Foreigners who choose to live and work outside of their home countries experience pressure from friends and family about living far away

By Leila Hashemi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/12 19:13:39

Expats feel split between their friends and family back home and their own desires, which leaves them feeling guilty. Photo: IC

Recently, Annabelle Woolwine, a 31-year-old expat who has been living in Beijing for over a year, shared an article she wrote on Facebook that  ruffled a few feathers.

In it, she explained how she felt more comfortable in China than she ever did in her home country because of the lower cost of living, super convenient transportation system and relative ease of finding like-minded friends. She ended the article saying, "I don't know if I will ever go back."

Within a few hours of posting the article, she started receiving comments.

"So shared bikes and subways are better than living around close friends and family?" read one post.

"Is anyone else bummed out to read this?" read another.

"I'm happy for you, but I think you are a better fit here at home."

She said her sister even posted a picture of her nephew on her Facebook page with a caption that said, "Here's one thing they don't have in China."

Although she was happy to know that her friends and family missed her, the comments upset her.

"I have a successful job in my career. I live in an amazing apartment in one of the best areas in Beijing, and I am living my dream to travel the world," she said. "But somehow, I still feel guilty."

Expat guilt is something that every expat faces in one way or another. It could be guilt for being away from aging parents, having your children grow up far from your extended family, losing ties with close friends or for not living the life your parents or family think you should live. Many expats move abroad for career opportunities, to travel or to experience and immerse themselves in a new culture. These reasons can seem inconceivable to people back home and may also appear selfish if friends or family members feel as if they have been abandoned. It leaves some expats with a feeling of split responsibility for themselves and those they have left behind. This type of guilt can hurt relationships and the experience of living abroad. Metropolitan spoke with expats and mental health specialists who have experienced expat guilt and want to lend their experiences and coping skills to other expats who may be experiencing these feelings as well.

Who is being selfish?

From the moment Stephanie Couch decided to move abroad, she knew it wouldn't be easy breaking the news to her parents.

"I actually had my husband tell them because I knew I couldn't face it myself," she said.

Couch, who is now 33 and has lived abroad for three years, has lived in Thailand, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and now calls Beijing home. She and her husband are both successful teachers at top learning centers and enjoy their life and friends abroad. However, Couch said she always has a nagging feeling that she is not living up to what her parents want.

"My parents are pretty old school," she said. "They believe you should go to school, immediately get a job, work yourself up the company ladder, start a family and retire."

The strain from her parents not supporting her lifestyle has created a rift in her relationship with them and sometimes makes her question her lifestyle altogether.

"I feel jealous of other people when I hear about how much their parents support their decision to move and work abroad," she said. "Even though my husband and I are doing really well, every time we tell them about a promotion or a new opportunity, it seems like they don't take it seriously because we are not doing it in the US."

Couch says to relieve the feelings of guilt she talks to close friends at home and abroad. In addition to seeking help from friends, she tries to bridge the distance by keeping in touch as much as possible through texts, video and phone calls.

"It is hard to explain to people back home the motivation and want to live abroad when they have not experienced it," she explained. "I wish that people could just be happy that I am happy."

Woolwine agrees. She said that at times she felt she was being viewed as selfish. "My sister and family keep asking me when I will come home, but I don't have an answer," she said. "Even though at times they make me feel selfish in my decision, I feel that it is selfish of them to want me to come back for their own happiness. What about mine?"

Mia Livingston, a counselor at the Beijing Mindfulness Center and an expat for over 30 years, said expat guilt is common.

"The vast majority of my clients suffer from expat guilt to varying degrees," she said.

She explained that expat guilt usually comes from a strong belief that you should "be there" for your parents, siblings or close friends.

"There is also pressure from family and even strangers to stick with the status quo: that you should 'settle down,' stick with the steady-but-boring girlfriend or boyfriend, have kids if you haven't already, and get a 'normal job,' ideally close to your parents," she added.

Expats use coping skills such as self-validation, talking to close friends or seeking professional help to ease the stress associated with expat guilt. Photo: IC

Dealing with the guilt

For Sofia Vale (pseudonym), the guilt does not come from her friends or family, but from her parents' friends. Vale, a 30-year-old from Italy who works in Beijing, said that she has been in and out of her country for study or work for the past 10 years, so not being around for long periods of time is not out of the ordinary. Also, even though her parents are divorced and she is an only child, they have always supported her decision to live abroad.

For the past eight years, her mother has suffered from a medical condition that requires her to receive bi-weekly treatments. Even so, her mother still supports her decision. It is her mother's friends who have something to say.

"My mother's friends have more or less directly all made it clear that they believe that me going abroad and leaving my family behind is a selfish decision and that I am basically a horrible daughter and person," she said.

Vale said that to help her deal with her feelings, she has confided in friends who have also lived abroad and could more easily understand her complex emotions and situation. "I talked to my two best friends, and I have also seen a psychologist for a couple of months," she said.

She added that she also keeps her goals in mind to help her validate her reasons for living abroad.

Livingston also promotes self-validation as a way of dealing with expat guilt.

"Guilt is a conflict between what you want to do and what you believe or feel you should do," she said. "Begin to ask yourself as deeply and honestly as possible, what your responsibilities are. Once you are clearer about what you know in your bones is right, it becomes easier to take other people's unsolicited opinions with a pinch of salt."

Prepare for the negativity

Aside from family obligations, expats also feel guilty about losing ties with friends. When Livingston decided to move to Thailand, two of her closest friends were very upset.

"They told me not to run away from my problems, but I didn't have any problems," she said.

She said leaving made the cracks in their relationship more apparent because they no longer had the routine of daily life to paper over them.

"I really tried not to lose those friends, but sadly, my move showed our huge differences in perspective."

Couch had a similar experience with her best friend that she has known since she was a baby.

"We haven't talked in almost six months, and we used to talk every day," she said. "I just started distancing myself because I was being made to feel less than for not living a 'normal' life."

When Couch went home for a visit and met up with old friends, she got a lot of snide remarks or attitude. She believes that some of it was jealousy and that others did not take her life seriously.

Livingston said that living life on your own terms will ultimately create better relationships.

"A fulfilling life creates goodwill and generosity towards others, so it turns out putting yourself first is not necessarily selfish at all," she said. "People who condemn the expat lifestyle are simply too shortsighted to see this or they condemn it because they are jealous and not as brave as you are."

Livingston suggests reassuring friends and family with things they can understand, like being unfulfilled at work or wanting to have a better quality of life for your kids. She also encourages expats to be prepared for the negativity.

"It is just an opinion from a limited viewpoint. You can't change it and you should try and not let it affect you."

If you feel like you are not able to deal with the feelings on your own, Livingston suggests finding someone that is relatable to talk to.

"There are helpful holistic workshops and classes our center offers, and you can also find one-on-one resources," she said.

Newspaper headline: The guilty expat


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