Tag Archives: expat life

“Exciting” Expat

So why do it?

Why leave the country you were born in and grew up in to live your life overseas? Ask any international teacher and you may get a variety of answers. However, the one that will usually surface more than any other is “adventure”. What does that mean? Our friends at Wikipedia define it in part as “an exciting or unusual experience”. As I typed this in my last year in Saudi Arabia, I must admit thinking– my lifestyle choice is unusual…but exciting? Not so much.

Assimilation? 

What I have noticed about expats, including myself, after living in five foreign countries and visiting many others, is most expats recreate their western lives in the foreign city in which they live. There are very few expats who immerse themselves in the local customs, culture and language of the foreign country they find themselves in. Even those expats who marry locally never fully assimilate into the local community. While working and living in Thailand, I used to go to a local bar called the Tamarind and visit with other expat men, many who had married Thai wives. A few things struck me about them:

  1. Many spoke very little Thai.
  2. Many of them complained about the city/country they lived in and how it was substandard to the  country they had come from.
  3. Many times the Thai wives all sat together at one table chatting while the expat men sat at the bar carrying on about topics that were usually quite Western focused.

I guess this is not so unusual as it is very difficult to change from the culture you grew up. Additionally,  once moving abroad many expats find they are even more proud of where they come from. We see this in the West as well. Sure, it is the melting pot, but for every person in that pot, there is most likely an area of the country, or city, or neighborhood that caters to his/her particular heritage, be it language, restaurants, grocery stores or entertainment. It’s most likely a good thing. This is what keeps different cultures rich and unique and thriving in a global society. Also, many expats simply don’t want to assimilate to the local culture. As much as Americans expect immigrants to assimilate to American culture, very few of those Americans would be willing or able to assimilate to another culture even if they lived in one. Many times, even if you wanted to, there simply isn’t enough time.

To adapt to a new culture, one that you may know very little about, takes a lot of time. Even for the expat who stays at a post for decades, this process is not a hasty undertaking. But for the international teacher, whose usual tenure is two to five years, there is simply not enough time to assimilate to the culture in which he lives, even if it is a priority. This does not mean he cannot appreciate and enjoy the local culture, but to move beyond that can prove rather difficult. So many expats are content with simply appreciating the local culture and taking advantage (in a good way) of any opportunities it may present. However, most still cling to the culture from which they came.

I noticed this first during that trip to Venezuela. While there, I was struck by how similarly decorated my future in-laws’ house was to most other Texas homes I had visited (they are originally from Texas). In addition to the decor, most everything else was Western – the dinners we ate were family favorites, the language we spoke was English and the channels on the TV were showing American sitcoms. Two years later when my wife and I coincidentally got teaching jobs in Venezuela, we too replicated a life similar to the ones we’d had in the U.S. I see nothing particularly wrong with this — it is most likely natural and healthy. However, I wouldn’t define it as exciting…..unusual, yes, but exciting, no.

The Real Excitement: Travel

If you were to ask most international teachers, they would most likely tell you that the exciting part does not necessarily come from where you live and work, but rather where you travel during those extended vacations so prevalent in the teaching field. Herein lies the irony. Much like the American couple who work, take care of kids and watch a bit of TV in the evening, the expat couple is doing the same thing. And just like the American couple who long to get away on vacation in order to experience a break from the monotony of life, the expat couple does the same. Since daily life….work, kids, dinner, sleep, repeat is a bit tedious, we all look forward to something different…..an adventure if you will. But for the average American this can be difficult. Whether it is our Puritan work ethic, financial responsibilities or just the feeling that the office cannot go on without us the average American takes only thirteen days of vacation a year. Less than two weeks for the entire year.

Is the all-inclusive vacation a reflection of this limited vacation time most Americans are granted? With an entire year to daydream about an adventure, about some excitement, about leaving the tedium of daily life, a holiday of overindulgence and extravagance starts to look pretty damned good. Whether it is or not is debatable, but the fact is that during the cycle of the weekly grind, looking forward to a little escape in our life is a guilty pleasure. And the international teacher is no different. The American worker in the cubicle may daydream about giving it all up and moving to Thailand to become a teacher (which, incidentally, is not that difficult to do), but even if he did, his life may not be that different. It would be an unusual experience sure, but exciting? Not likely. The international teacher, much like the cubicle dweller, also daydreams about vacations, about a break from the monotony of life. The difference is these folks have a lot more vacation time coming to them, whether they want it or not, and most do.

The top three things international teachers talk about when together are work, kids and vacations. In many places, this is all you may have to talk about. Holidays hold a special place in the heart of the international teacher. This IS the exciting component to the adventure they all craved when going into the profession. So they take them pretty seriously. If you ask a group of international teachers where they are going on holiday (internationally its holiday, not vacation), the responses are mind blowing. You will get a list of the most exotic and interesting places you could imagine. One winter holiday, I left my then-home in the Middle East to enjoy the sunny beaches of Sri Lanka. The list of places my colleagues went to included Finland, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, India, Zambia and Kenya, as well as others.

The Cost of the “Excitement”

The price tag of these vacations is not something most teachers talk about, but it was refreshing to hear one teacher, when asked how is holiday was, respond with a dollar figure. “How was your trip?” I asked. “$8,000,” he replied. This couple had gone “home” for the winter break. Home to the expat is wherever he grew up and/or still has family. No matter that he’s not lived there for fifteen years; it’s still referred to as home. Many teachers do go “home” for the holidays, especially the long winter break, which is usually two to three weeks long. Almost all teachers go “home” for the summer. But this is not referred to as a holiday. This is just the annual two month break that we all grow to expect. To many it’s not seen so much as a holiday, but time extended family expects to see you since you’ve been away the entire year. However, once couples start having children, many feel the pull to head back not only for the summer, but also for the winter break. This is why my colleague answered the way he did. He went from Saudi Arabia to Canada and back in the span of eighteen days. Not only is this a grueling travel itinerary, but is obviously quite expensive. The eight grand was not just for the airline tickets, but all that comes with going home, especially during Christmas – presents for the family you never get to see, a bit of shopping for yourself and any other pleasures not available in your overseas home. Is $8,000 on the high end of travel for winter holiday vacations? Not necessarily. While I traveled to Sri Lanka for nine days and spent $4,000, the family that went to Finland shelled out $10,000.

Was it worth it? Depends who you ask. Not to the guy with jet lag and eight grand missing from his bank account. Not to me, who realized, as many parents with toddlers do, that nine days in a hotel room and nightly restaurant visits with small children is more punishment than holiday. But most would say yes. They saw family, they visited a new country…they finally had an adventure. Even the colleague who bemoaned the $8,000 vacation was, a few weeks later, in the same teacher’s lounge, in the same chair, talking excitedly about his Spring Break plans which included a trip to Thailand and a room with “a huge balcony and awesome ocean view”.

Sri Lanka First Trip

For the international teacher, the idea of not traveling during a holiday is unheard of. Why would you forego the opportunity to travel? Because it is difficult?  That is irrelevant because seeing the world is what drew the international teacher to move abroad in the first place. And seeing the world isn’t always easy. To save money? Sacrilege. We are not here to save money, we are bigger than that. We are buying memories. You only live once. These are some of the responses I have gotten upon telling colleagues that I will not be going away during a break.

Saving and Investing: Exciting?

Seeking financial independence by saving and investing has about as much credence in the international teaching world as it does in the overbought, overextended suburbs of the United States. Most international teachers are no better with money than their U.S. counterparts. Most are still living the American culture of consumerism and consumption – albeit on the other side of the world.  All they have done is replaced the McMansion and SUV,  the embodiment of the skewed American Dream, with ridiculously-overpriced holidays to far-off destinations, which they believe symbolize what it means to “see the world”. Not only does this create an illusion of “living the dream,” more importantly, it robs them the opportunity to obtain financial independence and realize true freedom.

So, exciting expat? Yes, sometimes. But the cost is sometimes great and the wait long, just like it is for all working people out there.

Moving is Hard

Follow Me on Twitter @msmeadowstweets

Artist: Solara Shiha

 

Moving is hard.

The lists.
The logistics.
The farewells.

I woke up at 3am every morning the week leading up to our last day in Hong Kong. If someone had peeked into our flat while I was organizing and sorting and packing and planning, they may have grown concerned. I’m sure I looked a bit wild.

We traveled for 20 hours with our toddler. I continued to wake at 3am after the arrival, because jet lag and baby jet lag. Everything was new.

Since June, we have been living with a total of four forks for our family of three, and other similar shortages, as we wait for our shipment to arrive in the Netherlands. We make due. We employ flexibility and resourcefulness and resilience. We accept that this is part of a relocation, and compensate with the many marvels of our new home.

Moving as international educators is hard. But, really, it’s not that hard.

Hard would be absconding under cover of night, without farewells.
Hard would be leaving behind our memories and possessions, barely packing at all.
Hard would be trekking across deserts, riding dilapidated boats through the sea.
Hard would be an arrival without welcome, without provision, without safety and security.
Hard would be forced separation from my child. My baby in a cage.

When we arrived in our new home, we were welcomed. When we arrived, we were provided for. When we arrived, we were perhaps disoriented, but we were safe and secure.

I do not mean to discount the difficulties that many international ed folks face when making a move; we must honour these, too. There is true pain in leaving a place, and real challenge in adjusting to a new context. But for me, personally, when I am washing those four forks – again – so we have something to eat our next meal with, I consider how very little actual flexibility, resourcefulness, and resilience have been asked of me during this move. I carry privilege, and my moves are not hard.

Homecoming

Nick’s Roast Beef in North Beverly was closed for vacation during my brief annual stay in America. “Are you kidding me?” I yelled, pounding the steering wheel of my rented Honda Pilot. “Are you &^&%$ kidding me!” I yelled again over the background noise of SportsHub 98.5 arguing in thick Boston accents why the Red Sox didn’t make a move at the trade deadline. Nick’s has the juiciest, meatiest, tender-ist roast beef with the best buns and sauce in the civilized world. I make a beeline for it when I get off the plane. It was traumatic not being able to get my fill during the short time I was in America.

International educators all have their own versions of Nick’s, those places across the globe that allow them to reconnect with ‘home,’ to reboot old memories that anchor them to something to balance the weightlessness of 10 months in Bangladesh or Brussels.

They also have the things they miss that are less predictable, less stable, and rarely show up on Facebook.

I missed three funerals of relatives this past year. Three. It was heartbreaking. But it’s part of that compromise we make when we choose this life. I’ve never been a fan of international folks posting their sunsets in Bali or their elephant rides in Tanzania while everyone back home is slogging it out in traffic trying to make a living. The things we post often don’t represent the sacrifices we’ve made to be away. Maybe we’re compensating somehow to numb the pain of the things we missed and to show everyone back ‘home’ what a great time we’re having. But it’s a hard sell.

When I return ‘home,’ there are the routines that I do to connect and replenish just like everyone else. The visits to aging relatives and parents, the ice cream outings with young nieces and nephews, the craft beers with brothers. It’s all done at such a frenetic pace I cannot always summon the energy to be sincere, attentive, grateful and engaged everytime. “Oh, it was your birthday last month? You’re learning to play the drums? You have a new job? Wow! You’re going off to university already?” There are so many details that fast forward in time it’s hard to keep track.

The hardest part, though, is re-inserting myself into the realness of what it means to be home. The superficial catching up can only last so long. Then it’s time to talk about the family business that is late on its payments, the parents with Alzheimer’s, the sister in law with breast cancer, the high school friend whose young son is on life support. Those are the homecomings we never see on Facebook. It’s so hard to re-engage and get up to speed on the crises that have been a part of ‘home’ life during the time we’re away. Engage too quickly and you disrupt family dynamics that found equilibrium during your absence. Disengage and risk the wrath of relatives questioning out loud if you’re committed to anything other than hiking through rainforests.

I’m always drawn to the bedrock of my childhood to get re-centered. The pond I skated on as a kid. My grandmother’s house (pic). The rock by the ocean where I asked my wife to marry me. All of the places that (unknown to me at the time) built the foundation that led to the decision to live overseas. Going back to those places stabilizes me for the often turbulent (pun intended) times far from home.

Thank God Nick’s re-opened just before I had to return to my international life. I didn’t post any pictures of the large sandwich and onion rings I consumed in less than two minutes, but rather quietly wiped a dribble of bbq sauce from my nephew’s chin and tried to get up to speed on his fledgling lacrosse career.

It felt good to be home.

We’re Moving: What About the Kids? {Part II}

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This is the second of a two-part post on easing the transition of an international move with children, and is adapted from an excerpt I wrote for the book Teaching Overseas, by Kent Blakeney.

It can be tempting to put off telling children about a move, as it will undoubtedly induce some level of stress. Still, there are healthier ways to support our little ones than by keeping them in the dark. As a professional international school counselor, I’ve worked with countless families to facilitate their successful transition to a new home. It can absolutely be done well! These tips will enhance your experience of a big move:

  • Maintain routine – While some of the thrill of moving is in the newness, remember that children thrive on routine. Keep certain limits the same, such as bedtimes and mealtime expectations, in order to provide your child with a sense of security. There will need to be flexibility at times, of course, but keep the basic structure of their day as consistent as possible.
  • Set an example – Your child will notice your lead when it comes to embracing something different from what you’re used to. Involve your family in the process of showing curiosity and exploring this new place (even from afar, through photos and discussions about how it will be there). Openly model resilience and a positive attitude when faced with challenge or disappointment about the transition.
  • Build connections – Support your child in getting to know the new community. Consider taking a trip to visit the campus and town during a vacation break before the move date. Reach out to the school counselor before you arrive – most international schools will have a system for integrating new students. Find out if anybody in your housing compound or neighborhood-to-be has children around the same age, and strike up an email or Facebook dialogue with them. Even one personal relationship can go a long way in helping your child to feel more at ease about the new place.
  • Listen – Children will have their own feelings about your plan to move. Listen empathically and, though you may not agree, honor your child’s experience and encourage them to share it with you. Create a safe space for them to express and work through their feelings. Validate that big changes can induce big emotions.
  • Play – Children (yes, even high school students) need to play! Uprooting can be difficult, and wrapping-up is invariably busy. Make it a priority to carve out play time together as a family. Documenting ‘lasts’ at the old locale, and creating fun memories to cherish when you look back, is an essential component to making the international move experience one that you and your child can weather – even embrace -together.

What tips do you recommend for international families transitioning to a new home?