Why Live Abroad?

Living abroad, one of the questions that I get asked the most is “why in the world do you live this type of lifestyle?” As I look at yet another June transition and all the beautiful people that are leaving my life, I pause to wonder at this question. On the one hand, I chose this lifestyle, I continue to choose it, and it continues to hurt in ways that never get easier; and on the other hand I love this lifestyle, and we as a family are uniquely equipped to handle the pressures of living abroad. There is a richness in living this way that is life-giving.

I am Dutch, grew up in Germany and went to an American international school. My husband is Japanese, grew up in Ecuador and went to both Japanese and American international schools there. We often joke that our family is like the UN with all its different cultures and languages. We met at a small Christian liberal arts college in New York while I was in the throes of trying to figure out life in the USA. I found the USA overwhelming. Part of the reason it was difficult was that though I sounded, looked and acted American, I didn’t understand a lot of cultural references that were being thrown around. I had also grown up wrongly believing that Americans were entitled, closed minded and could never live up to the experiences that I had had living abroad. When I met my husband back in college, I knew that if his answer to “do you ever want to live abroad?” was a “no” it would have been a deal breaker. Before we married, I made it clear that I did not want to raise a family in America and that at some point we were going to move. My husband agreed.

Five years, a few states, a couple of kids and a bought house later my husband and I and our new and growing family found ourselves in Washington State surrounded by amazing people in a community that I still hold dear to my heart. It had taken me five years to find my footing in the States, understand how to move more deeply in that culture and blend in. I remember looking at my husband before we bought our house and thinking, “we are going to make a go at this.” We will settle here, have friends that don’t leave at the rate that I’m used to and grow old here. This is stable and good.

Fast forward another few years where in a very bleak moment in time I am looking at our lives in the States and can see with clarity how they will look (more or less) in the next twenty years. Our kids will be (more or less) monolingual, my husband and I will (more or less) be doing the same job. That itch to move and experience something new will never go away, and, having grown up internationally, I won’t really understand my children’s struggles in the States. It was at this point, after nearly a decade, that I looked at my husband and said: “remember that we were going to raise a family outside of the USA? Why are we still here?”

The goodbyes from a decade’s worth of friendships were not easy. The move to Rwanda, for me especially, was not easy. There were many times that first year here that I remember thinking, “why did we do this?” My kids were still too young to fully understand what we were doing. Even though it was hard, a few months after landing in Rwanda I remember looking around myself and thinking, I feel like I’m at home. I’m in a culture that I don’t fully understand and can’t wait to get to know. I have no clue where I will be a few years from now or what I will be doing. People are leaving and coming at immense speeds and friendships are being formed with purpose and intensity because we all know that the clock is ticking.

Six year later (still in Rwanda), I see the clock ticking not only for us and our family but also for the many friendships and different people that I have gotten to know here. People understand in this community that “where are you from?” is not an easily answerable question, and that feels like home to me. People understand that living abroad is wonderful, hard, painful and spectacular, and that feels like home to me. People also don’t have a ready answer for “where will you be five years from now?” and that feels familiar to me too. As I watch my kids growing up the way my husband and I did, struggling with the emotions of saying goodbye well and loving their friends well while they are here, I am sometimes tempted to move somewhere that is less transient. However, I know that the richness they will get from this experience is a gift. I also know that my husband and I with our backgrounds and stories are uniquely equipped to parent them through these transitions. This is why we continue to choose to live abroad and do what we do. It is why I will cry the goodbye tears every year and give the welcome hugs year after year. This transience, more than any place in the world, feels like home. And it’s good to be home.