These are really five regrets of this former expat, but my conversations with fellow former expats suggest that I'm not the only one to have experienced them.
1. I wish I'd travelled more, seen more.
Almost everyone I speak to has this feeling about every place they've lived – even if that person is not an expat. Wherever we are, our human tendency towards habits and familiar routines leads us to walk a very narrow path for much of our lives. I mean this quite literally: recently, I took a map of Wellington (where I now live) and drew lines representing the land I had covered over the previous month, retracing the line whenever it repeated an earlier journey. I was left with a deep, dark channel over the route from home to office and a selection of thin cobwebs blowing off it to once-or-twice-off destinations.
Just today, I met a woman from Kerala who told me she was from Trichur. I had to reply with an embarrassed, “I never visited there,” as I would for just about any locality in the Indian state I called home for three years. Likewise, my year in Japan saw me visit only one place outside the Tokyo region: Hakone, a famous hot spring area just a couple of hours to the south.
When you're a tourist or full-time traveller, living outside of your regular routine, you're free to wander around and visit all sorts of places you never would otherwise. The expat, looking back on their time living and working/studying abroad, invariably vows to take that traveller's mentality with them if they ever return.
2. I wish I'd gotten better at the language.
It leads to a much deeper understanding of the culture and society you're inhabiting. It speeds everything up when you're out and about. It's incredibly rewarding and opens doors into the lives of others that remain firmly closed if you stick to your mother tongue. Most of all, it's all around you, all the time, impossible to avoid. So why don't more expats devote more time to studying the local language?
I picked up a reasonable amount of informal Japanese during my year there, but never enough to be able to hold a conversation for longer than about a minute. I learned even less Malayalam while in Kerala, even though I was there for three times as long as I lived in Japan. Still, in both countries, the rare moments when I made an effort to speak the local language were invariably the most purely joyful of my time there. When I ordered a pizza over the phone for the first time in Japan, I got an adrenaline rush that kept me smiling for the rest of the night.
The main reason why I didn't try harder with Japanese or Malayalam is that I was lazy. I taught English for work in Japan and socialised either with fellow expats or with locals who could speak English. I worked in an English-speaking office in Thiruvananthapuram and lived in the tourist town of Varkala, where – yep – pretty much everyone spoke enough English to communicate well with foreigners. While Japanese and Malayalam were pervasive elements of community life in each place, my own life was dominated at all turns by English.
I had the option to do something about this, of course, but like the majority of expats, I was content to get better at speaking English with a Mallu accent than to actually study Malayalam with purpose and intent. Now that I'm back home, I'm proud to be able to recognise Malayalam when someone writes it on Twitter or Facebook, but quite embarrassed not to be able to stand more than a word or two.
3. I wish I'd been more open to new and strange experiences.
You can't blame expats for being conservative when they're new to a country. Everything's a bit too strange and unfamiliar to get to grips with immediately. But, as with the first two regrets, a surprising number (myself included) never really escape this conservatism. We add a few more options to our nightly menu, get to grips with a couple more methods of transport, and slowly grow a wider support network; ultimately, however, the expat remains wary of the unknown, more convinced than the average person that stepping outside one's comfort zone will lead to danger. Even death.
Admittedly, the prospect of danger is not something to be disregarded entirely. It pays to keep your eyes open and have your wits about you, knowing how to extract yourself where necessary. However, the vast majority of expats (and travellers) remain virtually unharmed through all their experiences abroad. In my case, the times when I branched out into the unknown – especially when I let myself be led by someone else – are some of the most memorable of my time overseas. Like the time I led dance moves on a crowded nightclub floor in Shibuya, or the time I witnessed a somewhat frightening all-night private puja.
Such times are few and far between in my memory of times abroad.
4. I wish I'd planned my finances better.
The financial acclimatisation process basically went like this:
Convert Japanese yen to NZ dollars > think in yen >
convert Indian rupees to yen > think in rupees
conveniently forgetting to 'make a budget' or 'set a savings goal' in these strange new currencies. I developed a decent sense of what was good value, like how much a good onigiri should cost, or how much the autorickshaw driver was ripping me off, but that sense stayed in the here and now rather than developing into a longer-term financial strategy.
To me, other countries were a bit like fantasy worlds, with fantasy currency that feels like play money. If I had my time again, I'd take it a lot more seriously.
5. I wish I'd kept in better touch with my friends and family.
When I was still new to Japan, my new mate E said 'homesick' being an inadequate term, too broad in scope to describe an expat missing home. He told me to expect to get 'friendsick' and 'familysick' instead.
I did - as well as a longing for very specific locations and now-unavailable products - but as each new bout of 'familysickness' rose, especially around major holidays, I tended to get past it on my own or by immersing myself deeper in the society of which I was now part. I worked a couple of Christmas Days while in India, firing off a group email in the morning rather than making the time to be part of my family's celebrations.
As for my friends, well, I made new ones on my travels. I wouldn't say I forgot about the people I'd left behind, especially in the age of Facebook and other social networks, which have at least one revolutionary positive function in that they allow us to keep in touch with people we care about easier than ever before. However, there's quite a difference between a Like and a phone call or video chat.
There's a definitely a balance to be struck. You can't be expected to hold the folks back home permanently at the front of your thoughts, nor is it acceptable to file them away for rare occasions. When I look back, though, I know I could have made more effort, because when I was far away and on my own, those connections are the most important things I had.