The Secret to Expat Sadness

Conversation by Elena Gatti

I came home and gave in. Not to smoking or chocolate. Something darker that had been tramped down for weeks and weeks, tossed into the corner, until the weight of it had me on my knees.


We don’t talk about sadness in the utopia that is expat life where challenging jobs and magazine worthy vacations in lands far, far away, bounce us from one week to the next.

The buzz of our electronic devices keeping us in touch with friends and family back home – and reminding us how successful everyone else is – amounts to a constant wave-like roar in our ears, drowning out the aches and pains pinging in the background.

Yet the sadness can catch up with you and wash over you with the intensity of a riptide. I had a squall of epic proportions. There was nothing I could do, other than ride it out.

“I let it win,” I told a friend during a long overdue catch up. “For 45 minutes, I let it go. I didn’t think it would end.”

“Forty five minutes is a long time,” she said pausing.

Sheets to my nose, favorite songs on the radio: this squall of sadness was the kindness I showed to myself as the storm of emotions raged.

Then I did something else counter intuitive. I wrote to four friends. They were scattered around the world; one a few miles away, the other thousands, the last two ten thousand. I tapped out a message as tears trickled down my nose.

Even though life is very full and has meaning – I feel sad. And if I said these words to anyone, face to face, they wouldn’t understand why, by looking at my outer life.

“See look at Facebook or Instagram or you yesterday! Everything is amazing.”

Nor do I think I could I explain it in a way that wouldn’t end in “it will all work out” or “don’t worry.” Wanted to share so that it isn’t a secret any more. Also, in case you ever feel like this and need someone to talk to. We will find our way together.

Not everyone responded, they’re busy with their own struggles.

Three responses came back right away.

…i think that is profound that you can experience that and share it.

Yes, yes I do have periods like that and you are right, it’s hard to explain and for others to understand. …

And me too.  Of course, me too.  

They affirmed I was not alone. And in doing so, joined me, halving my pain by letting me honest.

When our children cry, as they do, I huddle them close. I try to remember to reach past the cotton candy evanescence of “it’s okay” for something they can hold on to.

“I”m here,” I say.

Reading Chris Malcomb’s “Learning to Breathe”, an essay about how being an asthmatic was his first introduction into meditation, had me wondering how I could help the kids, even now, begun to wrestle with the beast of disappointment.

I’m teaching our 5 year old to reach for the ridge in his mouth, the one behind his teeth, below the soft tissue of his palate. First he puts his finger on mine (I know, but there are plenty of germs in there his germs can join). Then he goes to find his with the tip of his tongue.

This is the first step of the 4-7-8 breathing method, a technique that can get you to sleep in 60 seconds.

I use it now to ground myself any time I need: stuck in traffic, in the midst of a difficult conversation, search for patience with aforementioned 5 and 2 year old.

“I’m here,” I say to myself. Sadness and all.

How do you get through life’s squalls? Who could you send a note today to encourage and receive a boost in your sails?


Does Love Come Later?

Big Heart of Art by Q Thomas Bower

I grew up as a South Indian girl in North Florida. Needless to say, I was presented with a variety of ideas about the best conditions under which love could flourish.

My parents, cousins, everyone in the Indian community over the age of thirty, said that love came after the wedding. You chose a partner based on shared values and everyone was involved in the process from your parents to their best friends. Love was the bond that tied you to someone for life and grew like a well-tended garden between neighbors who became friends. You paired in order to create another stable family that would raise more productive members of society in one of several respectable professions. The community put forward an ironclad contract between the two parties. Even if one person (often the man) didn’t hold up parts of the bargain, a good wife always did hers.

A Life Lived Five Years at a Time

Me, 2008, that's a doctoral 'hood'.

January 2012 marks my return to a place I prepared for academically but never mentally: teaching university students. I went from undergrad straight into graduate school and then on to finish a PhD. Along the way I lost sight of what I really wanted because of the grumpy academics that lined the walls of the English departments I studied in. Their officiousness (and multiple marriages) were not desirable qualities.

If I had been honest with my twentysomething self, I would have also known that my academic persona didn’t jell with the person I thought myself to be. I was in a small circle of friends who married immediately out of college and began the business of setting up their own households. I had no such prospects in sight: only scholarships for more degrees.

“I’m never going to use this degree,” I said. “I’m getting it because I’m young, not married, and I can do it now.”