Thursday, 8 June 2017

How to Live in Another Country

My sister Linda and me with our uncles
Phil and Rick and our Grandpa and 
Grandma Hostetter -- Nigeria, 1972.
June 8 is an historical day, both in my adopted country and in my country of birth. Here in the UK,  today's general election will determine the party in charge of the government. In the US, former FBI director James Comey will begin his testimony before the US Senate. Though this is essay is not politically themed, it seemed like a good day to reflect on my experiences moving from one country to another.

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I used to think there was some mysterious trick to moving to another country and finding happiness there. I'd seen so many of my relatives do it before me. The most striking example was my grandmother's move to Lagos, Nigeria, when she was 51 and I was 3. I don't remember her leaving, but my parents took my sister Linda and me for a visit a few years later. That time in Lagos and then out into the hills in Nigeria's Middle Belt -- to see my much-adored and then very young uncles at their boarding school -- is one of my first memories. My grandmother loved Africa. People who'd known her before and after said she had blossomed there. She herself said, whenever one of her grandchildren asked her later for the story of her life, that Nigeria was the place where she felt she came into her own.

At about the same time my grandmother was teaching English in Lagos and loving it, my Uncle Doug and Uncle Earl and Aunt Pat were all living in Vietnam, where they worked for Mennonite Central Committee during the peak of the Vietnam War. (My Uncle Doug's story on teaching English in a war zone in South Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969, was recently published in The New York Times.) In these cases, too, I don't remember their departures for a distant country -- in fact, I wasn't yet born -- but again, my first memories of these beloved uncles and aunts were of hearing them discussed by family members who missed them. In my young mind, their names were linked to this other country where they had chosen to live.

My uncle, Doug Hostetter, with some of his students
in South Vietnam, circa 1969
In later years, other aunts and uncles of mine chose to live overseas, too. My Uncle Darrel and Aunt Sherill worked in Swaziland for a decade; my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Wilmer lived even longer than that in Honduras, where my aunt was a doctor to far-flung rural communities, and where the two of them started a ranch that they operate to this day. Still later, cousins of my own generation spent years in Germany and in Russia -- and became so intimately connected to those places, they met their spouses there.

All these family members forged deep, long-lasting links with a country other than the one they were born to. As a child growing up more or less in the midst of my parents' extended families, I grew up, too, with the echoes of Nigeria and Vietnam. At family reunions, I ate my grandmother's African ground nut stew, and learned of my Uncle Doug's fondness for Nước Mắm fish sauce. I was struck when my Aunt Pat and Uncle Earl, meeting a Vietnamese refugee family recently arrived in North Carolina, were able to greet them and converse with them in their own language. Knowing my grandmother -- knowing Aunt Pat and Uncle Earl and Uncle Doug -- was to know something of those other countries, to be aware of Nigeria and Vietnam as almost palpable presences in the lives of my relatives who had lived in those places and had come home permanently changed by them.

Having such positive and early role models for thoughtful expatriate living, I assumed I could do it as well. I wanted to do it -- to make a life for myself overseas, to become part of another country. In the stories I'd heard all my life, it was an adventure -- a worthwhile endeavor -- to live outside the U.S. for a while.

And yet, I struggled in my first attempts. I did live in Spain for a year. I did live in Guatemala, on two separate occasions, for a total of over three years. But I was not radiantly happy. I was not at peace. Almost as soon as I made those moves -- all three times -- I wished I was home again. I could not relax; I could not settle down and just be there, in Spain or in Guatemala. I never felt like I was part of the place. By the time I came back to the States from my last attempt at international living, in 2005, I'd developed a new, mostly secret opinion that my grandmother and aunts, uncles and cousins who'd filled me up with their stories of joyful expatriate living must have been exaggerating. 

But here is the question I hadn't yet thought to ask: What does it take, to be happy in a given place?

The ex-academic in me wants to make two caveats before I go on. Not everyone who moves to another country gets to ask that happiness question. Not everyone who moves to another country does so by choice. In fact, choosing to live in an other country is a luxury. This seems especially important to acknowledge in light of current well-publicized anti-immigrant attitudes in both my home country and in my adopted country. We need look no farther than the U.S. election of Donald Trump, the man who has promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and has tried to enforce a sweeping anti-immigrant travel ban. Here in the UK, last year's Brexit vote resulted in part from a similarly xenophobic mentality. As someone who sees Trump's election and the Brexit vote as real failures of human compassion, I want to recognize that moving to another country in search of adventure or edification or self-improvement -- as I and many of my family members have been able to do -- is a sign of our privilege, our unearned good luck.

It's worth acknowledging, too, that in many parts of the world, living outside one's home country is not so unusual, and thus perhaps not so monumental a choice as it seemed to me as a kid growing up in the U.S. For example, here in Europe I automatically assume any person my age will have lived in at least one other country besides their native one. Almost all of my friends in England have either come here from another country or have spent significant time living abroad. This is partly a feature of European countries being mostly quite small and close together -- often contiguous -- as opposed to the hugeness and physical isolation of the United States. It also has something to do with the UK's having been part of the European Union, which makes it easy for members of EU countries to live, work and travel abroad.* Simply getting to another country is much easier to do, in most parts of Europe, than in the U.S. Thus international living may not seems as challenging, or as exotic, as it does to many of us raised on the other side of the Atlantic.

But why couldn't I be happy living abroad, as the giants of my childhood had seemed to assure me I'd be? Why, in Spain and then twice in Guatemala, was I so restless, so unable to sink down deep roots?

It wasn't until two years ago, when my husband Dave and I moved to England -- where I have been, from the day we touched down, truly happy -- that I was able to answer these questions. And the answer isn't one bit arcane or mysterious. There's no magic trick to it, after all. All I needed to live happily in another country, I've found, is to be happy first in myself.

Or, to put it in a perhaps less annoyingly Zen-like way, my happiness in England is directly connected to my happiness in the work that engages me daily here. England has provided the conditions for my doing the work that I love to do. And, while there are many reasons why I like living in England, I think this one is first and foremost.

Dave and me with the staff of the language school
I directed in Guatemala City, 2003 to 2005.
It wasn't that I'd disliked Spain or Guatemala. It wasn't that I failed to find very good friends in both places. Nor was it that the work I did in any of those former expatriate years was unworthy. But I was one of those people to whom a clear sense of vocation came very late. I spent my 20s and 30s and much of my 40s doing work that did not fulfill me -- that did not draw out my best qualities or, in short, help me to be my best self. During those somewhat misbegotten decades, I was an activist and an academic. I was at least fairly good at both things. But I did not love doing that work. I did not go to bed holding the work I'd just done close to my heart, dreaming of re-entering its flow as soon as I could the next day. Working as an activist, then as an academic, did not call forth my joy, and as such I didn't always have much joy to give to others.

When I finally admitted to myself, somewhere in my late 30s, that my calling -- my heart's desire -- is to be a fiction writer, it came as a huge relief. I could stop forcing myself into the mold of an  English professor, as I'd been trying to do for some years. I could, instead, throw myself into the activity I had loved ever since I could hold a pencil. I could re-sharpen and deepen my skills in creative writing. I could invent stories, new worlds.

Early story-writing, circa 1973.
Or, at least, I could begin to. Dave's and my financial circumstances did not allow me to step completely out of my old teaching role until we moved to England, two years ago, and that is when true daily happiness in my work began.

As it turns out, my journey to another country, this time, was really a journey into my truest, best self. Clearly, we don't all need to move physically -- to change our current locale for a new, international address -- in order to find our best selves. But sometimes, maybe, it helps. I think it was so in my grandmother's case. Moving to Nigeria in her early 50s provided her with a freedom from housework and a scope for her imagination and an engagement with a meaningful, independent career for the first time in her life.

She did not stay in Nigeria; she came home again after six years. But Nigeria, in essence, came home with her. The new, more confident, more leader-like part of herself -- which she'd reached down and found and developed, while she lived abroad -- was, for as long as I knew my grandma, a part of her ongoing joy.

* Brexit, of course, will curb some of this international mobility, among other things.


  1. It's all there in that last picture, Patricia. The country you have been seeking is the one you take with you in your spirit.

  2. Yes, Shirley -- I do love that thought! The desire to write has been part of my spirit since the very beginning, I think, and in one sense that is Home.

  3. how well do I remember these stories and this Picture!!!

    1. Waldino -- aka, Mom! -- I am sure you remember some of them even better than I do!

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