We’re lost without a community

The other day I was meant to be going to a welcome party thrown by our new High Commissioner who has recently arrived in the country. It was to be a braai, that most South Aftican of get-togethers, at his house. Everyone was invited and it all sounded very jolly.

Except unfortunately I didn’t get there. My husband was stuck in traffic after a road closure between Pretoria and the airport and didn’t get home in time to pick me up. Of course I absolutely could have gone on my own and I am sure I would have been welcomed. But I didn’t really want to. So I didn’t go.

I have been thinking about this because there was no reason why I felt I couldn’t go alone – I would have known a few people there and it’s always interesting to have a nose at a new head of mission and his wife. But when it came down to it, it felt odd going without my husband because it felt like I would have been going to his work do without him. And this made me feel a bit sad.

I have been part of embassies and high commissions on and off all my life. We spent four years in the Philippines as a child and I can still remember the Christmas partys, with one of the staff members dressing up as Santa in the crazy Filippino heat. Then later we were in Caracas and my social life revolved around the young staff at the embassy – nights out, weekends away…even though I didn’t work in the embassy, I was always welcomed and asked along to things.

More recently we were in Islamabad when the Marriott bomb of 2008 forced our evacuation. I believe strongly that things could have been a lot more chaotic had the High Commission not built up a sense of community among the families working there. As it was, the days and weeks following the bomb were pretty distressing but at least we felt the people-in-charge knew who we were and cared about our well-being. We might only have been the non-working spouses and children but we were made to feel like we were part of the High Commission and that our needs mattered.

Since moving to Pretoria I haven’t really felt this. The High Commission here is a distant place full of people I don’t know. We are not connected and there are many other spouses I have never met. For me personally this is not a huge issue – I have lived in many other, much harder, places and because I have school-age children have been able to meet many friends and built a community through other methods.

But for other people who have never lived abroad before or are not used to living in a developing world country (even though South Africa is a relatively easy place to live, the fear of crime does impact on many when they first arrive in particular), this lack of an inclusion into a ready-made community can be devastating.

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Of course not everyone wants to be part of their spouse’s office life and over time all of us will undoubtedly build our own connections elsewhere. But if you don’t have an office or a school or a mosque or church or some other instant “thing” where like-minded people will welcome you, help you, just talk to you in those early, lonely days, if you don’t have that then well life can be pretty tough. And although those of us who have been through this before know well that it does, over time, get easier, that isn’t much comfort for that person going through it right now. Or for that person who might give up before they get to that point.

So what do you do if you are in this situation? If no-one from the office calls you on your first day and asks you out for a coffee? If you don’t have children to meet people through or they go on a school bus so you never see any other parents anyway (and yes, there are plenty of things to get involved with at school like Parent Assocations, but they’re not for everyone)? Luckily for us we live in the age of the internet and because of this you can start to build your community before you even arrive. These days almost every location has am expat group where you can post questions and ask about things like housing and schools long in advance of your arrival. Many of these groups are also social and organise nights out, day trips, cinema evenings etc.

But even if you don’t find such a group or you don’t like the look of what’s on offer, the internet can be a god-send in this situation in another way. Nowadays, because I work from home, I spend a lot of time “talking” to people on line. Sometimes via Facebook posts, often through messaging. I would say quite a decent percentage of my friends are now people I have never met – and I know some of them so well that I actually forget I have never physically met them in person. This includes expats in other countries I have clicked with, writers in various writer groups I belong to, “mum” friends made from the days when my children were babies, and a various assortment of odds and sods I seem to have picked up along the way who I just enjoy being in contact with. And one of the lovely things about these relationships is that when you move – they will still be there. Whilst the relationships you have with people you see on a day-to-day basis will by necessity change when you move on, with some of them staying friends and others dropping off, the ones that you have with the people in your computer will remain.

And yes of course I know that real-life, warm, huggable people are so important to have around, sometimes that just isn’t happening. So in those circumstances, don’t feel you have no friends. Don’t get lonely or give up on ever meeting someone you get along with. You still have friends, you can still talk to them every day as much or as little as you want. And in the meantime you will slowly build up friendships in “real life” who won’t replace the ones in the computer but will complement them.

No-one should feel that they don’t belong. We all belong somewhere. Sometimes, though, it just takes a while to find your tribe.

Picture credit: Orangoing

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A Day in my Expat Life – the Netherlands

Welcome to the latest post in my series about ordinary expat life. Today we hear from Lucille, an expat mum who moved to The Netherlands with her husband and their two boys a year ago. Her husband works for a multinational company and this is their fifth international posting. Lucille and her kids have three nationalities, The Netherlands being one of them, and so are happy to be practicing their Dutch and eating stroopwafels.  

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5h30

5:30am – I’m an early riser, a habit I formed when we lived in South Africa and would go running at 5:15am! In The Netherlands I still try to get up very early so I can work a bit in peace. In the summer it’s light fairly early, and by 7 the sun shines through the window on our top floor…if it decides to shine that day

7h30

7:30am – The kids wake up and come downstairs. I make them breakfast and they sit and eat at the kitchen island while I make their school lunches so we can chat. The school days are so long in The Netherlands – 8:45-3:15 – so these morning chats are an important part of our day.

8h15

8:15am – My brother Jake is visiting from Australia, and so the kids don’t want to get ready for school, and would rather listen to his stories.

8h40

8:40am – We’re off to school, late as usual. Even when my brother is not visiting we are usually late. I am actively trying not to nag my kids in the morning, not to hustle and shout and bribe them out the door. The result is that we are nearly always 5 minutes late for school, but we are relaxed and happy so who cares! When we moved to The Netherlands I decided not to get a car, and to only cycle. My 6 year old cycles, my 4 year old goes in the Bakfiets.

9h15

9:15am – I’m off for a run. I try to go at least three times a week, even if I’m super busy. It’s important to schedule exercise into my week. There are the most beautiful trails around our house. I can run through forests, farmland or to the beach through the dunes which is my favourite run. The weather isn’t always this good!

10h00

10am – This is the beach I run to. It’s sandy and wide and on a sunny day is lovely. It’s 10kms there and back, perfect.

11h30

11:30 – I’m home, have showered and eaten, and it’s time to work. Work is my freelance writing, posting on my blog, or working on the copy writing business I’m starting. I don’t run everyday so usually I start work at 9 after cycling the boys to school. You’ll notice the kitchen is still a bit messy from breakfast this morning, it just has to stay that way for a few more hours! If I don’t start work now, I don’t get enough done by the time I fetch the kids.

2h30

2:30 – Once a week the kids finish school at 2:30pm instead of 3:15, so off I go to fetch them. They attend the American School of the Hague and it’s in a lovely green area. The cycle is really lovely, and only five minutes from our house

2h45

2:45 – On early release days I usually pack a snack and we cycle to a forest (there are a few to choose from) and go for a walk. It’s so important to me that my kids relate to the natural world, I think I’m winning because they get so excited when they see a blackbird or magpie or some cowslip!

4h00

4pm – Monday is football practice. That’s the new American Consulate being built in the background.

5h00

5pm – If (and only if) I’m super organized I don’t need to go to the supermarket after football, but sometimes we stop on the way home to buy dinner. The main supermarket chain is called Albert Hein and it’s pretty fantastic with fresh produce and a wide variety. It doesn’t really compare to Woolworths in South Africa, but I don’t think anything can!

6h00

6pm – Straight home to Uncle Jake who is here from Australia to landscape our garden and who has been working hard all day! I make dinner while the boys play or watch TV. I cook separately for the kids because my husband only gets home late and we eat then. Weekends are our family meal times. That’s the reality of an hour-long commute to the office unfortunately.

6h30

6:30pm – Playtime, bath and story. We all get into one bed and read a story. We just finished The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, and the boys were utterly enchanted. Now we are reading James and The Giant Peach which is such a great book. I love reading these books for the first time in almost 30 years!!

8h00

8:00pm – That’s it, days done. The boys have been asleep for a while already. I’ve cooked, my husband arrives home and we eat. If I need to finish up some work I do, but we usually watch an episode of something, maybe Outlander or Game of Thrones. I’m usually in bed by 10pm so I can get up early and do it all over again!

Thank you Lucille. The Hague was one of the places we applied for when we got this posting to Pretoria and although I love my South Africa life I can’t but help feel a little envious of this wonderful day with its cycling through greenary and runs on the beach!

Don’t forget to read the other posts in this series by clicking here.

The Male Trailing Spouse series: Stefan in Beijing

I am really pleased to be able to introduce another man in my male trailing spouse series – Stefan, who lives with his husband in Beijing, China.  As well as being a man, Stefan has also had to navigate the tricky waters of expat-partnership as a member of a same-sex couple. In his case, this seems to have been relatively straightfoward (I say relatively – see below for more details) but I know for many gay couples moving abroad things are not always so simple. For this reason, I would love to hear from other same-sex expat partners (male or female) as I think this is another area of expat life that is often neglected.

In the meantime it is over to Stefan to tell us about life for him as a male trailing spouse…..

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Stefan and his husband cycliing in Tiannamen Square. Stefan is on the right in the red shirt. I have no idea what is on their faces 🙂

Thank you for being part of this series Stefan. First of all, can you  tell us a little about yourself and your partner.

I am a Belgian lawyer, married to a Brazilian diplomat, and we live in Beijing, China. One could say we’re truly an ‘international couple’. We have both always loved travelling, learning languages and discovering other countries and cultures, so we consider this a great riches in our lives.

We are based in Beijing for about three years now. This is our second posting, at least if we also count my husband’s first posting in Brussels, where we first lived together.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you considered moving to your new country? How did it turn out?

Moving to a new country, especially a country geographically and culturally as distant as China, is always daunting. Especially if, like in my case, that means having to give up a job that you like. I was concerned that I wasn’t going to find another job, and I was also concerned that living in China was going to be very hard, it being so different and with the pollution etc. It turned out just fine. After insisting for a while, and fiercely defending my case, I secured a secondment to our Beijing office with my former firm, and when they insisted on me coming back, I already knew more about the local needs and job market, so i knew who to contact here to apply for a new position, based here. So with the right plan, and sufficient preparation and determination, it proved definitely possible to secure another, equally, or even more, interesting job than the one I had in Belgium. You have to be flexible though and be prepared to work in a slightly different role (and for a lower salary) than in your home country, to adapt to the local needs/ possibilities.

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

Yes. That was my major source of insecurity and doubt. I think the same goes for most (male) trailing spouses. The lesson I learned however is not to give up too quickly. I am convinced one can find an interesting job in most places, but it may take some/ a lot of effort.

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Probably one of the best pictures I have ever had on my blog…..

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?

It is relatively easy to meet other foreigners in China’s main cities (Beijing/Shanghai), as there is a large expat bubble here. Most people do not know anyone when they arrive so people are quite open to meeting new people, and it is relatively easy to make friends. There are also quite a few male “trailing spouses” here, mainly in the diplomatic community, which is nice, because you feel there are other people with similar lives. The downside of expat friends is of course that expats often leave after a certain amount of years in one place, and it can be painful to see your best friends leaving. The other side of the coin here is also that it is relatively difficult to make Chinese friends, mainly because of the language and cultural barriers.

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

Yes. Although it got a lot better over time, I feel most people are still (consciously or unconsciously) biased. Especially if the male trailing spouse doesn’t have a job in that country. People regularly depict such male trailing spouses as leading an easy, carefree (or even lazy?) life. A little anecdote in this regard is the word “guytai”, often used in china to refer to a male trailing spouse. It comes from the Chinese word “taitai” 太太, that can be translated as “respectable housewife”. Male trailing spouses are sometimes referred to as guytais, whether they have a job or not.

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

Lets start with the positive. It is an interesting life. You will probably learn, experience, travel and grow much more as a trailing spouse than if you would have stayed home.

However, especially for gay trailing spouses, getting there can be tough. A majority of countries still doesn’t recognise our marriage for instance, including China. That meant that, to the local government, we are just completely unrelated flatmates. That may create some difficulties for visa purposes. Also, the local authorities now seems to grant partner visas for gay trailing spouses as long as their union is legal in their home countries, but for some reason, that doesn’t count for couples where one of the partners is a diplomat.

Being a gay couple can also give rise to hilarious situations in China.When I talk about “my husband” to some people here, they may assume I am making a mistake and am actually talking about my wife… until they meet “her” and see “she” has a beard. The confusion can be very funny. People here generally aren’t fiercely homophobic, it seems like it is to most just something funny and unexpected to them.

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

First of all, before leaving you will  start doubting whether you really want to do this and whether you’re prepared to give up your job etc. you will question the reasons why you would move (including your relationship/marriage).

This can be very intense, but do know that this is all completely normal. Weigh the options, but try not to lose yourself in the petty details, break the big problem of moving down into chewable pieces (e.g. visa requirements, job applications, etc.). Know that you can most probably find a job in that other country too, but be prepared to work for it.  Talk about it with your best friends and your family.  Prepare several months in advance and explore the local job market, explore what kind of jobs are available to foreigners in your new home county (including visa requirements)  and visit the place and try to talk to as many people there as possible about job prospects.

But my best piece of advice is: make the decision of going or not going independently and consciously, but then resolutely stop questioning that decision. A lot of unhappiness can come from keeping on questioning (“was this really a good decision? What would I be doing if I would have stayed.”) and blaming the move for everything, even after having made the move. Never victimise yourself. Know that you are leading a life that is very rich in new experiences and that is probably more interesting than the life that you would have led if you would have stayed home.

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

The (unconscious) bias against male trailing spouses is probably the most annoying thing for male trailing spouses. The mentality of society should change, and I am convinced that this will happen, slowly but surely.

Are you a male trailing spouse? I am always looking for more men to take part in this series and show the world that you are out there! Please get in touch – leave a message below or email me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.
ExpatLifeLinky

Guest post: First impressions of a new Expat life.

Those last few weeks before you move somewhere new can be full of anxieties. Will I like it? Will I be bored? How will I fill my day? What will those first few weeks be like? Everyone tells you something different and it’s hard to know who to believe. So for today’s Summer of Guesting post, Jessica from This Trailing Spouse describes just what it was like for her, arriving in Stockholm at the start of her first overseas posting.
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When I left my home in San Francisco last January, I’d already spent fifteen years building a nonprofit fundraising career, a deep bench of friends and neighbors, and an all-around gorgeous, jasmine-scented life for myself in the fresh-produce-capital-of-the-world. Water restrictions aside, living in California was pretty easy, and my life seemed well defined into the distant future. And then, as happens in the best stories, love walked in.

It was a surprise, and it wasn’t. My husband and I actually met on the first day of classes, freshman year of college. We reconnected later in life thanks to the wondrous glory of FaceBook, and married a mere 17 years after we first shared an early-morning class back in the mid-90s.

By the time we reconnected, he’d built a career with the government overseas, but ultimately gave me the call on where and how we would live. He offered to leave it all behind if I wanted to stay in San Francisco, where he’d join me and create a life for himself, or I could give up my digs and follow him abroad. It wasn’t much of a choice, to be honest. A life full of adventure and travel in far-flung places full of mystery and intrigue? Uhh… Where do I sign?

After years working in less-than-plum locales, he was finally due a reprieve

I am still pinching myself.

This city is effing magical. It’s castles and cobblestone sidewalks and kannelbullar (Swedish cinnamon buns) kind of magical. It smells good here. Nearly every day I am ambushed by unexpected beauty; some assault on the senses that leaves me gobsmacked by my good fortune. You should see the city parks here. It’s so green, and gorgeous, and European in the most beautiful way. I have never felt so lucky.

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Now, I know, I know…this is all fleeting. Not only will we have to leave here in a few years, but reliable sources suggest I should temper my expectations for six months from now when there are four hours of sunlight on a good day. And I know that the shine of a new city (if it shines at all to begin with) loses some luster after time passes and daily irritants take their toll. Don’t even get me started on how hard it is to get internet in our home. I’m writing this post from a ferry in a Swedish archipelago outside Stockholm, where it’s easier to access wireless internet than it is in the middle of the city, where to have internet in our apartment, we first need a personnummer (the Swedish version of a U.S. Social Security number, which is required for everything, and to procure takes approximately 3-6 weeks). Then we must open a Swedish bank account, because no business here accepts online payment without a EU-based credit card, and then finally we might be trusted with internet in our apartment. It is 2015, for goodness sake. Why is this not a basic utility!? (Amirite? Anybody else struggle with this one?)

But minor frustrations aside, the last few weeks have been tremendously happy ones. I know how lucky I am, and I am determined to enjoy every minute, and live in the now. I have a terrible habit of leaning forward to a point in time, and often waste precious moments thinking/worrying about something that may never be real. Until the U.S. government sends us on to our next assignment, I intend to suck the marrow out of this good Swedish life I’ve been given, herring bones and all.

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Thank you Jessica – I hope you continue to enjoy beautiful Stockholm and the whole of Sweden (it does sound amazing – being a big fan of cinnamon buns I might just come visit…)

If you are a new(ish) expat, what have been your first impressions of your new home? Did they live up to – or even surpass – expectations? Can you give any advice to Jessica and others like her making their first overseas move?