Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Being Married and Living Abroad, Part The First

Being a married expat is great, too.

I guess you could consider this the bookend to my earlier post on traveling while single vs. traveling as a couple. I talked about traveling there, but here I'll meditate a bit on married expat life vs. single expat life. Of course, my experience likely differs from many, partly because I'm just a big ol' weirdo, and partly because most expats are male, and partly because there are a lot of aspects of expat culture that are taken as givens that I don't participate in (because I'm a big ol' weirdo).

So I attended a tea and lunch yesterday, mostly other expats, and realized that I was the only married person there. At first I felt that it was a bit strange, because when I organize similar sized events of my own, I'm almost always not the only married person - expat or otherwise - in attendance. Then I thought about it some more and realized that this is true among my social circle - people tend to attract friends who share similar lifestyles after all - but if I were to venture out more among the wider world of expats in my age group (late twenties, early thirties), married folks would be in the minority. Possibly the vast minority. Then I look at my friends back home, and most of them are married (one is divorced). Of my close friends from my old life, only two are unmarried and both of them are in long-term partnerships. I look at my friends in Taiwan and while many are married, a higher proportion are single than back home.

Why? Well, my first gut response was "people my age who end up getting married, now that marriage is no longer the social imperative it once was, tend not to be nomadic types who would move across the world unless compelled to do so for work", which probably has some truth to it, although I know plenty of couples (me&Brendan included) who don't fit that mold. My second gut reaction was "fewer people are getting married at this age generally, which probably bumps the stats up to where they are".

I've also had the chance to live an expat life while single, and I can say that while some things haven't changed, plenty of things have. 

It caused me to contemplate a bit - what's different? What's not?

Well, the occasional bouts of loneliness are gone - and if you're an extrovert and single but don't generally fit into expat social circles where you live, then there will be bouts of loneliness. You go out, you come home, and when you do there's nobody there but you - and possibly some roommates, who may not count as people to talk to. Whatever just happened to you - whether it was an easy-to-digest night out or a deeply jarring bout of culture shock - unless you call someone (assuming you have anyone you're close enough to who you can call), when you get home, you process that alone. It can lead to unhealthy brooding without necessary outside opinions. That's something I learned in China, before the other two foreigners I befriended arrived: when you have no other-foreigner perspective on whatever issue you're facing, you have only yourself and the local perspective to listen to, and that's not  necessarily a good thing.

The financial scraping-by is gone: right around the time I coupled up, I also got a better "non-buxiban" job that can rightly be considered 'professional', and let me just say, being a DINK is great. On my income alone I could just about afford where we live now, but it would necessitate a much tighter budget. I'd probably still be living in foreigner flophouses with a bunch of roommates that I may or may not like. My furniture wouldn't be my own, most likely - although at a younger age I preferred it that way (if the furniture's not really mine, when I move I don't have to deal with it)!

What I think has changed the most, besides the greater financial security of two incomes, has been that "whatever happens, you process it alone"aspect of single expat life. Of course, if I were single in the USA I'd be doing the same thing, but when you include the added difficulties of life abroad, that need for company, that need to talk it out with someone, grows. At least it did for me.

This kind of scrapes the patina off of the "expat life as great nomad adventure, fit for eccentrics and loners"myth. It makes expat life more like my ideal back-home life, more so than my actual (single) back-home life ever was.

Married life has not ruined
the expat adventure!
It has not ruined the adventure, though. Sure, in some ways it feels like there's a universal law that when you're not by yourself, less crazy stuff happens (it could be that the stuff that does happen seems less crazy when someone else you know is there). In China, I was once on a bus that drove up a flight of (outdoor) stairs. I am not joking about this. Nothing of that level of WTF?! has happened since I've been half-a-social-unit. Adventures still happen, though. Pasta'ai, especially the first time around when stuff got crazy, was an adventure. Our unplanned car trip over the North Cross Island Highway was milder but still an adventure. Walking down Heping E. Road at 11pm and seeing a taxi driver with his pet goat - yes, you read that right - and learning that at night the goat drives around with him? Adventure. Sort of. It just hits you in the gut a bit less because there's someone there to share the impact, in the same way that culture shock or upsetting incidents don't cut so deeply, because either I'm not alone when they happen, or if I am, I come home to someone who I connect with deeply, can share some perspective and (if necessary) offer comfort.

Pasta'ai was still a great adventure, even though I did not go alone.

But let's be honest - if I were still single, I would likely have already gone home by now.

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