Saturday, January 12, 2019

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie. 

After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and the rest just about everything in between, I finally feel qualified to write this piece.

The answer to the question "How to be a happy expat"?

Stop complaining about where you are (and find a way to laugh about the things you don't understand). When you find fault with your current situation just because you can, just because it's not what you are used to or were brought up in, you won't be happy. You'll be expecting the place that you are in to do something for you – something you've already decided it can't – and placing your full happiness at some future date, when you are in a different place.

And this doesn't go for the laborer supporting his family back in Bangladesh, or the nanny from the Philippines, or the taxi driver from Kenya, or any one of the multitudes of people who are here out of necessity rather than choice. This goes for the rest of us. The privileged rest of us.

I don't hear a lot of this complaining anymore, mostly because I don't hang around people who complain much. (I hang around people who complain just the right amount. Either that, or they are funny about it).

And if any of my friends start to complain, they won't have much fun because I'm not listening. Or I'll attack them with logic. Like the other day, when an out-of-sorts friend and I wandered around a weekend market and she made a casual, not uncommon, complaint. "It's just not real," she said. "It's a bubble."

Well, I argued. It feels real to me. I have worked here, lost a job here (more on that later), regained my footing here (more on that later), fallen in love here, had my trust and heart broken here (more on those... you get the picture). I have a house and a cat and friends and new friends and a family I chose and I've been here 10 years and it sure feels like my real life.

If I had a dirham for every time I heard someone complain about the lack of forests, or restaurants that aren't in hotels, or cutbacks on airlines or expat packages that aren't what they once were or the way Carrefour sends out those mini zamboni-like floor cleaners right at the busiest times (okay, that last one was me).... I'd have a lot of dirhams is all I'm saying.

I've done my share of complaining, believe me. (And you do not want to see my face when I get a call about a delivery that starts with "what is your location"?) Which is why I can tell you that the only way to be happy in another country is to stop comparing it to home – and finding it lacking – and start focusing on all the things it does have. Opportunity, diversity, a global mindset – not to mention location.

I met an awesome woman in her 50s recently, who left her corporate banking job in the US and became a pilates teacher and decided to travel the world by herself. But like many dramatic things that people fantasize about doing, that was a bit overrated and a lot lonely (little known fact until you do it). So she based herself in Abu Dhabi and goes on short weekend trips to the coolest destinations through Trekkup (more on that later too). "I like living in the middle," she said simply.

I dream of home, less now, but I do. I miss forests, not that when I lived in Canada I spent much time in them. And I do have in my mind's eye a green sort of retreat that I imagine retiring to. (Although now that I am likely priced out of the real estate market, it will probably be in a trailer park). Living in the middle though – that has given me everything. 

When I first moved to Abu Dhabi and things went wrong, my go-to reaction was to say to anyone who would listen "I'm leaving". (I apologise to whoever was listening). Yet I was acutely aware, even in my tantrum-like state, that when things went wrong back in Canada all those years I lived there, I would never threaten to leave. I never would have. Where would I have gone?

Somehow between then and now, in the stop-and-start way of learning and of finding yourself and of life, I figured out how to be a happy expat, and a grateful one. And I did this through experience, through counting up all the cool things that have happened for me here, things that would not have, could not have happened in Canada.

And when you are far from home, because you have chosen to be, that's how you stay happy about it. And laugh about the rest.

Note: In case anyone has been wondering, I didn't post here for a long time because things were happening. Crazy things were happening, people. Crazy things have happened, including this. I'll be writing about some them. I won't always be lecturing either, promise. And if I haven't said so before (and I'm afraid that I haven't) thank you for reading all my things starting way back when. It means the world to me. 

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How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...