The Expat Limbo

From the Expat Dictionary: expat limbo.  A condition of being between a rock and a hard place in which you might find yourself after a certain time as an expat. Your home country being the rock, your new country the hard place or vice versa.

Somebody once said to us: “If you want to go home, do so before five years have passed. After that it becomes difficult”. At the time, we were new expats with adventures ahead and more or less all the time in the world, so we paid little attention to them. But now, five years and a couple more later, I remember what they said and I understand why they said it.

During these five years ++, we have gotten to know our new country fairly well, its culture and peculiarities, the people in it. Our children have gone from – 0, 3 to 7 and from 2 to 10 years old. That’s a long time in the life of children. We ourselves have gone from “fairly young still” to “not really young anymore, heh?” (And how on earth that happened is for some other time). Our resident status has gone from “almost certainly temporary” to “who knows how long we’ll stay??”

These things put together and the uncertainty of the latter status can put you in some sort of a limbo. The home feeling comes creeping in on you in your new country – and it can be quite subtle – but at the same time you hold back because it still feels temporary. On the other hand, your home country is still home, but you’re somehow distancing yourself because you can’t be really sure if you’ll actually come back. And when or if you do, who knows what and who might have changed, who knows what opportunities await you there?

Moving home might require some big time decision making and quite a bit of starting over. Whereas here, you know what you’ve got – at least more or less. So let’s postpone those big time decisions. Or…yes, then come the ors and the buts. Confusing? Yes, it can be.

So you do the expat limbo for a while. Reading up on how to dance the limbo – you know the bending-under-a -pole dance thingy – it strikes me that some of it is transferable:

  1. Get the necessary supplies.  We’re talking inner supplies here, aren’t we? Lower the pole by heightening your knowledge, defining your feelings and expressing your thoughts.
  2. Gather some friends. It always helps, no doubt about that.
  3. Have a good back. Well yes, you need that.
  4. At first you only need to bend back slightly. Right – one step at a time. And every step counts. Every once in a while, it might also be necessary or helpful to bend over backwards

Doing the limbo requires a great deal of suppleness. I myself was moderately successful at this somewhat peculiar dance the one time I tried it, and I was never any good at doing the splits – so I’d kind of like to have both feet in the same country. Maybe it’s a question of stretching your limbs that one inch further, no pain no gain. Maybe it’s a question of taking a big leap. After all, we tend to land with our feet on some safe ground, we’re kind of feline that way. Or maybe it’s just a question of suppleness of mind. And of stretching that extraordinary quality called  p a t i e n c e  a few inches further as well.

It’ll come to us expat limbo dancers, which place we’ll end up calling our home. In the meantime, gather some friends and bend back slightly.

By Unni Holtedahl, January 2013


  1. So true. And so difficult.


  2. Elena says:

    That’s very interesting and helpful. Thanks!


  3. Thank you, and Elena, then we’ve reached our goal 🙂


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