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?


Wordless Wednesday: Calling Grandma to See How Old She Was

My team’s latest research project is understanding how gender, age, education and marriage are related for Qatari women. We’re a few weeks into the study which involves survey data, interviews, and focus groups. The initial survey asks respondents to share their age, educational level and marital status. Over and over again, a number of respondents said, “I don’t know my grandmother’s age when she was married.”

Or they’ve had to call their mother to see how much education her mother had completed.

Do you know this information about your grandparents? Were they married as high school graduates or teenagers?


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I Won't Ask Why You're Separated Or Your Baby Died

English: The gossip seems to interest baby, to...
English: The gossip seems to interest baby, too!  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You told her?” I said to a friend who is in the middle of a prolonged separation from her husband.

My friend is a wonderful listener. One on one, we have talks of such range and depth, I often feel like I’ve left the therapist after we have lunch. Unlike me, in a crowd, she’d rather watch than take the limelight. While I might set my husband’s car on fire, tell the world about his sins, or write a plot based on our breakup (were he to do to me what hers dared) she is internally grappling with a range of emotions.

“Yes,” she said. “I had to.” I was surprised to hear her say since she is a very private person.

“She asked what happened. I didn’t know what to say.”

“People ask you that?”

Even extroverted me, who is an impulsive blurter-outer of all and sundry phrases,  was shocked to the core. I might wonder what happened but even I would restrain  from asking my boss, co-worker, or fellow nursery parent, for the details.

“You won’t believe how many people ask,” she replied.

Fuming for my friend, as news of the latest installment of intrusion came, I did what I do when I have observations on humanity. I tweeted.

Immediately a few people Tweeted back, wondering why “What happened?” is a less than optimal response (the feed). In short, the question seems a poor cover up for obvious nosiness.

No doubt the fishbowl nature of expat life makes me queasy at the idea of people in the carpool, workplace, neighborhood having more information than they need. In a social setting where people know the most intimate details about each other, where you go on vacation and with whom, how long cars have been parked in a spot in a neighborhood, who is eligible for a promotion, who was fired and who really did resign, I cringe every time my friend says she didn’t know what to say when someone asked her what’s going on.

Yes, I understand that life’s tragedies will come out eventually. The very nature of the word means they are not something we can hide from.

Surely we all cringe at the over share of details during these traumatic moments; changed Facebook statuses, Tweets, or otherwise.

Word to wise, (as I’ve learned from another acquaintance’s loss, a year plus now, of a baby she never discussed with me): friendship has a variety of meanings, depending on the individual. If someone wants you to know the back story of a particular personal event, s/he will tell you.

Until then, best keep the quest for details to writing related tasks.

PS my short list of optimal responses to life tragedies:

  • “Sorry to hear that.”
  • “Can I help in any way?”
  • “You’re an amazing person.”
  • “This too shall pass.”
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