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The sacrifice of living abroad



Photographs: Pexels

Text: Dominic J Stevensen


Living abroad is not easy. It’s not complaining to say so - it’s acknowledging the reality. I’ve encountered the mindset that it is mere gallivanting, but with an entire world to explore, how could anyone not allow temptation to win and embrace the challenge and riches of life in other countries and their cultures? Being born somewhere doesn’t make it the greatest country by default, as I have heard from many people in different lands across the years on my own unique ‘journey.’ However, it is a gruelling and arduous undertaking. The pros outweigh the cons, sometimes ‘just.’ The punches to the existential gut can come thick and fast, and reality checks abound.


I get the feeling people who haven’t lived abroad think it’s more glamorous than it is. Some serious graft is involved, not to mention the inevitable aspects of earlier life one has had to – there is no gentle way to say it – abandon (when one is young, it can be done without much contemplation, even recklessly, but that will come back to leave a mark as we get older). It could even seem like you don’t care about who and what you are, which, in my case, could not be further from the truth. We are more than our native lands, though, and it is the willingness to evolve openly that is more valuable. The whole experience of living abroad is extraordinarily enriching.


Not only do I believe you cannot have everything – paradise being a hollow concept – but I have made my own life hard at times to get the most meaning and significance from it, to get to a place (not Denmark specifically, but a mindset) that no generation before can pass down to us. I believe we are not bound by our pasts and the places of our birth, but more that they are there to inspire and enable us to question what lies beyond.


Ultimately, by residing abroad, I have stolen my children from their grandparents, even if they never lived in the same country as one another. I do not feel guilty - I feel torn. I know I am right in seeking my own life, one for my family, constantly aware it would be this way. On our travels – by this, I mean living abroad – we have encountered many people who were only living in other countries for work and would always return to homelands to take care of their parents or for the pull and influence their countries still had over them, even despite their departures and absences of years away. Where the work took people, they went.


Yep, it can hurt. Let’s look at it, though. If you stay in your homeland, it is much simpler. It is familiar - it is no stretch, a simple continuation along the trajectory of everything you have ever known. I hold no disrespect towards that, I merely understand and appreciate the alternative – searching for and even finding something else, not superior (this scale is a figment of the imagination), simply different, eye-opening, and profoundly affecting.


"It is a sacrifice – be it a temporary or permanent stay abroad – let nobody tell you otherwise, fellow expat. It is so much more than going to another country, learning a language, and integrating. Every single aspect is complex, can inspire profound emotion, and is to be considered by all. Not to mention how we might be seen by those whose entire history is in the confines of our now-new homeland."


Frankly, it can be agonising though (of course, it is not for everyone - imagine what that would look like). Family members and friends die, and we are not near them in their last moments, sometimes unable to travel back to even attend funerals and say a traditional ‘goodbye.’ In addition to profoundly missing living people who have provided great worth in our homeland existences of yore, there are places we miss back home - there is the simple fact of not being able to communicate daily with natives in our own languages, there are foods and drinks that we miss greatly, and we need to navigate the minefields of new cultures, each with their own ups and downs, some bringing us to our knees. There can be, depending on one’s location, in my own experience, endless, almost mind-bending bureaucracy. We wish to make new friends, which grows harder as we age and become more complicated and nuanced beings – or become set in our ways. Those desired friends can be native to the land we live in, of course, though many surround themselves with their fellow countrypeople, thereby creating a divide of sorts. Not all natives of the new homeland are open to embracing those from abroad, another aspect of life to experience, attempt to understand and cope with.


What do I really want to say? Writing such an article is not easy; it feels like an ocean of sentiments and tiny nuanced sensibilities to impress upon any reader of this. But I want to open up the conversation on life abroad to those who stay lodged at home and wander into unfamiliar terrain.


Some expats are temporary residents destined to return to their homelands to remain; some do not feel allegiance to their country of birth and seek a place that fits greater. It is not always about work and going where the job takes folk. Some meet and build a life with a person from the country they now, logically, reside in.


As I have discussed with people, compatibility not only exists with people – partners, friends, and family members – but it is also the case regarding music, food, language, places, and a great many things we fill our lives with, or else do not.


It is a sacrifice – be it a temporary or permanent stay abroad – let nobody tell you otherwise, fellow expat. It is so much more than going to another country, learning a language, and integrating. Every single aspect is complex, can inspire profound emotion, and is to be considered by all. Not to mention how we might be seen by those whose entire history is in the confines of our now-new homeland.


Some of us just don’t have that connection or affinity with the places we come from. It isn’t anybody’s fault. It just wasn’t meant to be. This is something I can attempt to impress upon those back in my native land until I am blue in the face, but the message is never understood because it was not their way, did not occur to them, or else they had too much to tie them to the land they were born in and will spend their entire lives in.


My kids have only seen my parents four and two times since they were born. The pandemic and other circumstances made it a small miracle every time we were in the same place at the same time. You might even say it just was not meant to be, but the pull of those nearest and dearest and all that once tied us to our countries of birth will never ever go away. It’s about accepting it, living with it, and trying to build something new, profound, and stable upon which to grow another generation. For what they will know is not what we have known. Personally, it feels like the decision will never stop making its impact felt.

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