I spend an inordinate amount of time on planes. To be honest, I actually grew up on planes. My childhood was spent in the colorful apartment buildings of Hong Kong before moving to the grey and statuesque streets of London. Visiting family and friends around the world has become tradition, habit, and, above all, normal.
My travel schedule recently has become much more absurd than usual. Over the past year, I’ve juggled visiting my family in the United States more than ever, my partner moved to Europe, and work has recently required travel every five weeks. With that in mind, I realized that in 2017, I have not spent more than one month straight in a single country.
I’ve had many friends, understandably, question if I actually even live in Rwanda. Or, better yet, if I actually live anywhere. I’m not totally sure. I think I live here – my stuff is here, my community is here, my work is (mostly) here, and I pay taxes. Does that constitute as living? Or home?
I promise this won’t be another article where I wax poetic on Kigali (as seen here). It is, however, about travel and living abroad. Although the term expat is controversial (check out this informative and thought-provoking article), there is undoubtedly a group of people currently residing in Rwanda that were not born here, do not have any family here, and, thus, spend more time than many on planes journeying back to their passport countries.
Hannah Arendt, prolific writer and political theorist, famously wrote, “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” This quote always meant freedom to me, and so spoke to the expat scene in Rwanda as one akin to summer camp, or a night out on the town without parental supervision. We moved here for work, and with it, and the inherent freedom in being out on my own, I found a sense of self. This is special, and ought not to be taken for granted, regardless of the accompanying issues in our expat lifestyles.
This being said, I can’t help but be jealous of those who live near home. We watch as our Rwandan friends and colleagues have dinner at their mother’s house and cousin’s apartment fairly often, or head to a family wedding every other week. We don’t get that. Dinner with our family of friends in Rwanda means hoping for an intimate dinner party with a home-cooked meal – nothing to be scoffed at, as our communities here have beautifully stepped in as our families, but still not the same.
This is not a unfamiliar issue to me – as I mentioned, I spent my childhood away from the United States and the majority of my family members. However, it is one I feel acutely when I miss family weddings, bar mitzvahs, or bachelorette parties. Returning stateside for one event still means I’ll likely miss five others the following month. Though this is a necessary byproduct of our lifestyles, and Arendt’s treatise on expat freedom still rings true, I’ve still been thinking recently on what ‘home’ actually means. If we are constantly traveling ‘home’ for summer breaks or winter vacations, does that mean we aren’t truly at home here? Does it imply a state of constant limbo?
Crafting a home in a place we are not from is difficult, but not impossible. Spending time with our communities, cooking our favorite meals, building consistent routines (a Baso Patissier eclair once a week, anyone?), and even just journeying home when we can (or need to) are all helpful steps to take.
However, this being said, expat life can feel incredibly transient. Every six months best friends leave, contracts alter, and the city looks different. Now, with intern season winding down, Kigali is about to experience a mass exodus of people. I had a conversation with a new arrival recently, and asked the awful question ‘how long are you here for?’ I know, I know – it’s an annoying one. However, watching friends leave has become just so exhausting. Making friends with Rwandans or people based here for many years, in so many ways, feels more sustainable. This doesn’t devalue relationships that have a three or six month time-stamp, but just acts as a way to brace for the inevitable.
So, where to go from here? Where is home for you? I have found home here, but I consider this country as just one of my homes. To stay here, and live here, I’ve found that I’m the happiest when I get to live my dual life. Staying away from my family for too long hurts, just as staying away from my life here doesn’t work either. I suppose that striving for a some sort of balance, as tricky as that might be, is the ultimate goal.
How about it, Kigali-ites? Any tips for a struggling or homesick expat? Thoughts on home, longterm friendships, or travel? Please share them in the comments!