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Friday, June 19, 2015

expat gratitude: writing my own narrative

For my third installment of Expat Gratitude, I am going to take you on a bit of a journey. This is the rocky journey I went on to find contentment by not allowing other people's narratives to revise my own.

My expat community is very small and made up of wonderful individuals, and I genuinely enjoy my friendship with each person I spend my time with. I go on weekly gelato dates with one friend. Another brings her cats downstairs to my apartment so we can visit. Another is a great lunch buddy and fellow online shopping friend. Another is a great sit-on-the-couch-and-lose-a-few-hours-talking kind of friend.

One surprising thing I discovered about myself since moving abroad is that I am a sponge. I soak up things left and right, and not always the things I want to soak up. I never knew this about myself. And I certainly did not have the tools to combat it.

Let me take a moment and explain something to you: there are tier one, tier two and tier three international schools. Who decided this? I don't know. Frankly, I think the labels are quite silly. I mean, let's just say it like it is. The tiers reflect social status.

Tier 1 schools cater to the upper class, which abroad is mostly composed of expatriate political families or extremely wealthy expatriate/local families from the business sector. Tuition to attend these schools is comparable to tuition to attend college. Students go on to the name brand, prestigious, private colleges in the United States or United Kingdom.
Tier 2 schools cater to the middle class and typically have a mixed population of expat kids and local kids, but nearly all speak English fluently.  Tuition is cheaper but these kids still typically go on to wonderful public schools and private schools abroad.
Tier 3 schools cater to the local population with limited English language skills. Many of these kids are just happy to be accepted into universities in the western world.

Obviously, depending on tier, salary and school facilities differ quite a lot.

My current school is a tier 2 school.
It's definitely not at the top and it's definitely not at the bottom.
When I first got to my school, still reeling from my experience being RIFed every year in America and then teaching in Seattle, I was so happy and content.

My kids work so hard. They are so nice and good. They know how to behave in a classroom. They are talented and intelligent. They have goals and they strive to realize them. Their parents care about education. I feel valued and respected. Everyday, I have a good time in the classroom.

But then, slowly, it started happening.
Dissatisfaction hit me from nearly every single friend and co-worker.
And my sponge just soaked it up.

My school is a public Taiwanese school, yet an international school at the same time.

According to my colleagues and friends, everything was wrong with it.
The building was ugly.
The technology didn't work.
The textbooks were outdated.
Some admin didn't speak English well enough.
The school was so Taiwanese.
To them, nothing about the school made sense.
It was all wrong because what they really wanted was a tier 1 school.

And then it happened.
Suddenly, their discontent became mine.
Suddenly, my words parroted theirs.
My individual identity was overpowered by my group identity.
And how ridiculous and weak is that?

The atmosphere at work and outside of work became so toxic I could hardly breathe.

And it took a long time for me to realize that I was being choked by a phantom.

Because here is the truth: I love my work.
I don't need, or even desire, to work at a tier 1 school.
Is everything hunky dory and perfect at my tier 2 school?
Absolutely not.
But then again, I do in fact realize that I did indeed move abroad so maybe, just maybe, I would need to be flexible and adapt.
But also: what is the only point of the entire institution?
The kids.
And they are the best students I could ask for.
End of story.

That is my story.
That is my narrative.
Once I realized it, everything did not suddenly become better.
Some days, I truly questioned if some of my friendships could remain intact.
Bashing my middle class school for being what it is, a middle class school incapable of offering the facilities/perks of an upper class school, was and still is a favorite hobby of my small expat community.
And sometimes, my sponge just did not know how to filter the bombardment of negativity and poison that was not actually my negativity or poison.

Many days this year, I wondered if in order to save my own sanity, I would need to take a step back from my expat community. I realized that every time I internalized their narratives about our workplace, I let them rewrite my own narrative.

But then I decided that no one should be granted that privilege except me.

I am the author of my narrative.
I was the one who survived the chaos of trying to stay employed in Washington State as a teacher.
I was the one who survived the toughest year of my life teaching in Seattle.
I was the one who fought to get a job overseas with a trailing spouse and succeeded.

They didn't do that.
I did.

They don't go to my classroom everyday and do what I do with my kids.
They have no idea.
But I do.

That time last week when we wrote odes to gummy bears?
That was pretty awesome.
Choking on coffee a few days ago when I discovered a student wrote an elegy about Voldemort's missing nose?
That was pretty epic too.
That time yesterday when I could not find it in me to stop reading their poetry portfolios because they were so interesting/funny/touching/beautiful?
Yeah, that didn't suck either.

This is enough for me.
This is what matters to me.

So my narrative is completely different from most of my expat community and friends.
And that is fine.
I can be the oddball.
They can have their opinions, and I can have mine too.

I have built a force field around myself.
I love my friends and still spend copious amounts of time with them, but I will no longer allow their perspectives to skew my own.
My force field knows who I am and what I value so it no longer gives their dissatisfaction a red pen to let it go crazy editing my narrative.

And that is where my expat gratitude comes from today.
Moving abroad helped me discover a weak spot and helped me find a way to fortify it.
Today I am the only one allowed to edit my narrative.
And that feels really good.

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  1. Yes, yes, yes! I admit, when I first moved abroad, I would compare everything here back to home. After about six months, things were out of hand. It's a completely different country, of course it's different, I had to keep telling myself!
    Then I started to see the country as it was, not as it wasn't. Sure there are things that I think, it's not like this at home, but home was never perfect either.

    I think expats have a terrible habit of picking fault in their expat country. It's something you end up surrounded by and it's a common ground to talk about when you get together. Let's talk about everything we don't like about the place we chose to move too. It never made much sense to me.

    I prefer to talk more to the non expat people in that respect. But I'm still guilty of having a moan and groan to my bf about things and we will talk about what the country lacks. But I keep it between us, we keep it contained and we move past it after we've said our peace.

    I'll like to call in Belgium-bashing haha.

    1. That sounds very familiar to me. I think the greatest issue is my school at heart is a Taiwanese public school first, and an international school second. Many expats who come to my school are surprised by this because it is not obvious before you sign a contract. That said, eventually people need to either accept a situation or choose to remove themselves from it.

  2. Guilty of bashing, and guilty of being a sponge, too. An excellent reminder that perspective colors a lot of our emotions and experiences and that we each have our own stories, and it's okay if they aren't the same. :) Thank you for this timely reminder.

    1. Of course we all do it! We are human. But we can certainly strive to make healthier choices one way or another.