After Hiraeth

hireathWhen The Displaced Nation shared this word from This Page is About Words today, it resonated. Like kummerspeck (grief bacon), it’s a word that should exist in the English language, or at least in the expat language.

What I love about this word, hiraeth, is that it sums up what for me is both the greatest joy and the keenest sorrow of the expat life: the fact that each place you live becomes a part of you (the joy) and each place you leave keeps a little piece of your heart (the sorrow). All those transitions, over a decade or more of moving around, create a very complicated form of nostalgia that I will now refer to as hiraeth.

And expats spend a lot of time talking about transitions, by the way. But transitions in the expat life go well beyond getting used to a new location. What about the transition when your first good friend, the one who bought you your first cup of coffee in a new location, herself moves on to a new post? Or the exodus that happens each December, because corporate calendars aren’t always aligned to the school year?

As if the goodbyes this past December weren’t hard enough, we’ve already learned that a couple of friends are leaving this month. Remember that “little bit of your heart” bit above? Yeah, well each friend that leaves takes a little bit of your heart with them. That’s a whole lot of little bits of heart, spread all across the globe. The news that a few more shreds of our heart will be making their way from Helsinki this month makes it nearly impossible to forget our own impending departure from Finland–a fact we’ve been trying to ignore as much as possible because we have no clear idea where we’re going next.

That’s not to say that we don’t know what the options are likely to be. We know we need to leave because we’ve hit the limit of the beneficial tax treatment the Finnish government offers to expats (which keeps us from having to pay full taxes here in Finland on top of Colorado State tax in the US). My husband has been with his current company for just over three years (the time we’ve been in Finland), so he’d like to stick with his current company instead of changing jobs. That’s the easy part of the equation, though.

Armed with those two pieces of information, we can take a look at where most of the other expats at his company live and know that two options float to the surface as the most likely locations: Redmond, Washington, and Beijing, China. This is the point at which friends, family, and readers typically start chiming in with enthusiastic support of us returning to the Pacific Northwest (Yes, we love it there. Yes, we have family there.) and start sending articles about how bad the pollution/corruption/food/you name it is in the Beijing.

After a recent round of this conversation played out on Facebook, I thought it was time for a longer discussion of what exactly goes in to a decision to move to another country. I’m sure different families have different reasons, but I’m just as sure that if you haven’t been faced with a decision like this before, you might not realize all that goes in to it.

If you did, you wouldn’t rule out Beijing as quickly as I ruled it out when it was first suggested to me two years ago. And oh, how I wish I hadn’t ruled it out (at least not out loud), because my own words are now haunting me as I rather enthusiastically lobby to move our family there this summer.

We’re on our third post in Europe, and it feels as much like home as the United States does. We know where to go on vacation. We know the food. We understand the culture (at least in most of the western countries) enough for travel there to be comfortable and easy. It feels safe to us. As safe or safer than parts of the US.

But sometime in the past six months or so, I started to get restless here in idyllic Finland. I got the itch to see something new. An itch to move somewhere new. Sure, Seattle would be new because although I’ve visited, I’ve never lived there. But it wouldn’t be that different from Colorado, and certainly not as different as Beijing.

That’s not to say that “different” is always better. But in this case, living in Asia has been a goal for a while now. Would Beijing be our first choice in Asia? No, but it’s where the job is. It gets us there, to a continent where business, technology, and industry are growing faster than anywhere else on the planet. Living there would give our children the opportunity to explore a whole different world, to learn about a culture more disparate from our own than the places we’ve lived so far, to see something that they may never get a chance to see so up-close again.

And the sad truth in expat life is that your favorite vacation destination is rarely where the job is located. I’ve wondered several times if I used up my “Vacation Posting” trump card when we took an assignment in Windsor, England a decade ago. I mean, living a few minutes from Windsor Castle is beyond fairy-tale, especially for a dedicated anglophile like myself.

All of this is really a pipe dream anyhow, because another sad truth in expat life is that we don’t typically get to choose. Sure, we chose in 2010 to come to Helsinki instead of staying in Colorado. But we didn’t get the choice of moving to Helsinki or three other marvelous vacation destinations. It was Helsinki or nothing. So we chose Helsinki. And we loved it.

I can always hope that we’ll get another plum vacation posting. Sydney sure seems nice about now. Or how about Singapore? But if we don’t, and Beijing is what is offered, I think we should take it. Even though we could choose something else. In this case, for reasons that I hope are a little more clear now, I’m not sure I want to.