mentally expatriating

The challenge of mentally expatriating

There are a lot of challenges related to being an immigrant – the bureaucracy, the culture shock, the homesickness, the language barrier to name a few. One particular hurdle that people rarely ever mention is the difficulty of mentally expatriating from your home country and how emotionally exhausting that is.

Most people live in a bubble of their own interests, social circle, and closely relevant news and information. That’s why when there’s a deadly cyclone in the Philippines or a civil war in Yemen, we don’t pay it much mind. It’s third page news that gets skimmed over and forgotten unless you yourself live there. When you’re an expat, news and current events from your home country are treated the same way by everyone that lives around you – like third page news. But not by you.

In many ways, expats exist in two different realities. As comfortable and adjusted as you might feel where you live, it’s hard to stop caring about what’s going on back home. That’s something I never understood about my Cuban immigrant family members – “if you haven’t lived there for 20 years and you have no intention of going back, why do you listen to Cuban radio? Why do you care what happens there? Why don’t you ever shut up about Cuba?” But I understand it quite intimately now.

I’ve been living abroad long enough to experience two US presidential election cycles. I have a home here, I have my neighborhood grocery store, and a primary care doctor, and a few favorite places to eat. But no matter how much this becomes home, I spend far too much of my time being concerned and outraged and saddened by what’s been happening in the US since I left. As a result, I actually don’t dedicate enough time to local matters that directly affect me far more – whether Prague will double transportation fees or what new pandemic controls are being implemented or dropped at any given point. Though I physically live in one place, I exist mentally back home.

Why is it so hard to mentally expatriate?

Your home country is like a parent in many ways. Everything you know about life, you learned there. It’s hard not to feel a special bond to it. Unfortunately, like some parents, your country can be extremely disappointing, which is why some of us leave. No one goes through the complicated, expensive, and stressful process of expatriating if they live in a wonderful place. People immigrate because they feel marginalized, oppressed, unsupported by their governments, or because there are few job opportunities. But at the end of the day, whether you like it or not, the country you left is still your country.

While you may find happiness and comfort in another country, I think most immigrants and expats live with the hope that if things improved back home, we could move back. Maybe if some other guy got elected or they finally did something to control gun violence or they made education cheaper or provided universal healthcare, I would want to move back to the US, too. Instead, most of the time, we just read news that reinforces our decision to have left. Cuba is still a wreck with no food or resources even 60 years later, and four years after I left, the US is still racist, corrupt, and increasingly fascist. Yet we can’t look away from what’s happening there.

This has never been more evident than during this pandemic, a rare occasion in which every country in the world is experiencing the same challenge at the same time. For whatever reason, my home country has more cases and deaths than any country in the world. While Prague’s restaurants and bars and borders have been opened for two months and life has gone on as usual, Americans are dying at the rate of two plane crashes per day and some people still refuse to wear masks! It’s hard to experience something resembling normal life – going to the movies, shopping at the mall, having brunch – without thinking about the fact that my friends and family back home can’t. Or that hospitals in my home state are overcapacity and I have elderly family members who could get sick. It’s simply hard not to care.

What can we do about it?

The trick to mentally expatriating is not to completely ignore what’s going on where you’re from. It doesn’t mean you have to rip up your voter registration card and pretend your country doesn’t exist. But there’s a fine line between being informed and being invested. Instead of reading national news from back home, read the news from the city where you live – chances are it’ll be a lot less harrowing. Read about the housing market in the place where you might want to buy a home, read about petty criminals that the police are searching for who you might actually run into.

When you do read about your home country, read about it in your local paper so you can get the gist of what’s happening through the eyes of the people you share an existence with. Anything that doesn’t make it into international news is probably not important enough for you to know – like whatever the president tweeted this morning. Seeking out that kind of news is only going to diminish your quality of life even though you don’t personally have to worry about overrun ICUs or presidents overusing social media.

Another simple way to connect with home without letting the news overwhelm you is to focus on the people and not their circumstance. Instead of speaking generally about what a dumpster fire everything is, ask your friends and family about their day, their kids, talk about shows you’ve both seen, recipes you tried, or their home improvement projects. Don’t let politics and the number of daily coronavirus cases be the only thing you discuss.

More than anything else, you have to stop feeling personally responsible for the wellbeing and happiness of other people – including that of your nation. When you’ve lived in a society that you consider healthier, more supportive of its citizens, and generally happier than the one where you were raised, it becomes difficult to understand why people back home would tolerate income inequality and mass shootings and police brutality and $500-a-month healthcare that doesn’t cover shit. Ultimately, the decision to accept a subpar quality of life rests with millions of other individuals, and not you.

The second you stop feeling responsible for the choices of an entire country, you can maybe finally begin to mentally expatriate and find peace in your home abroad.

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