Resilience

When I was seven-years-old, I moved from South Carolina to “the north”. It was a scary time for me. All I had known were open fields and country living. Roads were called lanes and a lot of the times they weren’t even paved. Seat belts were optional as not every car had them and neighbors were extended family members with the authority to discipline.

Days were meant to be spent outside, in the fresh air. I remember getting lost in the wood, but not being worried. I spotted a fox one summer–the same summer I realized that the painful part about a cactus isn’t when you pick it up, but when you put it down.

Rain didn’t bother me because those were the best days for making mud pies. Even thunderstorms were an adventure. We went around the house pulling the curtains to and unplugging everything electrical. To this day my mom still won’t talk to me on the phone if it’s storming outside. (The advent of circuit breakers has been lost on her.)

Summer evenings were meant for catching fireflies.

But then we moved north to a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Just me, my mom, and my dad. No more cousins, aunts, and grandparents.

My memories of those days were that it rained a lot. In an apartment on the 5th floor, mud pies were a no-no, if not an impossibility with the scarcity of greenery. I had lost the freedom of waking up, throwing on clothes, and shouting to whomever was within earshot that I was going outside–just disappearing until hunger grabbed me.

In the city, up north, I quickly learned that children had to be accompanied outside. And parents had to work all day. The weekends were for resting up so that it could be done all over again.

Breakfast was fast. Cereal or toast. And outside became a dangerous place where neighbors kept to themselves. My wood had been whittled down to a small patch covered in mulch and enclosed by a gate. And so I made the transition from climbing trees to swinging, and my days of exploring were contained to the ups and downs of the seesaw.

Shortly after moving up north, my parents separated, and eventually divorced. I don’t remember being too affected by it. (I was fortunate: I had a dad who stuck around.)

My mom and I started to move a lot after that. Friends I had made one year became distant memories the next. After the South, I had learned not to become too attached to anything.

But change can be a good thing if you let it. There’s a lot of learning that can happen if you don’t resist change. New friends can be made, different experiences to be had, new information to be catalogued. And then there’s always the chance to reinvent yourself.

I spent one summer after we had just moved to a new state watching soap operas. There was this one female character whom I really enjoyed. She was new to town and didn’t come from money like the other show’s characters. She had grit about her. She was a private investigator trying to do the right thing in some unrealistically dramatic circumstances. And her name was Frankie.

Well, on the first day of school, I told everyone my name was Natasha, but they could call me Frankie.

I have friends on Facebook who still call me that.

My husband recently talked about the possibility of moving countries, and I was surprised at how excited I became. We are pretty committed to where we are now. We purchased property, bought a car (which is like buying a house in most countries), and our kids are learning a second language–something that is very important to us.

But that small part of me that loves a new scene and different experiences was reawakened. I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to wear a coat again. (I didn’t like it.)

What was most interesting was that I stopped and thought about my girls and the changes it would mean for them. Right now they have stability and the security of a routine. But how would they feel if we changed all of that and took them to a new culture and showed them that all they know isn’t all that there is.

Staying here has a lot of pluses for my family, but the trade-off is that my girls don’t develop the ability to adapt to different environments and circumstances early on. Yes, I miss the south like an expat misses her roots, but it was those years of constant change that has allowed me to gain perspective and to adopt cultures that I was not born into.

Living through change gifted me with resilience. It’s one of those skills I’ve come to rely on more and more as I’ve grown.

But the good news is that life has a way of teaching the same lesson in different ways to different people at the right time.

And so they’ll learn it. Be it here or somewhere else.

 

Kampong

You make friends fast when you’re an expat. You’re a little more receptive to differences and your boundaries for “normal” are forcibly expanded. Everyone becomes a potential friend. The people you’d form an opinion about back home are the ones who come through for you when you’re in a pinch.

I’ve lived abroad since 2001 (minus a two-year stint in Seattle). I was childless then, so my days were spent working and my nights drinking and dancing. My friends were my colleagues. We went to brunch on Christmas and out partying for New Year. Easter Friday was just another workday, and Thanksgiving was celebrated one year, but not necessarily the next.

Kids changed all that.

I’ve slowed down. “Drinking” is a glass of wine before bed. A night out means my husband and I try to be home for ten.

Friendships are harder to maintain–and make. You look for people who you can connect with quickly. No need for pretenses or apologies, they just get you. And if you find someone so rare as to understand you without needing to know your backstory, they become part of your kampong, your village.

In the twelve years I’ve lived abroad I’ve had friends, but this is the first time I’ve had a village–a group of women who care about you and your children, who will visit you when your youngest is in the hospital, cook for your family when someone back home passes away, or stop another kid from bullying yours at the playground.

When you find this, you know you are blessed. When you find this and you’re an expat, you know it won’t last. Someone will inevitably move away. But for that moment in time, you cherish that your children have an extended family. They have “cousins” who speak different languages, eat with different utensils, and have faith in different gods.

It’s hard to describe what brings together this mosaic collection of people. You learn not to think about next year–tomorrow is far enough. They help you see the beauty in differences and the necessity of faith even if you don’t share it. You explore together, you learn together, you cry and laugh together. You do things you’d never do back home. Your point-of-view shifts to the left (very seldom to the right) because you learn that perspective is in everything.

Since the beginning of civilization, we women have been the seams that unite a family and the ones responsible for the next generation of leaders and followers. We have dried each other’s tears, cheered one another forward, and held one another up until we were once again strong enough to stand on our own.

It feels intensely beautiful to be a part of a village that shrinks and expands with diversity and acceptance and love.