Friday, 17 January 2014

Awakening the Sleeping Expat Giant

Every now and then I read a blog post or article that inspires me to drop everything and put pen to paper. Aisha Ashraf's piece "Expats are Born, Not Made. Discuss." was one such gem.

"Expats are among those who realise there's more to it - no one HAS to do something they don't want to do for the rest of their life. They're more inclined to consider the previously unconsidered, to look beyond what they know to find answers, to take a leap of faith."
Truth be told I am an unlikely expat. I'm a typical introvert. I'm a homebody. I actually like the outer confines of my comfort zone. Change is no friend of mine.

Photo Credit: Jenny W. (Stock Xchng)
At the age of thirteen, my parents announced, out of the blue, that a move to Manchester was on the cards, just before I was to choose my GCSE subjects. There was an opportunity to move our lives from the south to the north of England. I froze. I can still feel the panic that filled those school going days whilst uncertainty hung above us. My friends, my school, my home - all under threat. Everything I knew could suddenly be pulled out from under me. It was a change I didn't want. I feared starting all over again, building everything back up from nothing. I shed many tears. I spoke angry words. I was relieved when the move didn't go through and life marched on for us 'as you were'.

Yet, a few years later, I chose a university degree course that took me 300 kilometres north of where I lived, away from my family and my home. In fact, I chose a course that would even take me away from my home country for a year.  Away from my base. Away from my comfort zone.

I spent a year in Toulouse, France, studying abroad for the third year of my degree course. I voluntarily packed up my suitcase and left my birth country shores for a temporary cultural immersion in to a life that was barely mine. Cultural water boarding. It was scary. It was enriching. I wanted the year to end. I wanted time to stop, so I could capture all the French cultural nuances, let them course through my body. Become part of me.

Now that I know myself better, understand who I am and accept myself, I am nothing but surprised by my life choices two decades ago. Even the decision I made in 2000 sometimes feels as if it was made by a stranger, a previous version of me.

Where did I get the courage, the idea, the drive, to want to live overseas at the tender age of twenty? There was no nomad trend during my childhood. True I called a number of places home home before my teenage years descended, but we never drifted from the British Isles, despite a chance turned down to move our family to Australia when I was small. There was no hint of an expat life waiting in the wings whilst life played centre stage.

And yet there was a longing to learn foreign languages. I lunged at any modern language course my school offered me; French, German and Italian. Italian was not a formal part of the school curriculum and brought a small group of linguist enthusiasts together in the darkness before school hours. I was the lone pupil from my school who took German A-level, ferried by minibus with the Technology course buffs a couple of times a week to another school in the area. All to quench the thirst for a new language.

Ironic that a girl who doesn't like or need to say much could say so much in other tongues by her early twenties.

Were my teenage choices driven by a romantic view, the image of a culturally richer life than Britain had on offer? Or were my choices a result of some subconscious knowledge of a life destined to be lived abroad? Was I simply preparing myself for the inevitable life as an expat?

Was the seed sown for a life beyond my home territory because of my aptitude for foreign languages? Or did learning new languages open my eyes to a world beyond the one I could see from my Hertfordshire bedroom window?  Was I made into an expat by a life choice? Or did I make a life choice because I was born to be an expat?

Aisha poses a similar question,

"Does travel broaden the mind or does a broad mind lend itself to travel?"

My mind was open, from an early age, to other cultures, other countries, other languages. But that openness goes against the grain of who I am, my personality, my introverted self. I wasn't born to take chances, to step outside of a place I consider safe. But somehow the battle to be expat, to take a leap of faith, to embrace the unknown, was won out by my inner sleeping giant who awoke at just the right time, gave out an ear piercing roar, a wake up call to take a risk that was so out of character. Once satisfied that the right path was started upon, my inner expat giant settled down once more into a peaceful slumber. And has there remained. Content. Job done.

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