Life abroad: What am I? An emigrant? An exile? A nomad?

Deirdre Grimshaw ponders her changed identity after nearly 20 years out of Ireland

Global perspective: Deirdre Grimshaw with her sons Matthew and Stevie in Vietnam

Global perspective: Deirdre Grimshaw with her sons Matthew and Stevie in Vietnam

 

Eighteen years ago I decided to leave Ireland for a year, to experience a little more beyond my safe existence. Family and friends took bets; most assumed I’d be back by Christmas, homesick and overwhelmed by life beyond our shores.

I’ve read many of the articles written for Generation Emigration, and I’m not sure where I fit in. Am I an exile? Am I a recent emigrant, or a lifer? Is Ireland still home? I cannot answer those questions.

I met my English husband a year after leaving Ireland, in Kuwait, playing Gaelic football. I’d never kicked a ball before going overseas. It’s amazing how Irish you can become once you’re away.

We are both teachers; although I had loved teaching in Ireland, I wanted to experience something more. Being a teacher, I can get home often: every year, sometimes twice if the budget allows. I still feel very Irish and love that my mother has the Tayto and soda bread waiting.

We lived in three countries – Kuwait, South Korea and Malaysia – before moving to Vietnam. If we had settled in one place it might feel more like home. Our shortest stint has been five years, our longest seven– in Malaysia.

I’ve been involved with the expatriate Irish community everywhere we have lived, but I have always had local friends, and friends of other nationalities too. Recognising, learning about and sometimes embracing the traditions and values of our host country and our diverse friendships have always been important.

I am grateful that my sons, aged nine and eight, have the opportunities they have and are global citizens. When family is so far away, friends become family.

So what am I? Emigrant? Exile? Other? I don’t know. Where are my children from? That is an even harder question. On a blog I follow, the writer describes her children as her little travellers; essentially that is what my boys are. They are both Irish and English. My eldest was born in Korea. My youngest was born in Dublin, during an extended summer holiday. They have lived most of their lives in Malaysia. They will often ask, “So where am I really from?”

The phrase used to describe this generation of child travellers is “third culture kids” – TCKs, or 3CKs. A Google search will come up with the top 20 things a TCK can relate to: the ability to say hello, goodbye and thank you in at least four languages, a best friend living on a different continent, or having to phone Granny at strange times because of time differences. TCKs know the procedure at airports ridiculously well. My own two could probably do a long-haul flight unaided.

Jobs difficulty

I never expected to be gone so long, yet now I wonder if we will ever go back. The longer we are away, the harder it is. Jobs are not easy to come by in Ireland, especially for my husband, an English-trained teacher. Financially could we do it? We still love working overseas, and the education our children are getting is superb. At times it seems that retirement will be the time to come home.

We are fortunate that neither family has ever pressured us into coming back, but the guilt is there. My dad died a year ago, and it made us rethink our choices. Ultimately we had to think of our own family unit of four and what is right for us. Is it selfish? I know the “burden” – and I use that term warily, as no one has ever referred to it like that – of ageing parents lies with our siblings in Ireland and the UK.

My children love going home, both to the UK and Ireland. They love staying with cousins, and they love the long evenings farther north of the equator. We are lucky that family visit us regularly. Skype and FaceTime mean we don’t feel so far away.

It’s hard to say where we will be 10 years down the road, but I would guess we will still be overseas. In an ideal world the boys will be at university in Dublin and we’ll go “home”’ to visit them. Where will they call home? Who knows? For now they are nomads, like their parents.

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