I am an expat, and as most people expect, I do live a life of excitement. As an adult, I have lived in three countries, Finland, Canada, and Ethiopia, (different from the Netherlands where I was raised until the age of seven) and visited another 13. I have passed through countless airports, replaced and increased my collection of luggage, and have a stack of old passports.
I have had the opportunity to lay on the beaches in Mahe and Mombasa, swim in the warm waters off the Canary Islands and South Africa, ride the train in Europe, visit the Notre Dame in Paris and the Genocide Museum in Kigali, walk the streets of New York and Lalibela, ride the subway in Chicago and tram in The Hague, drive through the Rockies and on the autobahn, shop in Accra and Tallinn, worship in Temppeliaukio church and drink tea in Bujumbura.
But these travels are not all fun and games. Jet lag and lost luggage, language barriers and different cultural norms, rushed days and tired kids. Sometimes the travel is for work, taking you away from home and special events, other times it is during vacation time and you need to combine holidays with family visits. I have not been to the Maritimes in Canada, or visited the salt mines in Afar, or walked the streets of Amsterdam. Often you miss opportunities in places you consider home, over those that are far away.
As an expat, I have learned to manoeuvre quite comfortably between the Canadian, Dutch, and Ethiopian cultures. We have chocolate chips ready for baking in the cupboard, boxes of hagelslag (Dutch chocolate sprinkles) in the pantry, and plenty of berbere and shiro spices at the ready, sometimes covering favourite foods from all three countries in one day. Our clocks show Western time, but I can flip to Ethiopian time without losing a beat. I drive like a local, I can talk in all three languages (to a degree), and I enjoy spiced Ethiopian tea and popcorn with friends.
But after 25 years in Ethiopia, I am still a ferengi (foreigner). There are many nuances of this culture that I will never fully understand or manage because I was raised very differently.. I am continually learning new aspects of Ethiopian culture, traditions, and language, while growing my knowledge of the history and politics. But as a blond, white woman, no matter how much I assimilate and learn, I will always be a ferengi here. At the same time, when I am back in the Dutch Canadian communities in Canada or with my relatives, I am reminded to be more direct and expected to fit right back in, even though my experiences are vastly different. I am in a no-mans-land of cultural norms and traditions and identity.
As an expat, I know people all around the world. Colleagues who have moved on to jobs in other countries, former bosses I have no idea how to find, families from church in Addis Ababa who have moved away, Ethiopian friends and acquaintances who have settled in new places, my children’s school friends and parents, some who have left Ethiopia years ago and who pop up on my social media after all this time, and family and friends all over the globe. In today’s connected world, we can stay in touch more easily than ever before, but constantly saying goodbye isn’t easy. My kids live on three continents, and my extended family on a fourth. My mother and siblings live on the same continents as my children, but hours apart from each other. It is vital to prioritize time and money as we plan visits together. And here, in my adopted home of Ethiopia, I continue to say goodbye to dear expat friends who transition back “home” or to new opportunities, while at the same time meeting other ferengis and connecting with diaspora, building fresh networks and friendships, while staying connected and rooted with my Ethiopian family and friends.
I am blessed yet lonely, knowledgeable yet ignorant, content yet worried, happy yet unsatisfied. I can adjust to new places, yet don’t know where I will end up. I am an expat.