Expat life is a funny thing. It has given me the opportunity to learn a new language and intimately engage with a beautiful and vibrant new culture at the same time as having to face such humorous frustrations as having to remember to bring my passport to the grocery store if I planned on buying more than $20 worth of food because, by someone’s reckoning , that’s a big enough transaction to warrant official, internationally accredited identification (admittedly, and thankfully, this rule was rescinded after a few short months and I can now take home my $21 of groceries if I happen to forget one of the most important documents I own at home).
Expat life has made me a better person by making me realise my limitations and deficiencies and recognize and rely on the strengths of others. It also means that I regularly get to be the tallest person on public transit, which in Canada, where I’m from, isn’t even guaranteed if I’m riding an elementary school bus. In fact, and I’m not sure how this has come to pass, but if I somehow find myself on an elementary school bus these days I seem to not even be guaranteed to have the fullest mustache.
As an expat, the most common question I get asked isn’t about the new country I’m living in but what I miss most about the country I left. And to that question there is only one answer and no, it’s not maple syrup or poutine, it’s my family.
It is impossible for me to fully explain what my family means to me so all I’ll say is that my family has made me who I am today and without them a piece of me is missing. To willingly leave them was a decision I didn’t make lightly.
But this leads me to the most beautiful part of having a life in two places, a part I’m only beginning to truly understand, and it’s that if you’re lucky and open yourself up to it, you get to be a part of the amazing process by which strangers become friends who become family. This is no overnight process and there is never an adequate replacement for true family, but through the prolonged sharing of everyday life and the courage to be vulnerable one can begin to see the process take place. It is a metamorphosis, with each action of the involved individuals spinning the transformative cocoon.
I’ve been living in Ecuador for almost two years and I feel so lucky to see this transformative process taking place with one family in particular, my friend Abel, his wife Vanessa and their three daughters. When you live in a small community in the jungle, with the river as the only way in or out, where you can regularly go a week or more without electricity and where doors are rarely locked, you get to know the people around you, particularly if they live next door. But proximity alone doesn’t guarantee the process I’m talking about.
What initiates the process is the patience they had when I was learning their language, the self control not to laugh when I made mistakes and the wisdom to teach me how to be better, and my subsequent willingness to do the same when they wanted to learn mine; the hours spent chatting about life and family, hopes and dreams, failures and successes, faith and the doubt that comes with it; the shared labour of a day on the farm herding cattle or picking cacao and plantain, fishing in the stream hidden in the hills behind the village; the time spent not only playing with their daughters but showing them genuine love straight from my heart; taking care of me when I was sick with Dengue Fever and couldn’t take care of myself; celebrating an important individual graduation as if each of us were the ones graduating.
These are the kinds of things that happen when someone wholly give themselves up to the process. The kind of stuff that takes greetings from a head nod, to a handshake, to an embrace. That takes people from strangers, to friends, to family.That takes someone with a family in Canada and gives them a family in the jungles of Ecuador. Two families, worlds apart, united in my heart.
Expat life can be difficult but when we forget about ourselves and live for others we gain more of the greatest gift there is: family.
I still miss my family, every single day I think about them, but I also know I now have a familia as well. Que bendición!