It has come to this, and, like so much in international education, not as expected. The years overseas in international schools have been mostly wonderful, insightful, inspiring, yet sometimes frightening, saddening, disheartening, and never predictable.
Living internationally, one comes to accept uncertainty as part of the scene—indeed, often an entertaining part. The Covid health crisis has been anything but. The country in which we have been working hasn’t managed in any reassuring way. Poorer countries do not have the resources, nor can most citizens step back from the small-scale, hand-to-hand commerce that fuels the economy. People need to buy and sell from other people and do so daily in order to survive. Schools can close but even staff and students can’t escape the streets and shops where crowds inevitably form and masks are rare. For the expatriates, working from home is a way of being trapped away from home as infections soar and options close. Turns out, the embassy warning about that last flight out was accurate.
The Covid-19 lurks unseen everywhere in the city. In the taxis, in the shops, in schools bereft of their students, among delivery and maintenance people. Covid-19 is present, silent, and relentless. We were defenseless gamblers at a game we could not fathom.
The last few years, it has been one more job, one more country… we couldn’t let go. With Covid, things changed. Canada would take us. So, when the planes flew again, we came home, on a Covid-19 leave, I supposed—maybe for good, maybe not. It is safe here. There are few active cases. Good health care. We follow the protocols, keep our distance, and operate almost normally.
But it has been five months now. And, we have gone through all the stages—the wonder and excitement of being in a new place; trying on all the new experiences, the ease of shopping, the regularity of routine, the efficient bureaucracy—we find ourselves returning as outsiders, strangers thrilled to be here.
Yet, we are not home, are we? We grew up as a couple overseas. We established and nurtured a family overseas. Our children started primary and finished high school overseas. We have no winter clothes, no snow shovel. Cutting the grass is an exercise in frustration. What do you do with the raked autumn leaves if you can’t burn them? How many kinds of garbage can there be? Drivers obey the rules. Pedestrians step fearlessly into the streets. Nobody spits; perhaps it’s against the law.
People are different—polite but distant and wary. Working overseas, an unfamiliar face signaled a new member of the expatriate community. Here, however, an unfamiliar faces denotes “stranger” within the local community. Expats need each other. The local community, however, is already full. Inclusion must be like an immigration trial; time is required to prove you belong. We no longer have enough of that time.
The choice has been ours, of course. We have chosen the nomadic, overseas lifestyle, favoring the promise of friendship in many transient communities over the possibility of establishing good standing in one.
Our outsider status couldn’t be more obvious at the high school soccer games. We listen to the conversations of parent-spectators grouped in their camp chairs at the field’s edge. They chat about parties, jobs, kids. They cheer on the players, know all their names, comment on the opposing school. We can’t contribute. We aren’t invited. Idling on our sideline for now, we’re unsure this is where we want to stay.
Bruce Gilbert is an international educator who most recently served as Head of School at an international school in Cameroon.