Feeling like a nobody.

One of the hardest thing about moving overseas as an expat partner is losing your identity. Okay at the start it’s difficult finding a house, navigating the roads, comforting the homesick children…but once the initial few months have passed and you begin to find yourself back into some sort of a new-normal, you realise something else has changed. Something pretty bloody massive. You are not who you used to be.

Well, you are who you used to be but you would be forgiven for feeling this way because this is how you will be treated from now on. As the sidekick. The uninteresting one. The one to avoid at parties (that is if you are ever actually invited to any). Never mind that you used to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse or a teacher or whatever it is that you did back in your home country. And never mind that actually you have a life here too, possibly even a job. As far as many people you meet are concerned you are a nothing. Your status is somewhere lower than the dogs and actually the only use you have is smoothing the way for your partner’s brilliant career.

But don’t judge us because we are not those nobodies. We were and dammit we still are very big somebodies. There is nothing worse than being ignored because you don’t work in the office  of the people you are meeting. Even worse for those of us who USED to work in that office and therefore actually could join in the conversation. As far as those people are concerned your brain is made of cotton wool and you couldn’t possibly have an opinion on anything useful!

This has happened to me here in Pretoria – with a few very honorable exceptions in some of my former colleagues who actually deem me fit to discuss what they do (and no I don’t expect to know everything and yes I realise that even though I have signed the official secrets act that was a long time ago and by now out of date so I don’t expect to be filled in on everything that is going on). As far as most people here are concerned I am fluff. I am my children’s mother, my husband’s wife. I am not a person who needs to be acknowledged.

Added to this sense of frustration is that everything I need to get done has to go through my husband. Want to open a bank account? He needs to get the ball rolling because I don’t work here. Something wrong with the house? Needs to go through his office. Flights home? School bills? Even medical treatment? Yup you guessed it – through his office!

We went to a party the other day thrown by someone fairly high up in diplomatic circles here. We were guests because I am friends with the fairly high up person’s wife. It was so refreshing to be there because of me not because of my husband – refreshing for him as well as me because he didn’t have to feel like he was working. It was a great night, I met some fun people and never once felt like I shouldn’t have been there. I was invited as me, not as the other half of the main man.

It’s frustrating and I know it is felt by many. What to do about it? Well if you are reading this and you know people who are the partners then ask them what they do or did, be interested in them, ask their opinions (some of us even do things like follow the local news and – shock horror – spend quite a lot of time getting to know our host country by interacting in various ways with the locals). Realise that they have a brain and treat them accordingly.

If like me you are the fluffy sidekicks then lets reclaim ourselves, our identities. Perhaps when we meet people and they ask why we are here the first thing we say SHOULDN’T be what our partners do or where they workbut rather why we decided to come with them. I wanted to travel. The opportunity to see more of the world was too much of a temptation to turn down. I decided it would be a good way to get my novel finished and do some more scuba diving.

And then, before they can start looking at you down their noses trying to sum up whether you are worth another three minutes of their time or not, be the first to move. Tell them you need to be somewhere or you’re on your way to the bar for another drink. Smile sweetly and walk away. Leave them wondering.

And always remember, whatever your situation, you are important. You are not a nobody you are a somebody and you always will be. And anyone who judges you because of what you do or don’t “do” isn’t worth another minute of your time anyway.

Here’s to all us expat partners – may we ever realise just how bloody important we are!

The Male Trailing Spouse series – Ryan in Pretoria

The fifth volunteer to take part in my series on Male Trailing Spouses arrives slightly late for our interview on the porch of a local independent coffee shop, and looks a little harried. His phone buzzes on-and-off, and he checks it every time. He has a lot of work on, he tells me. But what is really stressing him isn’t that – it’s the fact that his wife is on the campus of the local university surrounded by rioting students. Twenty-first century man he might be, but Ryan Kilpatrick is still worried about his other half.

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Ryan and wife Jenny prepare for a leap of faith into the blue….

Luckily, we receive no distress calls and can carry on with our discussion. This is the first time I have actually been able to interview one of my male expat partner’s face-to-face: up until now, I have made contact with all of them through the magic that is the internet. But a meeting with Ryan’s wife Jenny through a mutual Facebook group we both belong to led to her suggesting I interview her husband. So, here we are – my first real life male trailing spouse (note: there are many other men accompanying their partners here; I just haven’t yet persuaded any of them to take part in this series!).

What this means is that this post will be very different from the others. Previously I have asked the men to simply answer a list of questions to give us a flavour of their lives. But although I used the same questions as the basis for this interview, the conversation was very free-ranging. At the same time it brought up some really interesting issues and topics to consider.

Don’t pat me on the back

One of the things that Ryan was adamant about when I asked him how he and his wife had reached the decision for her job to take precedence over his was that he shouldn’t be congratulated for this. It was a simple matter of economics (as is often the case in a couple moving for work), and it just so happened that she was earning more than him.

“Until you started asking these questions I have never even thought about it being the male or female trailing spouse,” he said.

“I am not patting myself on the back about making this decision”.

Jenny and Ryan first came to South Africa in 2011 when she was offered a place at the University of Pretoria as a Fulbright scholar. As the scholarship – sponsored by the US Government – includes financial support for a partner, Ryan readily agreed to pack his bags and join his wife on this first expat adventure.

They had already moved once for her job but that time it had been within the States where they lived. While Ryan had studied in Denmark and worked briefly in Costa Rica during graduate school, this would be their first venture into the world of expat life – and, luckily, it was a happy one.

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All good!

Finding his feet

During his first stay in South Africa, Ryan quickly got involved in local life – volunteered to help stock a library at a local township school, played basketball, undertook pro-bono work in the Centre for Human Rights at the university where his wife worked, looked after their dog and generally played house husband. He said he relished the opportunities this experience gave him – and so when a full-time opportunity came up for Jenny at the same university a few years later, he jumped at the chance to come with her again.

Crucially, the move here this time (which is almost certain to last quite a few years – they have even bought a house, showing how serious they are about making a go of it) was a joint decision. He acknowledges that one of the reasons he has felt it easy to settle is because he knew he really wanted to come here in the first place – he took joint ownership of the decision. He also realises this isn’t always the case, and that things can be very different for someone who feels pushed into the move.

Work life

Although the first time round Ryan didn’t have to work as he was paid by the Fulbright scholarship to accompany Jenny, this time he wasn’t in such an enviable position. And, just as it is for most of us who give up a job or career to follow a partner abroad, this put him in a place he didn’t like very much.

Our conversation ranged around the issue of whether it is easier for women to give up their jobs or careers than men – something that I have been exploring throughout this series as well as in conversations in real life. As women are often forced into this position when they have children, society is somehow more forgiving of a woman who stops working than a man. Traditionally, a man is a “bread-winner” so is it harder for him not to be bringing home the bacon (or in our case, the )? Are women better at living with the status of not having a job than men?

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Ryan with his housekeeper’s daughter Mbumbu

These are all interesting questions and probably impossible to answer but my experience shows me that most men who find themselves in this situation do look for some sort of “project” – whether it be paid or unpaid – to mimic the life of a traditionally working man. Having said that, Ryan says he in no way has felt emasculated by the decision to put Jenny’s job first – it really is just the way it has turned out.

“There was a bit of joking about me being the house-husband, with people asking whether this meant I had to wear an apron,” he said. “Partly this is because in many corners of South Africa ptriarchy still rules.

“But we should celebrate the fact that more and more women are earning opportunities to live and work abroad in this increasingly globalised society, and that men like me are prepared to accompany their partner.”

However, he does acknowledge that while the mild teasing about being a house-husband didn’t get to him, he did want to do something more than shop, clean and look after the house when the couple moved to Pretoria. He took on some consultancy work online (working mostly in coffee shops – a great way to at least find some social interaction when you work from home) and then he landed a job working with Power Africa, an initiave of President Obama run through USAid.  Now the pair are the perfect DINKIES (Double Income, No Kids) – although even though he is now working, he says their next move is still more likely to be linked to her job than to his.

Making friends

One of the things I explored in the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide was how men and women socialised differently. The way I mostly make friends (apart from through the children) has been arranging coffee or lunch dates. We women basically like to sit around and talk (I realise I am generalising here but on the whole females are better at small talk than men). The guys, on the other hand, tend to like to be “doing stuff” when they meet their buddies. Hence why sporting activities or shared projects seem to work better for men.

When Ryan arrived in Pretoria for their first visit in 2011 he said he was contacted by another trailing spouse whose wife worked with the UN. Ryan connected this man, an IT expert, with the township school and library, where he helped them set up their computer lab and taught computer literacy courses to students and parents. “He actually became a much better volunteer than I ever was,” Ryan admitted.

This time round he said he hadn’t met other men in the same position as himself – but said that hadn’t stood in his way. Instead of relying on the expat community for friendship he used his early opportunity of not having to work 9-5 to get out and about as much as possible and has made friends as he goes around his daily routine: with his estate agent, the owners of the couple’s local coffee shop.

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Dog? Check. Coffee? Check.

Just do it!

So finally what does he say to others in a similar position to him thinking of taking the plunge?

“Just do it! I would say to any person that there is no job where you live now that gives you the sort of experience like this, where you put yourself out of your comfort zone and move somewhere new and have to figure out things for yourself.

“All of the clichés are true – and it really does give you a new perspective on your own country when you move away from it.”

And on this note we finish the interview so that Ryan can get back to work. And, I feel sure, check on his wife. After all, he may be safely having coffee with me while she is surrounded by rioting students, but they are definitely in this together.

If you have enjoyed this post please remember to check out the others in this series and do contact me if you are a male accompanying partner and would like to share your story.

The Male Trailing Spouse Series: Billy in Atlanta

Welcome to another post in my series on male trailing spouses. This post is a little different from my others as Billy (who blogs at St Pats to Spartans) isn’t really accompanying his partner so much as joining her. But nevertheless as an Irish expat in the US, he finds himself in a position very familiar to many of us: starting again from scratch with finding work, friends, a routine….all the while his partner’s life carries on more or less as before. Added to this, Billy and his wife Leanne had the extra stress of needing to sort out a visa for Billy before he was able to join her. All in all, I think Billy’s story adds another very interesting dimension to this series.

We got engaged in Ireland and visited Ardagh for some photos together

“We got engaged in Ireland and visited Ardagh for some photos”

Thank you for being part of this series Billy. First of all please tell me a little about yourself and your partner.

I am a male trailing spouse from Ireland who came over to the USA on a k1 fiancée visa in December 2015 to marry my wife.

I am from Ireland and I met my partner, Leanne, in 2001 while here visiting Savannah for St Patricks Day. We remained friends for a long time before, in 2014, we had a chat about the possibility of our lives being together rather than an ocean apart. Thing then started to move quite quickly as we arranged visits to both the USA for me and Ireland for Leanne.

It was during my visit to Atlanta in February 2015 that we decided that we wanted to be together and get married. Of course the visa process isn’t for the faint hearted but we got started on the paperwork right away. We filed everything with USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Services) in April, got approval at the end of June and visa was in hand mid September for me to be able to travel over to live with Leanne and finalise our wedding plans for December 2015.

My trailing is not for work, it’s not following my spouse to her new role, but it is for love. My wife has a job with Peachtree Orthopaedic Clinic and is well respected in her role there.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?

I was nervous stepping onto the plane in November 2015, I was leaving my life of 48 years behind, I was leaving my 17-year-old son, my elderly parents and all my friends. I knew Leanne had a broad circle of friends and I had met most of them at least once but now I would be starting all over again.

Leanne met my son pictured left while she was visiting Ireland and he was present when we got engaged

“Leanne met my son (pictured left) when she visited Ireland and he was present when we got engaged.”

I was a bit apprehensive about finding my own friends rather than my wife’s friends just adopting me. But they have all been so kind and nice and welcomed me with open arms. I am making friends with them all and have started to make contacts outside of my wife’s circle of friends in other things.

I have joined a photography club and in April I will start back playing football, soccer. These activities will allow me to broaden my horizon and meet new people. Friends to me is an important thing, it’s nice to be able to chat to people and not just my pet dogs.

Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?

Not really a career, I had already retired from a career in the military after 23 years’ service and had a job in Dublin Airport but that is all it was, a job, not a career. But leaving the military put me in a much better place in my life so when we had the chat about being together I was able to make the choice I did.

I am not able to work here in the USA yet as I am awaiting permission from USCIS and that is quite difficult as I have been employed since I was 17. Add in the fact that I am in a new country and that can make it more difficult, but I find things to do during the day and being a house husband for now is a good thing as it is allowing me get used to the cultural differences in the way things are done here in the US rather than Ireland

Wedding photo of the 2 of us outside the courthouse in Decatur after our wedding in Dec 2015

“Wedding picture of the two of us outside the courthouse in Decatur after our wedding in December 2015”.

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?

As I said my wife has a broad circle of friends and every one of them has been so nice. A few have offered to join me for lunch just so I can have some company during the day. Again something important when I am only settling into life here is help from others and I am never afraid to take whatever help is offered, even if it is only company walking the dogs.

I do have an Irish neighbour who is also married to an American girl and we have got together to watch a rugby match and it’s good to chat to him. He has lived beside my wife for over 2 years but it was only when I arrived and he seen the Irish flag outside the house did he knock in and say hi. I don’t really know any other trailing spouses locally but I do have 2 military friends who live in Massachusetts with their American partners and they were a great help as I was preparing to move over.

Our wedding rehearsal was done with Leanne wearing her mothers wedding dress and I was wearing a kilt the as i was wearing when I met Leanne

“Our wedding rehearsal was done with Leanne wearing her mother’s weding dress and I was wearing the kilt I was wearing when I met Leanne”.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?

I don’t think in this day and age it is any harder, the problems will be more or less the same, especially if not working. It helps that I didn’t follow my wife to a new job for her. She was already living in Atlanta for nearly 20 years and had a firm base and life here. She plays tennis so there is a circle of friends there, she has a good core group of friends and they socialise a lot together and now we are part of the ‘couples’ group which also helps. The loneliness of being at home all day would the same for either of us and it helps to have a plan of something to do every day.

Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS? Either positive or negative.

I moved for love, we knew each other for 14 years before we finally were able to become a couple in the same country. I am here and starting a whole new chapter in my life, I have to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road, figure out US supermarkets, try not say awesome and figure out sports here too. I wouldn’t change a single thing but if I could it would be that I wish we could have done this a lot sooner on our lives. But it wasn’t to be.

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?

Do it, embrace it, have a vague plan of something to do but overall embrace the whole idea. Don’t be a loner, try find something you like to do and go do it. Support your spouse as much as you can as they too will be having certain difficulties and its only together that those difficulties will be kept minor and not ruin the experience. If you are used to or have a make need to be the main bread winner, just park that notion and embrace the new opportunity that being a trailing spouse has offered up to you.

Billy and Leanne with my family in Ireland

“Leanne with my family in Ireland”

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

Don’t really have anything here, but as an Irishman in Atlanta I have reached out to organisations from Ireland based here in Georgia and they are a great help.

Some other stuff: I came over on a K1 visa and we are still in a visa application process. The application process for the K1 can be stressful and we were separated by the ocean so our support for each other was done via phone calls, emails and cards. Patience was key but in the end we got our visa and now we are just started the next step. The next step is ok as we are now together and we can support each other while being together. Why am I adding this in? Well it emphasizes the point of supporting each other, as a trailing spouse its important you support our spouse as they adjust as well as you do. We still have a few more steps in the whole visa, green card and citizenship journey, but we will do them together.

Thank you for sharing your story Billy. Don’t forget to check out the other posts in this series on male trailing spouses – and comment below if you would be willing to share yours!

The little things you wish you had known

A while ago I wrote this post on the things you wish you had known before you became an expat. Mostly this dealt with the bigger picture, like how to meet people, embracing the culture, and managing your expectations.

But there are the little things too, the things that are very much more specific to your particular country rather than to expat life as a whole. Things that are also very particular to you – after all, what is important to one family may be insignificant to another. I, for one, don’t care that I can’t get American cereals in South Africa. My American friends apparently care very much.

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When you are used to this much choice….

This was a topic recently tackled by one of my road testers, Lynsay of the blog Mills Family Travels, who has moved with her family to South Korea and has been following the chapters of my book as she settles in to her new life. In her post on the subject, Lynsay writes:

Furniture is oddly expensive  – had we known we probably would have shipped our Ikea bookcases rather than sell them for relatively little!  We probably should have brought the bunk beds too but as we were getting furnished accommodation we had to weigh up the cost of shipping (Jeju is not a cheap place to get things to!) versus what we could manage without.

Bikes are not expensive and are easy to get – it probably would have been better to sell the children’s bikes and buy new here.  For some reason they didn’t travel well and arrived a little worse for wear.

Bedding is not the same size as in the UK!  So our duvet covers and sheets are not very useful!

(you can read the full post here)

I am sure some of these points will resonate with some of you. I am also sure that they will be totally irrelevant to others. Here in South Africa, I wish we had known how hard it would be to get buy good quality children’s shoes and clothes. I also wish I had known how cheap everything would be. There are a lot of things we should have just waited to buy until we got here. On the other hand, I wish we HADN’T been told to bring lots of sun tan cream. The shops here are full of it (although to be fair, fuller now that it is summer than when we first arrived in August and really needed it…).

As it is important to try and get location-specific information before you move somewhere, I always recommend trying to find a local blogger in similar circumstances to yourself (eg has children, doesn’t have children, is working, is the accompanying partner etc) to follow. Even better if they are a friendly type of blogger who will answer your questions. And these days, there are more and more Facebook pages set up for expats in foreign cities – here we have Trailing Spouses Johannesburg and Trailing Spouses Pretoria. These are excellent resources, and just the sort of place to ask questions like whether you can get a certain brand of tea bag in yor new country, what size sheets to bring, and whether you are likely to find a decent dentist….

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Will they have your favourite brand of tea?

But of course, however hard you try, there will always be some questions you won’t get answered before your move. It would be impossible (and actually pretty boring) to know everything about your new location before you get there. There will also be questions that you won’t even know you needed to ask before you left.

And yet, even when things are uncertain, even when there are things you wish you had known, we all cope in the end. Yes you may not be able to buy the exact brand of toothpaste that you have become used to – but there are plenty of very decent alternatives. There aren’t any great clothes shops, but there is always online shopping. Bookshops are scarce – but friends with books are aplenty. Not knowing is one of the excitements of travel, an excitement that has been all but taken away thanks to our interconnected, global world. Let’s leave a few suprises in place.

Even if it is just what size bedsheets you will need for your new home.

Are there any location-specific things you wish you had known before moving somewhere new? Or do you prefer to find out about these things when you get there?

Photo credits: Cereal – Rex Roof; tea: Sarah R

The Male Trailing Spouse series: Ian in Abu Dhabi

Welcome to the second post in my series on male trailing spouses. I have had a feeling for a while that more needs to be done on this subject and was delighted when I was contacted by Eric in Nairobi who was the first to be featured in this series. The reaction to his post was fantastic – it was shared widely and I know from my referrers it reached a whole new audience for me. Today, I feature my second man (and another stay-at-home dad), Ian, who lives in the UAE with his wife and family. Thank you Ian for helping me connect men like you, around the world.

christmas party

Welcome Ian and thank you for contributing to my  blog series on male accompanying partners. First of all  could you tell me a little about yourself and your partner/family?

My name is Ian Davies a software developer from the UK. My wife is a Senior Associate with Herbert Smith Freehills. We have an almost three year old son and a four month old daughter and are based in Abu Dhabi (UAE) where we have been for the past four years. This is our first taste of life outside of the UK.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?

To begin with we were both full of excitement and keen to get on with making the most of my wife’s two year contract. We had quite a large amount of debt before coming here but tax free earnings promised to allow us an opportunity to wipe it all out. I was lucky enough to be given a matching length contract from my employer to continue working remotely so it was pretty much business as usual. Find a house, sort visas, get connected to the internet and find a good takeaway!

Looking back, I was quite lucky in terms of isolation issues. Working from home with only the dog for company was tough to begin with. No contact with anyone all day was an odd wrench that I hadn’t expected. Of course, once my colleagues came online in the UK I wasn’t short of instant messages and emails, but even so, sitting at home on your own for long periods can be hard. However, we were fortunate to have some friends already here and being sporty types we quickly managed to replicate much of our UK social life.

Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?

Initially, no, but once my wife’s contract ended we decided to move her on to a local, permanent one. The job market here for IT work is not what it is in the UK and with the arrival of our little boy I was faced with the possibility of only earning marginally more than what childcare would cost. The obvious choice was for me to give up work and become a stay at home daddy!

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?

The middle east has a huge expat population so finding like-minded people to socialise with was really quite easy. Although I don’t recall meeting many (if any) other men that had followed their wives.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?

Yes, definitely! Most expat communities will be predominantly populated by families where the wife has given up work. Perhaps a failing on my part but I have found that groups of ladies are not all that keen on having a man join in.

If you have children, are you the main carer? And if so how have you found this – are you welcomed by other expat parents or do you feel like a bit of an outsider?

I have been my son’s daytime carer since my wife returned to work when he was four months’ old (maternity leave here not being quite as generous as most other countries) and will do the same when our daughter reaches the same age. Having said that, the availability of good nursery care here has relieved the pressure massively; the half day he spends there (7:30am to 2pm) means he is stimulated both physically and mentally in a way that I couldn’t hope to replicate at home.

To be perfectly honest, I have felt very much like an outsider. As far as I know, there are perhaps one or two other stay at home Dads within the social circles that I am part of and I haven’t actually met them. Before my son started nursery I was very concerned about his social skills development as he had only me for company. Even now, after two and a half years of taking him to classes and play groups, we are yet to be invited to a “Play Date”. Only with my wife taking him to these activities while on maternity leave have the invites started.

Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS? Either positive or negative.

Not directly linked to being a male trailing spouse, rather being a male trailing spouse & stay at home Dad. To give some context to the above opinion, I had been attending a play group with my son for several months, I was the only Dad there and while everyone was very friendly, was yet to snare one of these illusive “Play Dates”. One of our friends, who had not been before, asked to come along with her daughter to see how she got on. Within the first half hour she had exchanged numbers with three other mums and had two “Play Date” invites…

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?

I would say “do it” but do so with open eyes and a willingness to “put yourself out there”. Without a job to go to (assuming that a male trailing spouse won’t have one initially) you will not have a ready-made social circle so you’ll have to make a little extra effort. Not so much that it should put you off going though; it’s all part of the experience!

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

I’m not sure that any external influences could have improved my experience, as a trailing spouse of either sex, you get as much out as you put in. Friends, much like dinner, don’t make themselves!

Thank you Ian for being part of my Male Trailing Spouse series and sharing your experiences. I hope by doing so, you have helped others in a similar situation to yourself. I would love to hear more stories like this so if you are a man accompanying your partner abroad, or if you know someone who is, then please do get in touch – either via the comments section below or email me clara@ijbpe.com.

Culture shock

Have you ever stood there, staring at a sign in a totally different language, not understanding a word of it, and just felt like weeping? Or found yourself shouting uncharacteristically at a stranger in shop because, well, they just aren’t doings the way you are used to?

If yes, then you could be experiencing culture shock – a term that describes those feelings of frustration, exasperation, annoyance, confusion, disorientation and all-round crapness that almost always accompanies a move to a new environment.

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Even the differences in things like clothing can be difficult for newcomers

Do you know much about culture shock? Did you read up on it before you moved abroad? It’s something that I started researching in detail as I was writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide – and went back to recently as I was interviewed for an excellent new podcast series called Tandem Nomads.

Culture shock is something that generally hits most of us at some point in our overseas lives. It isn’t necessarily a negative thing – sometimes it is just a “thing”. But when it can become a problem is when you don’t understand that what you are going through is normal, part of the “roller coaster” ride of moving to another country, and something that will generally pass once you have adjusted to your new life.

When I was researching for my culture shock chapter in the book, I looked at various definitions of the term, and amalgamated a few to come up with my own definition – which is:

Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere unfamiliar, a roller coasters of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally speaking they are: wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four phases in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.

Not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way – for some it will come and go fleetingly, for others it will last throughout their stay in their new country, and possibly even turn to depression. But for everyone, it is worth finding out a bit more about what you are likely to encounter when you first go abroad. Knowing the stages, recognising which stage you are at and realising that it will  almost certainly get easier is one of  the best pieces of advice I can give a new expat – they say forewarned is forearmed and in this case that is certainly true.

To find out more about culture shock please listen to the podcast, or buy a copy of my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your views – have you suffered, or are you suffering, from culture shock? If so, how did it affect you? And do you think you can get culture shock even moving within your own country? Please comment below 🙂

The perfect Christmas gift for a new expat….

Holidays are coming! Holidays are coming! As I write this, I can hear the tinkle of reindeer bells, the thudding of hooves on the roof, the ho ho ho as Santa takes off into the sky….

Ok well not quite, but although the weather outside would tell me otherwise (don’t forget, I am in the southern hemisphere so for me, this isn’t right!), Christmas really is just around the corner. And as you scratch your head and try to work out what to buy your expat friend, mother, daughter, brother, sister, colleague or basically any random person you know who happens to be moving abroad – let me present you with the perfect answer:

christmas book

Too much?

Anyway, the book has been called “an absolute must-have for anyone moving abroad“, “perfect for anyone living abroad or thinking of it” and “a must-have for soon to be expats as well as seasoned expats“. Even Bridget Keenan, the author of the acclaimed Diplomatic Baggage and follow-up Packing Up, said she wished she had had this book when she first became an expat wife.

Available from all good book stores Amazon, starting at the budget friendly price of just £2.99/$4.62 (who makes up these prices??) for an ebook,  or £7.99/$9.99 for a hard copy, you can use this as the perfect stocking filler, wrap it to put under some lucky person’s tree or send it by email as a gift card (or ebook if you are in the US) to that certain someone who you know will most appreciate such a gift.

Happy Christmas, thank you to everyone for your support this year and especially to everyone who has bought the book and/or left a review. Here’s to another great expat partner year!

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How far I’ve come….

My husband was on a business trip last week. To the Seychelles. Yes. the Seychelles. And funnily enough, it was extended from three nights to five nights. So in the end, he was away more or less for the whole week.

It was a bit of a pain – mainly because we had parents meetings at the school on Thursday, which he hoped to attend with me. But in all honesty, it was no more of an inconvenience than it would have been had we still been living back home in the UK.

Which made me realise quite how far I have come in the three months and 20 days since I first arrived, wide-eyed and disorientated, on the flight from London.

Back then, it seemed impossible that a time would ever come when I would understand all the locks, keys, bars, codes and fobs – let alone the alarm system – that we have to battle through to get in and out of our home on a daily basis. I would fumble for the wrong key for what seemed like eternity, getting increasingly panicked that I would be locked inside forever. I also doubted that I would ever drive further than the bottom of the road, terrified that I would get lost and never find my way back to the house. Or get hit by another car.

IMG_20150806_090728277_HDR

I’ve finally worked out how to escape the house!

The mornings also seemed like something I would never get used to. Our children have to be up by 6am every day in order to be ready for the school bus that picks them up at the gates of the compound at 6.45am. This mad scramble includes forcing the youngest out of bed and into her clothes, finding something that they will both agree to eat at that time of the morning (tortilla, bread sticks, dried fruit – I don’t care, as long as they don’t walk out of the house on an empty stomach), making two packed lunches, checking they both have caps, water bottles, homework, reading books, football kit or swimming kit and musical instruments, and applying sunscreen.

A mad rush it always is, but between myself and my husband we now have the routine down pat: he does the upstairs part and gets dressed himself; I come downstairs and make the breakfasts and lunches and look after things like homework folders and swim kits. He then walks them to the end of the road (or walks with them as they run, on the frequent days when the bus is here before we are ready) and waits at the end of the road until they are picked up.

With him away, I have to be both upstairs AND downstairs person. I have to be in all places at once, and I have to get myelf dressed as I can’t be seen walking to the end of the road in my PJ’s. Although, sorry neighbours, the stripey blue and white slippers stay.

So, parenting solo, I am having to do a lot of things I really couldn’t imagine myself doing a few months ago, back when I was a “newborn” and wrote this post. But do them I do – I get the children to school on time, I cope with all the security measures surrounding the house (and haven’t even set the alarm off while being here alone!), I find my way all over town, taking myself and the children to social events in places I have never heard of.

I know where to shop for the best meat, I know where to get the peanut butter that I like (from a chemists. weirdly!) and which supermarkets sell the best fruit and veg. I have found a hairdresser, bought rugs and tables and chairs and printer cartridges and all sorts of other things I wouldn’t have had a clue where to source not that long ago. I have worked out how to tell a 200 Rand note from a 20 Rand note, I even know which coins are which. Although don’t test me on the little copper ones – I need my reading glasses for those! I have also joined a gym, put our name down for a puppy and – last but certainly not least – managed to accumulate a really great group of new friends.

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South African coins. I know what they are now!

It happens wthout realising, this growing up, passing from being a newborn to a toddler to where I am now – perhaps a pre-teen or even an adolescent. Confidence grows with every night alone, every car trip somewhere new, every small emergency dealt with. It also helps when you get to know a few people well enough to be able to ask them things – and have numbers in your phone that you know you can call on if you needed to.

I’m still only a youngster though as I know I have a little way to go. I still balk at going into Johannesburg on my own, or taking the one safe transport public transport system open to me (the Gautrain). I have also yet to use Uber, although many here recommend it. I haven’t yet had to deal with a REAL emergency (one that involves doctors or hospitals or getting locked out). I also haven’t opened a bank account or even got myself a Woolworths card – although they ask every time I plonk my shopping down at the check-out.

So I have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. I am growing up, learning every day and hopefully gaining confidence with each new discovery. Before I know if, we will have been there six months – and I will be welcoming new arrivals like an old hand. When you are an expat, you don’t have to have been somewhere for very long to feel like an old-timer.

But until then, I think I am going to carry on sulking, wearing black and listening to Death Rock Kill Queens – or whatever it is that teenagers listen to. After all, I’m still just a young thing.

Where are you on your expat journey – still in nappies? High school age? Or perhaps collecting your bus pass?

Photo credit: South African coins – Paul Saad

 

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Expat World – it’s very weird

“Where do you go for a new tyre on a golf cart?”

This was one of the questions posed on a local expat forum last week. Nothing wrong with that at all, and people started adding thoughtful replies and suggestions. Hopefully whoever posted the original comment soon had her new tyre and her golfcart was once more back on the road…errr, green….

But occasionally when I see comments like this I stop and think what an absurd world we live in. Back home, how many of us would ever ask where we would need to replace a tyre on a golf cart on anything but a specialist golf forum? And how many more of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid when we saw such a question posed? Yes, it is a weird world we live in.

Many people call it the “expat bubble”, although really, given all the debate there is over the word “expat” and how it differentiates from the word “immigrant” or “migrant”, I think it is more about a certain type of expat bubble. Really, this is the bubble of those of us lucky enough to be posted on corporate or government packages which include housing and schools, and to countries in which we are able to afford to do things like play golf all day. The down-side to this, of course, is that we often also can’t work – finding a job as an expat partner in many of these countries is downright difficult thanks to the local labour market or things like visa restrictions. Hence the need to find things to do – like play golf. So long as our tyre isn’t busted!

As I read the question about the golf cart tyre I was reminded of the chapter I wrote for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide about domestic staff. The chapter starts with a discussion on a parenting forum between women living in a country like Singapore or Hong Kong, where having a full-time nanny is normal. They talk about whether it is better to have a live-in or a live-out. Had the discussion been kept just to those expats who had experienced this way of life then it would all have been fine. As it was, they were interupted by others – others who had only ever lived in countries where in order to have a live-in nanny you would have had to be married to a hedge-funder. Or be a hedge-funder yourself. Or both.

Children and their nany - 1924

Children and their nanny – 1924

It wasn’t a bad-natured exchange between the different groups of women but it did show the original group up for what they were – immensely privileged women living in a world where everyone else was in exactly the same situation so they possibly forgot how unusual their circumstances were. Not to say we don’t all appreciate our lives as expats  – it’s hard not to when you pass men literally on their knees begging for a bit of food for a few rand at traffic lights every day. Or you donate some scuffed old shoes to your helper who tells you she will give them to the school where her granddaughter goes because there are children at the school with no shoes at all.

So it’s not that we aren’t aware or that we aren’t grateful but I do think sometimes we forget how weird it all is. That it’s normal that every single other expat I have met here has a swimming pool in their garden. That we book safari weekends away in the same way that we would book a shopping trip to London back home. And that asking about a new tyre for our golf cart is as normal as asking about where to get the half price offer on cocoa pops.

Yes, it’s a weird world we live in. But a rather wonderful one as well.

(Nanny picture: Robert of Fairfax)

Expat friendships – fast and furious!

“I’m new”

“I’m new too”

“Can I be your best buddy and do lots of things with you and chat every day and feel like we have known each other for years instead of basically 0.3 seconds?”

“Of course!”

So goes expat friendships – there’s nothing like being in a totally alien place with literally not a single contact in your phone to force you to find friends. And quick.

I’ve written about friendships a number of times on this blog already – perhaps an indicator of how important this aspect of expat life is to most of us. I wrote about Finding my Support System in this post, My New Best Friend (my GPS) in this one and about how and where you meet people when you first arrive somewhere in this one. But what I have been pondering more recently is not just about how you find those friendships, but what those friendships really mean when you are an expat.

So far I think I have been extremely lucky here in Pretoria.  Thanks to the fact that my children are still primary/elementary school age, I have found it reasonably easy to meet other parents. But already even though it really is only a matter of weeks since I met these new friends, I feel like I have known them for years. Once you find those friends, your bond is often a very strong one.

As I was pondering this fact I read two stories from expats who confirmed this view – that there really is something special and different about expat friendships, where you meet in a vacuum and fill it as fast as possible with coffee dates and Facebook chats and playdates with your kiddies and evening get-togethers with your other halves.

It starts with a coffee...but soon it could be friends for life.

It starts with a coffee…but soon it could be friends for life.

First, there was a beautiful tale shared in an expat Facebook group from a woman who ended up being the birth partner for someone she had only just met. The pregnant lady’s husband was out of town when she went into labour so she called on one of the only people whose contact number she had in her phone (having very recently arrived in her new location).

But even though they were still relative strangers, the fact that they were both living somewhere with none of their usual support groups (family, old friends, long-term colleagues) meant the woman telling the story felt entirely comfortable and okay about performing this role. I feel sure that now these two will remain in touch for a long, long time even if their lives are scattered to the winds as our expat lives so often are.

Secondly, I read this post by now ex-trailing spouse Liz who writes about the “end of her journey”:

“Over the past year I have really enjoyed sharing stories with other trailing spouses, both in real life and online. I know it won ‘t be as easy to find a sense of community when I move back, the sort of close community spirit that exists here amongst the trailing spouses is very rare indeed. I’ve learnt how other people can surprise you with the things they are willing to do for someone they may not know that well, or how much effort friends will go to – when there are no family members nearby to offer their support, your friends often offer a lifeline.”

The words “close community spirit” really sums it up for me. I have joked many times about how we desperately find friends in our first few weeks in a new location – and then spend the next six months trying to shake them off. Or about the “friendship dance” we do when we meet someone new and spend the first few meetings trying to work out whether we actually like them or not.

But in reality, this life brings us together – often with people we wouldn’t naturally be friends with, but people with whom our situation bonds us. Having no-one else to rely on but each other means that we turn to these new friends for support, comfort, entertainment, reassurance, companionship…..all the things friends and family back home have been giving us, but now we need it all at once and all in double-quick time.

Some of those people will be “just now” friends – the ones who you spend time with while you are both living in the same place, but who you won’t stay in touch with apart from perhaps the odd Facebook comment. Others will be friends for life – the ones you long for, visit in new places, whose children you will watch growing up (even if from afar) and whose birthdays you will still mark. But every friendship is valid – as expats, we all know how important they are. And each friend we make helps this strange peripatetic life just that little bit easier, that little bit less lonely and that little bit….well, friendlier.

When we move on, to another country or back home, we may not take the friends with us but we take the MEMORY of those friendships. We know how it feels to be alone, to be the one whose only daily adult interaction is with the supermarket checkout person or the security guard at the gate to our compounds. And we know how it felt when someone reached out to us and offered us even just a smile, a few words, an invitation or a recommendation. We remember this and hopefully we take it with us so that we in turn can become that person. The one who offers friendship to those who need it most.

Here’s to our expat friends!

Have you got any special expat friends? How and where did you meet them? Have you kept in touch with friends from previous locations?

Picture credit: Luis Cerezo

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