While not all expats or long-term travelers are crazy…some of them are. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing?
I get a lot of emails from lost and confused 20-somethings; young people from around the world who found this blog after reading a 2010 article I wrote for Matador about my travel addiction and subsequent 1/4 life crisis. Though their stories vary, the punchines are usually the same: “I’ve been living in Italy/Thailand/Argentina (wherever) and I don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel like my life has stalled and I’m just killing time…waiting to figure out what I should do with my life. My family/friends think I’m running away from my problems. What do you think?”
I never know how to answer these pleas for help because what I want to say and the answer they’re looking for are usually two different things. What I want to tell them is: “The problem isn’t where you’re living (or not living) or where you’re working (or not working), the problem is you’re 20 years old and freaking out about life is what 20 year olds do. It’s completely normal.”
But that’s not what people want to hear. They usually want something more concrete.
So here’s another try:
I stumbled upon an interview American author Elliott Holt did with NPR back in May, where she talked about, among other things, her experience being a 20-something expat in Russia. Though she’s now almost 40, she used to work in Moscow as a copywriter.
Here’s what she had to say about the expat experience and the stereotype that those who choose to move abroad are doing so because they’re subconsciously trying to escape their problems.
“I do think it’s true that lots of expats are running away from something, even if they convince themselves that they’re running toward something. Some people get attached to their identity as expatriates because it gives them something to prop themselves up on….
You can put aside the fact that you don’t know what you want out of life or what you’re doing because you have this bolder version of yourself. I definitely think some people are a little bit lost. But when I was abroad in my 20s and all my friends were in the United States — the truth is that we were all exploring and lost in different ways. A large part of that is just being in your 20s….
…Most people in their 20s are trying to figure out what sort of career they should have, what sort of romantic relationship they should be in, what sort of city or town they belong in. In that sense, living abroad is just a more extreme version of that same search for identity that everyone is going through at that age.”
I like how she normalizes the ‘are all expats crazy or not?’ debate by putting it in perspective. Everyone goes through a stage in their lives when they feel confused and directionless. And while most may not uproot their lives and move to Portugal because of it, they may make other big life changes, like leaving a job or ending a major relationship. Her point was that If you weren’t feeling lost and confused hitchhiking through Cambodia, you’d likely be feeling lost and confused waiting tables in Atlanta or working in an office job in Chicago. Being a 20-something is overwhelming and difficult no matter who you are or where you live.
Maybe instead of asking “Are expats/serial nomads running away from their problems?” people should instead ask: “So what if they are?”