Whatever the reason you choose to live overseas, whether your choice or not, it involves a certain amount of sacrifice. Some would be considered “first world problems”, like not being able to find a particular kind of food (or being ‘forced’ to pay through the ass for it when you find it). In Hong Kong, downsizing and living in rather small apartments is a big one, unless you’re filthy rich, which does wear you down. However, the hardest one for most expats is sacrificing precious time with family and friends back home. Parents look older each time you see them, which can stir up guilt of living away from home, and it takes a lot of work to keep relationships going when you miss all the day-to-day stuff.
Family emergencies are, for me, the worst thing about being an expat. In just a few years I’ve had a couple of rounds of cancer, heart attacks, sudden hospitalisations, major surgery and a few personal crises. It’s not possible to be there every time, and it’s sometimes not necessary to be physically there at that moment. I’ve learnt that medical treatment is actually rather tedious and uneventful in some stages. If you were back home, you’d be plodding on, dropping in on the way to or from work. Thankfully my loved ones have never guilted me for being all the way over here, waiting to hear the next updates to know whether to drop everything and fly back, and first round treatments have thankfully worked and my next visit wasn’t that far away.
Another emergency has happened recently, this one a long, slow-burning health issue. It’s incredibly sad to see someone’s health deteriorate in such a short period of time, between one visit home and the next. It’s really hard to piece together accurate information from different family members, all with their own angle and opinion. Enormous feelings of guilt wash over you as a nurse on the other end of the line tells you what’s going on in what you perceive as an accusatory tone (why don’t you come and see for yourself?), but then melt and become softer when you explain through tears that you’re in Hong Kong and you’ve just found out what’s happened. I later send flowers online, and am prompted to write a message on the card. What can I say that conveys how sorry I am for being here while this is happening?
I’ve got flight times memorised. I’ve done dummy bookings, to see if I could get a seat tomorrow, how much it’d probably cost and how long it would take. I know, even if I don’t manage a direct flight, which airlines have the shortest connections.
It’s my worst nightmare and I know I’m not alone in that.