It’s Saturday morning. I wake up to birds singing and flowers blooming outside. Out on our balcony, I sip my jasmine tea and get in some journal time. At 9:00 am I meet up with a friend for a leisurely walk down to the beach followed by a Croque Madame and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I come home to an immaculate house even though I haven’t picked up a mop or a broom in ages. Even the laundry baskets are empty, all the clothes neatly folded and put away. Again, not my doing. Our housekeeper comes Monday through Thursday and she cooks too, amazing meals like chicken and vegetables with a creamy turmeric sauce over rice. It’s our favorite! We take the kids to our “fruit guy” and pick up strawberries, oranges, and bananas- only locally grown produce that’s perfectly in season. We stop by our favorite Roman Ruins and Teddy and Penny run and climb. Later, the kids jump on the trampoline, while Justin whips up Lemon Gin Fizz cocktails, picking the lemon off our tree.
I should clarify. I say “our tree, our balcony, our house.” In reality, we don’t own any of this. This giant house, fully furnished and maintained, is paid for by our generous school. Our bank account grows every month because our salary isn’t poured into a mortgage. We don’t pay for water, electricity, health insurance, or rent. We pay for internet and phone service, but those are cheap here. So are the groceries. I can get a baguette for a few cents.
Weekdays are good too. The 4 of us drive to school together (excluding our current distance learning stint). I teach 14 wonderful students and I have hours of plan time to prepare quality lessons. I have a TA as well. She takes attendance, grades papers, teaches small groups, makes copies, does recess duty, and the couple times I’ve had to stay home, she jumps in as the most highly qualified substitute, already knowing the students and all of our routines.
My own children love ACST as well. They get art for over an hour per week. They go to French class daily. They have lots of outdoor time going to recess twice a day in this beautiful weather. (No more checking the weather app to make sure it’s safe enough to go outside in below-freezing temperatures!) They get afterschool activities like swim lessons, soccer, or art. I adore their teachers and I love the curriculum and philosophy here. They write what they want to write. They read what they want to read. No stuffy textbooks or one size fits all curriculum.
If you’ve made it this far without gagging, you’ve made it to “the catch.” Surely life abroad as an international teacher can’t be that good, right? Correct. Nothing I’ve said is a lie, but there are times when I wonder if we are making the right choice. I thought the difficult thing about living in Tunisia would be the language barrier, getting used to the new food, crazy driving, or third-world problems like the fact that we didn’t have running water for 7 hours today (water main break- it happens occasionally). Oh, and did I mention I’ve lived almost a year with no Target, Amazon, or fast food? But those things are very minor inconveniences. The real catch is the “Expat Dilemma.”
I didn’t know there was a name for what I was feeling, but apparently, I’m not alone and lots of expats struggle with the expat dilemma. In a nutshell, here it is: Should I stay or should I go?
One thing I’ve learned this year is that “home” is not a place. “Home” consists of people you love. It’s pretty easy to get used to a new location. In fact, I could live in a new house every year or hop around from country to country every few years, and be perfectly fine. The place is not important. It’s the people. As long as I have Justin, Teddy, and Penelope, it feels like home. Well, it almost feels like home. This home is missing my family and friends who are still back in the States. The hardest part about living abroad is how much I miss them. In a perfect world, I’d just scoop them up and bring them along with me where ever I go. To complicate things, it’s not only a longing to be in the same room as my parents. It’s swirled with a mixture of guilt and self-doubt.
- Am I being selfish, taking my kids away from their grandparents?
- Is it shallow and materialistic to want to keep this lifestyle and save more money?
- When I look back, do I want my memories to be grand adventures to exotic places or low-key camping trips, and dinner with friends, and baking cookies with grandma?
- My parents and grandparents are getting older. Should I be home to enjoy those years with them?
- My children are getting older. Should they be developing relationships with family before they become reclusive teenagers?
- Is it important to have a “home base?”
- Do I want my kids growing up around 99.9% white, Christian, Americans? Or is it important for them to have a wider world view?
- Is it a disservice to my children that they are getting used to a housekeeper picking up after them? Will they be awful, entitled pricks because we are living such a privileged life now? (Love you Teddy and Penny!)
- Will a Kansas Winter literally kill me now that I’ve experienced a mild climate???
I wrote down my definition of happiness and posted it in my bedroom. It’s my compass for making decisions. The problem is, there are aspects of both lives that fit into my definition. Connect with people I love, change is good, live life to the fullest, yadda, yadda, yadda. The Expat Dilemma is such a maddening quandary because I will never have both and there will never be a right or wrong answer.
My friend, Hannah, put it best: “No matter what you choose, you’ll miss the one you didn’t choose.” When I am here in Tunisia, I miss Kansas. Again, not the location, but the people. I haven’t hugged them in 9 months! But I’m sure, when I’m back in the States this summer, I will miss Tunisia; its charm and quirks, the flowers, our housekeeper and her amazing cooking, the pals I’ve made here, the lack of in-your-face consumerism and the laid-back, slower pace of life. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, huh?
Obviously, I don’t have the answers, despite the endless conversations, pro/con lists, and ongoing self-reflection. I am extremely privileged that right now my kids can have the experience of seeing a different corner of the world- its history, beauty, and diversity while getting summers in America with the people they love. They can see ancient Roman Ruins AND go fishing with grandpa.
I have no regrets about moving here. It is amazing and I’ve learned so much. I now know I never want to work in an American public school again. I also know I don’t want to get wound back up into the American cycle of debt; only working to pay bills. If I ever do move back, I will live intentionally in a different way. I also know I’ll be in Tunisia again next year as we signed a 2-year contract and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Africa, including a Christmas safari to Uganda!
The Expat Dilemma:
Roots vs. Exploration
Old vs. New
Comfort vs. Excitement
It’s a tough one, but I wouldn’t trade it. How awesome is it that I have discovered two lives, both worth missing, both rich with experiences and amazing people? Author, Kate Eckman, said, “Being okay if it happens and okay if it doesn’t is a very powerful place to be.” I have two great choices. I am very lucky. I have 6 weeks left in Tunisia this school year and then 2 months back in America with the people I love most this summer. For now, I’m going to push the guilt to the side and let the dilemma take some time on the back burner so I can live in the present moment. Surely that’s the best litmus test for my future.