Juche ideology for the expat soul

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.

Original photo via "Kim Jong-il Looking at Things"

Original photo via “Kim Jong-il Looking at Things

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.

The Emotionally Resilient Expat cover

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.

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21 responses to “Juche ideology for the expat soul

  1. Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) is another really great book about North Korea. It’s non-fiction and contains the stories of people who managed to escape to South Korea. I couldn’t put it down…

    I hope you’ll get word soon about what’s going to happen to your life. The waiting is grinding you down, and who can blame you 😦

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  3. While decidedly not the Pollyanna-like cheerleader I seem to be portrayed as, I am glad you were able to find some benefit in TERE. Particularly meaningful to me is that after a life’s work, the creator of the original grief process you reference – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – relabeled it a CHANGE process since not surprisingly we may encounter grief during periods of significant change. May your new posting exceed your expectations. Linda Janssen

    • Hi Linda! My initial take of you being rather cheery, had much more to do with my sour mood at that dark moment than the reality of your personality: at the moment I read your quote I couldn’t have mustered a kind thought about our potential move. Reading through the remainder of the book I came to better understand your own trials and difficulties in dealing with the ups and downs of expat life.

      I understand from your guest post on Displaced Nation, that you’re now back in the US: http://thedisplacednation.com/2014/03/20/emerald-city-to-kansas-linda-janssen-on-seeing-the-wizard-of-expat-life-and-returning-home/

      Best of luck settling into returnee life! Certainly many of the tools your describe in your book are similarly useful for the transition “home.”

      • Thanks Jennifer, like any transition it has its moments. Well, lots of moments, but there are good ones in the mix. I do feel looking at it as both a transition process (not an event – ‘we’ve arrived’) and another cross-cultural experience has helped quite a bit. We’re building a home base from which to launch to new adventures in the future. BTW, just linked to this post on the TERE FB page.

  4. Pingback: News from North Korea | Expat Lingo·

  5. All right, I’ve FINALLY figured out your new blog layout after being away for a few months. You, the somewhat emotionally resilient expat, should take comfort in the fact that I actually remember the last post I’d read so many months ago, and I’m trying to catch up chronologically. I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time with the move, but I’m on the edge of my non-ergonomically aligned chair, waiting to find out your final destination.

    • Now I’d better think of an awfully cleaver way to reveal my next move. (Nice to see you around! And a huge congrats on being Freshly Pressed for the third time!)

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