Article 2014 The Year in Review

Expat dilemmas: “Whose family is missing out on Christmas?”

Looking back on the year, many of us remember what we did and where we went. For expats who have emigrated by choice, however, it can also be a time to think about all the moments they missed. From no-shows at birthday parties and weddings to missing the entire first year of life of a friend’s new baby, and perhaps the toughest one of all: an empty chair at the upcoming family Christmas dinner. These are the downsides of an adventurous life abroad, and an increasing number of global-minded spirits now have to deal with them.

A report by the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of British citizens who have moved abroad has risen by a fifth under the coalition government, reaching 154,000 last year. According to OECD statistics, there has also been a rise in the move rates of highly skilled workers in various Western countries, particularly those hit by the recession. A total of 1.28million highly-skilled Brits are now living abroad, significantly more than any other developed economy. By comparison: Germany has 865,000 of its highly skilled citizens living abroad and the US just 400,000.

Emigration from Ireland has almost doubled since the financial crisis hit in 2008. The numbers of people leaving this year fell slightly, but remained high at 81,900. Interestingly, only half of them were Irish nationals, indicating that foreign expats are leaving their host country in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

Britain -and London in particular- still appeals to expats from around the world, although recent visa restrictions have brought the numbers down. A study from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory found that the flow of highly skilled migrants coming to the UK from outside Europe decreased by more than a third between 2011 and 2013. Other countries have set targets for the number of immigrants they aim to attract each year. Canada for example takes in between 240,000–265,000 annually, with around 83,000 of them skilled workers and their families.

As 2014 draws to a close, two expats reflect on their experiences of moving out, settling in and the possibility of moving back. One moved from Vancouver and the other one moved to Vancouver. Neither of them live there now, although one might return… but not for Christmas.

Going home never crossed my mind. I have the personality and the belief that things happen as they happen.

Amanda Fortier, Senegal

Amanda Fortier (36) is a Canadian national currently living in Senegal. She first moved abroad to pursue a documentary filmmaking career in 2003, following many years as a top athlete with Canada’s women Olympic cross-country skiing team. Her first move abroad was to New York, after which she spent time doing internships in China, Australia and Ghana. It was in Ghana that she heard of a job with a Canadian NGO working on media and human rights. The job turned out to be not in Ghana but Senegal and in 2006 Amanda moved there for the first time.

“The funny thing is that I hated it in those first few months”, Amanda confesses to me from Senegal via a generator-powered Skype during a power cut. “I had an eight month contract and in the first four or five months everything went wrong. The job was not at all what it had seemed and I got really sick with malaria. I was living in a rural village with only the very basics. Going home never crossed my mind. I have the personality and the belief that things happen as they happen. I had put myself in that position and I was committed to see it through.”

Cultural differences provided an extra layer of difficulties. “I was used to Ghana, which in some ways felt quite North American - the language, the dress, even some food. Senegal, by comparison, was very different. I only knew what I knew from the guide books, but the atmosphere is unlike anywhere else I had been until then. I didn’t know what the heck a call to prayer was and all of a sudden it was there, five times a day. I had to go to little phone and internet booths to be in contact with home. I was feeling miserable, didn’t know anyone, had no friends or family around me, so I tried to talk to the local guys at the cybercafé. I soon realised that there was no such thing as friendship between men and women, without being together romantically. I really struggled befriending local people and ended up mostly making friends with other expats. I got into a relationship with a Senegalese man but it was hard to get the two worlds to intersect.”

Once the job ended, Amanda moved to Denmark, the Netherlands and Wales to pursue an international Master’s Degree. After two years in Europe she moved back to Vancouver, working out how to continue the long-distance relationship with her partner who had remained behind in Senegal. “Adapting to Canada was quite difficult”, Amanda reflects. “I realised it was not the time yet for me to return.”

In Canada, I missed everything from the smells to the calls to prayer to the food.

She went back to Senegal, where her relationship eventually ended. She briefly moved to Canada once more, only to return to Senegal for a third time in 2009. “I wanted to come back and have a new experience here”, she explains her decision. “In Canada, I missed everything from the smells to the calls to prayer to the food. Canadian friends and relatives found it hard to understand that I wanted to go back, but I did and I have been here ever since.”

Although she has never regretted her adventurous choices, the temporary aspects of it are getting to her at times. Due to the short term nature of most expat contracts, many of her close friends over the years have left for other destinations. “The older I get, the harder I find it to say goodbye”, she says. “I am very aware of the fact that there is a psychological cost to this kind of lifestyle. A lot of my friends are older and have very successful careers at the UN and other places. After a couple of drinks some will tell you that they are missing something.”

It was not until a few months ago that Amanda started to think about moving back to North America for good. “It is hard to explain but I slowly found myself becoming very intolerant and uncomfortable with life here”, she says. “Things that I used to find interesting and exotic now annoy the hell out of me. My job is very stable and I am a resident here so I could stay if I wanted to, but my priorities have shifted. I am 36 now and single and although my career is still important to me, I would also like to have a family. I don’t think that there is only one home to settle in, though: home for me is any place where I feel safe and secure.”

Amanda is currently making plans to move back to North America early next year. As with so many expat experiences, her feelings about this next big move are positive, but mixed at the same time: “I know that the comfort of the Western world will soon fade and then it will become boring. I would never have believed it when I first moved here, but I will miss this place. For all the crazy stuff we have here, it is never ever boring. Senegal has become like a family member to me: I can be completely fed up and frustrated with it and we probably should not be living together forever. But no one else is allowed to say anything bad about it: then I will be the first one to defend it.”

TAICQ (The All Important Christmas Question):

Amanda: “I will not be spending Christmas in Senegal or Canada, but I will be visiting a friend in Scotland instead.”

I saved up my cash, sold my Volkswagen Golf and any other bits and pieces I had and left.

Mark Taylor, Chile

When Mark Taylor (39) applied for a working holiday visa in Canada almost five years ago, he never would have guessed where he ended up instead. He had spent a summer working in the US before and also lived two years in Australia and New Zealand. This time around he had decided to make the most of Canada’s visa scheme for under 35s. His job –like that of many in his native Ireland- had become uncertain as the financial crisis took hold. But just six months into his stay in Vancouver, a friend offered him a short term placement in Santiago, Chile. He went for three months and is still there four years on.

“I knew the company I worked with in Ireland was in trouble” Mark says via Skype from his South American home. “I saved up my cash, sold my Volkswagen Golf and any other bits and pieces I had and left. My perception was: go to Canada, try to get work in a strong economy and hopefully base myself there. But when I got there, it wasn’t grabbing me like I thought it would. I got work intermittently but I found Vancouver very expensive to live in. I really noticed the shocking inequality between people who have money and people who don’t.”

Six months in, a friend of Mark contacted him with an offer to take up a three month position in Santiago. It was a marketing role at an English language school, although Mark’s background was in marine shipping and logistics. “I knew very little about marketing, but I did the Skype interview from Canada and got the job somehow”, he recalls. “I did not speak Spanish and I had never been to Chile, but I thought to myself: they are flying me over, provide me with accommodation and income and it is only three months. It was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.”

Much to his own surprise, Mark felt at home in the country as soon as he stepped off the plane. “I felt really comfortable straight away. The Chileans were very welcoming and warming, more than in other places I lived in. I was in more westernised and English speaking countries before, which should have been easier than Chile, really, but I found Santiago nicer straight away. It might also have to do with the fact that there are much less expats here: there’s only a few hundred Irish expats in Chile, versus tens of thousands in other countries I lived in. That means there is a bit more novelty, less competition and maybe more ‘luck of the Irish’ opportunities too”, he laughs.

It was only when I got home and looked at that date stamp that I started thinking: will I still be here in five years’ time?

Following his stint in marketing, Mark found himself a marine logistics job with a German multinational company who sponsored his visa. A few months ago he received his five year resident permit, after which he can apply for citizenship. “That permit came about randomly: the HR person who applied for my one-year visa told me that it would cost the same to apply for five years at a time, and I said OK. It was only when I got home and looked at that date stamp that I started thinking: will I still be here in five years’ time?”

While Mark enjoys the life he has built for himself in Santiago, the question of ‘home’ gets to him every now and again. “I would like to think that I will go back to Ireland one day”, he says with a mixture of passion, pride and hope in his voice. “I am keenly aware that my parents are getting older and my sister’s children are growing up fast. But judging by the economic and political news coming out of the country and the lack of progress, I don’t think I will go back anytime soon. I am disillusioned with government statements saying that unemployment numbers are down, as they don’t say that it is in part because so many have left.”

“People at home say to me: if you have a good job, keep it. At the end of the day, wherever you live, you still have to buy milk and bread. Emotionally, I would love to say: hit the road and travel again. But that just isn’t practical for the foreseeable future. I am not 18 years old anymore on a working holiday visa. I am here to improve my life.”

Technology has changed the way many expats connect with home these days, although some things stay remarkably similar. Mark: “When I first moved over to the USA twenty years ago, I received two handwritten letters from my grandparents. They updated me on the weather, the dog, some trouble with the car, and all the other big issues in their small town life. These days, I get an email from my mum every single morning, from Monday to Friday. She tells me about the weather, the dog that has an injured leg, and some trouble with the car or the house. Although these bits of information are irrelevant to my day-to-day life here, they have become very important to me. Out of one hundred daily emails I get in work from clients all over the world, this is the most important one.”

TAICQ (The All Important Christmas Question):

Mark: “Flying at Christmas is expensive and I don’t think it is the best time to visit home for a holiday: It gets dark at 4.30 and no one wants to go anywhere. I will miss my mother’s Christmas dinner but I will get two big chickens and some wine and beer and celebrate with friends. I will Skype my parents and my sister from my balcony and it will all be fine. More than Christmas, it tends to be New Year’s Eve when I get a little bit emotional. When the bell rings and the champagne flows, I always reflect on the year that has passed and look ahead. For 2014 at least my conclusion will be that I am still in the right place.”

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