Are we happy?
Would we be better of back in the UK?
Will our children be behind if we stay?
How long will my parents remain healthy? Am I missing their best last years?
Should I be returning for my career?
When? When? When?
The Clash’s famous song title sums up the main quandary expats’ suffer. These existential questions are always lurking, bubbling away at the back of the expats’ minds.
Some people move for a fixed period of time, others have a more flexible approach and see how it goes. We said two years for comfort, but meant it to be three and stayed for four, a job promotion made it so. And that’s where it stopped. Home was always England. But during this time these questions were always there.
For a couple with young children and healthy parents, there is an ideal bubble of opportunity to travel overseas: education doesn’t matter that much yet; one of the couple can take a legitimate career break to look after the children and it’s a big adventure that you can’t easily say no to, after all you’ll probably never do it again.
We lived on a beautiful small island in the Caribbean, going to the beach every weekend and swimming in beautiful turquoise waters with golden sands, the sort of beach you dream of. Parties were often at the weekend and invariably on the beach. We paid little tax, saved money and had a wonderful network of families we were friends with.
Every year a few families would go and a few new ones would arrive. For expat families who had been there a long time, there was always a dread of the annual email or facebook message which gave the farewell message, ‘Another one’ someone would sigh. In many ways the expat network is strong, you rely on each other, but it is also fragile as it is always changing. A hole is felt for a while when a close friend leaves. Conversations often touch on ‘How long have you been here?’, ‘How long are you planning on staying?’ People try and place each other in their networks, try and get some sense of a timeline. It is the nature of the island for expats and you just get used to it. And as a result you will have friends from all over the world. The longer you stay, the more connected you become to the society, and the harder it is to extract yourself.
The reason people leave with families is usually for their children’s education, particularly secondary; wanting to ensure their children get into a good school at a suitable point. Sometimes it’s for an ill parent or for poor health of a member of the family: living on a small island isn’t going to get you the best health care. I think for people who loved our island, they could make it work for a period of time before concern for their dependents took over. Of course there were many people who left because they couldn’t stand the lack of European culture and shops, being so far from their friends and family, the lack of opportunities for the other half, or just being an outsider wasn’t comfortable.
‘This indecision’s bugging me.’
For me, I began to really love our life on our island when I knew we were leaving. When the indecision had gone, there was a date and I could stop fretting about how long we were going to stay. I love traveling, I love new experiences but I don’t like being away from my family or friends too long and it being too long a journey to get back easily. Once it was set, I relished our house above the beach, cherished my friendships more and wanted to build on them to make them solid before we left, I loved swimming in the sea and I enjoyed the constant warm sunny days.
As the Clash said, ‘If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double’, there will be good things and bad things about the place you live whatever you decide, you just have to weigh up the pros and cons as a family and make your decision.