The cold, hard reality of expat life: saying goodbye

It comes to us all eventually. Whether you live somewhere for two months, two years or two decades, you will have to hug someone you care about and will miss madly and say goodbye.

But it never gets any easier.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, we are preparing to leave Pretoria in the next few weeks and have reached the point where we are starting to say our farewells. We have have numerous dinners and Sunday get-togethers and parties for the kids with those who we consider our nearest and dearest. The ones who have brought this place to life for us, who have shared the ups and downs, made us laugh, accompanied us on the huge two-year adventure South Africa has been for us. The people who will bring a lump to my throat when I think about the enormous fun we had together living in this beautiful, crazy country.

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But we have just reached the end of the school year and at this point many families are heading home for the holidays. So even though we will still be here making the most of the sun for a while longer, I won’t see them again before we leave. So yes we have reached crunch time – the hugs, the kisses, the tears, the “see you in Ecuador” or “catch up in Florida” or “you must make sure to call us on your London stop-over”. You know the drill, you expats who spend your life moving between far-flung places in this world.

Because of course the only way to deal with this awful period of goodbyes is to pretend it’s not forever, even if you fear that really it probably is. I remember when I left school (it was a boarding school so we were all a lot closer than we would have been at a normal school), someone said to me: “have a nice life”. It stuck in my head as it sounded so…final. You really don’t know if you will ever bump into someone again or not, you don’t know where your future path will take you or where theirs will take them. And isn’t it so much easier to say “hasta luego” than “goodbye”?

So in the weeks ahead I will probably say goodbye to dozens of friends, and watch my children do the same. We will hug and talk about keeping in touch (on Facebook or WhatsApp or whatever will come next).  It won’t be easy, it never is. But, sadly, it is just one of those things about expat life you have to get used too.

One of those, hard cold things.

Friends of Pretoria: I will miss you.

Group hug photo – Meg Cheng

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

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 changed expat life: part 1 – work

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the number of apps you can now download on to your ever-increasingly sophisticated smart phone. So many that I suspect most of us can’t keep up – I am sure there are now apps to help you with doing just about anything and everything short of putting the rubbish out (ok – have just Googled that and apparently Coventry City Council have an app called Your Rubbish….).

But for expats, many of these apps are improving our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not just phone apps, but modern technology generally – the whole idea for this post started after I called a last-minute Uber following a minor car emergency when my husband was out of town. A year or two ago I would have been stuck as normal taxis are just too risky to use for us here in Pretoria. By plugging straight in to the Uber app on my phone however I was able to rescue a tricky situation and get everyone to where they were meant to be on time.   Working, travelling, communicating, living – all things that we can now do easier, quicker, better thanks to technology. And as expats this can include the sort of improvements in our lives that means living overseas doesn’t have to be as isolating, as boring or as lonely as it used to be.

So I thought I would ask around and get some suggestions from fellow expats as to what apps, tools and other technology they love and would recommend to others. I had so many brilliant replies that I had to divide them up into several blog posts, and start today with WORK.  The list below isn’t exhaustive by any means so please feel free to add any that aren’t on it in the comments section.

Work and study

As someone who remote works, I know how important it is to be able to sit at your desk in one country and be able to easily and effectively communicate with someone in another. The improvement in WiFi and 4G in many countries has made remote working a real possibility for so many people. As it becomes more normal in our home countries so it will give us the opportunity to bring these jobs with us when we move. But apart from the ability to connect, what else has been happening to make remote working so much more realistic than it used to be? And how much easier is it is now to be able to study online?

File sharing

You remember how it used to be – someone would email you a file as an attachment, you would open it, change it and email it back. In the meantime the same document has been sent to someone else who has added their own changes. The document owner now has to take all the changes from all the different versions and merge them into one….well, no more. Now you can of course simple share a document with all in your team and everyone can see the same document and change it as required. Dropbox is probably the best known file sharing tool but there are plenty of other services out there.

Affordable webinar platforms

Webinar is basically a Web-based Seminar – so a way for lots of people to “attend” the same lecture, meeting or presentation using video conferencing software. Webinars are also interactive so not just receiving info but adding to it as well.  Video conferencing itself has of course been around for a long time – I used it when I was working in Jamaica back in the early noughties. But the key here is affordable – many small companies or businesses can’t afford the sort of full-on video conferencing facilities and technology needed for the old-fashioned way. A key to opening up remote working to expats like you or me is for companies and organisations of all different shapes and sizes to be able to take us on. This is one way to help that happen. Webinars are also an important and integral part of studying from a remote location. One webinar platform that was recommended to me was Zoom.

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Working in your pj’s: one of the advantages of remote work

Social media management tools

Many of us who work remotely also manage social media. Whether this be for a specific job or for our own blogs/websites, what we realise is important is being able to manage our posts across different time-zones. And unless you want to be getting up at 3am to make sure your tweet is sent at optimal time for the US West Coast, you need to reply on clever social management tools. I myself use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter feed (although in all honesty my management of Twitter is very patchy!). Someone else suggested Buffer and someone I know in the UK who I work with remotely on website design and admin recommends Sprout Social. The beauty of some of these platforms is that you can share your posts across multiple disciplines eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – all at the same time, and all while you are peacefully sleeping.

Project management

When I was having the front cover of my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, designed, I employed a company that used something called Basecamp. It meant that several of us all working on one project could see what everyone else was doing, could comment on progress, could discuss changes – all in one place. It meant things didn’t slip through or get lost – everything was always where it should be. This is of course a useful tool whether you work remotely or in the same room as each other. But for those of us who ARE working in a different time zone to our clients/bosses/contractors this is a great way to keep on top of a complicated project. Or even a simple one.

Online study

Of course studying remotely has been around for a long time but we are well past the days of having to stay up until 2am to watch the Open University lectures from men in questionable jumpers and bad facial hair. Nowadays you can study from the comfort of your home for courses ranging from just-for-fun short tutorials to full on degrees and post-graduate studies. Coursera is one such organisation bringing together online courses from a number of different providers – in fact, they even have a course called Communicate Effectively in a Globalised Workplace! Another company offering a huge variety of online courses is Udemy – anything from mastering meditation to learning software development. One particularly neat feature of Udemy is that they offer courses as gifts – so if you are still stuck for that last Christmas present for someone special…

Personal digital assistants

I will admit when I first heard about this, I thought we were talking about virtual assistants. By that, I mean people in other places who help you with things like typing up a document or doing your accounts. All useful but obviously becoming obselete now we are in the brave new digital world. So what is a Personal Digital Assistant as opposed to a person personal assistant? The ones we probably know best are those like Siri or Cortana attached to the devices we use everyday. These are still more useful for the kids to play games with, if you ask me. But I am told the future is coming and soon we will be asking these guys to do all sorts of things for us. If you don’t believe me read this. And although it looks like we will be using digital assistants to help us in many ways, from telling us what the weather will be like to re-stocking our fridge, I am sure there will be many ways they will also be able to help us work from home. I just don’t quite understand yet how….

Others

I was recommended a number of other apps and tools that I thought were worth a mention. These included Prezi – a cloud-based tool for creating and storing presentations; Figure It Out, which helps you keep track of time across different timezones; Wunderlist – which is a virtual, shareable to-do list (also great for when you move); and Join.me which I am told is a good way to share screens and team calls .

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So that’s some of the best tools around for remote work; in my next post on this subject I want to look at how technology has helped us communicate, keep in touch with home and make and keep friends in our new location.

Photo credit: Kevin Schraer

Should expat children have a voice?

So you’ve been offered a job overseas. Somewhere I don’t know, quite exciting. New York maybe, or Paris. Or perhaps somewhere tropical and exotic. Mauritius. Or the Caribbean. Anyway it matters not – you’re on your way home, full of excitement. Your partner already knows this offer was a possibility but up until now you’ve said nothing to your kids. You can’t wait to tell them about their new lives – new school – new friends – travel and adventure….

But guess what? When you finally sit them down round the dinner table and break the news, they don’t want to go. So what now?

A while back I wrote the story of how we told our own children (then aged just 6 and 8) that we would be moving here to Pretoria. I can’t pretend it was easy. They were both pretty upset, neither of them wanted to go. Whereas we were excited at the opportunity to live and travel in Southern Africa, all they could think about was what (and more importantly, who) they would be leaving behind. I could feel myself wavering as they sat there in tears in front of us but then I pulled myself together. No, we were going and that was that – as adults that was the decision that we had made for ALL the family and we had to stick with it. We told them we would get a dog and eventually they calmed down. It really was just the shock but once they were used to the idea, life got a lot easier.

Recently we have done all of this in reverse. For reasons mostly related to education we had to make a decision whether to stay another year or leave next summer (SA winter). Everyone in the family – apart from the dog – had an opinion. And, unsuprisingly, not all views were the same. I was caught between the two – knowing that I personally want to stay for the good life that I live here, but that it would be better for the children’s education if we left. I was torn between listening to my heart and listening to my head. And trying to drown out the constant pleas from both children (never mind my wonderful friends here trying to pursade me to stay!). In the end though it was me (with a little help from my husband) who made the final decision – we are leaving next summer – because as the adults only we have the ability to take all the information available to us and put it into the right context for our situation.

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No-one wants this reaction when they tell their kids they’re moving abroad…..

But should children have any input into these decisions at all? About whether to move abroad, where to move, which school to attend, which house, when to move home again? Are these decisions only adults can make or does everyone in the family deserve a say? And what do you do if your child eally puts their foot down and says they don’t want to go?

On a recent expat group Facebook discussion about this the view was pretty firmly that the adults needed to be the ones making the final decision. But even within this view there were varying degrees of how much the kids should get involved – as well as how important their needs were. Some people thought it was okay to involve the children in the discussion but not let them make the final call. Others believed it should be presented to them as a fait accompli. Some also thought the needs of the adults – in particular their careers – should overide everything else. I, on the other hand, feel that there comes a time when you need to put education before promotion. And all of this of course depends on the age of your kids – not just as to how much say they should have (it would be slightly weird to ask a toddler if they wanted to move to the other side of the world…) but their educational and social needs.

In the end though as adults we have to make a lot of decisions that won’t be popular – but that ultimately we know (we hope!) is the right one for the family. It’s tough and it’s called responsible parenting. But once the decision if made the most important thing you can do is own it – make it as positive as possible and ensure that you get everyone on board.

Even if that means promising them a puppy.

Photo credit: Marco Nedermeijer

South Africa: You think you know a country and then you move there…..

South Africa – what images do those words conjure up for you? Is it of elephants and lions lurking behind the bushes of Kruger National Park? The iconic Table Mountain standing sentry over Cape Town? Or maybe it’s the legacy of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders of modern time who changed history in this Rainbow Nation?

On the other hand, it might also be car-jackings and armed robberies. House invasions and corrupt police officers. Shootings on the streets of Johannesburg. Or perhaps the huge division of wealth  between the shacks of inner-city townships and the shining villas of the opulent suburbs?

In fact, as I have discovered since moving here last year, it is all these things but it is also more – so much more. And the things that dominate both the negative headlines and the positive tourist brochures are often very out of proportion with the reality. In fact, just like I am sure is true for almost every country in the world, you really can’t know a country like South Africa until you live here. And even then, having been here less than a year still, I am really only scratching the surface.

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

The Size and the Beauty

First of all I have been totally blown away by the beauty and the diversity of South Africa. It is a huge, I mean really enormous, country. At least it is for me who comes from little old England. We have only been used to doing car journeys of an hour or two to get anywhere – a four hour trip would seem like a massive adventure! We also previously lived with our children on an even tinier island (St Lucia in the Caribbean), where the longest drive you could do was only about 2 hours long. So to find ourselves contemplating driving hundreds of kilometres for a weekend away was at first rather daunting – but we are getting used to it. And one of the reasons we are getting used to it is because there is so much to see and do we really don’t want to miss anything!

So far we have already ticked off many of those attractions that most people know about – Cape Town, Kruger, the Winelands, the whales of Hermanus. But we have discovered there is so much more to this country than the main tourist attractions – the Drakensbergs will  blow you away with their majestic beauty, Madikwe is a wonderful safari park only a few hours drive from the capital, Johannesberg is in every way as interesting a city as Cape Town (and a little more hip to boot!). And there is so much more: coming up we have a trip planned to the KZN coast to include some wildlife, some diving and a lot of beautiful scenery (including a short diversion in Swaziland – that is another thing about South Africa: with both Swazi and Lesotho contained within its borders you get three for the price of one, never mind the close proximity of Mozambique, Botswana, Zimababwe and Namibia…).  I also hope to drive the Garden route and up the coast, visit areas such as the Karoo and the Kalahari, explore Limpopo and Mpumalanga and so many other places with wonderful evocative names…

Namibia road trip....

Namibia road trip….

The Dirty Side

Of course you can’t ignore the dark side to this country and without a doubt there is a crime problem. But, and this is a big but, for me personally it is not as bad as I feared it would be. By that I in no way want to diminish the seriousness of this problem for a huge proportion of the population – you only have to look at the rape statistics or read about some of the awful home invasions to know that I am in a very priviliged position to be able to say this. However, as an expat with the backing of good physical security provided by our employer and a lot of common sense, I can go about my daily life more or less normally once you have become used to the bars and gates and locks and guards and alarms and keep doors…

But one thing I hadn’t really thought about but that concerns me far more is the high number of road traffic accidents and death toll they create. On our first weekend in the country we passed a horrific accident – there was a dead man lying in the road and two more badly injured at the side. Just yesterday we passed another here in Pretoria, two bodies lying under tarpaulin. In less than a year in this country I have seen more dead bodies due to road accidents than I have in all my life in the UK. I have lived places where the driving is a lot worse than here (apart from the minibus taxis, which are a law unto themselves) so it is hard to understand why the accident rate is so high but I wonder if it is something to do with the distances, the good roads, the fact that everyone is going to the same places at the same time…..

The Bit They REALLY Don’t Tell You About

This is the thing – what I have found hardest about living here isn’t the crime or the fear of crime but the weird underlying edginess and the racial tension that some might have thought would have disappeared after Mandela’s release in the 1990’s. But of course something like Apartheid doesn’t disappear overnight and in fact it will take generations for the problems it has caused to be resolved.

Often, I liken living here to living in an African version of the Help (the novel and then film set in 1950’s America). I live in Pretoria which I am told is the “Afrikaans heartland” and certainly in the part of the city I am in we are surrounded by affluent white people being served by black people (many of whom are immigrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi).

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At the same time though there are white beggars on the street and white people leaving in their droves for other countries because thanks to a positive discrimination policy they feel they have no chance of getting a job.  And the current (black) government is incredibly unpopular and yet most people I speak to won’t vote for the main opposition party because although their leader is black they are known as the “white” party. The other opposition is seen as a bit mad by most but has a charasmatic and clever leader and is gaining popularity amongst the disffected youth. There are things happening here – like students burning down their own universities – which may or may not be connected to race but is somehow all tied up in the same problems of an unhappy younger generation. The so-called “born free” children (those born after Apartheid ended) are starting to reach maturity  and starting to question why life for them isn’t that much better than it was for their parents. It is a hot cauldron of bubbling tension that feels like it could overflow at any point. Add to that an economic crisis not helped by one of the worst droughts on record and this definitely feels like a country on the edge.

And yet

And yet my life here is wonderful. I realise that I am priviliged and my life does not in any way reflect that of the majority of South Africans. But I can enjoy gorgeous weather, beautiful countryside, cheap prices (thanks to the weak Rand – sorry South Africans!), good food, some of the best wine in the world and daily interactions with some of the friendliest people on the planet.

It’s a unique place alright but that is one of the reasons I love it!

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Expat depression and repatriation

I am not going to write a hugely long post about this because I think so much has already been written on this subject (see links at the end of the post). But I couldn’t close my series on expat depression without at least mentioning this topic.

When I was reading through the survey results from which I initially gathered people’s experience of overseas life and depression, one thing that stood out was the number of people who said the hardest thing for them hadn’t been moving abroad….but moving back home again. But why is this so tough? Surely you are returning to the bosom of your friends and family, to a culture you feel familiar with, to a place where you can understand what people say and find food you like in every shop?

Well, let’s start by having a look at some of the reasons why moving home isn’t always as straightforward as you may at first think it will be:

You’ve changed. They haven’t.

Of course, this isn’t entirely true as everyone changes as they grow and age. Things do happen back home just as they happen “abroad”. People get married, have babies, get sick….but these are “normal” things experienced by all; what you have gone through is very likely something out of the usual bubble of life, something out of the ordinary and something most of your friends will quite possibly never experience. And this will have changed you in ways you perhaps don’t even yet realise yourself. You will see the world differently, things that were important to you before won’t be now and vice versa. You will probably see that there is more than “one way”, that the world is a more complicated place than you possibly realised it was. And you will bring all of this with you into back into your old life – which will probably be just as you left it…

No-one will be very interested in where you have been.

Okay at first they will be. They will want to hear your stories of paddling down the Congo in a dug-out canoe or sleeping under the desert stars. They will start by asking you questions but these questions will soon run dry as they run out of understanding about your life and what you actually did on a day-to-day basis (which probably isn’t that much more exciting than theirs, despite what they may think). Eventually they will stop asking questions, start avoiding you in the street, “forget” to call you back. Not because they don’t like you but because they can’t really relate to this new version of you. And avoiding you is their best way of dealing with this.

You will have to start again.

And yes it could be just as hard as starting again in a foreign location. So you need to find schools, dentists, possibly a home, a job….you may have a group of supportive friends or you may not but many repats find themselves looking for a new support group who has more of an understanding of what life has been like for you over the past few years. So you need to find these people, get to know them, reach the point where you feel comfortable with them…You will also almost certainly find yourself going through the same culture shock cycle as at the start of your posting and as I described in my book The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide: the honeymoon period, negotiation, adjustment, acceptance.

If you have children they may very well be grieving their old life.

Whilst we may feel like we are returning home, this may not be so easy for children who have been out of the country for a long time and don’t really know anything but living in your foreign home or maybe even several foreign homes. For them, the things that are familiar and comforting to you may be very alien to them. They will probably also be missing their friends and wondering how or if they will ever see them again.

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And that is just for starters. You will read it over and over again but you probably won’t believe it until you experience it for yourself – moving home can be just as hard as moving away. In fact, many would say that it can be a lot harder – to the extent that one great piece of advice is to treat this as another foreign posting and adjust your actions and emotions accordingly.

In fact, this is why repatriating can very often lead to depression – because you are not expecting it to be so hard. You think there is something wrong with you. You feel ungrateful or guilty….you should pull yourself together, you can’t blame living in a foreign country for your feelings anymore….

So if this is you stop. Just stop. And give yourself some time. Ask for help. Do all the things people have recommended in my earlier posts on expat depression. See a professional. Don’t blame yourself, don’t think you are being weak. Just like you hopefully did when you first moved abroad, you will eventually settle back in, life will eventually get back to normal. You will be happy again. And if you don’t? Well, there is a whole world waiting out there!

Further info/reading:

Link to a free webinar on 26 May called Eeek I’m Repatriating – all about “finishing well and preparing to go home” – http://events.wattsyourpathway.co.uk/eek-i-m-repatriating-event-registration/

http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/04/15/repatriation-blues-expats-struggle-with-the-dark-side-of-coming-home/

http://www.worldwideerc.org/Resources/MOBILITYarticles/Pages/0212-Dean.aspx

https://iwasanexpatwife.com/2012/01/16/repatriation-5-mistakes-i-wish-i-hadnt-made/