An expat in need of roots

I’m just back to Colombia after spending two months in the USA, so I’m experiencing both major and minor cultural tremors on a personal level. Add an extended rainy season in the Colombian highlands (leaking roof and windows!) to the usual adaption one experiences when culture hopping and you get the picture.

My half-opened door in the small Colombian highlands town of Guatapé

Visiting and spending quality time with my two unique Sisters in the USA is always a trip—in the literal sense. What we share genetically more than anything else are our eccentricities.

While we all have our own idiosyncratic personalities, and despite the challenges apparent in placing three older-adult siblings into the same living space for two months, this scenario always provides me (and I hope them as well) with a great opportunity for personal growth. We’re all three prone to saying “It isn’t easy being us” far too often. 🙂

But, most of all, these extended visits give a rootless expat like me a feeling of belonging and being loved, and that’s the best gift my Sisters could ever give me.

Of course, I had great parents too–who I’ve mentioned in past posts–but the parent/child relationship plays out on a different frequency, with all the hopes and dreams of a caring parent being funneled through and onto the child which can be stressful for everyone involved.

One thing I’ve learned about family from living abroad in collectivist cultures is that no one will ever love you as much or stand beside you and support you as long as a devoted sister or brother, or at least one that sees you as a kindred spirit and not a rival. And, of course, special friends can fill this space as well and, indeed, have at different points in my life.

Recognizing (and accepting) how fractured and dysfunctional many American families are these days, I count my lucky stars to have been born into such a kind, generous and supportive one. I treasure my Sisters. Actually, they should be on the National Register of Treasures, or at least the National Register of Unique and Interesting Places. They’d definitely be on the @topten list!

Getting more to the point of this post–the wackiness of all three of us siblings gave me the perfect analogy for my life.

The revelation…well, sort of

It was about 9:00 PM and my Sisters were in the kitchen. I walked away for a few minutes, and when I came back, no one was there. Okay, not really surprising since they’re both little Energizer Bunnies–the type with long-life lithium batteries—constantly darting here and there. Did I mention that they’re older than me?

I discovered they were outside putting all the potted plants into the garage for protection due to the next day’s forecast for heavy rain storms. Never mind that we just put the pots ‘out’ a few hours earlier. The weather had been very unsettled for 2 weeks so the plants had been on an almost daily schedule of inside/outside. One of my Sisters made the comment that the plants were droopy, the colors were fading and that they looked unhealthy in general.

These beauties I saw at the NC Arboretum in Asheville certainly looked healthy. And I really DO like plants.

I laughed and said, “No wonder. These plants can’t grow when they’re constantly being shuffled around. They haven’t had time to adapt to a given environment long enough to put down any roots.” [I said this in jest since the plants were in pots and couldn’t physically ‘put down’ roots even if they were left in one spot under perfect conditions.]

But, here’s the point: once the roots of a plant (or a person for that matter) have been given a chance to grow and anchor firmly, that plant can begin to look and ‘be’ healthy, grow and blossom into such an amazing thing of majestic beauty. It’s nature’s way.

We often think that we, as human beings, don’t have to follow the rules of nature. We seem to think we can live our very unnatural lives in some sort of vortex and that the rules of nature don’t apply, no, not to us–the supreme human being.

Once I’d responded to my Sister’s comment, I realized how much those poor plants resembled me in recent years. While I was dragging my tired body from country to country looking for the ‘right’ job and the place to live with the ‘right’ mix, I was also constantly telling myself this place or that place just didn’t ‘feel’ right. At the same time, I was persistently beating myself up for not being able to somehow press the stop button. I kept thinking there MUST be something seriously lacking in my makeup, right?

Compared to most of my friends and all of my family, my life seemed almost freakish—the constant moving and setting up house, start over and repeat. I lost count long ago of the number of house moves I’ve made in my life, all as an adult and all by choice. When you’re the one making all the decisions, there’s no one else to blame when things don’t seem to go according to any plan.

Just upon being released from a Bangkok hospital where I’d been kept for multiple nights on two different visits within a 10-day period and finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, I remember a close friend calling me and being quite frank. She said, “Henry, what do you mean you’re staying on in the country that almost killed you?” I still can hear the tone in her voice. She really was incredulous.

BNH, a private hospital in the heart of Bangkok’s Sathorn district, gave me amazing care with a gentle bed-side manner, all at a bargain price compared with outrageous costs and little empathy often found within the fragmented medical system in the USA. I highly recommend the private medical centers in Thailand’s major cities to medical tourists.

At the time, I can’t say I disagreed with my friend’s assessment of my situation. I was aware I’d had a sensitive gut since high school when I’d been hospitalized twice as well with an unknown digestive malady. Being bullied as a freshman in a big, new high school obviously had brought on more stress than my body could handle.

Lying in that hospital bed in Bangkok brought back those memories and I understood that now I had allowed stress (from my teaching job at an international school) to make me sick…again. At that point, I felt certain I’d have to give up my live-abroad lifestyle and move back to the more familiar USA, but that wasn’t to be my destiny.

Honestly, I did make peace with my vagabond lifestyle somewhere around 2008. That doesn’t mean I fully accepted that it was okay for my mind to continue dragging my body across international borders in some sort of ‘Henry Was Here’ melodrama. But, I did accept, at least on a conscious level, that this was the life I was meant to live.

Seeking the Middle Way

Just because you find yourself in a groove on THE PATH, doesn’t mean that groove will always follow the ‘middle way’. That’s the most challenging part of life for me–finding that middle way. Being fully aware and engaged with the world without internalizing (think gut-wrenching) too much negativity is one of my greatest challenges, and certainly a life lesson the universe intends for me to learn.

Look, I know this post may sound like it’s written by yet another self-indulgent Westerner, given the world’s very real problems at the moment. And, I admit reading my fair share of self-help books, experimenting with alternative therapies (why not?) and regularly attending Buddhist meditation during the 1990s when I lived in a very New Agey Seattle.

But for me, all those experiences–along with the more recent 15 years I’ve wandered across planet Earth–are just part of the preparation for what’s yet to come in life. Yeah, this is the place where I say “I’m still waiting for the Mother Ship to come pick me up,” but I’m not going to reveal that yet. 😉

A picture one of my female Omani university students drew of me on a desk during  class. Looks like an ‘alien’ to me, complete with antennae.

Let’s just say I’m stubborn and don’t learn the toughest of life’s lessons easily. Like most just average students, I need some degree of repetition before I ‘get it’, and I have the scars to prove it.

Finding and walking along the middle way allows us to focus on what’s really important in life—family, friends, helping others, staying in tune with nature and being open to the new experiences just around every corner.

So, here I am, still on the move. Now back in Colombia. “Maybe this time”—the Liza Minelli refrain from “Cabaret” repeats in my head…



20 thoughts on “An expat in need of roots

    1. Jajaja,

      I’m glad you were pleased. Sorry, I didn’t bother asking you two if you’d mind me mentioning you in a post. But it just shows we really do understand each other on a deep level and the world sure needs more of those stories these days. Love you both too!


  1. Very insightful Dear Brother on the 3 of us – had to laugh – but good comparison – plant and personal growth – never had to shuffle plants as much as this year – from Easter – frost- freezes – Palm Sunday snow-and now the drenching rains for several weeks – hope the energizer bunnies come alive tomorrow as we are buried in grass – shrubs, etc. week to be cooler and drier – our family has been very blessed – love you to the moon and back.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a brave, intimate self-revelation and a testament to the love between you and your sisters Henry. Good for you! My prediction as to where you will finally settle may come true after all!

    My own situation, as you know, is not quite the same as yours but there are similarities. In my understanding of the ‘middle way’ I very much doubt now there’s one; we are what we are and the idea that we will change with time is an illusion. The best we can do is to avoid situations that cause negative feelings in us to the extent that we can, and accept that nowhere will ever be perfect. How could it be in an imperfect world?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marios,

      I’m sorry if I wasn’t more specific when I mentioned the ‘Middle Way’. My understanding of this middle path comes from Buddhist teachings. It’s a goal or aim–over MANY lifetimes–to free oneself of all Earthly suffering. While I seriously doubt I’ll be reaching that sort of enlightenment in ‘this’ lifetime, I do believe we can change (for example: change a habitual way of thinking) our behaviors and thereby rewire parts of our brain. That’s what self-actualization, behavioral therapy etc is all about. To me, the Buddhist concept of practice in order to gain some degree of control over our ‘monkey minds’ (think trickster) is very attractive. Thanks again for being such a loyal reader and taking part in the discussion!


  3. Hi Henry, Thanks for including the link to your blog. I’ve enjoyed reading it.
    Comepletely your desire leave fb. any reason will suffice, my favorites being it’s a CIA data gathering tool, a goldmine for scammers or that Mark Zuckerberg is a shape-shifting reptilian. Despite all that, it’s too useful. I’m in touch, sometimes on a daily basis, with old friends I would have completely lost touch with if not for fb.
    My tactic is to post almost nothing, just occassional brief updates, while still seeing what my friends are doing and where they’re at.
    Loved this particular post, something I can completely relate too. I’m back home after a few months in Saudi. Sometimes I fall like the ball in a roulette wheel. Round and round and round he goes, where he stops nobody knows…
    good luck and God bless

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark,

      Yes, I’ve noticed that pattern with your life as well and understand your family responsibilities weigh heavily on your work decisions. Glad you’re back at home to enjoy the fruits of your labor for a while. By the way, I’ve acquiesced to FB at this point because I need to use all the social media tools available in an effort to build a blog following and hopefully create opportunities to work with like-minded bloggers on some larger projects. Take care and enjoy family time! Cheers and thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.


  4. Hi Henry, I enjoy reading your blog posts. It’s nice to keep up with your life’s wanderings this way. 🙂 Regarding this particular post, it may be time to simply accept your rootlessness and to settle within it. You meditate – let that be your middle way on the path to being grounded no matter where you are. And your sisters give you a sense of belonging, too. This is undoubtedly helpful. I speak from experience, for I too, am rootless. My last 3 1/2 years in Canada have taught me that this will always be the case. But I stay grounded regardless, even as we’re now in the process of packing again for another overseas move. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Henry: As always, thanks for your vulnerable honesty. For various reasons, my wife and I have been nomads ourselves — mostly domestically — for a little over eight years. With each new move I feel more of an urge to say no, this time we’re staying put. And then another opportunity comes along and… well, we’re planning our next move two months from now. And we have two global nomad daughters… No, “sometimes “it ain’t easy being us.” Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you can empathize Kevin. Despite the self-imposed hardships, it’s an amazing life to live! As those wiser than I have said, “The only thing in life that’s certain is change.” Thanks for sharing your own experiences and good luck with your upcoming move!


  6. Constantly-Got-A-Foot-Hanging-Out-the-Door Syndrome is one of my greatest challenges in life. I’ve had friends interpret it in all sorts of different ways on the spectrum, from cursed to glorified. What you describe so powerfully is exactly what I have felt and thought about myself. This really shows a whole lot of insight into the mind and heart of a chronic nomad reaching the point in life when all of the moving around takes too much of a toll on the mind/body/spirit.

    One thing I have noticed about my attraction to the teaching of Buddha is how it helps me give validity to my instinctual roaming around.

    I agree with you about how it is possible to change through time, in fact, it is a given. I have seen how my need to set down roots has altered over the years, with different financial settings being the driving factor sharing the front seat with my changing physical health. At this moment, I sit on the cusp of wanting to move on from my current location, to not wanting to move at all, because it is so darn taxing, in many ways. So, basically, my foot is hanging out the door, but hesitates to take the next step. Not a very balanced stance, yet one I experience often. Hopefully, I will get my feet planted squarely down somewhere, and I really hope it is in Guatapé. I have invested a lot of time, energy, and money into settling here.

    Have you ever heard of the saying “Where you go, there you go”? No matter where I live, I will always have the same ME bouncing off of life in my own way, unless I manage to change habits that change who I am. Fortunately, I can see that I have managed to lighten the load of baggage I carry with me, and somehow, my nomadic life has helped me along the way. So, just as I am grateful for the advances I have made in my life due to dealing with a chronic physical illness, I am equally grateful for the mind/body/spirit advances I have managed to achieve while attempting to be a citizen of the world.

    Henry, you said something in a comment that really struck me:

    “I’m afraid my ‘inner most’ feelings might be a bit too much for this blog. 🙂”

    Emphatically, I insist that the opposite is true. This is as heart-based as you have gotten, thus far, and it has made the reading experience that much more powerful. It touched me very much.

    Thank you so much!


    1. Hi Carolyn,

      I’m very happy you could identify with my syndrome; it makes me feel less alone. 🙂

      Yes, I’ve heard the saying you mention and used it myself many times, except my version is, “Wherever you go, there you are.” So, true.

      Thanks so much for sharing your life experience. Comments such as yours are such a great addition to this blog!


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