Tag Archives: Expat

Running to; running from

I always said I’d live abroad but I never imagined doing it.

I was very close with my family growing up, even largely getting along with my parents when that wasn’t cool. I heavily weighted “distance from home” when choosing a university and moved back after graduation because I didn’t know where else to go. Many of my happiest memories are with my family, which is why many people thought it out of character when I moved halfway around the world.

A few years ago, a friend mentioned the strangeness of people who choose lives abroad. There are relatively few of us, though the number is growing. Our common ground is simply that we’ve made the decision to leave home. No one gets here by accident.

Over the course of a different conversation much later, the same friend commented that many of us are running; some are running to while others are running from. But, he said, only some of us have acknowledged it. This has played in the back of my mind for over a year because, in retrospect, that’s it. That’s the answer.


I’ve always been curious about what else is out there. I spent hours as a child poring over the 1995 edition of Children Just Like Me and I wanted to meet all of them. I wanted to talk to them, learn their languages, taste their foods, see their world. I was fascinated by diversity, though I didn’t yet know the word. I just knew that there was a lot more to see than my immediate environs.

As an adult, I know that my parents made financial decisions to allow us to travel as a family. They showed me that the world was accessible, navigable, and wonderful. I learned that while it might not be easy, it would work out, whatever it was. My parents smiled when I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to see it all. They smiled when I bought a car with a manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive because I wanted to be ready.

But travelling and moving are very different things.

Running To

I had a job, a Master’s degree, a long-term boyfriend. I lived in my town’s coolest neighborhood with a great roommate and other friends nearby. My family was a mere 12 minutes away by car. (It took a number of lesson-arguments with my dad, but I learned to drive a manual.) Continuing on the current trajectory would have been easy and obvious.

I don’t do very well with easy and obvious. I wanted the novelty, adventure, and excitement of living and working somewhere new. I wanted to minimize my possessions and figure out what really mattered. I wanted to speak new languages, meet new people, and wake up to a different sky.

Back then, I thought the world was really big. Now, I know it’s actually quite small.

When I first accepted a job in Malaysia for the 2014-2015 school year, I had to double-check a map. I didn’t know the questions I should have asked. I didn’t know the research I should have done. I was determined to go and insistent that it would work out. And if it didn’t, I’d come back. My boyfriend and I bought plane tickets and off we went, completely unprepared for what awaited.

Suffice it to say, we learned a lot. The Malaysia archive on this blog can provide some insight. Even though I cried every single day for a month and then some, I was always glad to be there. And despite everything that went wrong, which almost everything did, I couldn’t imagine leaving a world I’d just begun to explore in earnest. I couldn’t imagine returning to what was easy and obvious.

Running From

All of my friends in Malaysia had worked elsewhere overseas and talked about possibilities, experiences, and impressions of the world that I’d never imagined. During orientation, one mentioned that he didn’t believe in nations; I’d never heard of such a thing and it fascinated me. This is it, I thought.

Back home, there were expectations. There was a path. And somewhere along it, I got scared.

I suspect that’s why I couldn’t go back. After a year in Malaysia, I was planning to move to Singapore where my boyfriend had gone to look (unsuccessfully) for a job. We spent the summer in the US and he prepared to move to New York while I would go to Singapore to give him time to settle. In the airport, I promised I’d only stay for a year. In a year, I’d be ready to return to “real life”.

But I wasn’t.

I did return to the US a year later because I’d promised I would. Maybe I even thought I wanted to. But as the time to departure drew closer, I began realizing that I couldn’t continue life as usual. Perhaps deliberately, I made some decisions that would make doing so impossible.

After a year being single in New York, I moved back to Singapore. I tried to tell myself that I was returning somewhere that still felt like home, but I wasn’t. I was running from the path that I had grown up expecting to follow.

Today I know that path has been abandoned, given up, lost. I’m not running anymore, but I’ve turned so far off the path that it has ceased to exist.

It feels good to breathe.

Just yesterday, a friend sent me a job posting for his school in Beijing. “In case you’re looking to make moves,” he wrote.

At some point I will, but I’m not quite ready right now and that’s okay, too. My contract is up in June and I’ll stay for two more years. At some point, I’ll start looking. Or maybe I’ll stay. A lot can happen in two and a half years; a lot has.

Back to the Beginning

I left Singapore’s Changi Airport this morning after 32.5 hours of travel. Half an hour later, I arrived at the hotel where I’ll be staying for a couple days and took a shower in the pool locker room because my room wasn’t ready. My primary objective for the afternoon was to stay outside as much as possible in order to keep myself awake and to let natural melatonin do its thing.

Immediately upon leaving the airport, I realized a year away means a lot in terms of memory. For example, I’d forgotten that they drive on the left side of the road here, a legacy of British colonialism. I forgot that no one knows how to walk in a straight line, that people actually wait for the crosswalk light to change before crossing the street, and that escalators are for standing (strictly on the left, of course). Additionally, I forgot that you tap your subway card on the way in and on the way out to calculate the fare and I forgot the subway map altogether.

So many people smoke cigarettes, which I’d also forgotten, and it’s gross. And yet, I knew exactly where to find the closest money changer and where to get a new SIM card. I remembered the location of certain stores in a mall I used to frequent and was able to recognize new ones.

It’s weird that I was gone for a year . . . and it’s weird that I was gone for only a year.

I felt somewhat similarly in Rochester this summer. There were certain things about driving around town that I’d just forgotten. I’d forgotten how certain neighborhoods blend into each other and the names of different streets that I used to know. It’s unsettling that after spending so much of my life in that one place, a lot of it was gone, replaced by new pertinent information like all the local and express stops on the 4, 5, 6 trains in New York.

I expect that it’s going to be the same in Singapore for a little while. There’s definitely some adjusting to do, but it feels good to back.

On the Move

Lots of travel updates lately, so here’s a quick life update:

I recently signed for a job in New York at a Jewish private school just outside the city and I have a flight home. Mitch and I don’t yet have a place to live, but that’ll happen all in good time. Moving to New York City is now a real thing!

I’m feeling a lot better about the move now that work is settled. It’s a middle school social studies job, which will be new for me, but I’m pretty confident in my pedagogy and I’m excited about the school. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think it was a good fit but too many factors aligned for it to be anything else. As it happens, I attended a Jewish school for kindergarten through grade eight, overlapped with my new head of department when I was an undergrad in the program in which she was a grad student, went to my new principal’s alma mater for grad school, and – here’s the part that sealed the deal – grew up in the town where my new head of school’s relatives live and was a member of the middle school youth group that his sister and brother ran when they were in college.

That last part, friends, is called playing Jewish Geography. Fun game. I’ve made lots of acquaintances and even friends that way, which probably makes us a rather insular group. I’d argue, though, that it’s fair to say that about every minority ethnic group. 🙂

I’ve written before about my excitement to be with Mitch again and that’s still true. If not for him, there’s no reason to leave Singapore.

And that’s what is making this so hard.

I went out for coffee with my friend Jamie this afternoon and we started talking about all the things we need to do before I leave in (gulp) just over two months. Two months and three days. Time flies. As Jamie and I chatted and planned where in the world we could meet up in the coming years (compatible teacher schedules help!) I decided that I’m ready to go, but I’m not ready to leave.

I felt such a cold sense of finality when I clicked “confirm” on my flight payment tonight. The hard part is that I feel that I have unfinished business here. I have such wonderful friends who I love and who, in some ways, I’m still getting to know. I’m not done with that.

There are students to teach, inquiry questions to address, and curricula to plan. They can get along without me just fine, but I don’t know how I’ll do without them – both the students and the teachers!

There are neighborhoods of Singapore I haven’t seen, cafes and restaurants I haven’t tried, parks I haven’t explored, and hawker food I haven’t tasted. There are amazing countries to visit that I’m closer to now than I’ll likely ever be again.

Ever is a long time.

Even after a year, plus six trips to Singapore before I moved, I feel like I’ve just arrived. I’m still learning and I’m still excited. I was so ready to leave Malaysia by the time that finally happened and I could not feel more differently now.

I also feel like I have a home here but homes are portable. Home has come to mean people, not places. I already have a lot of people in New York City and I am looking forward to being much more present in their lives. So, I’m ready to go.

Leaving? Not so much.

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson said in one of my favorite scenes in Titanic, “To making it count.”

I have 63 more days here. And I intend to make them all count.