Tuesday, June 3, 2014

End of term blues: Overseas edition

The semester is (finally!) drawing to a close at Across the Seas U, with the usual headaches involved therein. But for some, myself included, there is also heartache as we send off several fellow travelers now departing for greener pastures.

Only among expats is the turnover rate so remarkably high. For some perspective: Dr. Hubs, a native in a department overwhelmingly dominated by same, has lost as many colleagues over the course of his career as I have lost, on average, every single year among my expat friends (scattered across several different departments). The natives seem to hunker down quite happily--which is unsurprising, since despite its maddening quirks AtSU remains one of the top institutions in the country. But for expats, this place is nearly always a stepping stone.

At this point I have been working here long enough that I can comprehend the longstanding expats' reluctance to befriend fresh-faced newcomers until (at least) their fourth or fifth year in the trenches. Personally, I'm not sure how many more years I can take of losing very good friends to bigger and better opportunities, only to have them replaced by a set of bewildered, newly minted PhDs who have little choice but to rely on more seasoned institutional veterans for guidance. The entire fall semester, the refrain sounds in my head: Are you my friend because you like me, or because I can tell you how to get $h*t done around here? An unfortunate question, perhaps, but one that has grown louder in my head in spite of all attempts to tamp it down.

This year's transition has hit me especially hard, perhaps because the friends who are leaving are the last batch to have seen me in the salad days of pre-parenthood. Friends tend to change anyways once kids come along, to be sure, but this group has been remarkably tenacious, sticking out the rough early months of motherhood to make sure that I can still live a normal adult life, at least once in a while! In contrast, no matter how awesome September's arrivals might be, I suspect that they won't be able to resist seeing me as a mom first, and everything else (parties! movies! travel!) a distant second. For my part, I am likely to prioritize time with my kid over the investment of effort it takes to bond with a newcomer. Things may never click in the same way again.

But hey. Life goes on, right? No hard feelings. I raise a glass to all of you who may be packing up and shipping off, temporarily or permanently, for an inter- or intra-continental adventure of your own. Remember those you leave behind, for we shall think of you fondly, and often.

-- Edna Expat


  1. It sounds like a difficult situation in many ways; one has to wonder what cost-benefit equation leads hiring departments to hire so many expats who may soon move on, rather than people more likely to stay (of course, that's hardly a conundrum limited to schools in a position to hire expats; schools in the U.S. that have some feature considered "less desirable" by minty-fresh Ph.D.s accustomed to R1 environments have to go through much of the same calculus, including a fear that they might not be given permission to re-fill the line should the person they hire decide to leave in a few years).

    At least it sounds like you're getting to a point where other long-term expats probably realize you're staying, and where you have the chance to make new connections, both expat and native, through the experience of parenthood. Maybe that will, indeed, mean that you end up investing less in building relationships with newly-arrived expats, and more in those that may prove more lasting? I don't have kids, but I have the impression that, after going to school together and working together, one of the major situations in which people form often-lifelong friendships is by having kids of similar age in the same schools/activities. But I also gather that that tends to come a bit later, and that the first year of parenthood is often pretty isolating, wherever one is.

    In any case, I hope things begin to look up. In the meantime, enjoy your small person (and those oh-so-essential breaks from focusing on hir, however you arrange them).

  2. Thanks, Cassandra, as always, for your words of wisdom! A quick word: The appeal of expats here is twofold: 1) our status as native speakers of the language of instruction (a big thing in writing and lit departments), and 2) we are more likely to have PhDs in fields generally considered undesirable by the natives (wazzup, humanities). There are certainly expats who make their careers here, but there is a very clear distinction between the old guard and the endlessly rotating cast of newbies; I occupy something of a middle ground, hence the frustrations given above.

    Not everyone is leaving at once, of course, and those staying behind include some other new parents (fortunately for me!), but the Leaving Time always serves as a reminder that pretty much everyone around me seems to be constantly looking for ways to get out of here. This year's specific sadness mingles with the vague dread of next year's Leaving Time, and so on ad infinitum.