of Chinese New Year with my Chinese family than talk about how exhausting and frustrating the holiday was. I don’t want you to know about all of the hours I had spent crying in my bed, consumed with sadness.
It’s even harder when you’re married to someone from another country and living there. As I once wrote in this article for Matador:
Before I met Jun, I imagined international love to be as sexy as a James Bond movie, where lovers went from Monte Carlo to the Casbah as easily as ordering a martini. But then I went to China, and I was shaken and stirred by the reality there…
I think we’re all a little shaken a stirred – and not always in a positive way – when we chose to make another country home, with a spouse from that country. There are inevitable sacrifices and challenges that people don’t always talk about, but probably should. It would be a great leap forward to helping us all overcome the shame of feeling sad when we’re supposed to have these “fabulously sexy” expat lives.
Here are 5 unhappy things I’ve struggled with as a longtime expat in China married to a foreigner:
#1: Missing friends and family from your home country
I chose to live in China, half a world away from my friends and family back home. But, goodness, not a day goes by when I don’t think about them – and wish I could see them again.
Right now, for personal reasons, it’s just not feasible for me to return to the US. In fact, I haven’t returned ever since I moved here to China at the end of 2013, making it more than two years since I’ve been away.
This is probably a huge surprise to a lot of people, who might think expats always make those trips home at least once a year. But it’s not uncommon among the yangxifu (foreign wives of Chinese men) that I know. There’s one woman who actually lived six years straight in China before hopping on a plane to return to her home country. (Her reason was having kids in China – it was just too difficult for her to make the trip.)
#2: Feeling isolated
I live in Hangzhou, China. While it’s not a Beijing or Shanghai, it’s definitely right up there with the major cities in China. But there’s one thing Hangzhou doesn’t have – a vibrant, more permanent expat community.
The majority of expats in the city are pretty transient – overwhelmingly students at the universities – and don’t stick around too long. The rest of the working expats are scattered all over town. I almost never run into folks in the city, and there aren’t tons of venues to meet up with them either.
Add to that the fact that I also divide my time between the city and the countryside, and you’ve got a recipe ripe for isolation.
I have friends in China on my WeChat account, and we do chats every now and then. But honestly, just straight online chatting doesn’t really do it for me. Video chats are much better, though slow Internet can make it difficult too.
I’m learning the importance of reaching out to people when I’m struggling. Even then, I know that isolation will sometimes be a part of my life and I need to learn to find good coping strategies for it.
#3: Feeling misunderstood by your foreign family
I recently wrote, “It’s hard not to care about the happiness of my mother-in-law when, frankly, she spends so much of her time caring about ours.” and it’s a testament to how much I love her and the family I have here in China.
But the thing is, no matter how much I love them, there are things about my life that they don’t always understand. Especially things that have happened to me and my husband in America or places far removed from their rural Hangzhou life.
I can handle being misunderstood in small doses. But let me tell you, during Chinese New Year this month I was getting pummeled with it almost every single day from family members. And even though I know that words can’t really hurt you, I couldn’t help but feel down from it all.
Sometimes the best antidote to this is my husband, who tells me that I’m not alone in feeling like I do. With his experience living abroad and traveling, his family doesn’t always understand him or his decisions either. He’s a reminder that it’s OK.
#4: Visa woes
When you’re living in another country – and married to a foreigner – visas can become central to your existence. And in the worst case scenarios (a la the 2011 movie Like Crazy) visas can even get in the way of your relationship. I wrote about my own brushes with visa woes back in 2011 for Matador:
To me, Jun was the guy who first kissed me to the tune of cicadas, next to Hangzhou’s West Lake. The man who loved to pick me up from the metro station late at night, and ferry me home on the back of his bicycle. But to the visa officer at the US Consulate in Shanghai, Jun was just another immigration risk from China with no apartment or car, let alone a wife or children. “You’re too young,” the officer declared in Mandarin, stamping a denial in permanent red ink into the passport….
I shouldn’t have pushed Jun to apply for that US tourist visa — except I longed for him to meet my parents. I had met his months before, but he’d only known mine through the occasional long-distance phone call. But instead of getting the third degree from my dad, Jun had to get it first from a US visa officer, a guy who wasn’t kidding about “no.”
But it can go both ways. In online chat groups with foreigners, I often hear about the seemingly interminable troubles that they’re facing with applying work visas. Things like having to make the expensive journey back to their home country just to submit an application, figuring out how to get an acceptable criminal background check completed, and more. Sigh.
#5: When people laugh at your foreign accent
The Chinese are known for their excitement whenever Westerners say even a simple “Ni Hao” or “Xie Xie” – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for people here to laugh at your accent.
It has actually happened to me, particularly when I’m around kids (and often in a classroom setting). When I speak my accented Chinese to them, they think it’s funny and then don’t respect me so much. Or make jokes about me behind my back.
Granted, it’s nothing compared to what Chinese might experience in America. Many Americans are such racists sticklers that they consider certain accents – including Asian accents – as proof that you can’t speak proper English. (Or worse, that you should “go back home”….)
But the experiences I’ve had here have made me even more sympathetic to foreigners in America. And they’ve given me a taste of the unhappy experiences you can have when you don’t speak exactly like a native.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy most of the time. I love my husband, I love China, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. But sometimes, it’s good to share the flip side of it all. For all the ups we experience as expats, there will also be plenty of downs as well.
So next time you’re feeling a little unhappy in your supposedly “amazing” expat life, just remember one very important thing – you’re not alone.
What do you think? What unhappy experiences have you had as an expat and/or as someone married to a foreigner?