Expat life from the inside looking in

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how weird expat life might seem for anyone who has never lived abroad. That post was really about domestic staff, but it focused on how something that may seem totally normal to anyone living within the expat bubble can be quite hard to explain to someone who isn’t.

But I have come to realise that it’s not just to non-expats that you have to explain some of the stranger things about your new life – it’s other expats as well. And just when you think you’ve got it, and you finally figure out your new country, you go and move again – and have to start from scratch with the weird customs, the strange restrictions or the unintelligible laws.

Take, as a good example, a thread I followed one day on Grumpy Expat (the Facebook group I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). Someone on that group posted that her child was due to start school soon and she was worried about him having to walk there on his own. He would be four years old. Wait….what????

In the UK, it would be unimaginable for a four-year-old to walk to school on their own. I have only relatively recently started allowing my very, very sensible nine-year-old do this and we live spitting distance from the school gate. There are a couple of roads to cross but they are filled with the cars of other school parents who are very careful and aware that there are schoolchildren around. I still walk her seven-year-old sister up to the gate every morning, and would not have dreamt of letting either of them walk on their own before the age of seven or eight.

2400076417_6c78b78de2_oThe mother posting on the forum lives in Switzerland and having now googled “children walking to school on their own in Swizerland” I see it is very common and accepted practise there. It’s called “free-range parenting” apparently. I would call it heart-in-mouth parenting, but I guess you would get used to it if everyone else was doing it…

Funnily enough it was on the same forum that another discussion came up that surprised someone else. This time the discussion was about needing both parents’ permission in order to take a child into, or out of , many countries in the world these days. This isn’t something that greatly surprised me, having worked in the Foreign Office and learnt a lot about child abduction. I think we’ve been moving in this direction for a while now and with the rise in human trafficking it seems like a reasonably sensible thing to do.

Not everyone agreed and there was a heated discussion about how it made people feel, to need the father’s permission to travel with their children (something that is understandably harder for single parents to work around). However it wasn’t this that caused that moment of “you what?” that I’m referring to. Instead it was a casual comment dropped into the conversation by someone who had lived in the middle east who said they couldn’t even work without their husband’s permission. Not his work permit or visa, but his permission.

There are people in that group who have never lived outside of Europe or the United States and a couple of them were horrified at this idea. When you live with that sort of restriction, when you are fully aware of what life will be like for you, then you almost forget how, well, not right it is. It’s only when you see it through someone else’s eyes that you realise that it probably isn’t quite the norm to need your spouse’s permission to get a job.

There are many more examples like this. Apparently in Germany you just have to accept nudity in saunas or spas (which means Germany is off our list of postings – forever). In the UAE you have to be very careful about which words you use on social media – an article I wrote recently for ExpatWoman about finding things to do for the kids during the summer holidays wasn’t allowed to feature the word “pig” as in Peppa Pig because the website is based in Dubai. And I can’t have been the only one to have been caught out by the flush/don’t flush paper in the toilet dilemma depending on which country you find yourself in….

Yes, life as an expat really can vary depending on which country you live in. So if you are intending to make a move somewhere new, my recommendation would always be not to assume that things will be exactly the same in the new country to the one you’re in. There will almost certainly be some new ritual, tradition or oddity that will catch you out. Just remember, if it involves dropping all your clothes, you can always say no!

What strange custom have you come across when you’ve moved or travelled overseas? The more we share, the more we’re aware!

Schoolchild photo courtesy of Curt Smith https://www.flickr.com/photos/curtsm/

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24 thoughts on “Expat life from the inside looking in

  1. So right – it does change dramatically depending on where you are even between different locations within the same country sometimes. Saunas habits are such funny things – I remember the first time I went into a sauna in the UK – I was about 16 and wandered in completely starkers as was normal where I had grown up. I was shocked to see everyone dressed in their costumes. I always dress for the sauna in the UK now but still can’t quite get my head around the ickyness of all that sweat in the swimming costumes.

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  2. One of the interesting things I’ve found about the UK is that people won’t drive after even having one drink (even with dinner!), unlike in the U.S. Where as long as you’re under the limit you are good to go. This is a good policy, but it definitely took me by surprise at first.

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  3. Amazing as always Clara!!! It’s definitely easy to forget, or not consider how different “normal” is in different countries. It’s not uncommon to see young kids walking to school by themselves here (less so in the international school then the government school) but it’s something I think I’ll always find a little unusual!!
    A pretty strange thing here is how when people get married, they to back to work the same day, like just take the morning off!! I definitely can’t imagine that happening in many countries!!! Xx

    Ps really enjoying your book! Xx

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    • Thanks Chantelle. Going back to work on your wedding day is a great example. Having been at a children’s party this afternoon I was reminded of another. Childcare in St Lucia was a little different from what we’re used to and children would be left at parties from a much younger age than in the UK. However it was when they weren’t picked up that things got a little weird. I had to track down the mother of one five year old after my daughter’s party as this little girl was still there long after everyone else had gone home. Another mum even ended up with a child sleeping over because no one came to collect her!


  4. Ooh, great thought provoking post Clara. It’s like everything- your sense of normalcy changes with your environment! I’m in the Netherlands now and my normal here is not like it was in Britain….. and thankfully I don’t have to ask my husband’s permission to work 😮
    Thanks for linking up #ExpatLifeLinky

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  5. What an interesting read! Very right too – having lived in four countries (and about to move to a fifth) within the last fifteen years I know all too well how important it is be aware of different habits and customs. Especially the little ones, I find, like hand gestures and table manners. And yes, dropping your clothes too – I will never forget being asked to strip naked in a public bath in Japan. The poor, 18-year-old me was utterly horrified and desperate for a swimming cozzie! It makes me laugh when I think back to it now though 🙂

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  6. This is really interesting. In Gibraltar it’s completely normal for strangers to regularly put their hands in your buggy and stroke your babys head, poke their feet, shake their hands. That was something I had to get used to quickly! #myexpatfamily


  7. Pingback: My Picks Of The Week #22 | A Momma's View

  8. I had my first experience with the flush/ don’t flush the toilet paper on a trip to the Dominican Republic in January. I spent more time than would be deemed normal debating on breaking the flushing rules. I also learned I’ve been pretty sheltered and need to do some research before traveling overseas.

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  9. I used to get shocked so easily at things that are different to American or Western customs and traditions. Since living as an expat for most of my adult life, I have mellowed. It doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with everything that is different to what I’m used to or know to be the ‘right’ or ‘normal’ way of doing things, but I can certainly try and understand and respect them more. Apart from having to get permission from your husband to work – I can never respect that but I do understand that it’s a type of tradition ingrained in a culture that is very different to the one I grew up in and the different culture I’m now bringing up my children in. Great post! #ExpatLifeLinky

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  10. Clara, you could live in Germany (or Japan) and just not go to saunas! You certainly wouldn’t be able to cope with Icelandic swimming pools then as the changing rooms are fully naked with attendants watching that you wash your bits well enough to go to the pool! I knew about the husband’s permission thing, but not to be able to publish the word pig is something would never have occurred to me. I knew pigs were considered unclean and couldn’t be eaten , but they can’t even be mentioned either?

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