Last night, Daniel and I went on the roof of our apartment building to watch the lanterns take off for the Krathong Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai. We had been thinking about what it means to be a long-term traveler lately and how we somewhat feel isolated from our friends and families—even when we return home. It wasn’t long until we heard a voice call us over,
“Hey, kids! You want a gin and tonic?”
Before we even realized what had happened, we were enveloped in a small expat gathering in Chiang Mai. These lovely people were in their sixties, and were some of the friendliest, kindest, and most aware people I have talked to on my travels.
They had seemed to form a community for themselves after living abroad, and it was fascinating to hear their stories of how they made the transition to living in a culture that was not even close to their own. I envied them—I had not always been so lucky while living abroad and finding people that I’ve connected with.
Living in Italy had been one of the most isolating experiences in my life. Not only because at first I was with a group that I didn’t connect with very well, but then living alone in a small city where hardly anyone spoke my language. Being an expat on both of those occasions made me feel like an outsider, and it was difficult to feel as though I could integrate into the culture. I took Italian lessons, and managed to make a few Italian friends. While this definitely helped with feeling lonely, it didn’t always make me feel accepted.
Daniel and I experienced something similar when we lived in Granada. We would meet up with a few expats randomly, and we managed to develop some beautiful relationships with a few people, but we were on the edges of society. We would always be foreigners, no matter how hard we tried to learn the language, learn to cook the food, and participate in siesta. It didn’t take us long to discover that even when you have your best friend with you, you can still feel marginalized.
I would like to say that every place I’ve lived for a period of time has meant that I’ve created friendships that last a lifetime, or the people I hung out with while I was in a certain location were people I would have chosen to in any other context. But the truth is that I still felt separated from my culture and the people who really know me best. It’s a challenge you face as a traveler, and I’m not the first to comment on this phenomenon. It can be downright lonely—your eschewing your own culture and trying to find a place in another, completely different one.
My perspective on what it means to be an expat changed after last night, however. It’s easy to get caught up in that feeling of isolation, especially when you are young and your life is dictated so much by who you hang out with and the support of your peers. The older I become, the more I realize the freedom there is in being an expat and taking the positives from both cultures—you’re adopted and your original one.
I’m not looking to live abroad as an expat for a while any time soon, but I’m now not afraid to try it again. Hopefully I will be older and wiser and willing to realize feeling isolated doesn’t always have to be a negative feeling—it can provide you with a freedom you never realized you had before.
Have you ever been lonely living as an expat?