Two worlds

I learned something new the other day – there are hand signals used by people here in South Africa who want to catch a taxi on the road side. I got this from my helper, Sannah, who comes in to clean our house twice a week. I can’t even remember how or why we got on to the subject but apparently if you whirl your hand in a circle it means you want to go to Mamelodi (one of the main residential areas in the city), pointing upwards means “town” and downwards means you are asking them to stop so you can find out where they are going.

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It was like a secret that I had been let in on, like a code that only some people in this country understood. I was fascinated – but also a little embarassed that I didn’t know this already. Taking a minibus-taxi is something that the vast majority of people in this country have to do if they want to get anywhere and many spend long periods  (including waiting by the side of the road at certain times of the day) simply getting to work or home.

But the reason I didn’t know about the hand signals is because I will never use one of these taxis. I have a car and on those occasions when I don’t want to drive we can use Uber. For most people however both a car and Uber are simply out of their price range and instead they have to rely on the packed, hot, uncomfortable and often pretty dangerous minibusses that are used as taxis here. And if you want to know how dangerous, just don’t ever try and get ahead of one at a red-light. These guys mean business.

Long wait 37/365

Anyway all of this got me thinking – that although we often talk about living in our expat bubbles, how hard we find it to make friends with local people and to integrate, the two worlds here aren’t really between “us” (expats) and “them” (South Africans). Really, it is between us with money and jobs and cars and warm homes and security – and everyone else. We aren’t South African but in so many ways we have more in common with those locals who drive cars, send their kids to private schools, shop in the same supermarkets we do, go on holiday and basically live in “our world” than we – or they – do with everyone else.

It isn’t just South Africa of course but globally there are two completely separate worlds and I suspect few of us really ever gets to see the “other”. Sure, we go on tours and peak into homes and eat meals in downtown restaurants or sit and chat with the people who clean our homes and cut our grass. We listen to the radio and talk about politics with anyone who will listen and try and understand what it means to feel so hopeless about the state of your country that you haven’t voted in more than 20 years.

But we can’t understand it, not really, because we haven’t lived it. I don’t know what it feels like to live hand to mouth with no back up. To not know how long your job will last and if you lose it whether you will ever get another one. To fear that your children won’t ever get a job when they grow up or, worse, that they won’t survive long enough to grow up. To never have seen the sea in your own country or an elephant in the wild when you live in Africa.

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So when we talk about “understanding” a country I don’t think many of us will ever really understand what life is like for (in the case of South Africa, at least) the majority of the people who live there. We can scratch the surface, we can do our best and we can keep trying but in the end the two worlds are so far apart I suspect we will never be anything but brief visitors to the other side.

To finish, another short tale. I started a discussion on a local expat Facebook page the other day about how much we should tip the people who help carry our shopping and guard our cars. Most people agreed roughly what we tip, which amounted to between 5 and 20 Rand depending what they had done for you (for perspective that is around 30p – £1). I don’t know what the local South Africans tip but hopefully if enough of us give a little each day then some of these people can at least afford to buy food.

But as well as discussing the amount we give we talked about how it made us feel. Yes I don’t particularly like following someone to my car as he (it is almost always a he here) pushes my trolley (“Princess syndrome”) and the guards that stand behind you and “guide” you out of your parking spot – often into the path of an oncoming car – drive me nuts. However, it isn’t about us and it isn’t about our feelings. Ultimately we are paying people to do a job and I can be pretty sure that most people would rather get paid for doing SOMETHING than to beg or steal.

So even though we can’t ever really know what it feels like to live on the “other side”, I think most of us can guess how hard it probably is. If all you do to help is pay as many people as possible to work for you in one way or another then you are doing something at least.

Two worlds – I wonder if there will ever be one?

 

Photo credits: Hand Signals – John Karwoski, Taxi ride – Rafiq Sarlie

Politics from afar

I have written a few times about politics and how it feels to be so far from home when so much is going on. I have never felt like this before – I have lived abroad during several general elections and although have followed with interest, I have never before felt so hopeless about not being able to do anything to aid the cause.

This time is different because I do feel like we, the people, have been abandoned by our politicians and it is being left up to grassroots campaigners to make a real difference. And yes when I say “the people” I do mean ALL the people – not just the 48%. Well, all but a tiny percentage of our population who will be the ones getting rich from all of this.

But here I sit a very long way from Brexit Britain and in all honesty I feel a bit useless. In just over a week’s time there will be what is planned as the biggest march possibly in the UK’s history against Brexit and my facebook timeline is full of it. I have been asked if I am going but I can’t – the round trip would cost me more than £1,000 and be very difficult for the rest of the family in terms of child (and dog) care. I do know some of my friends who travelled to the US (one from here, one from Sweden) for the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s election and i take off my (pink) hat to them. Sadly it just isn’t possible for me to emulate their lead.

So instead I have to think of other ways I – and others in a similar position – can get involved. And so I am doing two things – I have donated to the cause and I have pledged to share the information as much and as widely as possible. So here for those who live in the UK, are British, aren’t British but care about the future of Europe, think money should be spent on social care and education instead of our Brexit divorce bill, and consider themselves to be open, tolerant and basically an all-round good Egg  – for you all here is the info:

And once more here is a link to donate to the march – money that will be spent on advertising and marketing, health and safety on the day, marshalls with megaphones, helping people who can’t afford it to get there and more. We really need to make the UK government sit up and take notice – they’ve been pretty well ignoring us up until now.

The modern world is changing: will expat life adapt?

On this blog I have tried to cover as many different “types” of expat partners as possible – male trailing spouses, same-sex partners, partners who work, partners who don’t…but the other day, reading a post in an expat Facebook group, I came across a new one to me: someone with TWO partners.

Apparently called polyamory, this is a consensual relationship between more than two people (here’s is Wikipedia’s explanation if you want more detail). Not a casual threesome, I understand that polyamory is considered by those who practise it be an important part of their identity – similar to being heterosexual or homosexual. In other words, it isn’t something you chose, it is something you are.

The woman in the Facebook post was trying to work out where the best place she and her two partners could move to. The problem was going to be, of course, that they were going to need more than one partner visa. And I am sure that in many parts of the world this really would be a big problem.

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I’m not sure what the outcome for this woman and her partners was but it struck me that with ever-changing attitudes towards things like relationships, careers, sexuality, gender and more, there was going to be a continual need for flexibility towards many types of  expats as they try and negotiate their way around the world. Sadly of course, attitudes to many of these newly recognised identities are not flexible at all in much of the world – making it very stressful for some expats who may be limited in their choices.

It’s not just about gender and sexuality though. Families are changing too – and the way families live. It is becoming more and more common for partners and their children not to accompany the worker when they are sent abroad, sometimes for reasons of security, sometimes schooling, sometimes career or sometimes just because it’s easier all round this way.

But are our posting organisations doing enough to keep up with these changes? Some decisions are of course are out of their hands – it’s not up to them whether they issue two partner visas or allow same-sex marriages to be recognised. But there is much they can be doing: welcoming everyone whatever their gender, identity or family situation; helping with things like supporting partners who stay at home; making sure people have the right information for their situation; setting up buddy systems; listening to what people’s needs actually are.

I have limited knowledge of the corporate world when it comes to expat life as have amost exclusively been overseas as part of a government organisation. From my point of view I think they could do a lot more in certain areas but realise they are constrained by lack of funds. However I would be really interested to hear what others think – what future challenges will expats be facing that perhaps we haven’t really acknowledged yet? Are current challenges being addressed? What more could be done?

Picture credit: Keoni Cabral

Spinning in Circles & Getting Your Bearings

It’s always a pleasure to “bump” into other expats who get what you are writing about and today’s guest post comes from one such person. Janese Carstons is a transition coach whose speciality is helping expats in their first year. Here she writes about what helped her when she first moved to China.

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“When facing north, the ocean is on the right so it’s East!” I exclaimed as I was pointing out the direction we needed to go to get back to our new apartments. My teammate and I lived in a coastal city in China and we were finishing our first trip out to the market and back by bike. She was spinning in circles, literally, trying to see which way we needed to go and I was pointing in the opposite direction because it was the way home. I can’t help it but I always know which direction I’m headed – at least using cardinal points.

There we were in the middle of a market’s parking lot, when it struck me – the first weeks after transitioning overseas IS spinning in circles while trying to get your bearings.

Moving is always a flurry of activities, emotions, and lists – so many lists. However, in the midst of the moving chaos, I imagined my life in the new culture. I’ll admit it, I’m an idealist when it comes to the future and the amazing potential there is in it.

But that future I envisioned had become reality and it wasn’t as idyllic as I had imagined. I’m sure that is ‘shocking’ to all of you but here are two main reasons it wasn’t ideal.

First, I brought myself with me…not the ‘perfect’ version I wanted to be in my head. I brought my emotions, my quirks, and all my imperfections. I was still excited for the adventure but for some reason, I thought I would morph into this amazing new person on the 14-hour plane ride. Instead, I was jetlagged, emotionally fatigued, and couldn’t understand enough Mandarin to get me to a toilet if I really needed it. The idea of “perfect” crash landed the moment I stepped foot in China.

Second, I did not step into the China I envisioned in my head. You can be told by multiple people the good, the bad, and the amazing about the new country/culture you’re moving to but you’re going to experience it for yourself; and your journey in this new land will not be the same as anyone else’s experience. It’s unique to you – how you see it, how you interact with it, and how you accept it. I’d like to say I moved without expectations, which I did for the most part, but I didn’t move without biases…even ones I didn’t know I had.

Yes, these two reasons popped my idealistic bubble, and yes, it needed to be popped so once it did I was able to stop spinning in circles and start focusing on getting my bearings.

Here are the top 3 ways to stop spinning and start focusing:

1) Be humble and forgiving – to yourself first and to everyone else second

You have just leapt into an incredible opportunity. Your world has been rearranged so of course you feel discombobulated from the world you just left. You’re normal so stop expecting yourself to be more than you can be at this moment in time. It will pass and you’ll continue to grow in ways you’ve never imagined you were capable of doing in your life.

2) Know yourself – be aware of what makes you, You

Moving to another culture is a great opportunity to assess how your values and behaviors are congruent, or not, with each other. Remind yourself of what you like to do, don’t like to do, and why; so that you can move into this new culture with integrity of who you are because you won’t fit the mold of whatever new culture you’re going in to. Just remember that moving overseas usually heightens your challenges rather than removing those challenges.

3) Determine where your areas of influence are in relation to your current consciousness and competence

There are six areas of influence on a person that engages their energy at all times: Emotional, Physical, Social, Environmental, Mental, and Spiritual

There are two additional areas of influence on a person who has moved to a new culture:
Culture and Language

Each of these eight areas of influence are directly related to how conscious and competent you are in each one. There are four stages of consciousness and competence and keep in mind that you’ll be in different stages for all of the eight areas of influence. They are independent of one another.

  1. A) Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. B) Conscious Incompetence – You realized that you’re not as expert as perhaps you thought you were or could be.
  3. C) Conscious Competence – You steadily learn about the new area through experience or more formal learning.
  4. D) Unconscious Competence – You no longer have to think about what you’re doing and are competent without a significant amount of effort.

Based on this information, you can become more aware of how you’re perceiving yourself within the new culture as well as make any changes you believe are needed with who you are in this new culture.

Overall, the greatest thing you can do for yourself within the first few weeks of your move is to focus inward for your bearings. Outside of yourself will continue to spin until you can move with intention in the direction you desire because that direction will be congruent with your values, behaviors, and energy in each area of influence.

To get a copy of the free EICC Audit or the free copy of “Making the Move Manageable” go to www.janesecarstens.com or email Janese at janesecarstenscoaching@gmail.com.

 

Biography

Janese Carstens is an international transition coach who is dedicated to supporting sojourners during their move overseas and setting them up to thrive during their first year in their new country. Her clients would say that her REAL specialty is understanding them through the chaos and confusion as they stretch into their ‘new normal.’

For more information on Janese and her weekly blog go to www.janesecarstens.com or follow her page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jccoachinginternational/.

 

How modern technology has transformed expat life : part 2 – communication

Before Christmas I wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of three or four posts looking at how modern technology has changed expat life (hopefully for the better – although I think there is a sting in that tail and refer you to this post I wrote about facebook envy).

In my first post I looked at how the world of work has been affected and how much easier it is now for us all to work remotely. This is potentially a huge game changer for the expat partners who may otherwise have to give up their jobs or even career to follow their spouses overseas.

But technology is there to help us in many ways other than for work and in this post I am going to have a look at communication.

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Way back when we lived overseas when I was a child, 99% of communication was done by letter (snailmail as it became known). Once a week we could send back and recieve letters through the diplomatic bag. Every post had a day when the bag came in; in every household eager wives (for it mainly was wives in those days) and children awaited news from home. Birthday presents, Christmas cards, even my O level results arrived this way, along with those long letters from parents and grandparents full of the news of Aunt Edna’s hip replacement and how the tomatoes were doing. It all seems so trivial but those everyday stories of home were what we craved. Every so often, we got a phone call – I remember this being the case when my grandmother died. But usually the only news we got from home was at least 5-7 days out of date.

To expats today this must all seem very strange. Can you imagine putting your child into boarding school and then having to wait a week to hear how they were getting on? Nowadays of course we have so many – maybe even TOO many – ways to communicate when we move away from our friends and family. Here are just a few of them:

Skype and FaceTime

There are of course now many more face-to-face ways to talk to people but these are prehaps the best known. Skype was the one that really broke down the barriers – for the first time we could not only speak to but see our loved ones without having to pay astronomical international call prices. FaceTime is useful because it is on phones and Ipds so more portable (ok I know, I am a bit backward here – you can get Skype on phones too now, right?). But both are excellent ways not just to talk but to share – how many grandparents have watched their grandkids growing up through the wonder of this kind of technology? Personally we have been able to build a great relationship with my broter-in-law in Florida thanks to Skype and FaceTime and there is nothing I like more than sitting down for a cup of coffee with friends in England, all over the internet.

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Messenger, WhatsApp, Snap Chat etc

More immediate and probably now the most used type of communication is instant messaging. I love that you can connect so quickly and easily with anyone, anywhere in the world. Whilst Facebook is still perhaps the number one way people keep in touch with each others lives (see below for more on Facebook) I think we have started to move off the public pages and into more private spaces.

Of course we don’t just use these services to keep in touch with people back home or to communicate with friends new and old in other parts of the world; group messaging has become a real boon to expats making contacts and friends in a new country. What easier a way to organise a meet up than one Whats App group message? So much better than the old days of having to send separate emails or individual messages and then send them again when one person can’t make that particular time….

Expat Facebook groups

Another thing that I have noticed happening more and more commonly now is the use of groups for particular needs and interests and the ones aimed at expats have to be one of the greatest innovations to have hit the expat scene in a long while. As soon as you know where you are heading, you know you will probably be able to find a group to help you with your questions. I admin one here in Pretoria, where people come to ask questions about anything from where to get passport photos done to whether you need a pool heater (as an aside, there is good writing material in some of these groups – I always laugh when I see the posts asking whether anyone has a golf buggy for sale…). In the meantime, we have a separate “buy and sell” page which is a great place to get rid of all that stuff before you move on or conversely buy it when you first arrive; and (perhaps this is more pertinent to South Africa than many places) a travel page for sharing information about places to go and things to see.

Video and photo sharing sites

Another way we can keep in touch is by sharing our photos and videos. Some do prefer just to do this via facebook but equally many prefer to keep these things private. You can set up a You Tube video channel and set the settings to ensure only people you invite can view, and there are also lots of cloud-sharing photo sites (I am told Flickr is good for this, as well as Google Photos). So when you store your photos you can alert your parents back home and they can view at leisure. No more labouriously sending photos back as email attachments, two or three at a time (particularly painful for those of us without a speedy internet connection).

Blogs

Finally, I had to include this one as of course one of my main methods of communication is via my blog! In my case, it is not really aimed at friends and family but many people do initially set up a blog in order to keep the folks back home abreast of their new, shiny overseas life. In a way it is just a public diary for many people (although how public is up to you – again, like a YouTube channel, you can set it up so that only chosen viewers can see it). But even if this is not the intention of a blog site it is still a way to communicate. I, for one, have met several people in real life thanks to my blog – and have many more friends who I have never actually met but who I have close and important relationships with because they found me this way. After all, it is just a way of bringing people together with a commonality so why not use it as a basis to make friendships?

 

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So those are our main communication channels – let me know if you think I have left anything out. Next time I want to look at ways that we use modern technology for travel. After all, for so many of us travel is one of the more important aspects of our lives – so we may as well use the best tools available to help us enjoy it.

Photo credit: Yining Zhang

 

Happy New Year and a Monkey in a Toilet

I realise things have been a bit quiet around here….but what with Christmas, travelling and now trying to catch up on all the work that has been sadly neglected for the past few weeks I have been pretty busy. I hope to get back to the blog asap and have some nice interviews and ideas brewing but in the meantime I wanted to do two things. First wish you a

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And secondly just share a little taster of our travels over the holiday period – one of those unexpected moments that will hopefully make you smile as much as it did me:

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Yes – that is a monkey with his head stuck in a toilet!

I hope you all enjoyed your breaks (if you got one….) and see you soon x

 

(Not) Going Home for Christmas

This could be my very last Christmas as an expat. Note: I don’t say my last Christmas overseas. I am sure I will still travel abroad for the holidays at some point in the future. And given my last post about the differences between migrants and expats the chances are that I may be living abroad again but very possibly not as an “expat”.

So last Christmas. How does it feel? Well in all honesty, I always think this is the one day of the year (for people who celebrate Christmas, whether that be for religious or for cultural reasons) when many of us would probably prefer to be at home. Yes, I know, that might very well mean family rows and turgid afternoons watching the Queen’s Speech and stuffing Quality Streets down our throats. But don’t we all love going home for Christmas? The comfort of routine and the warmth of familiarity.

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Th mess of Christmas past…..

Of course when I say “Christmas” personally I do only mean the actual day itself. Even just half the day would be fine. What I am perfectly happy to be missing is the never-ending build up to the big day that is now as British as red post boxes and Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night. Starting sometime in early October, the shops fill up with tinsel and crackers and those huge packs of chocolate bars that are apparently meant to keep the kids quiet on the morning of the 25th so you can get an extra half an hour in bed…..as the weeks go on, the background carols start to seep into your brain until you find yourself humming “Mary’s Boychild, Jesus Christ” manically as you try and track down the last Hatchimal or whatever this year’s “in” toy is. Then the supermarket aisles and car parks get more and more crazy as people start stock-piling mince pies and those biscuits and cheese sets just in case somehow they need extra food on the one day of the year when the shops don’t open…

As I happily pushed my trolley around the nearly-empty Woolworths here in Pretoria this morning, I thought of my home town and the stand-up rows people have over the last parking space in Tescos and smiled. This is the pay-back for missing the day with my family when we would drink bubbly and exchange silly secret Santa gifts and stuff ourselves on at least five different types of vegetables along with two or three different meats. It’s hard to even remember it is Christmas here – the weather is all wrong for a start (we are sweltering in a heatwave) and there just isn’t the sort of level of panic you normally associate with this time of year. I don’t have to worry about not buying everything I need for the “big day” because the shops don’t actually close at all – I found out today they would be open until 3pm on the 25th.

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A more relaxed Christmas Day: Pretoria 2015

So I will miss Christmas with the family but at the same time we are all enjoying a less-stressful holiday season than we are used to. Many people leave Pretoria at this time of year so traffic is light and shopping is pleasuable. Christmas Day will be low-key, but fun and a few days later we are doing what most people do at this time of the year: heading for the coast. And as we sit on the beach or dive in the sea I will be raising a toast to everyone recovering from post Christmas Distress Syndrome back home.

Happy Christmas everyone!