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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