Nothing shakes up your life like moving thousands of miles away from everyone you know and everything your life was about. It's a serious control-alt-delete move. But is it really all that great?
Living abroad has always been, in my mind, an extremely adventurous and glamorous thing to do. It's right in the word -- abroad -- straight out of a Jamesian novel. Many of us joked that if George W. Bush was re-elected, we would move to Canada. But we didn't really mean it. Besides, Canada doesn't really qualify as abroad when you live in America, now does it?
Now and then, an urban myth circulates that Americans are leaving the states in record numbers but really, this number fluctuates over time. There has never been a massive movement out of America largely by dint of the fact that a relocation of such magnitude is expensive and difficult to reverse. Language barriers, lower earnings and difficulty acclimating make emigration a tough sell.
I have always fantasized about living abroad for adventure, for the audacity of doing such a thing. Some of my favorite literary heroes lived abroad: Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein.
Almost three years ago, much to the amazement, apprehension and disbelief of most everybody I knew in Los Angeles, after having talked about it for over a year, I moved to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Estimates of the total number of Americans living abroad vary from 2.2 million to 6.8 million. Unlike most countries, the US government does not require its citizens to register their place of residence, and there is no database of Americans living outside of America. Those who do emigrate do so for a variety of reasons, ranging from job opportunities to having met and married someone from another country. Most Americans living abroad live in one of 10 countries. Israel is one of them.
Acclimating to a new culture is of course both exhilarating and completely terrifying. Every day is a new adventure. You say this, where you live now -- I used to too -- but when you live abroad this is not an ideal but a concrete fact. I delighted in the differences and challenges, even the negatives ones -- simply because it made each day a day of discovery for me, good or bad. I took nothing for granted. Nothing went as planned. Back in the U.S., this would have meant a bad day --- in my new country it was all an adventure. Living abroad is nothing if it isn't a distraction.
I would stare, totally bemused, at the Israeli bank teller who told me to wait a moment, while she reached under the counter, produced a peach, sliced it, ate half of it, then asked what she could help me with. In the U.S. this would have pissed me off to no end. In my new country, I couldn't wait to go home and email all my friends while still chuckling.
For the first six months I lived in Tel Aviv, veritably everything was different. The way the "alte zachen" (junk) man rode through the streets with a horse and carriage. The way all manner of motorized vehicles, 9/10's of which would be completely illegal in the US, sped by me - on the sidewalk. The way automatic weapons were so visible and so common, slung casually over the shoulders of soldiers on the bus, bumping legs and taking up space. The way smoking was not only common it was quite okay -- remember, I had come from Los Angeles -- every day was a day filled with astonishment for me.
Over time, naturally, as I became acclimated, I began to notice not so much what was different, but what was the same. I think this is a coping mechanism for expats. We need to seek out what is familiar to us, we need to see what we do have in common. Which is, naturally, a lot. People are people everywhere you go, it's true.
But, like a piano that is tuned to a different key, with more emphasis played on some notes than on others, with a quicker pace here and slower rhythm there, I began to discover that the same composition resulted in a completely different dance.
That realization is when things began to get really interesting for me. It is when I began to shift from what was different to why it is different and therefore which values were fundamentally important to me by choice, rather than inheritance. It allowed me to take a longer, more comprehensive view of how my beliefs and values had been formed and to appreciate that I was in the position to choose the environment I wanted to live in.
As the local curiosity and point of interest, I was and still am questioned endlessly by curious Israelis about American movies, politics and mannerisms. My American friends ask me about Israelis and tucked within that question, I imagine, why I seem to prefer living here and not there.
When you are an expat, there is a temptation, or an expectation, to begin to feel that one culture is better than the other. Yet being of one culture and merely a visitor wanting to belong in another, your loyalties see-saw at times. It's a little like being a child of divorce, I suppose.
Living abroad can mean a certain, slow but inevitable distancing from yourself and your friends back home, who, over time, become less and less interested in your adventures. The quotidian details of our lives, wherever they may be, are quite consuming in the end. Distance has a way of making things grow smaller. Even friendships.
The biggest benefit -- or cost -- of living abroad is simply that it asks one to reflect upon what constitutes happiness and a good life. You find yourself justifying both where you used to live and where you live now almost constantly, if not in answer to a curious inquiry, to yourself.
I have realized that it's not that this place is better than where I was before, but that I like who I am in this place. I have learned a new language, something I never thought I could do. I am more independent, my life is much slower, I read more, I am more confident and I certainly have a deepened perspective of life in the Middle East.
But it's not all roses. U.S. tax laws require Americans living abroad to pay taxes and filing can be complex indeed. Primarily for this reason, the number of US citizens who renounce their citizenship is up by 221 percent .
I cannot imagine renouncing my U.S. citizenship; it is my birthright and for now, while I am taxed both in my new country and in the U.S., my US citizenship, an object of envy for so many, all over the world, is something that is precious to me. It is my insurance, the ace up my sleeve.
Sometimes, in certain moonlit moments, living abroad is indeed rarefied and wondrous. A privilege. A dream. On bad days, living thousands of miles from home is nightmarish with none of the usual comforts to turn to.
There is nothing quite like seeing one's native culture from a great distance to bring into sharp focus the fact that the majority of our values and beliefs have been conceived for us, collectively, over time. While I enjoy my new perspective, it is sometimes a lonely one; to live abroad is to experience a kind of split personality and torn loyalties. It's not always so easy to navigate. If home is where the heart is, what if your heart is in two places?
I have been here for three years. I am not sure if I will be here forever. I'm letting the adventure unfold. I know that I am lucky to be having this experience. If I knew then what I know now, about the ramifications of moving abroad -- I would do it again. But it isn't what I thought it would be. That's the nature of adventure, after all.