Today I thought back to my first year of undergrad. I arrived on campus knowing virtually no one. But being the optimist, I was looking forward to new friends, experiences, and adventures. However, I didn’t have the first year college experience like most other people. I wasn’t invited to parties every weekend, and I didn’t really bond with my floor or my roommates. However, I was no hermit! I joined some organizations, and was not afraid to try things by myself. But at the end of my freshman year, I had two (REALLY AWESOME!) friends (Hi, Katharine and Jackie!). My first year of college was really rough, especially with Facebook and the ability to compare your life to your friends’. After that summer, I really didn’t want to come back. However, in the end I decided to stick out the next fall semester and apply for a spring study abroad program; (my one goal in college was to spend a year or semester abroad.)
Well, things got better during my sophomore year. I joined a sorority, and as a result met my other best friends (in addition to Katharine and Jackie, and my friends from high school). I also had the best time if my life studying abroad; I discovered a lot about myself, and was able to settle on a major that made me incredibly happier once I came home. By the time I graduated college 4.5 years later, I had created a community for myself. I was by no means popular, but I was well known. I had built relationships with countless professors and advisors; I worked in a great job in the campus union; I was active in my sorority and Greek Life; I finally accepted and began healing from past trauma in my life; I was enjoying my classes and was thriving in my student teaching; had a group of best friends. I was, for the most part, happy.
I have always wanted to be an expat; it was my goal in life was to move overseas and teach English after graduating college– I’m finally here during it at 23 years old, and I made it happen for myself. I chose this life; I chose to leave everything I know at home to start over with a new job and a new life in a new country where I know almost no one. I chose this life– and I couldn’t be happier to be here. But as happy as I am, people sometimes forget to tell you that being an expat can be incredibly difficult.
Being an expat exposes you to a kind vulnerability to which you would otherwise never be exposed. You learn how to interact and connect with strangers. You learn how to take care of yourself and avoid the most incredibly awkward situations. You learn how to socialize and make acquaintances or friends. You learn how to quickly adapt to unknown or uncomfortable environments. You learn that you can do anything, anywhere, at anytime. As a expat you are truly the lowest on the totem pole or food chain; you are sort of like an untouchable in the Hinduism reincarnation pyramid. You don’t know the ins and outs of the city or the government. The culture is very different, and you’re not always sure how to act. Talking on the phone or explaining a problem or situation takes a lot of preparation and stress. Sometimes you’re at a loss for a key word or verb conjugation in a language that’s not your own; you can’t always express yourself like you want to. And most importantly, you don’t have that same feeling of community.
As an expat you are forced out of your comfort zone. You kiss random strangers when you meet them because it’s considered rude not to. You join couch surfing, attend random conversation tables, and strike up conversations with people at the gym. You stay with random people you’ve never met (over and over again!), plan lunch dates, and party with strangers in hopes of expanding your networking community and maybe making a few friends. You reach out and meet up with other expats you know only through the Internet, (usually after explaining that you read their blog religiously and that you stalk them on Twitter). You travel alone and sleep in hostels so you can meet people to hang out with during the day, (and then ignore the random Americans you meet on trains who criticize you for traveling alone as a female, because it’s “not practical or safe.”) But most importantly you learn how to enjoy being alone; and you learn how to take care of yourself.
I have officially been an expat for about a month and a half. I am here, in France, completely alone. I set up a life for myself here, completely by myself, and I’m networking and reaching out to every available contact I have to help build myself a community. I now have some new friends, I have my preferred vendors at the daily market. I also have my local boulangerie, from which I buy my baguettes and pains au chocolat. I have my job and my studio apartment, my address and my phone number and my very own mailbox. I say, “Yes!” A lot when people invite me places, and I reach out to the people I have met. However, I don’t hesitate to do things alone or miss out on incredible experiences just because I have no companion.
I am away from my family and best girlfriends, but I’m still happy, and I’m happy because I am choosing to be here. I wanted this. In fact I wanted this more than anything. I’m here because this was my dream. I’m here because I want to perfect my French and be bilingual. I’m here because I want to integrate myself into the French community; I also want to teach and expand my professional experiences. I’m here because I believe global citizenship is important, and travel makes people more well-rounded. I’m here because this is where I feel happy. Don’t get me wrong- I was happy at home too, but here in France I am a different kind of happy; it’s hard to explain how it’s different, but it is. The truth is, I am here in France for different reasons this time around. In colleges I was here because I wanted to travel the world and be away from home; I didn’t care if it was France or another European country. I was looking for an escape from my current life, because I wasn’t happy and wanted to do some soul-searching. I was forced to leave France in 2010. I didn’t want to come back home; I wasn’t ready to come back home; but I had to come back home. This time is different too–Im not sure I’ll be ready to come back home, but the difference is now, I do not HAVE TO. Sure, I have a visa that expires next year, but that doesn’t mean I HAVE to necessarily return to my home city and state. I don’t have a Bachelor’s degree to finish anymore. I don’t have a job or a car or a house to return to. I don’t have a boyfriend or a serious relationship to maintain. Yes, I have my family and my friends, and gosh, do I miss them. But they will (hopefully!) always be there. Home will always be there. And I’m lucky to have such a great support system to return to when I am ready.
And even though right now being an expat is hard, and sometimes I feel lonely or frustrated or lost and confused, This still feels right. I want to build a life for myself here, even though some days are hard, and lonely. But, on the days where I feel alone or isolated, I can think back to my first year of college; I stuck it out. I kept networking, kept searching for opportunities, and didn’t turn down coffee dates with potential new friends… and it turned out more than alright. Plus now I’m older, wiser, more confident, and have more life experience, which also makes things easier.
I can go wherever I want, and I can do whatever I want; knowing this is what gives me the determination to make it as an expat, because being an expat is what I want in life, right now.