A couple of years ago, I got back in touch with an old acquaintance, through Facebook. We sent a few catch-up messages back and forth, and I told him about what I’d been doing. Travelling in Europe, writing, house-sitting, teaching in Korea, exploring Asia. His response was to ask me when I was going to go home, “settle down, get married, etc.”
This is not new to me. I’ve written before about relationships and how the fact that I don’t want one seems odd to many people. Leaving the marriage issue aside, though: I do struggle to explain to people that what I’m currently doing is not just something I have to get out of my system before I return to the town of my birth and get a mortgage and a desk job.
I understand it, though, coming from people who are ‘home birds’. Travel is something you do with your time off from work. Home is where your possessions are. Life is about putting down roots, climbing up career ladders, establishing yourself as a member of a community. I realise that that makes someone like me seem like a bit of an oddball: of course she must be planning on settling down at some point! That’s what life is.
However, I do not understand it when I encounter the same attitude from fellow ex-pats. Time and time again, I’ve heard other foreigners in Korea speak about this life of ours versus what they call “real life”.
The more I hear it, the more agitated and frustrated I become. These are people who shouldn’t need me to justify or explain my lifestyle. It’s the one thing all of us have in common. We share that yearning for travel, thirst for adventure, longing for new experiences. We’ve all chosen to leave “home” behind and throw ourselves into a totally different culture by living and working in another country.
Yes, living. LIVING.
When I hear the remarks about returning to “real life”, or how much harder everything will be once we’re back in the “real world”, I almost have to pinch myself to check that I really do exist and have not just been a figment of someone’s imagination since 2008. Has my life not been real?
Let me tell you about my life, the one that may or may not be real.
I fell in love and moved to a tiny little Eastern European country I’d barely even heard of. I worked as a freelance writer to fund my travels, as I ambled through Europe on a shoestring budget at every possible opportunity. I got to live in fabulous houses in Switzerland and Belgium, as a house-sitter. I had my heart broken – which is pain as real as it gets! I moved to Korea and became a teacher. Was all of that a dream?
Let me tell you more.
I work. I work really bloody hard. I teach, I plan, I do paperwork, I make worksheets, and I stay at my desk in the evenings for far longer than I’m getting paid to. I live in an apartment, I cook meals, I pay bills, I read, I write. I wash dishes. I meet my friends in the pub, or go for dinner with them. I take the occasional day trip to another city. I do laundry. I laugh, I cry, I have fun, I occasionally bicker with my friends, I go to the movies, I get crushes on inappropriate people, I buy groceries at the supermarket, I sing karaoke when I have one too many mojitos. I have meaningful friendships. I learn, I grow, I experience.
What is it about all of this that is fake? I’m getting angrier and angrier every time I hear this lifestyle – my life, my actual, real, permanent, full-time life! – dismissed as if it is some kind of temporary hiatus from reality. “Things are different back in the real world.”
If “real world” actually means something like “home country”, then yes. Yes, things certainly are different there. There are no jobs, for example. People I know and love are unemployed and broke. Shops and restaurants are closing down at an alarming rate. Everything is expensive. In the country I’m currently choosing to live in, I’m pretty well-off. True, my salary is low – but then so is the cost of living. I can dine out every night of the week if I want to, and travel from one end of the country to the other for less than the cost of a few drinks in the pub back in Northern Ireland. Is that it, then? Is that the reason my life is not real? Because it’s not a constant struggle to make ends meet?!
I have no intention of returning to my home country and getting into an office environment. I would suffocate and die. And the more people talk to me about the “real world” as if that should be my ultimate destination, the madder and more offended I get. My life is every bit as real as the life of a sales executive in Belfast or a stockbroker in New York.
No, I don’t have a career.
Since when does one require a career in order to have a life that qualifies as real? The life of an ex-pat is not a bubble. Although it is pretty fabulous at times, it is not an extended vacation. It is not some kind of easy option – in fact, living abroad brings challenges, emotions, and struggles that can be really, really tough.
What is more real than experiencing more of this world we live in, and adapting to life in a foreign culture? Do other ex-pats really believe this is all worth nothing – that none of it counts because it’s not happening in their country of birth? That “real life” is somehow paused until they go home?
I am not living a dream, and I’m not putting off some inevitable return to reality. This is it. This is the real life. This is not fantasy. My life is about travel, adventure, learning, growing, adapting, working, moving, experiencing. I am very much out here in the Real World.
This life, this ex-pat life? This is my life, and it is not a bed of roses.
Damn certain it’s real, though.