Expat limbo – when you don’t know what’s next

Expat Limbo - me looking pensive in a pink dress stood against the door

There’s a running joke in expat communities. It’s about when you go home and how long into a conversation it will take people to ask when you’re moving home.

There are underlying tones in that joke depending on the person telling it and the person who asked the question.

It might have been a loaded question from a close family member, pressuring them to come home. It might have been a question asked in a puzzled voice by someone who couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to live abroad, let alone stay there indefinitely. Or it might just be an innocent question from an interested friend.

But it always gets asked. The joke is usually around how many times.

We’ve always been pretty lucky

Almost no-one asks us when we’re coming home.

Almost ever.

I don’t know if it’s because we’ve never made a secret of the fact that our short to medium term plan isn’t to move home (recognising that all that could change in circumstances outside our control). Maybe it’s because the people who know us have known us for years. They know we’ve both lived abroad multiple times, that we are adult third culture kids and that our addiction to travel is real. We’ve long since given up trying to meet up with everyone when we go home so it’s not like we are trying to see people who are acquaintances at best. People who might not know us better.

Expat limbo

If you know us well, you’ll know that this is the longest time I’ve lived in any one house since I was 18. Expat limbo has become a thing of normality. If I’m honest, the idea of knowing we were staying put for another year last year made me feel a little bit anxious.

If you know us well, you’ll know that we have been to almost every country we wanted to visit in the region. You’ll know that we have a long-term time frame for moving back to the UK and have every intention of squeezing another assignment or two out of that time. That means we are actively looking to be in an expat limbo state for a good several years to come.

So in the last year or so, there has been a different question. It’s on everyone’s lips, including ours.

It’s not when are you coming home?

It’s when are you moving on?

When you first move somewhere, no-one asks the question.

The first 12 months in any location are a given. (I know of a few notable exceptions but in general that’s just the way it is.) With Mr Wanderlust’s company, the second year is still pretty much a given but the drop off starts. I’d say from the 2 year mark, the uncertainty starts to work its way in.

After 3 years the rate is much higher – you’re fair game for a job move at that point. Expat limbo becomes a thing you live with.

Before we even hit the 3 years here, the question started coming, anticipating the anniversary and it’s been coming thick and fast ever since.

Friends, family, acquaintances… everyone’s interested in where the next Wanderlust Family adventure is going to be.

Expat Limbo - Wanderlust family sat on a lounger on the beach in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Christmas Day 2017

We know the nudge is coming

We just don’t know when. Or where to. And that’s the tricky part. The expat limbo part.

We’re so used to it I almost don’t notice it any more. But we forget that not everyone lives with this reality – even expats. And not everyone understands it.

What does expat limbo mean?

Expat limbo is that exact part when you don’t know where you will be moving next. Or when. Or for how long.

You can’t plan for the move because, well, you don’t know where you’ll be.

You research any location that you think you might be sent to in the vain attempt to regain some control over the situation.

But of course you can’t really research anything because, well, you don’t know where you’ll be.

Expat limbo, my friends, is a tricky thing to deal with.

The topic comes up regularly

It’s probably be our inability to commit to summer plans that gives it away. It could be that I mention I love having the blog because when we move I can unplug my laptop in one country on one day and plug it in the next day somewhere else and it will all still be there. You, my lovely Wanderlusters, will all still be there, by my virtual side. Or it might be that a colleague will simply ask how long we’ve been living here and do the maths.

“When are you moving?” they ask. “We don’t know,” we say. There’s usually a surprised look and the next question comes: “Well where are you going?”

I mean, we must know that, right?


But we don’t

I’ve always said we’re where we are until we’re not, but it’s easier said than done.

And don’t get me wrong – we are the WORST for speculating about the next move. You’d think, after 13 years of and 10 years of being on the expat trail, that we would know better!

Expat Limbo - Wanderlust Family in matching white bathrobes on a hotel bed in Doha

The mere mention of a job opening in Houston and I’m researching houses quicker than you can say Lupe Tortilla. (To be fair I don’t need much encouragement to browse property prices in any jurisdiction lol). News a couple of years ago that an office was opening in Mozambique led us down avenues of anti-malarial medications and schools. We hadn’t been asked the question but we wanted to know what the answer would be if we were. Friends got moved to Singapore and I started day dreaming about downsizing our lives rom villa to apartment living, using a public transport system and cheap air travel to South East Asian destinations.

Maybe we share too much

We try to keep people in the loop. We try to manage expectations about how much time we have left here or how long the next flight to see us is going to be. We’ve even started preparing the Things with the idea that we might, one day, live in a different house, in a different country. That we might make a new set of friends in a new school.

There’s a flip side to that

People are preparing. I can see them doing it and I don’t blame them. I meet new people and I know they’re wondering how long we have left here. Friends are bracing themselves for a goodbye that may or may not happen.

I can see them doing it and I don’t blame them. Because I’ve done it too.

We’re here until we’re not

The thing about keeping people in the loop is that the topic is then in their minds… and ours.

Constant speculation between me and Mr Wanderlust about our next destination is stopping me from enjoying what may be our last few months here. (For all we know we might stay!)

So I’m making a conscious effort not to think about it too much any more. You can’t live, long term, with your head in another, as yet unknown country, doing an as yet unknown job. If we do leave, we will miss the people and the experience here terribly so I’m going to make the most of it all while I can.

We’re here until we’re not.

Expat Limbo - How do you live when you don't know where the next move is to, let alone when it will be? How do you explain being in a constant state of expat limbo?
Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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  1. KG
    2 March 2019 / 01:05

    💜🌷. We just keep dancing the LIMBO 🌞

    • 14 March 2019 / 09:27

      Hahahah love this!