Expat reality, and sacrifice, is watching your loved ones age from afar
Seeing my parent age made me question my expat experience
Expat life has taught me a lot of things – resilience, independence, and how to make a mean pesto spaghetti – but after more than seven years in Abu Dhabi, I still haven’t learnt how to accept the ageing process.
The realisation always comes to me while on holiday in Australia, where I go regularly to spend time with my family and friends.
Over the years I thought I had it all sorted: I would return to the family home in Melbourne every six months for three weeks or so, to live up to my role as an active son, brother, cousin and friend – not have them thinking I had shirked my responsibilities. While I am grateful to have succeeded in that regard, I remain unprepared for the steady march of ageing that greets me each time I visit.
At its most natural, growing older is similar to balding – it is a slow and subtle process that creeps up on you. Your loved ones sporadically pick up on it from the mixture of deeper insights you share and the audible groans and grunts that become common when playing sport or, more worryingly, trying to get up off the couch.
But as an expat, the benign nature of personal ageing is replaced by its flipside – the ageing of your parents and other relations.
No amount of video-calling can prepare you for spotting the first strand of white hair on a parent, in person. “What is this?” I pointed when I spotted the suspect follicles on my mother’s left side last week. She laughed it off, thinking I was being playful. But I was indeed outraged. It was akin to someone ripping out pages from my favourite book, and my mind began to race, thinking about whether or not I had missed any signs in recent months of my mother growing older.
Was there a time when I suspected she was slowing down? Is she quicker to get angry? Does she still have her tea the same way? I drew blanks on all of these and came to a realisation that might haunt many expats – that these things happen and we miss them because we live so far away and don’t see our loved ones every day.
The experience was similar when I saw my cousins and close friends’ beards speckled with greys; they were also amused by how agitated I was as a result of this discovery. Then again, these jolting moments were tempered by the camaraderie and banter that can actually grow when living on the other side of the world. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I agree that one of the benefits of being an expat is how the relationship with your parents often becomes much better.
In my case, previously the stresses of daily life and cultural customs often created something of a hierarchical bond between my mum and I. That has now transformed into more of a friendship. A lot of it comes down to shared experience.
While my expat life is positively luxurious compared with my mum’s migration experience – she fled our native Eritrea in the 1980s for Abu Dhabi and a decade-long stint before reuniting with the family in Australia – she told me she also dealt with her share of seeing friends and family age and pass away while abroad.
I asked her how she dealt with it, to which she replied: “By asking myself what’s the point? Why am I spending this time away from the people I love? Was it the money, the experience and the adventure? Once you know, you stick to it and keep working towards your goal. Like everyone, you and I are getting older and that’s just life.
“But any sacrifice has to have meaning, or it’s just a waste of time.”
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Updated: April 19, 2018 05:21 PM