How to be an Unhappy Expat

George Mitchell Reserve
George Mitchell Reserve, The Woodlands, TX

Ever suffered from expat loneliness? At some point, most of us go through it. This was my turn.

In the most recent blog about my expat journey, A Week in Lagos, I’d reached the end of my time in Lagos and moved to Houston. You might think that after four years in Nigeria, living in the US would be a breeze, and in some ways, it was. In Texas, I had convenient shopping and food options, no power outages (except after hurricane damage) and fancy cars. World-class medical facilities. Sport, arts and entertainment on tap. I could take road trips or short plane rides to access incredible cities, mind-blowing national parks and culture. All this was amazing. And yet Houston was a tough assignment.

The loneliness curse. My house was so big I could wail with misery and my neighbors couldn’t hear me. I’d been lucky in Nigeria; we became involved in the community so quickly that I never suffered homesickness or loneliness. Perhaps that’s why it hit me so hard in America.

Most of my difficulties were self-inflicted. Saying goodbye to my Nigerian friends had hurt so much that I actively avoided making new friends in Houston. If I didn’t make friends, it would be painless when I left, right? Besides, I had ready-made friends. Many other expats had moved from Nigeria to Houston around the same time as us – so many in fact, that we nicknamed The Woodlands “Little Lagos” – but I soon found out that between family, church, school and extra-curricular activities people in Houston are busy. Crazy busy. All. The. Time.

To make matters worse, my dance life took a nose dive. In Nigeria, I’d been treated as a professional dancer. I’d written and produced stage shows. But in Houston, I was a nobody. I started lessons at a franchise studio and after being invited to perform an Argentine tango showcase at a function, was mortified when they told me I had to pay for the privilege. It stung my pride almost as badly as it hurt my wallet. I lasted a year at that studio. I tried hard to fit in, but their rule-driven structure wasn’t for me. For the next year, I didn’t dance.

I continued writing stage productions for my Nigerian friends, which kept me busy, but there were enormous challenges managing this long-distance. I spent hours and hours home alone, writing. While I enjoy being by myself, I needed balance.

So there I was, miserable in my life of privilege. Let me stop right here and say this: Expat Lesson Number One – Being an expat hurts. There’s no getting around it. If you let people in, it hurts when you say goodbye. If you lock people out, it’s miserable while you’re in-country. Better the sharp pain for a short time than years of loneliness. You have to put yourself out there.

My turning point came when a wonderful woman, Jill Strachan, infiltrated my friendship barrier. A fellow-parent at the Woodlands Preparatory School, Jill suggested that I produce one of my shows with the students. I stalled. The skills I’d developed working with professional dancers in Nigeria were not the same as those required to work with students ranging in age from seven to fourteen. Besides, I wasn’t a choreographer. But then I met someone who was. Jacquie Fox. When I asked whether she’d be interested in co-directing a show, she jumped on board.

Within weeks, we’d reached an agreement with the school and The Cup of Life became the official school production. At last, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and got on with life. I was back in the game.

Next time: Short Fiction: Blood Orange

7 thoughts on “How to be an Unhappy Expat

  1. I felt very much the same way returning to my home city Dallas after many years as an expat. I didn’t even have the XOM women in Houston for support or lunches!
    It took almost four years to establish a new group of friends here, and reconnect with old ones. Most of them were busy with their own lives and had sort of “forgotten” about me returning. Not to mention most people I met didn’t have or understand the expat experience and couldn’t even vaguely relate to how I’d been living for the last 14 years.
    I treasure my expat friends and keep up with them via FaceBook. A trip to Houston is a real treat for me. Little Lagos it is. Did you feel this was when you went back to Melbourne?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am lucky in Melbourne. My sisters and many of my friends have been expats so I have a group who understands. I’ve also established my writing habits now that I can take with me, so I’m not starting from scratch as I was in Houston.

      Like

  2. Your description is spot on. I went through this exact unhappy phase in Singapore of all places. It was not a reflection of the city or place in the world, but our emotional state at a particular time. Like you I had said goodbye to amazing friends in Lagos. The time zone in Singapore was perfect for a Skype catch up with Australia in the morning, the USA for lunch, South Africa for a sundowner and Europe for dinner. Luckily for me, Sally a fellow South African infiltrated my friendship barrier standing in line to see a movie and turned it around for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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