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  • Writer's pictureCecily Criminale

Expat in a Pandemic

When it’s Mother’s Day in the UK, it’s a normal Sunday where I’m from. In March I see the greeting cards for their ‘Mums’ that I won’t send to my ‘Mom’ until May. Inevitably I forget to buy a card which results in a later expensive attempt via cat-themed Amazon gifts or flower delivery to rescue my credibility as a decent child.

This year is different. A bouquet of Gerbera daisies and cat socks lacked the depth that really expressed ‘I love you’. This year I wanted to be with my mother. I wanted to overlook my frustration of her failing mind and health. I just wanted to hold the softening skin of her fragile hand and smell the perfume that uniquely soothed, “This is my mom.”

For me, as for many people around the world regardless of nationality, going home hasn’t been an option. Not only are we socially distanced, we are geographically and culturally contained. Coronavirus and CoVid-19 for an expat or multinational citizen brings a unique experience.

The British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ motto silently resonates around me and my respect for the strength of my host country family is immense. Yet, I’m not British by birth, and the heart on my sleeve still shows. I’ve felt down, a little scared by the current situation, and anxious about my loved ones back home.

One thing I’ve learned from living a life of multiple moves is that even if emotions are under the surface, they don’t necessarily go away, even if we try to swallow them. Emotions impact us from the inside, and like a pressure cooker, explode in fits of passion when the pot is full. Though in my day job I’m a psychotherapist, an active listener, I call my friends at home to release some of the building steam of negative feelings and to laugh at the absurd. It works. For a moment, I feel snuggled and hugged in a way the yellow hazmat socially distancing tape has deprived me.

Yet, there is a niggling sensation that I just wish would go away. It’s the knowledge that I am also distanced from my friends’ and family’s experience. What they are facing, what is happening for them, is different. Where I momentarily find connection, I also find I am separated by a second cultural and political experience.

Expats and many others with a multicultural identity may feel (like everyone) both connection and loss. Yet they may feel it twice. Their experiences will be individually unique as they are. They can be doubly down or doubly connected, or half and half. One interesting result is that the expat can become a diplomat, particularly for people-pleasers like me. We will respect our hosts’ ways and political views, and adapt our behaviours accordingly. Likewise we try to provide a gentle explanation to help those back home understand the cultural and political roots driving human behaviour and government decisions. Yet we can get caught up in looking after others, trying not to offend, and not really dealing with the duality of our own experience.

I can’t stop the instinctual, basic and beautiful child-like need for attachment, love, and security. It is my fragile, vulnerable place. I feel it now, and it exists around two cultural experiences. I felt it in New York City on 9-11. It might not feel great to pay attention to it, but this reactive, uncomfortable emotional state is the root to my empathy and desire to connect with others. When I am at my lowest, I remind myself that this is what I share with all you other humans, and it transcends national and cultural borders.

I have other voices too, acquired/learned ones that self soothe with, “It’s okay to feel this way”, “You’re doing well”, and “ ‘I’ care.” It’s the voice I might use to soothe anyone who is having a moment with their own anxious inner child. I give myself a hug, literally. I squeeze tighter the more reassurance I need and I coo what a nurturing mother might have said to me until the feeling calms.

I am an expat and sometimes I feel alone and scared. I am an expat and I appreciate your kindness. I am an expat and when I am strong I will be there for you. I am an expat and maybe I can help you from afar.

We may be different but what we share, regardless of geography and culture, is the common experience of feeling and being human.

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