My sister Linda and me with our uncles
Phil and Rick and our Grandpa and
Grandma Hostetter -- Nigeria, 1972.
# # #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
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.
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.
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.
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.|
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.