DOs and DON’Ts of Being the “Expat Left Behind”
It seems like every year as the summer warmth starts to fade, a flock of expats have the urge to move out and leave town with it. This yearly wave of exits seems to be starting up again. Having been an expat for many years now, I know this yearly migration pattern well. Many times I myself was the exiting expat. But since I have been living in the same area now for almost 4 years, with no impending plans of departure, I often face what I refer to as being "the expat left behind". What I mean by the “expat left behind” is simply that my fellow expat friends who used to be in my surroundings are choosing to leave, while I am remaining in the same place, essentially being “left behind” while others move on.
Embrace the Change
Watching your friends leave can be a very hard process. But just because your friends are leaving town does not mean that your life as an expat is suddenly going to become horrible and lonely. It’s just going to be different and you are going to have to learn to adapt and embrace these changes and new opportunities. Being the expat left behind comes with its own share of responsibilities. As I have experienced this often over the years, I have some words of wisdom to impart on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ to ease with the process when your friends are leaving:
- Make the person feel guilty about leaving- it’s natural that you are going to be upset about your friend’s departure, and that it is going to be different without them, but don’t make them feel bad that they are going off to try a new experience, and especially don’t lay on the guilt that they are “abandoning” you. Everyone should have the right to explore their dreams and new opportunities without other people making them feel bad about it.
- Throw the person a going away party. A going away party can have many different forms. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a crazy, over-the-top party (but if that is your and your friend’s kind of thing, then by all means - go for it!), it can also just be a quiet gathering at your home, or at a café to close off the journey here and enjoy the memories made from this experience and the ones yet to come.
- Be too nostalgic and linger in the past. It’s a perfectly normal thing to be nostalgic and remember the great moments you had with your friend, but don’t forget to live in the present and look towards the future also. You have good memories, but there are other great memories to come. Lingering too much in the past can hold you back from creating other happy times in the future.
- Stay in touch with the expats that you became close friends with. Just because one of your friends is leaving, is no reason for you to cut them out of your life. With this wonderful world of technology that we have had for quite some time now, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch through social networking, or even the “old fashioned” emails or phone calls.
- Visit your friend wherever they relocate. Maybe your friend is going to a new and fabulous city, or maybe they are returning to their own home country. Either way, this gives you a new chance to visit a place you may have not already been before, or get better acquainted with a place you have. Going on a trip and being accompanied by a local is always a good thing, and this also serves as catch-up time with a close friend, making it a doubly beneficial trip.
- Wallow in grief. Losing anyone, whether it be a death, a breakup in a relationship, or someone leaving town, is always hard to deal with and can seem to leave a bit of a gap for some time. Give yourself a bit of time to feel bad about it, but don’t carry on. Pick up the pieces, pick up your life, cherish the time you had with these people, and go out and make new memories with other people. No one can replace people’s places in our lives, but there is certainly room enough to let in any other great ones who leave a new important spot in our lives.
- Adapt to the new situation and allow yourself to grow. As one (or maybe multiple) person(s) leave your life, this may offer you some new free time. Use this chance to maybe try out a new interest you didn’t have time for before, or spend some time with some people who you weren’t so close with before. Use this as a time to also meet people who you would have never spent time with before - someone older, someone younger, someone from a different nationality, etc. The more variety of types of people you meet, the more it enriches and broadens your life perspective. A new passion, career path or friendship might evolve from this.
And most importantly…be appreciative. This is applicable on all levels. Be appreciative of the friendships and experiences that you have already experienced, are currently experiencing, and are yet to experience. The nature of the expat experience is that people are always coming and going. The temporariness and the challenge of the expat situation is part of what accelerates the friendship creation and makes it so special. As said before, we are connected now more than ever, whether it is through electronic media or the more affordable means to travel. Goodbyes are rarely permanent unless you want them to be or for forces out of your control. In closure, I leave you with an A.A. Milne quote, which seems to sum up the idea of saying goodbyes: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I couldn’t agree with him more.
Gabrielle Byko is an international communication professional who has studied and been working in Germany and Austria for the past 6 years. She has a passion for experiencing international culture exchange in all of its forms.
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