Adjusting to life as an expat

By Kelly Garriott Waite ’90 / Canada

I raced as fast as I dared, keeping careful watch on the kilometers lining the inner circle of my speedometer. I didn’t yet have my Canadian driver’s license. My Ohio plates screamed foreigner.  Anything could go wrong if a police officer suddenly appeared behind me, lights flashing. On the other hand, an officer might help—I’d be escorted quickly to the hospital. I’d have sufficient time to get my son’s emergency chest x-ray done before I had to meet my daughters’ school bus.

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I left the doctor’s Oakville, Ontario office and headed west along Lakeshore, toward the hospital. Suddenly, I found myself in Bronte—an area east of Oakville. How could this have happened? I’d used the navigational technique my mother taught me years ago when I was learning to drive. “Use the lake as your guide,” she told me as we drove along Lakeshore Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. “The lake lies to the north.”

Of course: I no longer lived with Lake Erie to my north. I lived on Lake Ontario. And it lay to the south. I’d been navigating according to my old map. How could I have been so stupid? My world, my life, had been turned upside down. And I’d forgotten to make adjustments.

This is precisely what living as an expatriate is like: you carry across your assumptions, undeclared at the border, and cling to them tightly, per- haps not even aware that you’re holding onto them. And suddenly, you find you’ve made a mistake, taken a wrong turn, perhaps inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings, the awkward silences and uneasy glances a sure sign you’ve messed something up. You look to your useless map for some help and cannot find the answer.

What to do with the outdated maps? You can continue to look at them, stubbornly referring to them at every turn in the road. Or you can surrender them, charting a new course, trying to get the most you can out of the assignment.

We made countless mistakes. From taking a bottle of U.S. wine to a New Year’s Day open house to going ice-skating on brand new (yes, unsharpened) skates, each error represented another dot on the map of our lives in Canada.

In spite of our mistakes, the neighbors welcomed us warmly, becoming some of the best friends we’ve ever had and providing us with a new perspective on the United States. Looking at the nation of your birth through the eyes of another is a humbling experience. It forces you to take out the set of beliefs handed to you by your parents, your religion, and, yes, your country, and question the values you took for granted for so many years.

Living as an expatriate softens the edges of your convictions much like the waves of Lake Ontario will smooth a piece of wood before tossing it upon the shore. Of course, this takes time. For months, after going through a slow dismantling, I felt groundless, adrift. I didn’t know what to believe.

You adjust. You listen to new ideas, accepting those that seem to make sense, rejecting those that don’t, building a new set of beliefs based on new information. And in the end, if you accept the gift expatriate life has to offer, you become a better person.

Only when we relinquished our old maps did we begin to see the world. When we were willing to let go of our conviction in the absolute rightness of our way, we learned humility. We learned how to live with ambiguity. We learned how to laugh at ourselves. We began to look at the United States through a more critical eye. We learned that there’s so much more out there than we ever knew existed. Most importantly, we learned that we could love and respect two places at once.

My son survived that long ago race to the emergency room, and we all thrived during our life as expats in Ontario. Too soon, my husband’s transfer returned us to the United States. We’re finding readjustment to be a difficult process. It’s not just a simple matter of digging through the glove box and getting out the old maps: If we neglect to incorporate our Canadian experiences into the mix, the assignment will have been wasted.

I take pride in the miniature Canadian flag on display in our house. The hockey posters and Ontario plates hanging in our daughters’ rooms. The Roots Canada clothing that’s beginning to get a little snug on my son. These items, like the Canadian accents that still occasionally pepper my children’s speech, are more than souvenirs. They’re evidence of our ability to accept new ideas into our lives, something that’s never easy to do.

And as we embark upon another chapter of our lives, we begin once again the process of charting new maps, looking back with love and gratitude at Canada—the nation that taught us so much about adapting in the first place.

Kelly Garriott Waite is a 1990 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management.  At the time of this writing, she was working as a freelance writer whose essays have been published in The Globe and Mail, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor and the online magazine, Tales From a Small Planet.