I’m about a week shy of six months of living in Timor-Leste, but I’m delighted to share I’ve continued my childhood tradition of being a total overachiever and have hit the dreaded expat six-month slump about a month ahead of schedule.
I was warned about this before I left Australia, and have since had friends reassure me it’s a very normal experience, but man, it’s definitely not what I expected, and things feel pretty raw right now.
For the uninitiated, I’m talking about a period perfectly outlined by Sushi for Expats as:
…that time when you’ve been here just long enough that the constant weight of day to day isolation driven by cultural divide seems unbearably heavy and you ache to go back home where things make sense. You want to throw in the towel, call your mom crying and give up no matter what the consequences.
When the euphoria and new-ness of first arriving has worn off, and the reality of everyday life sets in.
Re-reading that passage above I baulk a little at the word isolation — instinctively; I read it as really strong, and I shrug it off for my own situation. I have friends round every corner in Dili; I’m constantly on my phone in the group chat; and I live in a modern, connected, seaside capital city. I’m not isolated. I’m just… lonely. (Am I lonely?).
In this situation, I think they’re one and the same.
It feels really dramatic, typing this out; using words like lonely and give up and ache and unbearably heavy. Especially when my days are so full of light: hysterical laughter with friends over dinner; dancing barefoot to JLo on black-and-white tiles at a Friday night house party; a solo seat at the bench in a light-filled coffee shop with laptop, pour over and pseudo-thoughtful half-smile; palm trees and sunshine and perpetual 12-hour-long days and an on-fire group chat and tomorrow’s lunch sorted already and the baristas everywhere greeting me by name.
Life in Dili is, in many respects, is beautiful. I have a wonderful group of intelligent, supportive, fierce friends. I love the city and the sunshine and am learning its rhythms; its vagaries. I drink too much Bintang and don’t go to bed early enough and gossip about boys instead of reading before bed but that’s because I have the people and the time and the support to do that, and Dili and time alone are letting me lean into the person I most want to be.
But that’s me trying to force life abroad into the mould of what I know. That’s me tired and frustrated with everything else; that’s me aching for things that make sense.
You feel a sense of homesickness akin to summer camp at age 8 but even worse because you made this decision on your own as a capable adult and you can’t back out because you will then be a failure in your own mind and thus worse off than if you’d slogged through whatever it is that’s coming.
What will I do next month, next year, if I don’t finish this today? I’ll be calling myself a quitter, and that’s not who I am. I’ll just go on because what else is there to do? But then you find yourself sitting in your apartment in the evening after a day of listening to constant incomprehensible Japanese chatter looking around going “what now?” and wondering if anyone else can relate to this feeling of complete isolation and anxiety despite a thriving social life and busy schedule.
I may never have gone to summer camp, and I may be living in Timor-Leste, not Japan, but I can relate so deeply with this paragraph it brings tears to my eyes.
I’m a card-carrying perfectionist and a total self-critic. Sushi for Expats explains it in words I’m either not brave enough or self-aware enough to spell out: I decided to come here and running back home is worse that the panic of remaining.
Worse than the tears that pricked my eyes as my chattering colleagues teased me in the car the other day for not understanding their rapid-fire jokes. Worse than the stab of shame and failure when they told me I should be coming to their offices to practise my Tetun. Worse than the half-second in darkness every morning as I flick my bare office lighbulb on and wonder what today will bring. Worse than squeezing my pants up every morning over my rice-softened belly. Worse than dropping out on Skype again last night; trying to communicate what things are like here in a few texted sentences and the blushing-face emoji. Worse than the dread that accompanies a new clunk in the car and wondering what new Tetun words I’ll learn to try and get this thing fixed. Worse than nights spent under dim light, finishing work at the ironing board desk and wondering how quickly my vision is deteriorating and how I’ll get glasses in Timor. Worse than making lists of plans and goals and intentions and having the humidity and dust and laziness sap it all away.
Worse than the sudden, spastic slap of anger I felt at the Tiger Fuel ATM last Wednesday night as my brand-new bank card got eaten by the machine and the attendant unhelpfully gestured at the Tetun-only business-hours-only help-line phone number.
“Sorry, guys, I’m running late,” I bashed into a text message for the friends I was meant to be meeting for dinner. “ATM ate my card.”
“Lol yep.” I tapped back. This is the card that replaced the one I lost in a river two months ago – the card that took four weeks, an international courier and three generous cash loans from my housemate to restore.
“Ahahah. This is fucked,” I typed. “I can’t handle this anymore.”
I’m embarrassed to say — but not so embarrassed that I won’t say — that I started crying then. The heat, the card, the anxiety about the help line, the all-consuming feeling of being overwhelmed but I’ll just go on because what else is there to do — totally got to me.
And the fact, as always, that I am really fucking lucky. That my life is good, that I’m happy and healthy, that I’m safe and well-educated and wealthy and that I have a loving family and caring friends. I’m crying about having so much money I have to safely store it in a bank account, for fuck’s sake. I’m fine.
And the fact that I’ve chosen to do this.
If it’s really that fucking hard; Soph, if your sunshine life is just so unbearable, why don’t you get off your fucking high horse and just go back to Australia?
If you’re really struggling, AVI would understand. Work would understand. Your friends in Dili would wish you well. Your landlady would cry and probably give you a going-away gift. All your mates in Australia would be happy to see you and you’d be back at the pub with an overpriced pint and a crowd of mates within the hour.
Later that bank card night, after I’d joined dinner, slurped laksa, shared a bottle of red wine on the front porch and complained, loudly and guiltily, about what I then thought was a massive problem, I cried again.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” I whispered, ragged, between half-sobs. “I want to go home.”
My friend sat silently and let me cry.
My breathing slowed; calmed down.
A pause. Then, tentatively. “Do you really want to leave, Soph?”
The question was repeated the next day — after I’d returned, joyously, from the bank with my card, chattered my way through lunch with new friends, and attended my first Timorese party. Of course I didn’t want to leave! What a stupid suggestion! Why would you even think that?
ExpatChild has also written about this suffocating six-month-slump, and what to do to get out of it.
The harsh reality is that this is the time to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and give yourself a stern talking to. You started this adventure because you wanted to embrace a change – so get out there and embrace it!
I roll my eyes reading that; annoyed by its chirpy tone. No thanks — I’d actually prefer to sit here at Letefoho, stare into my laptop, and bash out 1,300 words on how sad I am about my exotic life on a tropical island.
“Easier said than done, right?” it asks? Then continues.
Yes, most things are – but that doesn’t make them impossible. Lighten up; give yourself a break and remember how you used to laugh at things that went wrong. Think back to all the packing and planning over six months ago, that didn’t all run smoothly did it? You didn’t change your mind though, because this is where you wanted to be!
Humour and a little self-depreciation can be a welcome change from over thinking so challenge yourself; laugh when you feel like you want to cry (but cry when you need to), accept that you’re not perfect, call home if you want to but do it with optimism and hope for a better day tomorrow… this is your life; you chose to be here.
I chose to be here. I can choose to go back to Australia. I can choose to stay here. I can choose to do a little of both.
I can choose to wake up every day, snooze my alarm four times and stomp to work in a huff about not having much to do and sitting by myself and feeling worried about failing to chit-chat with my colleagues. Or, I can choose to wake up early, stretch, read the news and drink coffee, set goals for the day, exit my office to ask my colleague what the banging noise is instead of sitting in silence, and do my best to make good use of my time — in my days, and my time here in Timor.
Don’t forget you chose this, Soph. Don’t forget the very, very good things about it, too.