When someone you love dearly, passes away, they say that a part of you goes with them. That you can never truly get over their loss, you merely become adept at dealing with it.
Death is a part of life, another unavoidable aspect of it that we must learn to come to terms with. The fact of the matter is, as sure as the sun rises each day on our lives, one day, the sun will set on all our time here and so it is that fact alone which should drive us to try to live our lives in a way which best celebrates the gift and potential found in every new day, a gift which we receive with each renewed morn.
The Lion King was always one of my favourite movies.
Last Thursday, my friends and I received the shocking news that one of our dear friends, a fellow former expat had had the sun set rather unexpectedly and prematurely on her life. She meant a lot of different things to many different people. Although she was particularly close to other people who I am closely tied with here, people, who I know are really struggling to get over her loss right now, she also left an incredible impression on me.
And I consider myself lucky to be able to count her among many of my friends. I felt her loss keenly not only because of the past interactions I had with her, which were a complete and utter blast, but also because of what her loss represents for all expat lifers.
To me personally, she was a reminder of how life should be lived, to its absolute limits. She was one of those people who quite literally did not care what others thought of her nor what she did with her time and I always described her character as completely fearless. A characteristic that I’ve always felt missing in my own persona. I admired her for this a lot.
I recall the gumption she showed in walking right up to Mariah Carey at a meet and greet that she had managed to weasel her way into by publicly feeling up the security guard, which led to her getting in without a ticket, and she loudly declared to Mariah that she was from LA and Mariah literally stopped and had a full on conversation with her. My friend had spent the whole session inside the MTV studio screaming for Mariah’s attention so I would be able to meet her. Because she could see that I was frozen in awe at the whole situation, unable to even speak.
She on the other hand, was determined that I would be able to meet my lifetime hero. In the end, she dragged me over to Mariah, and I managed to have a small chat with her where I asked her when she would ever visit New Zealand. Of which Mariah said “soon, I promise I’m gonna try,” a promise she made good on late in 2014.
When we left the meet and greet, I remarked to my friend that I really wanted a poster of Mariah’s new album, of which seemed to cover all the walls in the MTV studio. To which my friend replied with a deft swipe of her hand that netted a poster off the wall into her purse in one swoop. Not a single part of the poster was damaged in the daring action. She triumphantly handed it over to me in the taxi as we left that evening.
She was fearless I tell you, and her passing has renewed my determination to live my life with less fear and more as a reflection of my hopes and dreams for what I want in this lifetime.
The death of a friend or family member is always a difficult proposition for anyone to deal with. The closer someone is to another human being, the more difficult it can be to detach from them if they’re taken away from you suddenly. This is especially true for family members in particular. So when the passing of a sister, brother, cousin, mother, father, etc. occurs we always defer to the family as the people most affected by the tragedy. It’s a common convention in every culture.
But after living as an expat for many years, this arbitrary line, the one that we draw between friends and family becomes inextricably weakened, so much so, that there ends up being little differentiation between the two.
You know it’s true that this could be said about any deep friendships that form between two or more people, even at home, not just living abroad. However, there’s something entirely different about being an expat ‘lifer’ where it is far more common to see this narrow separation between friends and family disappear over a much more unexpected and abbreviated time frame.
I think it’s important that we recognize why and how people become expat lifers. Not just intrepid travellers, as I truly believe that there is a difference between the two. People go abroad for a variety of differing reasons and motivations. Others may wish to disagree, but I tend to group their reasons into three loose categories.
First, there are those that are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, I would classify them as economic migrants or those in search of better job prospects because of the waning economic opportunities in their own countries
The second reason would be a desire to seek out new experiences or adventure. Many believe that the world has a lot more to offer than the narrow and limited form of existence that their local societies provide them with. They want to sample the delectable array of experiences that the world has to offer.
The first two alone doesn’t usually lead you on a path that makes you a ‘lifer’, because they are characteristics that don’t necessarily push you to detach from your home in the long term. Most people, who fall into the two aforementioned categories, have their eye on a return home in the not too distant future. They normally have a pre-defined timetable as to when this will occur.
What usually makes someone a ‘lifer’ is a third factor or reason added to the two previous ones. Almost every expat I know who has become a ‘lifer’ ie decided to stay away for an extremely extended period of time, does so because they don’t feel like home is really home anymore.
Often, not always, there was some sort of a climactic event, or turning point that shifts their world upside down, so they leave, or for someone like me, they just don’t feel like they belong there, people just don’t get them. So they go abroad and stay abroad trying to find that place or gain the ability to exercise enough of those issues in the hopes that they maybe able to return home. Often when they do return, they find that place still doesn’t understand them. Lifers will tend to return to their place of origin and after a period of frustrated failed re-integration, then find a way to leave again, they often find that staying in one place really doesn’t suit them.
When you go abroad without a sense of home having to be fixed in one location, you often end up finding a home unexpectedly, but not within the space found between the confines of four walls, you find it within the comfort of shared experiences with people from all around the world who are walking the same road as you are.
Yes, love is often what unites people together, but I believe that it is suffering or perceived suffering that bonds people together in unshakeable loyalty.
You have to understand that if you leave your country in hopes of finding something that you find lacking in your own home, in some ways you are a little broken inside. And when you come to a country like Korea, where more often than not, you don’t speak the language, know nothing about the culture and find it extremely hard to assimilate to a country that often shuns outsiders, feelings of isolation are amplified and enhanced. So when you meet someone else who is in the same predicament, other differences such as cultural background, personality flaws, typically friendship breakers everywhere else, become incidental, allowing you to bond in common suffering, that eventually leads to the types of connections and love that are usually reserved for family members.
I know of so many lifers in Korea that have had this experience. I myself have created a network of expat friends/family that are now spread all over the world, people I have a connection with that is as close to family as one can get, without sharing the genetic material to biologically prove it.
These are the people that are there with you when you unwillingly have your expat heart broken by that irresistible local who doesn’t play by the same rules of engagement that we do.
These are the people that are there with you, standing at the counter of the police station while you try desperately in vain to explain how a local harassed you on the street first, leading to an altercation in which you had to defend yourself, meanwhile the perpetrator having the advantage of being able to use the local language and custom, make use of this ability to get away with this injustice.
They are the people that you call on when the local tax office or immigration office changes its regulations again, and you unknowingly have been fined an exorbitant amount that will force you to miss your next rent payment. They lend you the money till your next payday and after the whole sordid ordeal is done, they’ll be there waiting for you with a bottle of wine and pizza ready to listen to you curse endlessly over the long and unnecessary process till the wee hours of the next morning.
And in my personal experience, they are the people that take you to the hospital, bring you food and water, play nurse because in Korea nurses only provide medicine, not bedside care. They try to communicate and wrangle with the administrative staff over your medical bill when they too have limited language ability, they call your family regularly when you’re being operated on to allay their fears, and spend nights by your bedside providing comfort for you as you try to come to terms with the coldness and cramped nature of a Korean hospital which churns through patients like cattle, where you literally are treated like nothing more than a number.
And of course, these are the people that you also share the good times with. They are the ones that take long weekend trips to islands with you that even you didn’t know existed, having pork belly barbecues by the foreshore on an icy island in the middle of a frigid Korean winter, sleeping in tents with a million others on the same beach, attending various festivals that celebrate obscure things like watermelons, mud, ice fishing, tug-of-war ropes. Travelling to exotic locations that you could never have imagined would be possible looking out the window from your pigeonholed home existence.
You spend Christmases and Easters with them, birthdays, NYE parties, celebrate milestones like anniversaries and graduations, and for my North American friends, you spend Thanksgivings with them, openly exchange feelings of gratitude for having them in your life, making it just that little bit easier to be without those whom you love the most that are thousands of miles away from you. Over time, they don’t come to replace these people, they eventually become added to the list of those who mean the most to you in this world.
Growth is found in all of life’s experiences yes, and we all go through them irrespective of our location. But when you’re an expat, you go through these life changing experiences with other expats, they function literally where your family is meant to. As a result, they become your family in a much shorter expanse of time than even you had ever expected.
These people are there when your world inexorably expands past its pre-defined limits, an experience that you can’t describe to others in your life who through not fault of their own, just don’t have the reference point to able to comprehend the magnitude these events have on the shape of the world and future you see for yourself. And through these experiences, you form a bond that even time and distance will never be able to erode.
So on Saturday evening, I made my way after a 12-hour shift at my teaching job to one of my expat friends home’s here in Seoul where we held our own kind of requiem for our friend who had become family to so many that are now spread out around the world.
And in true style, our requiem celebrated her life the way that she loved to live it, with plenty of laughs, a lot of wine and spirits as well as a Whitney Houston marathon that degenerated into a makeshift international karaoke session that probably made the neighbours in three different countries reach out for their ear plugs. It was a beautiful experience as it was shared with other members of her expat family that were across oceans in New Zealand and Japan via Skype. It would have been even more international had the link we tried to set up to Madagascar been able to establish a more solid connection.
There are a lot of cliche memes that we see pop up on our newsfeeds that talk about how family isn’t always about blood etc. etc. And we all have those people in our lives who we consider to be more like family than some of our own flesh and blood. These people are who we unmistakably call family.
For expats, this situation is something that occurs far more frequently and more unexpectedly than others for the very nature of the situation we are in.
Brought together by circumstance and bonded through adversity, united in love for one another is an inevitable occurrence that comes with living this lifestyle.
This post is dedicated to Ana Estrada, a force of nature that was taken far too soon from all those who loved her. May she rest in peace. But we suspect that she probably isn’t resting too peacefully as she’s more likely to be partying up there with Whitney and Michael. You touched so many people around the world, Ana, your memory lives on in all those who were lucky enough to know you.