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Expats during Quarantine: what we can learn from each other

After packing up my life and relocating to France for the indeterminable future (or at least until the next approved long-stay visa), riding out the coronavirus pandemic abroad was not only an unwelcome change to my life plans, it completely erased them. After wrapping up a seven-month teaching post and having all of my flights cancelled for what was originally a European beach tour, I am now enduring quarantine measures with my Belgian partner in the outskirts of Antwerp – jobless, destination-less, and with no plan on returning back to the United States anytime soon. Thankfully, I know I’m not alone. I am now part of a community of expats enduring the coronavirus pandemic in complete uncertainty of the future of our one true love – international travel. I decided to reach out and uncover what has prompted so many of us to stay.

Here’s what I found.

Harvey Herridge hasn’t lived in his home country of England since the age of 18. At 26 years old, he resides in Annecy, France as an English teacher working for the French government. “I would like to make France home. It doesn’t necessarily feel like home right now,” he tells me on a Zoom call, “But I’ve always said to myself, if I make it through this crisis in France, does it not make it more like home?” For Harvey, the decision to stay was also heavily influenced by theaspect of accessing social services in England due to the UK’s habitual residence test that requires citizens and noncitizens alike to undergo a test in order to qualify for social service benefits. “With all of this, plus the increasing difficulty of physically getting back home, it seemed easiest to stay put and not make a decision,” states Harvey.

Beyond social services, government response to the pandemic has also been a decision-making factor for many expats. For Liz Hicks, a 24-year-old American teaching English in Hanoi, Vietnam, witnessing the difference in Vietnam’s response and the response of the United States was definitive enough to support her decision to stay. “I’ve never been concerned about the [level of care] here because all of the initial coronavirus cases were cured and we were actually coronavirus-free for a few weeks,” she explains to me, “I am confident in the Vietnamese health care system and I appreciate that I would be taken care of as a foreigner. Vietnam has even sent masks and other personal protective equipment to the United States!” Vietnam is currently enjoying relative success in combatting the virus, and has not reported any new cases from community transmission for 26 days.

The decision to stay abroad is, above all, deeply personal, and solutions cannot be one size fits all. For expats assessing their own situations, independent decision-making has become a necessity. Liz had only just settled in after her first three months in southeast Asia before deciding to remain. “I feel like if I went home, I’d be starting from square one again,” she explains, “When I left the United States, I had taken the time to pack up my life with the intent of not going back, at least not for a while.” Perhaps the most personal aspect of the decision to stay abroad is the reluctance to go back to a home that may not hold the same promises as life abroad. After doing the grunt work to establish an income, secure housing, navigate foreign languages, and build a support system, going back can feel like giving up.Harveyacknowledges the uncertainty of his own situation and speculates that maintaining a life abroad may be wrought with new kinds of challenges due to the pandemic. When asked what advice he would give to the expat community, he puts it simply: “Keep fighting.”

Many of us can find affirmation by remembering the reason why we accepted the challenge of expat life in the first place, whether it was a feeling of wanderlust sparked by a semester abroad, or something deeper, such as the innate need to find something within us or the world that makes it all make sense. Whatever the reasoning is, we can draw strength knowing we had the guts to plunge headfirst into the unknown. We took the first step. I know we can take the next.