Dear Miss Move Abroad,
My question may be long-winded because I’m sorting out many issues about my decision to move abroad–to Israel.
Here’s my background: At 26, after completing two degrees in software and engineering-related fields and working full-time for just over 2 years, I quit my job in San Francisco and bought an around-the-world trip ticket. My friend and I traveled from February through July last year. Nearing the end of my trip, I asked myself what things in my life I wanted to do—thing that if I didn’t do, I would regret on my death bed. One of them came up as living abroad.
Back from the trip now, working freelance, and living at home, it seems like the perfect time to tackle this dream.
I have been to Israel four times in my life, speak enough Hebrew to get by, but have no relatives there, and just a few friends, none terribly close. I always love it every time, and even tried applying for a Fulbright to move there a few years back. I’ve done all my research on job opportunities (they exist for people in my field) and the benefits the state offers to Jews who would like to move there. They actually pay you to move, roughly $4500 over the first 7 months, free health insurance until you get a job, and 5 months of Hebrew classes, just to name a few of the benefits. It seems, by the facts, that this should be a relatively easy decision. But it’s not.
What’s nagging me is whether I am running away from a good thing in the States. I have a great education, and lots of well-paying job opportunities. Though I have a free spirit and crave adventure, I’ve learned this year that stability is really important to me. Needless to say, the transition home has been very difficult for me as I haven’t yet gotten my independent life back. So one of my concerns is how long it will take for me to really get settled in Israel, and if it’s a process that I can withstand mentally.
The next concern I have is that I’ve been far away from friends and family for a while, going to college out-of-state and graduate school on the other side of the country. This gives me the independence I need to be successful abroad, but also makes me wonder if it’s a good thing to continue to endure the stress it takes to create a new life each time and to be lonely until the new friends become great friends and pillars of support. Ever since kicking off the process to move to Israel in August, I’ve addressed these concerns each month, to great distraught.
Finally, as a seasoned backpacker and solo female traveler, conquering coco huts in 3rd world countries with the best of them, I find myself torn between my material pleasures and my constant challenge to prove that I can live on less. Moving to Israel would challenge me and my bank account (while their economy is thriving, Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive cities to live in when you compare the rent to the actual salary earned). When I’m feeling empowered and idealistic, I know that it’s worth it. But when I’m feeling a bit more realistic, I wonder who I feel I need to prove to that I can change my life so drastically. And I do have student loans that I need to continue to pay….
I grow jealous of people who have lived abroad and can speak other languages, but I crave my stability and would like my older friends and close family in my life more. I feel this yearning to be in Israel, yet this body-encompassing lament that I will do it alone, and feel lonely constantly in debating this decision. Sometimes I wish someone would tell me to stop being foolish and stay, or visa versa.
Did I just pour my heart out to a stranger? Any advice would be much appreciated.
Torn between the heart and dreams
Dear Heart & Dreams,
Your letter got me thinking, and when I think, I write. But although my reply will no doubt be even more long-winded than your question, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’ve been in your place, wishing someone would make a hard decision for me. But (as you already know) no one but you can make this call. If I tried, you’d protest that I didn’t have the full picture. And you’d be right. The full picture only takes shape in your own heart, and maybe only in the wee hours of the insomniac morning.
For me, decision-making is infinitely more mysterious than rationally weighing pros and cons. I’ll be obsessing for weeks, maybe even months, and then I’ll see or hear something—a line in a book, a scene in a movie, a snatch of overheard conversation in a café—and suddenly the decision in made. (Note the passive voice—as if the decision is out of my hands—a good strategy when pitching the move-abroad idea to employers and mothers).
I like Steven Johnson’s idea that good ideas (and decisions?) come from the collision of various small hunches, some of them residing in different minds. Here’s a cool animated video of that idea.
But back to your letter. As I read, I found myself nodding, thinking, yes, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Or rather the cruxes, as there are many axes on which the move abroad question pivots. I’ve got a few decades on you, and yet I must report that the issues don’t really change as you get older. As a serial relocator I confront similar questions each time I make a move.
The question of how moving abroad affects your relationships is perhaps the thorniest of the issues you raise. I know that when I return after extended travel or living abroad, friends and family are not so quick to let me have my old place in their hearts. Even if they were supportive of my move, their lives have moved on while I was away. They’ve adjusted to my absence, and it may be years before they really believe that I’m back.
And, like you, each time I go I ask myself if I’m running away from ‘real life’ and wonder how many more starting over’s I have in me.
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know that each question is a world onto itself, and that even the way we frame the questions betrays an array of assumptions that (for me) are revealed and sometime subverted by brushing away all my fears and making the move abroad. Let’s take the ‘running away from real life’ question. Is our idea of real life so narrow that it can’t include interruptions of the proscribed life path—school, more school, work, family—that so many of us are on, or think we should be on? Are we running away or are we lurching towards a life that is far my real than our habit-bound workaday existence, where daily repetition has dulled any sense of wonder or possibility?
Reading the particulars of your situation, I was struck by how you seemed to be trying to talk yourself into (or out of) something. I, for one, have never been paid to move anywhere, and there are often meager job opportunities on offer where I end up. You, on the other hand, would be paid to move to a country you already know you enjoy and where there are jobs in your field. The timing for you seems perfect, as well. With no apartment and no fixed job, you don’t have much to extricate yourself from. You didn’t mention anyone you’d be sorry to leave behind, so I’m assuming there’s no significant other. If there is a sweetheart in the picture, then you’re not telling me (or yourself) the whole story. Sometimes we want that sweetheart (or potential sweetheart) to hold us back from a radical move, to prove that they really care.
Another thing about timing: Often the 20s are considered a time to get travel and living abroad “out of your system,” after which you will presumably settle down and never stir again. But for those who are drawn to new experiences and new cultures, the ‘right time’ will come again and again, at various turning points in your life. Throughout my life I’ve been drawn to travel or living abroad when I need a new perspective, when I feel mired in the everyday, when things are closing in and I can’t see the forest for the trees.
If you’re having serious doubt about a move to Israel right now, it’s not as if this will be your last chance. You could even move to Israel, spend a few months there, and then decide to come back to the US. Would that be so bad?
If we look at the urge to move—to hit the road, get the hell out of Dodge, start fresh—not just as an individual impulse but a global one, we might say that it’s time to stay put and to stop running. Time to stop burning fossil fuels on our own personal long-distance quests. Time to face up to who and where we are, time to get our own house in order.
On the other hand, in most of nature, stasis is not an option. Animals roam far and wide to find food, shelter, and mates. Humans add to that the search for work, for recreation, and for that ineffable quality of brand-newness that reminds us that we’re alive and that the world is, despite all the fiber optics connecting us, a very big place. Big enough to get lost in.
And as the writer Andre Gide says: One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
Miss Move Abroad