Three years ago I wrote a post for the Wall Street Journal expat column about spending Thanksgiving overseas. I called it “10 Reasons I’m Thankful to Be an Expat,” and I’m putting it up here again in honor of the season (and because just about everything at WSJ is behind a paywall now).
The biggest surprises three years on (besides how young my daughter looks in the photo they ran!) are numbers 3 and 8: little did we know how the Trump candidacy was going to turn out, and believe it or not, Black Friday has finally come to Botswana. Although they don’t quite get it: in addition to big-screen TVs, the ad flyers for the weekend also announced “Black Friday” deals on milk, bulk rice, and custard. Hey, why not. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
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I love my country, and there are many reasons I miss the U.S. and look forward to moving back someday. But in the meantime, in honor of Thanksgiving, as I sit on my patio and listen to exotic birds chirping through an 80-degree afternoon in Gaborone, Botswana, here are 10 reasons I am grateful to be an expat today:
1. The weather outside isn’t frightful. While my friends on the East Coast hunker down for another long, icy winter, I only have to make sure the umbrellas by the pool are firmly fastened on their poles and the sunscreen fully stocked for five more months of swimming season here in the southern hemisphere.
2. All the friends I haven’t met yet. On Thursday, I will join a potluck of 40+ locals and expats from all around the world to create our own makeshift Thanksgiving feast. I will be meeting many of the guests for the first time but all of them could end up my friends before the day is done, reminding me how easy it is to meet new people, collect new friendships, and have new experiences when I’m out of my normal holiday groove.
3. I don’t have to make idle threats about leaving the country if Donald Trump is elected President.
4. An abundance of difference. Just in the past few weeks, my daughter’s preschool has celebrated Halloween, Diwali and Botswana Day. I believe that raising our kids in a multicultural environment is helping us produce interesting, well-rounded, and open-minded young adults someday, and I’m hoping that growing up overseas will also provide some good fodder for those college application essays when the time rolls around.
5. Four words: foreign earned income exclusion. No, I don’t enjoy the benefit of American roads, American public schools, or the American postal service. But I also don’t have to pay most of my American taxes as a result.
6. The hand that rocks the cradle doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Speaking of finances, every year that goes by I ask myself how people afford to live in America, at least in Washington, D.C., where my particular industry is centered. My recently-returned friends tell me stories of $20/per hour babysitters with a four-hour minimum, pushing date night into extinction. Meanwhile, in Botswana, affordable full-time childcare is as plentiful as the red and gold leaves are in D.C. every fall. I do miss the autumn colors, but for now I’ll appreciate my live-in nanny, thank you very much.
7. Membership in the world’s community. I felt heightened sorrow for the people of Paris earlier this month, similar to the heightened sorrow I feel every time I learn of a terrorist attack in Pakistan: they’re both places where I’ve spent time, shared meals with friends, seen the sights with my own eyes, and to which I have made a personal connection over the years. You don’t need to go somewhere physically to have your compassion, altruism, and empathy awakened, but knowing the exact sounds and scents of a place affects your reaction to events that unfold there, giving you a special relationship with the world as an engaged global citizen.
8. I’m 7,000 miles away from “Black Friday.” I was trying to explain the concept of America’s day-after-Thanksgiving tradition to a colleague this week and realized how ridiculous it sounded, especially the part about people getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to wait in line to buy stuff. Even if I wanted to go on a consumer rampage this weekend, the best I could do is stockpile pre-paid cell phones from Botswana’s national mobile provider or make a mad dash through the fancy cheese aisle at local grocery chain Woolworths.
9. I get to be the “crazy American.” A friend who has lived in Kiev, Nairobi, and Nassau reminded me of this one. No matter your eccentric tastes or habits, when you’re an expat, locals generally indulge your odd ways and chalk it up to your being foreign. Along the same lines, if I want to go back to the U.S. and engage in unusual behavior, I can always blame it on living overseas for so long. “Oh, you make your kids wear shoes in the grocery store? Back in Botswana we felt it was more natural to let their feet breathe.”
10. Nothing is constant but change. Because I’m living away from my home country, my life is transitory by definition. Someday I will return to America to live, which means that every home I have until then, every car, every favorite restaurant and radio station, is temporary. Eventually each aspect of my familiar, cozy life in Botswana will be thousands of miles away, which makes me sad to think about but also grateful for the extra encouragement to be present and appreciate each moment while I am living it.
Wherever you are in the world today, here’s hoping you have a lot to be grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving!