When I left San Francisco in 1989, I never imagined that I would still be living overseas 19 years later. As the Grateful Dead say, it’s been a long, strange trip. In 1989 my eldest son was just graduating from high school and over the years I have watched (albeit from a distance) him graduate from college, go to law school, become a lawyer and get married. My eldest daughter just turned 12 and is on the verge of becoming a young woman and the baby of the family just entered school. My two other children, Rebecca, 10, and Sam, 7, get bigger every day. During my four years in Pakistan, I missed a lot of their growing up, one of the benefits of my new position is that they can be with me and I get to take part in their lives.
But, absence from family and friends is one of the downsides of living overseas. You miss many major events - births, deaths, graduations and marriages. Sometimes it’s just impossible to get away from work long enough to go back “home” to attend; other times it just too expensive. The revolutions in technology since I have been overseas have made communication much easier. There are web pages to share photos on, emails and chat rooms and instant messengers and SMS which help keep you in touch. When I first started teaching in Tembagapura, it took two weeks for letters to reach the States and two weeks for them to get back. We didn’t have telephone access then and had to rely on telexes for important information. Well, things have gotten better for those of us living overseas.
If you are in love with traveling, working overseas is great. Once upon a time, I loved airplanes and international airports and all the little things that went with living and teaching overseas. Now, the less I travel the better. Taking the motorbike in from the beach to townsite to work each day is about all the traveling that I want to do. Life overseas includes great beaches, incredible sights, exotic foods, opportunities to learn new languages, and living in different cultures. But, it also includes risks. Since I have been teaching overseas, there has been the Gulf War, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq redux, the overthrow of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, the military coup in Pakistan, the Bali bombing, the Jakarta bombing(s), numerous terrorist acts in Pakistan, the uprising of the local “natives” in Papua, the shootings of American teachers in my former school in Papua, the riots in Bali following the election of Gus Dur to the presidency, and more other “minor” incidents that I barely remember. And then a few other natural things like earthquakes, tidal waves, and such.
To live overseas it is necessary to be flexible, particularly if you live in the developing world like I have. Problems with lack of water and electricity, poor sanitation, crowded public facilities, an absence of those special foods that you remember with fondness from your pre-expatriate days (like milk), slow or no internet connections, no telephone (one of the features of my new life on the beach in Sumbawa), difficulties buying gasoline are all part of my last 19 years. But, I can’t see myself moving back to America although I thought about it occasionally during my four years living alone in Pakistan.
Working in one country gives you a chance to visit surrounding countries during the great school vacations. During my four years in Pakistan, I made several trips to India which is only a twenty minute car ride from Lahore. The city of Amritsar is there just across the border. Amritsar is the center of the Sikh religion and the famous Golden Temple. I also visited a number of Hindu temples during those trips. I miss being able to make that short trip to India.
I spent a significant amount of time in Thailand traveling back and forth between Pakistan and Indonesia on my vacations. Unfortunately I never had enough time to do more than wander around Bangkok and shop. But I did get to know Bangkok fairly well. And Singapore is another great international city that I’ve spent a significant amount of time in during my years teaching overseas. When I think about the things that I take for granted and mention in passing to my friends who don’t work overseas, it seems like an exciting life. But, as I hope that I’ve made clear, living overseas is a trade off. I miss Chicago hot dogs, my season tickets for the A’s, being able to drink cold water from the tap, but I willingly give it up for being able to walk down to a white sand beach and body surf with my kids, switch back and forth between several languages all in one conversation, and do all those other little and big things that are part of daily life overseas. �
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