When we lived in Peru, I hardly realized what it meant to be an expat. Expat as in expatriate, someone who lives outside his passport country, by choice. Of course I knew we were expats, but the full implication of that didn’t sink in until we moved to Tanzania, 7 years later. Till then, we were just that crazy Dutch family living life in the Peruvian jungle. We learned the language and made friends with the Peruvians (they are generally very friendly people, that helps), who liked to call us gringos. We also shared life with a few other expat families who had made their way to the jungle. Life was good.
And then we moved to Arusha, Tanzania. Perhaps one of the most beautiful and most comfortable places to live in Africa. We are close to Mount Kilimanjaro, we can see Mount Meru from our backyard and we are surrounded by National Parks, filled with wildlife. Arusha has enough to offer to live a comfortable life, as long as you have the money to pay for it. And it has a huge expat community. There are four international schools, two international churches and hundreds of people from all over the world.
Moving here obviously meant we became part of that expat community. This was a whole new experience for us. I suddenly realized there are categories of expats and that we neatly fit in a box with some labels on it. A box that says: Dutch, family with children, working for an NGO, christian, have lived abroad before, mid-term stayers. Other people fit in other boxes, with different labels on them. Labels that indicate where you come from, where you have lived before, what you are doing here and how long you might stay. These labels tell others how and where you might fit in the community. The labels tell people how much time and energy they should invest in getting to know you.
I also learned something about my kids. They are not just Dutch kids living abroad, they are Third Culture Kids (TCKs). A Third Culture Kid is “a person who spends a significant time of his/her developmental years outside the parents’ passport culture”. Our kids grow up between worlds. They do not live like Dutch kids in the Netherlands; they do not have the same childhood, the same experiences (like biking to school). But they do identify with Dutch culture, as we live a very ‘Dutch’ life at home (we eat a lot of bread, even with hagelslag when available). And while they live in Tanzania and have lived in Peru, they do not entirely identify with Tanzanian or Peruvian culture. They mostly identify with a Third Culture, the in-between culture of international life. This will shape them for the rest of their lives (and there is no way to change that now…).
One of the distinct aspects of this Third Culture is high mobility. Some families are highly mobile themselves and move every two or three years, but even if you are the one who stays, the mobility of others effects you. Every year, people leave. You can never be sure how long your best friends will be around. The goodbye’s are hard, but you build a network of friends all over the world who you might meet again, sometime, somewhere. And there is always the promise of new people coming in. People you still have to figure out, but they might just become your new best friends.
Most of the farewells happen in June, when school ends. I can totally understand why expats hate June. Whether you’re leaving or staying behind. This June, we are saying goodbye to at least five families that we have come to know and love. Some are leaving for good, some with the promise of coming back. We will truly miss them. When people leave, the community changes. Gaps are left behind and filled by others. But it will never be as it was. My kids will get used to it, they are growing up this way. I still have to get my head around it. At least we are the ones who are staying – for now.