Expat or Local?

Expat or Local?

Originally published on LinkedIn April 10th, 2022


It has been over two years since I left China. I boarded a plane for Canada during the Chinese New Year holiday in January of 2020, thinking I would be home for just a couple of weeks, and never returned. At the time, it was the right decision. Risking the uncertainty of not having access to my family and home for a long time was not a chance I was willing to take, so I finished my year remotely and left my job as an international school leader. I grieved over the loss for a long time. There were no good-byes, no last adventures, no chance to finish what we started, just loss.

This week brought that familiar grief, and I have been waxing nostalgic for my international experience. Once again, I am dipping my toe into international waters and exploring options abroad. My colleagues and friends I have worked with internationally have recently reached out and shared their adventures. Several of my tribe of fierce female leaders attended the ECIS conference in the UK. A conference I was scheduled to participate in but was unable because of my current immigration status; as I described to a friend, I feel like a bird in a cage. I long for the adventures, conversations, sites, sounds, and experiences of living and working abroad: the richness of culture, diversity of perspectives, the beauty of cities and countryside, languages, cuisines, and the challenge.

In my experience, international educators are curious, open-minded, and adventurous. They immerse themselves in the culture and richness their context has to offer. They long to deepen their knowledge and understanding of people and places. This knowledge and experiences begin to weave into their identities. They confront their bias and stereotypes and work to understand their roots and impact. They form strong and lifelong friendships that make the world seem like a much smaller place.

Living and working abroad is not without its challenges, especially over the last few years. You leave behind the comforts of your home and family for a more nomadic life. Flights, holidays, government restrictions, visas, and now the reality of Covid-19 have made it impossible for many individuals to travel or return home. As an international educator, you are obliged to follow the laws and customs of the home country, whether you agree, which can cause discourse and a re-examination of one’s values. Not speaking or understanding the language, understanding the way systems function, where or how to get what you need can be overwhelming and frustrating. You can find yourself homesick, longing for home and family. You lose touch with people, change and evolve, and find yourself not fitting into places, spaces, or relationships you have in the past.

So why do it?

Living and working abroad was one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had. I gained new perspectives, fresh ideas, and understandings about myself and the world. It pushed and challenged me in ways I could never imagine. There was freedom, autonomy, fun, and adventure. I gained a deeper understanding of humanity and the world: culture, language, politics, race, the arts, architecture, history, cuisines, and governments through first-hand experience. It was the journey of a lifetime!

Being an international educator is a part of my identity that I miss. I try to stay relevant and connected globally, but it is not the same as being immersed. Conferences like ECIS are nourishing for the soul because you have the opportunity to network and learn from like-minded educators. You push your thinking and that of others in a way that is unique and based on a different set of shared experiences. You learn new things about yourself and discover resilience and resourcefulness you did not know existed. You learn to live with fewer material things and replace them with wild adventures and lasting memories. You grow, evolve, question, and appreciate!

If someone were to ask me what my dream job was, I would tell them one that allowed me to have a home base with my family and travel the world to coach and support educators and leaders in various cultures and contexts. It has been such a privilege to learn alongside such brilliant educators worldwide. Perhaps it is time to reconnect with that part of my identity and re-immerse myself in a new experience.

But where? But how? But when?

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