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WHY I LEFT NEW YORK OR THE DARK SIDE OF EXPAT LIFE

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then… we return home.” (Aboriginal proverb). 

Ever since I came back from New York one question keeps coming up in all conversations – “Why did you leave New York?”. People would sometimes elaborate by saying that New York is their dream city and that they always wanted to move there. It is now getting to the point when everyone seems to be interested in me because I lived there and not because of who I am. At first, I tried to be polite and explain the reasons, but I noticed that people were never satisfied and still thought I made a huge mistake. There was this pitiful “you had the best life and now you are here?” look on their faces. So I decided to write about it and take you through the real reasons: 

  • The magic was gone. Surely, first year seem like a fairy tale. I never lived far away from home, so acquiring some level of freedom was liberating. The novelty of food, places, people, languages, and landscapes gave me the rush of motivation to explore. The fact that I moved from eastern country to the western world played a huge role as well – people were more passionate, more hard working, more quirky, artsy and more independent. The assimilation went smoothly and unnoticed. I still remember the exact day that I went to work and the only thing I was concerned about was how to get from point A to point B – I just stopped noticing the world around me, stopped looking at people, stopped cherishing every single moment. Life became a series of repetitive events, I felt like I was on the train with no last stop, with completely identical trees and houses passing by my window. I have learned that this dream world was just another piece of land inhabited by people, with their own established customs and traditions. Nothing changes once you move – you can change your country, get away from your partner and your social circle, you can change your hairstyle and the way you walk, you can even change your native language, but you always take yourself with you.

  • The loneliness was overwhelming. Loneliness is a problem. I can deal with problems, but not on the weekends, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day, when I just want to be with my family, fool around and relax. Having been faced with a lot of free time and no access to people I usually hang out with, I became a social butterfly. Having hard time talking to strangers? Move abroad and you will not only enjoy social interactions, but inevitably become the life of a party. No one around to strike conversation with? Get your own blog and you will be talking to the world. Yet among even the closest friends and supportive online communities there is no substitute for a family. Loneliness made me push beyond boundaries and put my heart and soul into personal and professional development, but how long can you push before your heart is empty?

  • On being stuck in limbo. The newly acquired freedom came with a price to pay. From minor decisions on buying electronics to determining career plans, the uncertainty spanned across all areas of my life. I would sometimes choose to freeze in a cold winter over buying a heater. Other times I would splurge on an expensive dinner, because I’d never visit that place again. The future is blurred. One minute you are the king of the world, because you achieved something extraordinary by simply moving to New York, the next minute you are lost and miserable because you have no idea what to do next. I never felt so unmotivated. Life came to a halt, there was no endpoint, no direction to follow, no goal to work towards to. People are meant to live for something and that meaning was taken away from me.

  • The sense of belonging does not exist. In New York I had a feeling of not quite fitting in with the American culture, now that I am back in Russia, I do not quite fit in with my home country either. It is like a relationship that you are unsure of but you stay because there are no better options. It is toxic and unfair for both parties. And I decided to end it. Once you leave your birthplace you are never the same – you  walk faster, you wear darker colors, you talk louder, you choose unusual food for lunch, you strive for more independence and avoid being seen as a part of the group. You are too different and people notice. The questions “Who am I?”, “Where do I belong?” become an inescapable part of your life and all you can do is continue the search for an answer.  

  • New York is exhilarating, entertaining, ruthless and exhausting. It is the best city to travel to and the worst city to live in. I never felt so compelled to do good work and to grow professionally as I did in this city. But doing good work is never enough for New York, it demands unwavering commitment. People want to live there, because they believe that it is all worth it – the constant struggle to pay rent, the tiny apartment with a crappy heating system, the never ending lines in stores, the exorbitant prices, the crowds of tourists in the only available square of nature, Central Park, the competitive work culture, the rat race that kills all attempts to establish genuine connection and form real friendships. For every single diverse opportunity New York gave me, I had to give 200% in return and the reward was trifle. The saying “if you made it in New York you’ll make it anywhere” suddenly acquired new meaning – the city puts you through the worst and you become stronger. By the end of the second year, I reached the threshold limit and realized, that I’ve been through enough, that I passed the test and that leaving New York was necessary for my sanity.

All these points sound completely reasonable and people can relate to them, but the main reason is always the most obvious and the least accepted one – after you have lived abroad, no matter what decision you made, no matter how much you struggled, you know that you can always do it again. I believe that coming back home does not close the expat path – you can go home, recharge, spend time with your family, indulge in your comfort zone, experience the heartwarming connection with old friends, explore your hometown as a tourist, learn new skills, save money, travel, do some research, find another dream city and leave again, because there are no limits except for those that we impose on ourselves.