How to Really Thrive as an Expat
I should have known better. On the cusp of turning twenty-six, with a year of motherhood and a second international move under my belt, I should have braced myself for cancelled plans and hard days. But I had grand ideas of sitting in an American-run salon getting my hair highlighted with an old friend while pretending injustice doesn’t live outside my gate.
My birthday came and went with no fanfare and a lot of tears. Transportation to the salon didn’t come through. I needed to be at work and couldn’t get the time away. I screamed. I cried. I made a complete fool of myself.
And then, it hit me: there’s no use trying to escape. The reality of living in an underdeveloped nation is unnerving and sometime sickening. But you can’t outrun discomfort. Instead of throwing all your energy into trying to outrun the heaviness, run hard into the things that leave you feeling like the foreigner you are.
First things first. Shed your layers. Like you lose your winter coat and the sweatshirt underneath and the cardigan under that when a chilly morning turns into a warm afternoon, shed the layers off your heart. Maybe your winter coat is an aimless wander through target, hoping that clearance v-neck or Threshold knick knack will erase the complexities of your day. Maybe your sweatshirt underneath is a trip to your favorite drive thru to scarf down a large order of fries at the next red light. Whatever your layers, they don’t exist here in the vast world away from the land of Kardashians and chambray-clad hipsters. You don’t get to insulate. You don’t get to reach for your instant comfort. Instead, you learn real, true soul care. You learn yourself in a new, brave way.
For me, I needed to fight my way back to my words. I spent an entire year before moving back to Haiti, or more, hiding from them, pretending I didn’t have the itch to write. When I’d feel the itch, I’d make up an excuse to run an errand, or go shopping with a girlfriend, or redecorate the living room. But when my birthday plans fell apart and homesickness threw thorns in my soul, I needed an outlet. Girlfriends weren’t a phone call away. Driving five miles here is bound to take five hours with traffic, so I found my words again. They started pouring out of me, rushing from the dusty corners of my soul. Suddenly, shedding my soul layers proved to be the only way to survive and become fully alive again. Find your niche, the thing that keeps you alive, and hold space for it in your everyday.
Now that you’ve lighten your a few layers lighter, don’t be afraid to embrace the simplicity. While all your friends are rocking capsule wardrobes and succulent sprinkled living rooms to keep up with ever changing trends, find your simplicity as a way of being. Learn to thrive right here in the place where your theology sheds a few layers too.
Living surrounded by poverty raises more questions than answers, but if there’s one thing I now know, faith is simple. Love and love and then, when it hurts so you much you might collapse, love a little more. Jesus is out here dwelling in the uncertainty and the fear and the overwhelming need. He’s proving that redemption always wins, and Heaven gets the final say. I think we miss the chance to come back to the basics when we’re lost in the newest praise song or who listens to what celebrity pastor. But here, where everyone is just living with what they need for today, there’s a beautiful invitation to savor this sacred moment.
You probably aren’t going to pack up to move to Haiti anytime soon. (If you do, I know where to find the best coffee and fried plantains!) But you are packing up moments and memories in your soul. We all are. Are they meaningful? Is the moment you are living in laced with purpose and joy? Or are you hiding from the real truths you need? Is that shopping trip a coping mechanism to keep yourself from seeing that you don’t feel fulfilled at your job? Is that late night pan of brownies your way of lying to yourself, saying that you are fine, and your anxiety is not leaking the air out of your very soul? Are you loading up your planner with activities to keep your mind racing and away from the panic you feel inside, all those teeny tiny weeds of doubt threatening to grow right up over your faith?
Don’t get lost in the noise of doing and striving. Instead, strip it all off, and do a little dance.. Build up a community of friends who will bring the salsa and the plantain chips and the lukewarm drinks because the electricity was out for twelve hours and no one’s refrigerator could run. You’re going to need those friends, and on occasion, you’re going to need their drinks.
And then, when you’ve you’ve kissed your housekeeper on the cheek no less than fifty times for making the best local food around, look around your table. Look at the people you’ve found to carry you through. Look out your window. Feel that breeze blowing on your balcony. Hear the worship from the church next door. And soak it up. Because, even far away from familiar, there is beauty stitched right into the chaos.