Rolling about in the angry mud of expat-martyrdom causes one to focus on the darker aspects of life abroad. As I slowly climb out of my self-pity wallow, I am gaining the perspective necessary to reflect on the many varied stages of expat life. After all, didn’t I start this expat blog with the quote, “Aren’t we the lucky ones?”
What has helped me pass through this dark tunnel? Three things: (1) Bruce Lee, obviously; (2) the book The Emotionally Resilient Expat by Linda A. Janssen (a free e-copy of which had been serendipitously given to me for review purposes); and (3) Adam Johnson’s phenomenally thrilling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the horrors of life in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son (the best book I’ve read in years).
But first a little honesty: I almost stopped reading The Emotionally Resilient Expat after only a few pages. I downloaded the book in late January, after just being informed of our potential surprise move. I was in a very dark place. A place not receptive to having an open mind about self-help books for expats. I didn’t want to be helped. I didn’t want to told about positive visualization. I was deep in sticky, dark mud and I wanted to be miserable.
It was a very specific quote by Janssen, however, that I found infuriating enough to stop reading. She tells the story of her husband coming home from work and presenting a surprise job opportunity that would require moving to another expat destination on short notice. Janssen, an American, had established a life in the Netherlands. Janssen and her husband had just promised their daughter that she could finish high school at her current school.
Janssen’s mind was buzzing with details, but, as she describes it, she noted her husband’s enthusiasm and replied simply:
“Why… why that’s t-terrific, honey, … Geneva? Huh. Wow. How great would that be?”
I read this, screamed, accused Janssen of being an overly sunny American “Pollyanna” and turned off the Kindle.
At that dark moment, I found I could relate more easily to Sun Moon, a fictional character in The Orphan Master’s Son, a woman who is a favorite of Kim Jong-il and the go-to lead actress for his epic films of revolutionary fervor and North Korean Juche ideology. At one point in the story, Sun Moon explains the martyr’s role that she acts in every one of the films she stars in:
“There is no twist. The plot is the same as all the others. I endure and endure and the movie ends.”
This is how I felt: I move to another country, I try to make a new life that I never quite finish building, then we have to move again and I say goodbye and start all over. I endure.
In the weeks since my dark moment with Janssen’s book, I have transitioned through the stages of grief:
Denial: We will live in Hong Kong forever, the locals will all start speaking Mandarin (which I understand) and not Cantonese (which they actually speak), housing rental prices will go down, and all the air pollution will turn into marshmallows and fall from the sky.
Anger: I despise my husband’s company. I despise being an expat. I despise losing control over my own choices.
Bargaining: Bruce Lee, you are my only hope! Teach me how to know when to flow like a river and when to crash like a wave!
Depression: I don’t want to speak to anyone. I just want to read The Orphan Master’s Son and be horrified at the concept of North Korean prison mines that no one ever emerges from.
Acceptance: Well, there’s nothing for it. Suppose I’d better get on with the details. Let’s have a look at the websites for those potential schools again.
As such, I have now been able to return to The Emotionally Resilient Expat with kinder eyes. Eyes that understand that Janssen was being a good sport in responding to her husband and that many detailed discussions followed her initial cheery reaction. I’ve now read her book through and found it quite beneficial.
Hands down, the highlight of Janssen’s book is the many personal stories she has gleaned from expats all over the world. Reading the experiences of others moving through difficult times and learning to adapt, was relatable, fascinating and informative. I also really enjoyed her description of what she calls, “The Clash Roulette” — “should I stay or should I go?” — a time in spring when “[e]xpats of all stripes begin the dance, circling tenuously around the question of whether they (or their friends and colleagues) will be moving on, repatriating or staying put.”
Janssen also discusses methods for building one’s own reserves of emotional resilience as a means of preparing for the storms ahead. I am on my fourth expat move, and I haven’t ever explicitly thought about the importance of emotional resilience, but this latest potential move has been a trial and I’ve needed every ounce of resilience I could muster (and will for the foreseeable future). Her suggestions for building emotional resilience, taking care of oneself and for helping children transition, are all very helpful. My only reservation about The Emotionally Resilient Expat, is that, when read straight through, it can feel a hair repetitive and could be trimmed here and there.
So, if you are an expat who wants to refine your personal strategies for dealing with the difficulties of transition or simply enjoy reading stories of other expats, then you will find The Emotionally Resilient Expat to be an interesting and useful read and also a handy reference.
If you want to immerse yourself in a great book that will draw you completely into another world, a world much worse than your own, a world that will force you to forget your own petty problems, read the thrilling and surprising The Orphan Master’s Son, an epic work of dark totalitarian humor.