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.

A Series on Expat Depression #8: Helping others

In previous posts on this subject I have talked about how you can help yourself – from simple self-help methods like talking to someone, exercise or finding a new focus, to seeking professional assistance. In this post I want to talk more about what to do if it is not you who is suffering, if you know others who may need your help and what you can do. This includes people close to you such as a partner or family member as well as friends and those in the wider expat community. In order to help with this post I asked people whether they had helped others, what they had done, how common they felt depression was amongst their own expat community and whether they felt it was more likely to affect the workers or the accompanying partners.

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How common is depression within the typical expat community?

I am a trained coach and decided to use the skills to help others. I did have clients who paid but I used the skills with people in the expat community…who just needed a boost, a point in the right direction. I think it is a common thing and it can hit anytime in the expat cycle and for any reason. Nicola M

Statistically there has to have been many people in my community who has depression! I think people just don’t talk about it. Catherine.

Although this is a difficult question to answer as one of the problems with depression or depressive feelings is that people don’t talk openly about it, most of those who responded to this question said they believed depression to be anything from “quite common” to “very common” amongst expats – with quite a few leaning more towards the “very” than the “quite”. Of course it is hard to know exactly what this means as most people don’t walk around with a badge on saying “I am depressed” or even necessarily ever get a proper diagnosis; but without a doubt according to many experienced expats this is an issue that an awful lot of people have had to deal with – probably a lot more than most of us realise.

To be fair though not everyone thought it was common – or at least, any more common amongst expats than non-expats. However even if this is so, what is an issue isn’t just how many people become depressed but how easy (or hard) it is to deal with your feelings when you are a long way from home, your usual support networks and an accessible professional service.

Who is most likely to be affected?

I think it can occur when people stay too isolated, don’t really connect to their community and locals. I would say working people are pretty safe from depression due to their involvement in tasks and social connections. Non-working mothers with small infants would be at risk…if they have no chance to connect to others. Sarah.

Non-workers for sure. Workers have at least 8 hours when they are distracted from their feelings. My only friends in my location are girls in the same situation as me. We often band together. Susanna.

Of those who answered this question almost everyone said they believed non-working partners were more likely to be affected than their working spouses (with the possible exception of people working in very stressful industries or environments like NGO’s/charity workers/health professionals in very challenging circumstances). This was put down to isolation and loneliness, lack of things to occupy themselves with, loss of careers, loss of identity. One described it as a “helpless feeling not to be financially contributing”; another said “I think the trailing spouse gets it more because we suddenly have nothing to do”.

I think it is more common among non-working spouses. Many of us are professionals in our own right and have lost a big part of our identities. Maybe we had “leaned out” of the workforce for what we thought was a short time to care for our family and the expat lifestyle has extended that beyond the timeframe we had envisioned. Rose.

But a note of caution from one respondent, who thought it was probably more common than is realised amongst the working partners too. Probably the majority of people who answered my survey were non-working partners and thus were speaking from personal experience. Most were also women and I believe we are more likely to speak up about this issues. I suspect it is harder for the partner who has moved overseas for a job, possibly uprooting their spouse and family in the process, to admit that things haven’t worked out the way they had expected. This isn’t something I can back up here with facts and figures but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there wasn’t as much hidden or masked depression amongst the working partners as those who are not.

How can we help others?

I listen, go to newcomers coffees, share advice on where to find Western goods, how to cope with local Chinese, how to work within the censorship issue…. Mary

In Mongolia I tried to help a young wife who found herself in a situation…that threw her into a deep depression. We spent many hours talking and crying and I think my experience of depression, knowing the signs as well as knowing the experience of it, was helpful to her. Robyn.

So plenty of people seem to be aware that expat depression is a common thing, how many people have done something about it? This is such an interesting topic as I truly believe the more people there are that are aware, the more who talk about it openly and without shame, then the more people will already be getting help than otherwise. Even in the course of writing these posts I feel I have been able to talk to so many more people than I usually would about this subject – both through the blog and Facebook page and in real life – because I have been able to open up the discussion.

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Sometimes something as simple as a coffee with a friend can make the world of difference

So talking – and just listening – is definitely a thing we can all do and a lot of people have done. This doesn’t have to necessarily be an “open discussion about expat depression” – it could just as well be a conversation which starts with “how are you finding things here?” However, when I think about reaching out to some of my friends (not necessarily the ones here with me in Pretoria but other expats I know in other places) I can’t even imagine how to get them to admit there is a problem. If there is one of course. And that is one of the issues – how do you know if someone needs your help? Are you going to insult them by even a gentle probe?

Nevertheless people did tell me that “listening” was one of the most common ways they have helped others – listening, emphasising, even, as one person described, “giving them space to vent” seems to go a long way. Otherwise, sharing information to help make transition easier, making lunch and coffee dates to ease loneliness and isolation, comparing experiences good and bad are all ways people have found to help other expats. My favourite of all though was the respondent who said she had recommended my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide J

Who else should be listening?

We have talked about helping ourselves, we have discussed helping others within our community but there is another party in this who some believe should be involved and that is your employer (or the employer of your partner). I was interested to hear whether people thought their bosses should be involved in this issue – and if so, what they should be doing. Watch out for my next post on expat depression to find out more.

Photo credits: Lonely – Pascal Maramis; Coffee shop – J Brew

If you have found this post helpful then please read the other posts in my series on expat depression. And let me know in the comments below whether you have helped others in your expat community and if so how. 

 

 

 

What’s it like being a same-sex expat partner?

When I originally started writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I immediately recognised how important it was going to be to include something about same-sex partners. Whilst accompanying someone to their job in another country can be hard for everyone, at least most of us don’t have to consider whether the move could actually put our lives in danger. Not only that, but how about living somewhere where the host country doesn’t even recognise our official marital status? Or where the only way you can get a visa is to pretend you work for your partner?

Finding people to talk about their experiences for the book wasn’t easy though. This can understandably be a very personal subject and not necessarily something people want to share with the world. I was very grateful to the two women who did speak to me and gave me some very interesting insight into the way they had to live their lives thanks to their LGBT status.

Up until recently though I hadn’t heard from any of the guys. Until Stefan responded to my call for men to take part in my Male Trailing Spouse series. Stefan provided some great answers (as well as my favourite ever picture on this blogsite) to my questions about his life accompanying his husband to China – but with the emphasis on his being a man rather than being gay. However he also put me in touch with a friend in China, Michael, who was also living there with his husband. And Michael very kindly agreed to answer some questions from a LGBT perspective. I think you will agree his replies were fascinating and very eye-opening for the rest of us.

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Michael and his husband Juan Manuel

 

Welcome Michael and thank you for being part of this blog. First can you tell me a bit about yourself and your partner

I am from Los Angeles and Juan, my spouse is an Argentine diplomat born in Buenos Aires. We have lived together since 2009 and married in 2011. Prior to Beijing we were based in Tel Aviv for 3 years.

I am a TV producer having worked as an Executive Producer for networks such as ABC/DISNEY, NBC, MSNBC, MTV/Vh1, Spike, Bravo among others. I came to Beijing on a diplomatic visa (unofficially as the Chinese government would not issue me an ID card but “in their system” I am listed as the spouse with full rights and privileges) which meant I could not work and after a year (we weren’t sure we would stay given the ID issue) I took a position with CCTV which meant me changing from a diplomatic passport to an unofficial one.

I always loved traveling and exploring — I went to Israel as a teenager, lived in Italy and traveled much of Europe in my third year of university and enjoyed living abroad in Tel Aviv on account of having a boyfriend in Israel while I was beginning grad school in NYC. I consider meeting my husband a double blessing as his work takes us literally all over the globe and he’s a great guy!

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As a same-sex couple, what sort of things did you have to consider before you moved to your current location?

We have to consider the political and social landscape of the country. After our government petitioned on account of the Vienna Convention for China to legally recognize us (which did not officially happen), our Foreign Ministry asked every Embassy to report back on the “status of same sex couples”. Places like Morocco dutifully reported “not only is it illegal, but it is punishable by death!” Cross that off our list. And less obvious places like the UAE state they will accept same-sex couples if the partner is listed as “member of the household” meaning ‘staff”.

Given the situation in China, we decided going forward that we would not choose countries where we could not live as a “out couple” or in a place with severe homophobia. We are 42 and 41; the way I see it, our lives are half over and we don’t need to burden ourselves with uncessesarry human rights issues in our house! We are healthy but some couples have to consider health concerns — places like India can be difficult for couples that are HIV positive because of the risk of infection due to hygenie or water issues.

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Please tell me a bit about your current location and how you have felt moving here as a same-sex couple. Have you been welcomed? Experienced prejudice? Felt no different from other, non-same-sex couples?

Tel Aviv was the best. Despite the political situation for 30% of the population there (Arab-Israelis/Palestinians) which is sad to say the least, being a gay couple is widely accepted and appreciated there so our life in Israel was amazing. Beijing is a bit more complicated.

Our feeling was that China is not homophobic per say, it’s more of an ignorance issue…however, upon receiving my job offer at CCTV (I was the 2nd foreign producer they ever hired in the English language news channel FEATURES department), my immediate boss, who is a thoughtful worldly person, told me not to “tell anyone you are gay…they won’t understand and therefore may lose “face” for you…they won’t respect you…”

As it turns out they hired me as a “single person” which was a big lie and surprising since CCTV is the mouthpiece of the government and my husband works for our Embassy and apparently there is a Chinese law that forbids foreign diplomatic spouses taking work at CCTV. Oops.

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Has there been any differences between how you have been treated by the locals in your host country, and by other expats?

We are active with the LBGBT Center here and notice that many of the young, educated Chinese are not officially out (numbers put it at less than 10% of the population) and many still plan to have fake marriages for the sake of their parents — since it is the burden of the wife to take care of her husband’s parents. Ugh.

For expats, even in the Diplomatic circles, it definitely depends on the country We lived in a building with a few Arab diplomats and our relationship was not spoken of or ignored by them. Same with African countries and even our Thai diplomatic gay friend has to put up a cover when around us.

Have there been any special considerations you have had to make eg can you get a working visa? Is same-sex marriage recognised by your host country?

We heard same-sex couples can get VISAs in China, just not diplomats which is normally the reverse! Both the US and Argentina recognize same-sex marriage. We are legally married in Argentina and I have the same rights and privileges of straight spouses.

We spent nearly a year and a half with the Foreign Ministry here and our government trying to find a solution which was exhausting. Our legal reps at the Embassy demanded full recognition referencing the Vienna Convention and China balked saying “we never offer that” but apparently just this past September, their Ambassador in Buenos Aires asked our government to allow parents of Chinese diplomats to receive diplomatic immunity in Argentina so our Team asked for my recognition here which went unanswered.

We think eventually they will grant this status as it’s only a matter of time, and given the global social politics, being on team GAY is not only a smart political decision but also an economic one!

Do you think it has been harder for you as the “trailing spouse” than for your partner especially if they applied for and were appointed to their role before leaving your home country?

Absolutely. I gave up a very interesting, high-paying and successful career that only exists for me in the US. My spouse always said he would give up his career and try something else if we decided to go back to the US for my career which definitely softens the blow of working at a reduced capacity abroad!

What advice do you have for others in the same situation as yourselves?

Preproduction or pre-plan even the most minute detail. I thought it would “all fall into place” and when shit started not working in Beijing it really took a toll on our relationship and I suffered for nearly a year and a half stuck in limbo and not working. And literally going a bit mad! Our saving grace was that we made a lot of friends and created networks and we fell into place.

Thank you to Michael for answering my questions and providing such useful information. I would love to hear from other same-sex partners or about others in a similar position of you know of any. Please message below or email me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.

A Series on Expat Depression #3: When and Why does it happen?

In my post last week I looked at the concept of “expat” depression and whether it could be classified in a division of its own (in the same way as, for example, postnatal depression). Whilst the jury is still out on this, I did find it a useful exercise to help me reflect on why we expats are more susceptible to these feelings than many others. Certainly what I have found through my research for these posts is that sometimes the depression experienced by expats is a one-off, caused basically by the change in circumstances and the associated issues that go with the relocation; other times these changes reignite underlying problems so that those who have suffered in the past find their symptoms return when they first move abroad.

Whichever one though, my discussions on the issue with counsellor Anita Colombara has led me to conclude that depression is depression and it is always worthwhile trying to do something about it (whether by self-help methods or seeking professional help) sooner rather than later.

Today I want to move on and start to look at some real life examples of how depression has affected expats. I am going to start by looking at the when and the why. The where is in there too but it less relevant – after all, depression is something that can happen to expats wherever they are in the world.

I realised pretty quickly when I started breaking down the answers that there were a lot of common themes in responses to the survey I put together for this series. So taking each theme in turn, below is a list of some of the most common reasons given for triggering expat depression. Hopefully by recognising possible danger points in the expat cycle, I can help you be more prepared. In later posts I will look at some of the ways people have dealt with their depression in some of these situations.

Moving somewhere new

“People tend to underestimate how upsetting a move, and moreso an international move, can be. Some ex-pats chalk it up as normal culture shock. Yes, that could be so. But even seemingly small life changes can trigger  more profound depression or anxiety issues.” Anita Colombara

Of course, moving to a new place doesn’t only happen to expats. Many people have moved across town to a new house, to a neighbouring city with a new job, even to the other side of the country. But becoming an expat is something different altogether – you are not just letting go of the familiarity of your old home and neighbours, you are moving away from the cosiness of a complete culture. And very often you are stepping completely into the unknown.

Whilst the relocation is often just the start of things, many find that the early days in a new country is enough in itself to trigger their first bout of depression. Here are a couple of people talking about these changes:

“When I first moved over to the UK with my husband, it seemed like nothing was familiar. And why would it be? We were in a different country from my home country. I loved aspects of it…but then there were those certain times when I was feeling a bit vulnerable and needed something – anything – that felt familiar” Erin.

“I know….that depression can be triggered by lots of changes and their associated stressors or stresses. Moving to a foreign country, away from family and friends and any support system you might have is really exposing yourself….” Robyn.

But as difficult as it may be, the move alone isn’t usually what triggers the depression. Instead, it is usually a combination of those factors that so many of us recognise as being part and parcel of expat life – starting with that old chestnut:

Loneliness/isolation

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The expat “bubble”?

I suspect many of us underestimate how isolated you can feel when you first move somewhere new. We probably think we can make it through the first few days/weeks/months (possibly even years) without close companions, but in fact as much as anything it is the daily interactions with familiar faces as much as the close friends and family that help us cope.

You often lose this interaction when you move – maybe you stop working, or you don’t go to the school gates every day, or you don’t shop in the same shops on a regular basis. It may take time to build these sort of regular meetings up, you may never be able to do it. And although social media is a godsend to many of us, it is never truly a substitute for proper, human, face-to-face contact.

People mentioned loneliness because they weren’t working, they didn’t have children, they did have children, they couldn’t find ways to meet people….loneliness affects people in so many different ways and for so many different reasons, which is why it is hard to say exactly when and why it happens. Here are a couple of examples, starting with more from Erin:

“With my husband working long and crazy shifts, I felt isolated and alone. And because we had moved two months before the twins were born, I didn’t really have a good local friend to lean on. I was able to Skype home but if anything, it just made me feel more depressed. I wanted to physically hang out with those people. I wanted those people to go out with me or look after the twins while I took a break. Skype can do many things – but it can’t do that”.

And, from Amanda:

“…my partner was working and I wasn’t so I was spending a lot of time alone. Living in a small town made it hard to meet people, as most people were working during the day. The lack of daylight in the winter didn’t help as it made it difficult to get out of the house much”.

Living in a difficult place/cultural issues
Not all expat assignments are equal – some, without a doubt, are going to be more challenging than others. Although I should add that what one person finds hard is another’s easy ride. A lot of people think a Caribbean island would be a dream posting. I would tell them otherwise!

But even so, there are some places and some situations which undoubtedly do put extra pressure on. Alyson told me about the “cultural differences” that made running a business in Kenya quite a “challenge”; Sarah described living somewhere that she couldn’t drive (by law) or walk alone (which attracted negative attention). Talking about her time in India, Robyn told me:

“I was in an overcrowded, noisy, hot, dusty, culturally shocking place, trying to find my feet without any safety net and it wasn’t long before I felt some of the symptoms of depression start to take hold”.

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India streelife – can be quite a culture shock to many.

Lack of job/role/purpose and boredom

“It started because I was a trailing spouse – I had a successful career of my own, but I gave it up to come abroad….” – Susanna

“After both my move to Africa and my move to Asia, I experienced feelings close to depression. My entire four years in Africa were an emotional roller coaster. The first three I was a stay-at-home mom with full-time staff, which left virtually “nothing” for me to do”- Mary.

“On my last island there was little to do. Seriously little to do. It’s beautiful for a holiday but to live there it’s difficult. Most of the wives ended up leaving to return back to the UK. We did two years but I felt like I was going mad from boredom” – “Princess Banana Hammock”.

Closely related to isolation, many people stated that one of their main problems was having no purpose in their new life. This is particularly common for the non-working “trailing” partner, who gets left at home when their spouse walks out the door to work. I think it is also a lot harder for those who don’t have children or whose children have left home. No job, no social life, often not even a real role in the house – domestic staff being such a common part of expat life for many.

I have often likened life abroad to that of being a 1950’s housewife – certainly, this is how it feels on the days when my main mission is to sit at home and wait for the electrician to turn up. And whilst there is nothing wrong with this type of life, you can see how demoralising it can become for those of us used to, well, a bit “more”.

While finding a job (paid or unpaid) is high on the list of many new expat partners, this can often be impossible due to lack of opportunity, visa restrictions, language difficulties…any of a number of things can impede your path to greater fulfilment and lead to a new sense of failure when you find you not only can’t find a role for yourself in yournew country, but you also can’t earn an independent income.

Loss of control
Another common reason for finding life abroad hard is a feeling that you have lost control. Again, this is probably more common to the partners of those who are working – the ones who have to call their spouse’s office if they need something done in the house or whose visa relies on their partner’s job or who can’t open a bank account in their own name. You may not get to choose your house, your furniture, even the school your children go to. Another major reason for this feeling of losing control is that their very being in that country relies on their partner’s job – and often on the plans of their partner’s employer. It’s hard to plan a life when you don’t know if you will still be living in your current location a year, even six months from now.

Life event
Of course not all depression that that develops among expats is based solely on their actual expat experience. Often it is triggered by the sort of thing that could happen to anyone, anywhere. But it is the fact that you are not in your home surroundings with familiar faces around you that can turn a distressing situation into one that plunges you very low. Anything from a major traumatic occurrence (a car crash, being robbed, an illness or death of a close relative) to something basically joyful but stressful like the birth of a new baby can set you off. This is especially true if you are already susceptible to low moods or have suffered from depression in the past. And of course, what is potentially a difficult situation is made harder by being a long way from your usual support networks.

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Even something like a minor car crash can have a traumatic effect when you are living far from your usual support networks

Mary gave an example of how a series of events can really spiral out of control. After describing how her daughter basically shut down following a move to China, she:

“developed health issues….then the vet here literally killed our beloved cat that we’d brought with us and then the company stopped paying us for three months so we were living on savings. That’s when I hit bottom….”

Whilst most of these things (bar her daughter’s reaction to their move) could have happened anywhere, it was the fact that these events were combined with their move to a new environment, and the accompanying culture shock of the move, that caused the downward spiral. Shockingly, Mary admitted in her response to the survey that she had seriously considered suicide at this point; luckily, just giving herself this control over her own destiny helped her to “refocus” and she now says she is feeling a lot “better”.

I urge anyone who feels like this to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Repatriation
Finally, I wanted to mention something that comes up over and over again in any discussion on expat depression, and that is going home again.

Many people underestimate quite how hard this can be – and I suspect that it is often this underestimation that partially at least leads to these feelings. Why would it be hard – you’re just going back to that place where you were happy and had friends and family around you, right? Well, sadly, not – what often happens is that whilst your home and those who live there hasn’t changed, you have. And this disconnect between what you think will be waiting for you when you return and the reality can often be what causes the problem.

Reasons for moving home varied, with some people having more control over it than others. But even those that chose to return often found their lives a lot harder than they realised it would be –

This from someone identifying themselves simply as “a trailing spouse”:

“When I moved back to my home country employment was difficult and, although highly skilled, I was unable to find work. My resume, which showed frequent moves, “outed” me immediately as “someone not worth investing time in”….my oldest child had a very bad mismatch with his teacher at school, my spouse’s job was long hours….I hated it. HATED it.”

So from first moving overseas to moving back home again, there are many flashpoints in the expat cycle that we need to be aware of in tackling the issue of depression. I am sure there are many, many more reasons for why someone might be affected but these are the most common ones given to me.

Next week I want to look at how depression manifests itself, the reaction people had – hopefully all things that can help you recognise these symptoms in yourself.

Can you relate to any of these? Or do you have other circumstances to share? Please add your comments below – I want this series to be a starting point for further discussion as much as anything. I am not the expert – but I am giving you the space and the place to bring your experience to share with others who might be going through the same thing.

Photo credits: The Expat Bubble – David Ingram;  India street life: David Sanchini;  Car crash – Pat Joyce

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!

click here to buy the book

 

 

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

click here to buy

ExpatLifeLinky

The last few mad weeks – a round-up!

The last few weeks for me, my book and my blog seem to have gone a little crazy. I am not sure why – planets aligning, new moon, old moon, no moon….I think it is just one of those things that sometimes happens  and your life gets a little mad for a while. So here is a wee round-up for those who have missed some of these events:

First of all there was the post about Quirky South Africa that was widely shared and widely commented on. I only put nine things with the hope that someone would suggest a number ten. I got so many ideas (plus I have a few more or my own) that I am currently lining up Some of the Quirky Things I Love about South Africa Part Two. Watch this space!

Tiny eggs - one of the puzzling aspects of this country

Tiny eggs – one of the puzzling aspects of this country

Then I was honoured to be interviewed about family holidays for the fabulous expat podcast Two Fat Expats, by expat extraordinaire Kirsty Rice. I have read Kirsty’s blog for years (as have literally squillions of other expats) so it was great fun finally getting to talk to her over Skype. As many know, Kirsty has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. But I think most will agree that she is meeting this challenge with huge dignity and using it as a way to share her experience with others in exactly the same way she has used her expat experience to help others in a similar situation.

I have also featured not once but TWICE in the Wall Street Journal expat’s section – once talking about trying not to put my foot in it when we lived in Cameroon, and then a week or so later discussing expat nostalgia. In the latter, the article linked to my post on Jamaican banana bread that I mentioned in the interview – and I now have visions of WSJ readers all over the world enjoying a slice of this delcious bread with their morning coffee!

I can smell it from here...

I can smell it from here…

I also recieved a lovely review of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide on one of my favourite blogs, Joburg expat – which I started reading when we first heard we were moving to South Africa and has been a great source of info for me over the months.

I have been writing for the Expat Focus website for a while now (must be coming up for a year as the first post I wrote was about the daunting task of moving to a new country) and my latest column Making the Most of Expat Life – or Spoiling my Future was out at the end of October. I also wrote the last post for a trailing spouse “blog crawl” I have been participating in, a post that turned into a bit of a mega essay tracing my journey here to Pretoria through the various posts I had written for the crawl and titled Making a New Home Abroad – My Journey Back to Trailing-Spouse Land.

Another of my posts went semi-viral (by that I mean it went MEGA viral by my standards but probably not so much by the standards of those posts you read on Buzz-Feed and Huffington Post; it did get shared and read quite a lot though and thus I conclude it hit some sort of nerve with people) – What Do You Wish You Had Known Before Becoming an Expat.

And finally I started a new series, one I am really excited about as I think it is a topic that needs more acknowledgement – the male trailing spouse series. My first post in this series featured Eric in Nairobi, who contacted me after reading my book. Again, the post was widely shared and viewed and I sincerely hope it has helped others in the same situation as Eric. I am on the lookout for more men expat partners willing to be featured to please let me know if you are one or know one!

So that’s it for now – a quick round-up of a busy few weeks. I need to get my head down and start work on another important project which is some posts I want to write about expats and depression. In the meantime please let me know if you have any questions about being an expat partner or if there are any subjects you would like to see covered – either in the comments below or by emailing me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.