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Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tao of the Expat

On Saturday, it is bright and sunny; perfect day to finally do some laundry.  The laundry machine was already full of washing, so I talked Mary*, the hotel maid, to do some hand washing with me.  Most washing here is done by hand; washing machines are rare. If you go to the beach on Sunday, the rivers are filled with women doing washing; chatting, splashing and laughing while clean clothes dry on the rocks.

Now, I’m not stranger to washing some things by hand but this is a completely different deal; I have a LOT of laundry to do due to the brown water weeks and well, it’s just piled up.  Mary shows me how to effectively wash the whites: spot cleaning with bleach.  There are soap suds everywhere and the great smell of clean washing.  It’s pretty strenuous work though, I break a sweat in the first five minutes of scrubbing, squeezing and sloshing the clothes around.

Mary is endlessly patient with me; I’m much slower than her.  Her movements are expert, rhythmic and her arms are well muscled from years of this work.  For every item of clothes I do, she finishes three.  She checks my work and points out spots that are always an issue on clothes.  Mary is excellent at quality control.     

After the washing comes the rinsing and drying out on the clothes hanger.  I never had a dryer in N.Z., so I had to learn to dry out the clothes on a line or clothes horse.  The effect is better and there is less damage to the clothes over time.

The great thing about handwashing clothes is the company.  Mary tells me a bit about her life; married at 17, six kids and a grandmother at 37.  She smiles and says that she has had a good life and her little pikininis (children and babies) are now grown up.  Originally from Malaita, she moved here in the 1980s but left during the tension.  We sit around and gossip for awhile; it’s a great way to spend a Saturday morning and I have to admit that I can’t wait for next weekend to do the washing.  I’m a total convert to the concept of hand washing; it saves energy, water and its good exercise and its actually quite fun, but probably if you only have a small amount to do. 

Despite enjoying the amenities of the hotel, I’m on the hunt for a shared house.  I’ve been mixing pretty well in the ex-pat community here and I think it’s time for me to make the jump and live with some other people.

On Sunday, I get an invite to go swimming at the Heritage Hotel with some friends.  The hotel is supposedly the only five star hotel in Honiara, but I wouldn’t consider it close to a five star hotel.  Maybe a three and a half star but that would be pushing it.  The day is overcast and grey but the pool is warm.  I jump in with my friends just as it is starting to rain.  The rain comes down in mad sheets, hitting the pool water, creating an amazing effect.  It looks like a thousand jewels plopping on the water.  It’s a great experience; the wind really picked up, causing a brilliant wave action on the pool. 

In the evening, we stay on in the hotel, sipping on gin and tonics and eating pizza, sharing about our lives.  As we talk, I am beginning to see a pattern emerge about expats (caution: generalities are about to used liberally.  Yes, there are exceptions to these patterns.  No, it is not a perfect science.  Chill.)

Anyway, expats seem to share a couple of common traits.  Everyone I talk to seems to have some sort of mixed background. For instance, I have a French mother and an American father and lived in N.Z. for about nine years or so.  Marco*, a lovely Italian man from Rome, has a French mother (we practice our French on each other) and an Italian father (my Italian is pretty poor but I think I gave a convincing Bueno Nueto when we said goodbye that night).  He was also born in Egypt.  My good friend, Tessa* has two Italian parents, but her father was born in Italy and spoke French most of his life. And it goes on…expats tend to have a weird, mixed upbringing.  We tend to not come from homogenous backgrounds.

We moved around, at least once, as kids.  We tend to not stay in one place for very long.  We also tend to like to do other things than just work; playing music, diving, running, being physical, painting, writing…expats always seem to have 100 and 1 hobbies going on.

We don’t seem to like the place we are originally from or at least we don’t feel like we belong there.  The exception in Marco, who loves Rome and hopes to live there again one day.  There is a constant feeling of a lack of home; I feel it myself.  I have no idea where home is anymore or how to define it to myself.  But most expats I talk to seem to feel the same way; there is a sense of homelessness that persists.

We all seem to understand that the way of the expat is a pretty lonely one; assignments last one year to three years and then moving on from beloved friends or relationships.  We are a transient group, moving on quickly from place to place, leaving loved ones behind. 

So I wonder what drives an expat?  Tessa and I both agree that sometimes, a place just kicks you out.  She got kicked out of Washington D.C. and I got kicked out of Canterbury.  Sometimes a place just doesn’t want you around anymore or there is nothing more left to do in that one location.

You sort of feel like that character in that movie I can’t remember; looking in at a house full of people, a warm, big family group. You want to join in, to be a part of it but you just don’t know how.  I don’t know how to live in a house, day in and day out, in the same relationship, same place, and same job for years on end and stay perfectly happy or content.  Neither does anyone around the table.  

Anyway, expats like variety.  Variety is the spice of life and I truly believe it.  All of us have had a variety of jobs, relationships, homes and lived in different countries.   We like to try different cuisine; often the conversation degenerates to “what’s the weirdest food you’ve eaten”.  Typically, rat on a stick in Vietnam or barbecued tarantula from Mexico wins pretty quickly. 

So yeah…we are kinda freakish in nature.  Sure, it would be great to have a home and kids and the whole thing, we all agree.  But we just don’t know HOW we could live that way forever.  Some people make it work and take their families with them.   But it’s a difficult thing, to strike out and live a different kind of life.  I used to take a lot of pride in my weirdness, and then I felt shame. Now I just accept it as a part of my nature. I’m a free spirit, it’s who I am.

There is a strangeness about being here; I feel like I’m finally with MY people.  My expat people, people who get me, who get the desire to try new things and new countries and speak new languages.  People who understand failure and profound loneliness.  People who know what it’s like to spend orphan Christmas’s and Thanksgivings away.   People who argue about futures markets and maternal/child health issues in the same conversation.  I have to admit that I feel a little lost sometimes, even with them. My brain was sort of stagnant for so long, it feels like an electrical shock to the system.  Like I was this thirsty plant and now I am soaking up water madly, almost too much.

As the week rolls on, I step outside my little hotel room and notice two strangers looking at some geckos on the wall.  I sit down, looking at the cooked fish head and invite the pair over.  To be honest, I’ve never eaten a fish head before and I’m a little nervous, so I look forward to the company.  The pair are from Australia, a father and daughter out on an adventure.  

The dad is a psychologist and the girl is studying ecology. We sit and discuss the “tao” of the expat, what makes someone want to leave their home and travel around the world.  

We break out our twin bottles of Islay whisky and start on a rambling conversation that goes late in to the night. Paul* helps me theorize about what makes expats into the weird human beings they are.  We discuss love and egos, transitions, change and growth.   I won't bore you, my faithful reader, on all the insights gleaned that night but I will give you some snippets that I find relevant right now.

We talk about the myth of martyrdom and how toxic it can be for expats, let alone normal people.  That concept of saving the world and changing people around them by sacrificing personal happiness.  I tell him that I feel I am getting more out of this experience, being here in the Solomon Islands, than I am giving into it.  I ask him if that is a good way to feel.

“Yes, I think it is very healthy because you reek of a martyrdom complex and it won’t get you anywhere.  You can’t keep going around, taking jobs, giving your all and resenting the job in the end because you aren’t getting the appreciation you expect.  It’s all tied into your ego and that’s the way to keep being unhappy and it’s putting expectations on people and relationships that is destructive,” says Paul.

“If you do something, do it whole heartedly.  If you give something, same thing.  Do it with a happy heart.  Expect nothing in return.  Do things because you love it.”

I smile. He is right. 

We also talk about the mind and the eastern philosophy of it being like a monkey, jumping from the past and the future, into fantasy and totally bypassing the present moment.

“Life is like a river and the monkey aka your brain is constantly jumping around, muddies the water completely.  But if you keep the monkey still, if you live in the present moment, the river will become clear and you can see things; the past, present and future, in a totally clear way.  Accept what is, rather than what should have been, should is actually the worst word in the human language.  Stop the monkey from jumping and clarity always comes.”

You know, life is pretty amazing.  This weekend, I really wanted someone to talk to about my life and about things.  I asked the universe to help me and here this guy shows up, with another bottle of Isley whiskey (possibly the only other one in Honiara) and really gives me what I need.  What I think the universe or God or whatever needed me to know.

Also, Paul, who lived in Guana and had plenty of experience eating fish heads, helped me get over my fear of eating fish heads…which turned out to be pretty good.  I feel like I want to bottle the conversation with Paul and anytime I've feeling resentful or angry or anything like that, I want to be able to drink in the wisdom again.

So, in conclusion to this rambling, happy long blog, if you ask for something from the universe (or whatever, as you may suspect I am religiously a la carte), you get it in the weirdest ways. 

Trust that, the universe looks out for you in the weirdest, best way possible. 

And as far as the Tao of the expat, I know it’s an often quoted phrase but it’s so true:

“All who wander are not lost.”