How to Become a Lifelong American Expat in 15 Easy Steps

Nonfiction by Jillian Schedneck

Expat1. Sign up for a semester study abroad in England. Two weeks before your flight, tell your roommate that you’re afraid to leave the east coast of the United States, the center of the universe. She talks you into it. You’re an English literature major, after all. Everything you’ve ever studied has been set in London, or somewhere with moors. Besides, Mary from down the hall keeps talking about her semester abroad in Italy, and if she can leave behind the only country she’s ever known, you can too.

2. On the plane, ask the man next to you to help you buckle your seatbelt and solicit his intervention once again when the flight attendant asks if you want white or red with dinner. White or red what, exactly? Explain to your seatmate that you’ve never been on a plane before, and wallow in the depth of your lack of sophistication.

3. Land in London, ride the train to Bath, and claim your new room overlooking the River Avon. Take a tour of the old, beautiful, marvellous city. Don’t quite believe you’re going to live here for the next four months, on a street with the charming name of North Parade. Feel astounded that you had been scared of the very thing that is now causing you to overflow with joy and possessiveness. Bath is now yours, and no one else’s. That afternoon, begin concocting plans to stay indefinitely. Barring that, vow to live a life abroad.

4. Fall in love with an older British salesman two weeks before your flight home. Let him take you on road trips to the Southwest of England and fall even more deeply love with that country. Talk to your new boyfriend about trips to Spain and Holland. Listen to his plans for the two of you to take the ferry over to Calais, in France, and drive around the continent. England begins to feel so small. Let your boyfriend drive you to Heathrow when it’s time to return to Boston. During your final embrace, cry. Feel as though you’re acting out a part in a movie. Become aware of how this moment is real and utterly cliché. Say, “I love you,” and then, “I’m coming back.”

5. Plan on returning to Bath after graduation to move in with your boyfriend. By graduation, change your mind. Decide you can’t depend on him for your entire social and financial well-being. Know that this is right, but experience heartbreak for the first time. Move to London on a student-working visa with a girlfriend instead. Work for a publishing company editing ad copy for seven pounds an hour, and wonder how anyone could ever manage to live off such a salary. Rent a room above a kebab shop and eat a two-pound kebab every night, until the Turkish guy manning the grill falls for you. Pass by the shop with your old boyfriend, and get snubbed from then on. Hop on a train and visit your old boyfriend wherever he goes for work: Nottingham, Dorset, Cheltenham. Take out your notebook. Write about that guy who stroked your stomach as you reached for a file at work, or getting called a “twat” while crossing Kings Road, or going to that pub in Richmond every Sunday and loving that town which Virginia Woolf famously hated. Let your old boyfriend drive you to Heathrow when your six-month visa is up. Don’t cry when you say goodbye. This isn’t like last time.

6. Start an MFA program back in the States, and for the next three years, write personal essays about living in London. Plan to go away again. Scour The Chronicle of Higher Education international jobs listing, and find a slew of openings in this country called the United Arab Emirates. Apply for English teaching jobs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah.

7. Get a job teaching English language at a private university in Abu Dhabi—the only university out of a dozen to respond to your application. Imagine windswept dunes and towers rising out of the sands, romantic Arabian nights. Listen to your friends and family call you brave and speculate on Arab men’s famed possessiveness, women’s submission, and acts of terrorism. Ignore all of them. Two weeks before moving to Abu Dhabi, meet an older businessman at a bar near Harvard and fall in love. Start another long distance relationship. Vow that this time it will be different.

8. Become instantly overwhelmed by Abu Dhabi. Want it to fulfil your fantasies but instead feel frustrated by the poorly run university—but really what did you expect?—and grossly under-prepared students. Miss your American boyfriend. Pretend to be engaged so that he can stay in your apartment when he visits. Let him buy you a diamond ring in Dubai’s Gold Souk and wear it every day. Fall for Dubai, the bigger, flashier, more stylish version of Abu Dhabi. When your boyfriend loses his job in the States, convince him to find another in Dubai. Spend your nightly phone calls imagining your life together in that other, cooler city.

9. The next year, get a job at a better university in Dubai, and move in to your new apartment, alone. Your boyfriend has decided to reassess his career goals and moved to New York City. When he says he wants to “take a break” during one of your nightly calls, remain calm. Tell him the break will be permanent. It’s over. Feel shattered, unmoored. Sleep with someone else three weeks later. Start to feel better.

10. Feel so proud to be on your own in a new country at twenty-six, to have already fallen in and out of love twice; feel so frustrated with life in Dubai, with the racial prejudice and injustice baldly going on around you; feel elated at your good fortune, proud of the way travel has pushed you out of your shell; feel like you will never find a boyfriend, let alone a life partner, in this transient place.

11. After a year in Dubai, move back to the United States, to Phoenix, Arizona this time, where your sister just moved, to write a travel memoir about your two years in the UAE. Throw yourself into your writing. Take a year to finish the book, nearly go bankrupt, and constantly wonder if you made the right decision to leave Dubai.

12. Confirm that you had made the wrong decision. The book doesn’t sell. Literary agents say they like it but don’t love it, and you “deserve an agent who will be a champion of your book!” Move back to Boston; sublet a tiny room in a tiny apartment occupied by two Chinese MBA students. Try your best to climb out of debt working low paid online jobs and giving private English language lessons all over Boston. You are twenty-nine. Know that this is the lowest moment in your life thus far, and while that’s a personal tragedy, it’s still not an actual tragedy. Feel the pull of moving abroad again, but also the desire to stay put. For once, you want to feel fulfilled by what’s already in front of you.

13. And yet, on the off-handed advice of your sister, apply for a PhD in Gender Studies in Australia. She claims to have heard that it’s easy to win a scholarship. Put together a research project about feminism and young Emirati women in Dubai, contact potential supervisors in Australia, and send off your application to the University of Adelaide. Promptly push the possibility of being accepted out of your mind. Months later, win that scholarship. Stare at the email, elated, terrified. You couldn’t even point to Adelaide on a map. You never imagined yourself even visiting Australia, let alone living there for the next three years. Feel numb, uncertain, overjoyed.

14. Arrive in July, the Australian winter. Wear a hat and gloves, find an apartment, read feminist theory, receive one thousand dollars every two weeks just to spend your days studying, get free health care. Wonder if this is all a dream. Remember that travel memoir no one wanted? Get it published in Australia, and confirm that if this isn’t a dream, it sure feels like one. This must be the right place for you. Meet a cute younger guy at a wine tasting, where he can identify most of the wines blindfolded. Feel instantly impressed. He is a botanist, gentle and reserved, with a heart that’s never been broken. Go on a first date two weeks before leaving for your field research trip to Dubai. Embark on an eight-month long-distance relationship. Every other day, stare at each other on Skype for three hours.

15. Return from Dubai and move in with boyfriend. At thirty-one, experience the deepest relationship you’ve ever known. Decide to merge finances; decide to have him sponsor your visa to remain in Australia indefinitely. Decide to get married on the beach next to his family’s house one Saturday in December, the most beautiful day to ever be captured on film. You’d never seen yourself as a girl who would get married on a beach, or as someone who’d marry a light-haired, blue-eyed country boy, but you never saw yourself as someone who’d settle down in Australia either. Have a baby daughter. Read her books about wombats and kangaroos; buy her stuffed kookaburras and koalas. But remember that she’s only half Australian. Apply for her American citizenship one October afternoon when she is one year old, but know that you are just giving her options. You can’t say what she’ll decide in the future, but remain certain that you will fulfil the vow you made at twenty years old, and continue to spend your life elsewhere.


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About Jillian Schedneck

Jillian Schedneck is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights. Her work has been published in Panorama Journal, The Manifest-Station, and Brevity, among others. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Adelaide, Australia and runs the Writing Centre at the University of Adelaide.

Jillian Schedneck

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