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A Self-Initiated Expat Contemplates the Next Phase of Her Life

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I have never been one for indulging in self-doubt, especially when it came to The Future.

I had always been quietly confident of my ambulant career progress and my pick-n-mix life. My lack of husband and child was something to be celebrated, not mourned, and I rather relished being able to pack up and leave anytime I wanted, with nothing more than a passport to my name.

But what is it about weddings that seem to have a mysterious, irrational effect on women?

While watching my cousin walk down the aisle in June, I was surprised to hear, beneath the happy chirpings of my champagne-fogged mind, a whisper of insecurity. An unwelcome contrast was presented between those at the altar and me with my suntan and, for the first time, my belief in my foundation-less existence wobbled.

He’s just one year ahead of me, yet my cousin has his feet firmly planted in the soil of the future. As of last month, he had a wife, two cats, and a house with a mortgage. Me? I have a suitcase and only a vague idea of what is happening at the weekend, let alone for the rest of my life.

I can’t deny that this unfettered life of mine has always been an utter pleasure, but am I derailing myself with all this fancy-free global fun? I was reminded of a gloomy expat blog post I had read a few weeks previously that painted a depressing prospect for the single female expat.

The author suggested that those females heading home after a prolonged absence often struggle, finding themselves behind in the journey of Where I Want to Be by XYears Old. They get back to terra cognito to discover pals have already chalked up a husband, kids, a house, and a career, leaving them to play catch up amid post-travel gloom and waves of reverse culture shock.

I had written the post off as pessimistic tosh pre-wedding, but the ideas came back to haunt me as I picked at wedding cake and watched the aunties do the Macarena on the dance floor. Had I inadvertently become the grasshopper who sang all summer?

The insecurity nagged, yet a reasonable voice pointed out that I couldn’t be alone in this problem, especially in Malaysia, where an increasing number of expats are young and adventurous, casting not a backward glance at the country they left nor worrying about the future. So back to the internet I went, and was delighted to find that a positive spin was there waiting, courtesy of the scientists.

According to research, we wandering souls are actually “selfinitiated expatriates (SIEs),” globe-trotting in a quest for opportunities and adventures rather than through relocation for work or other business requirements.

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We SIEs face much more uncertainty and risk than other expats, but we are also the only ones to take control of our future. We “value individual freedom and growth” and “define career success in terms of psychological criteria, such as job satisfaction, self-actualisation, personal accomplishment, and a feeling of fulfillment.” (Hall & Chandler, 2005)

This makes us all sound rather dazzlingly independent and proactive, but one phrase that really struck me was the idea that our careers – indeed our lives away from our home countries – are not the freewheeling sabbaticals they may appear to be, but rather a “project of the self.” (Grey, 1994)

We may step away from the predictable tracks of development that captivate our peers at home, but we do so to enhance our lives, following instead a path to self-improvement that just so happens to also involve ample sunshine and delicious, cheap food.

Without question, there is a price to be paid for our expat existence, but it is not one of falling behind in the game of life. We may miss out on birthdays, on special meals, or on funerals perhaps, but we do not miss out on life. We carve our own path via self development and satisfaction-seeking; we are different, yes, but not poorer for it.

The wedding has receded in my memory and the spring has returned to my step, clouds of self-doubt blown clean away. The next time someone asks why I’m not married, I can tell them I’m tied up with my “project of the self.” Children? Nope, too busy valuing my individual freedom and growth.

So go forth, my fellow SIEs, and cast any lingering doubts intothe fire. Continue to work on your project of the self. Attend that wedding with your head held high and a confidence that yourjourney of self-development is just as worthwhile as a wedding ring and a screaming infant.

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Source: The Expat July 2013
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