EL reader Liz Coward shares her views on how moving overseas impacted her and the ones she left behind.
The end of a chapter
A chapter ends when we decide to leave our native country. The impact of that decision falls most heavily on those we leave behind. Sometimes, it’s too painful to dwell on this, particularly when it involves close family. Privately, it could elicit a sense of relief because it ends a corrosive relationship or releases you from a burden. On the flip side, it could empower those around you or encourage someone to review their own life. Whatever the impact, there is a profound emotional shift when we announce our decision to leave. It’s cemented by the final walk through passport control as residents, for when we return, we do so as visitors.
As we seek to settle in a new land, those left behind adapt to a landscape upon which we cast no shadow. There follows a period of reappraisal during which they decide whether a long-distance relationship fulfils their emotional needs. It’s not selfish, but is an uninvited consequence. After all, aren’t we the same as we always were? No. When we leave, a line is crossed and they recognise the implications of that, well before us.
Indeed, the changes start upon our arrival. We are forced to adapt. We have to learn about different cultures and may question our own. Social and survival skills, which may have atrophied at home, now become vital. Those we left behind contributed to our emotional wellbeing and they need to be replaced if we are to avoid the clutches of crippling homesickness. So, just like at University Freshers’ Week, we join groups; we make (and lose) new friends; and we seek good conversation and shared experiences, the gateway to deeper and lasting friendships.
Therefore, when we return, we do so with minds prised open and practised social skills. Superficial conversations become frustrating, and indifference to our new lives baffling. Complaints about the helper or travel discomfort are best avoided, for they sound both crass and ungrateful. Those who treat you as if you’ve been on holiday are priceless. You swap stories, share jokes and then it’s back to normal. Your sense of belonging is restored. Unearthing how parents, particularly elderly ones, are managing becomes harder. Honest conversations are hampered by our new “visitor” status, and parents never want to cause concern. What was once openly discussed may now be buried under layers of selflessness, pride and fear. It takes time to dig down – and time is uppermost in everyone’s mind, for there isn’t enough to go around. Relationships have to be categorised and the most important ones take priority. Then the penny drops. Since we left, we too have been reviewing our relationships, probably unintentionally.
So, when we leave, the impact felt by those we leave behind is really just part of the story. Another is the impact on those to whom we chose to return. Most revealing of all, are those to whom we choose not to return. The ones we truly leave behind.
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This article first appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.