Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Transience of Expat Life

When I was in college after a stint studying abroad in France for six months and interning in Ireland for the summer, I dreamed of moving abroad after I graduated. I imagined that the expat life would be full of adventure and travels and new experiences. I was addicted to the thrill of learning new languages, the rush of stamped passports and planes taking off on the runway, the mystifying buzz of a culture not my own. I would stay up late in my dorm room reading blogs of Americans living and working abroad, in Paris, Beijing, Hong Kong, Rio, Bangkok, Dubai. The authors excited me. The unknown enchanted me. 


Fast forward four years, and I’m living that expat life. A lot of those things are true. I love the little adventures of things that would be completely banal at home. No trip to the market is ever the same, my brain has been soaking up all the Kinyarwanda I can put in it, and my passport is significantly fuller than four years ago.

I’ve made some truly amazing friends in Rwanda, Rwandans and foreigners alike: people who are passionate about changing the world and actually doing it. Friends that I’ve had the most amazing adventures with, but are equally happy to laugh and talk for hours over some not-so-cold Primus.

But the thing that I never read in any of those expat blogs is that sometimes it gets a little lonely. In the past four months, I’ve had about seven different friends leave. Since April, I’ve gone to goodbye party after goodbye party, each time the lump in my throat getting a little bigger. I admit that every time someone leaves, it makes me question my own desire and commitment to stay in this Land of a Thousand Hills that I love so much.

I never really understood when I came to Rwanda over three years ago that most foreigners that come to Rwanda are here for work or internships or travel for a set period of time: anywhere from a few days to a two year contract maximum. I can count on two hands the number of foreigners I know who have stayed in Rwanda for more than three years. Everyone I went through Peace Corps with has moved on.

There’s a joke here among expatriates that at parties, one of the first questions you ask someone new you meet at a party is “So, how long will you be staying?”, and if they respond less than a few months, you move on to the next person.

My parents say “You could just move home, honey.” The thought of being close to so many friends and family I love in the US, and that I’m absolutely terrible at keeping up with, is incredibly tempting.  

People tell me “You’ll make new friends!” And I know that, in my head. There are amazing people coming to Rwanda all the time, and I’ve made a few new friends in the past few months while I’ve lost some very dear ones. But my heart knows that each of those people I’ve dropped at the airport or had a final “It’s-not-goodbye,it’s see you later” hug with is irreplaceable. When you lose the pieces to a puzzle, you can’t just use other pieces to fill their spot.

I try reminding myself that my friends who left are not dead. Only a 40-hour plane flight away! There’s Skype and Facebook and Whatsapp and email and on and on! But the truth is, I’m terrible at all that. Really terrible. Rwanda isn’t exactly a place people just pass through, and the fact that I come home twice a year is sobering.

What I miss most about my previous life are the mundane activities of daily life. The being, not doing.

The ability to walk to a friend’s and sit on their couch and watch movies and make dinner and stay up late just hanging out.

The ability to just pick up the phone and call someone without having to have a skype date set a month in advance (and then having the internet and/or electricity go out when you’ve planned it).

The ability to not cram a year or two years or three years of not seeing someone into a two-hour coffee date when I’m home twice a year.

Being able to actually come to the little celebrations of daily life that add up to the essential fabric of life: siblings’ birthdays and graduations, friends’ weddings, babies being born.

I still very much love Rwanda, my work, being close to D’Assisi and the nuns, and all the little adventures of daily life here. I guess I’ve just realized this year that I can never have it all. I can never have all the people I love live in one place (not even the same continent). 

To be an expat is to experience impermanence at its extreme. But so, I guess, is life.