Hold tight, because Claudiaexpat’s latest Dreaded Question will turn your image of expat life upside down!
Illustrations by Antonella Antonioni
Why didn’t I think of it before? It’s been years that I’ve been hearing this over and over again – probably since I first moved abroad. How did I miss recognizing this Dreaded Question of immense, spectacular proportions? One that chips away at the soul and ears of us expatriates, which pushes us to find an explanation, which churns our stomach, and instills in us a frustration that cannot be quelled because there’s no decent chocolate to be found in our host country? But don’t worry, now that I’ve been enlightened, I’ll say it all, to the bitter end, and once and for all I’ll stand up to Dreaded Question 5: ‘But you spend your life swanning about the globe on holiday: what are you complaining about?’
So let’s get started. I’m going to split the dreaded question in three, in order to better analyze it and produce a solution.
We’ll start with the end. ‘What are you complaining about?’ This implies that some people in the world have a right to complain, and others don’t. And I suppose that to some extent this is true. A person who is blessed with health, arms and legs should not moan about a passing headache, when there are people around who have incurable diseases.
But I’d like to clarify something: in most cases, airing an opinion, as we expats do, is not the same as complaining. When we are accused of complaining, what we’re actually doing is trying to get something out of our system, to vent about things that for us are obstacles or difficult patches.
Unfortunately, the common belief is that expats never go through rough patches, ever. People think that expats belong to a privileged species, have loads of money and live the high life, are blessed with loads of help in the house, get to see all manner of exotic places, learn languages, and more or less have a ball from dawn till dusk.
Okay, let’s grant that much of the above is true. Many expat women have money, house staff, and are in beautiful countries, with opportunities to travel and discover. However, I’d like to draw you attention to the fact that expat life is much more varied and unpredictable than what people like to believe. Some women live in extremely difficult countries, in which it takes years to learn the language. Not everyone earns pots of money. Many women clean their own houses, and can’t travel because their neighbouring countries are war-torn. And so on.
And there are conditions typical of all postings, even the cushier ones, which are difficult, disheartening, or even distressing, but I’ll talk about these after I’ve covered the other two elements of Dreaded Question 5.
‘…on holiday…’ I wish someone would explain this to me. I bet at least one of you readers has at some point thought that living abroad is equivalent to being on holiday. I would beg you to write to me and tell me why. Perhaps you hold that anyone in the world who – temporarily or permanently – find themselves without a job is on holiday.
So, I’m telling you now: expat women are not on holiday. In their home countries they lead normal lives, made up of good bits and bad bits, of easy bits and challenging bits, like anyone else. Living abroad doesn’t exempt them from cleaning, doing the shopping, looking after the kids, working (if they are lucky enough to be allowed to), paying taxes, cooking, or going to the post office.
On the contrary! All these things are second nature for people who always live in the same place. But expat women have to perform all these tasks, sometimes in difficult conditions, in a foreign language, and tangled up in alien red tape.
Have you ever tried to pay a fine in Douala? To explain your child’s symptoms to a pediatrician in Portuguese? To figure out the queuing system in Baku? To read the ingredients on food packages in Chinese? Have you ever been sworn at because you don’t know how precedence works in Beirut? Has your car ever broken down in Recife?
People who haven’t had these experiences have no clue about how much energy, optimism and courage it takes to face these situations. And people who have no clue should abstain from making judgments. Because this life is anything but a holiday. And they can’t tell me it’s my choice. Because the next time I hear them complaining about fuel price hikes, I’ll tell them that it’s their choice not to ride a bike.
‘…swanning about the world…’ As though travelling exonerates you from the right to feel pain and apprehension. As though travelling were a prerogative reserved for expats. I have known people who live in one country, and who every summer head for a different country on the other side of the world, and who have seen more places than I have. Others have a job ‘at home’, which allows them to whip through worldwide airports like a whirlwind, putting even Marco Polo to shame.
Now let’s talk about the situations that expat women ‘complain’ about, or at least try to. And here’s where we’ll leave all humour aside, because this is not a joke.
Let’s turn for a moment to the subject of expat kids: people seem to think that the fact that our kids are lucky to speak loads of languages wipes out the whole process that has got them to this point. True, our kids are multilingual: they had to learn languages to survive in school. Later, languages became a part of them, and now they appreciate the fact that this gives them extra kudos for the future. But do you know what it means to be a young boy arriving at a new school where he knows no-one, not a single teacher or pupil, where everything is unfamiliar, from his exercise books to the smell in the corridor, and he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on because he doesn’t speak the language? And he has no way of asking for help to understand? Do you know what it means for a parent to leave a little girl at the school gate, in tears, a devastated, abandoned look on her face? Knowing she won’t be able to communicate?
Do you know how it feels to uproot your children, drag them away from their friends, their beloved home, their familiar niches, and throw them out once again to new pastures? Let me tell you: it’s devastating.
When, in Peru, I hugged my sobbing twelve-year-old Mattia in my arms, in his room emptied of furniture and toys, I would have liked the earth to open up and swallow us. Just because I chose to live an expatriate life, is that a good enough reason for me to have to shut up, and not be allowed to express my emotions during these roller-coaster moments?
Moving to a new country, and doing it often, means constantly burning everything you had that was stable, secure. It means taking a scythe to your roots, or feeling like a feather floating about in the air, not knowing where you are going to land next. It means thinking about retirement with apprehension, seeing your relationship with friends back home change, and not knowing whether time and experience will only produce more insurmountable hurdles.
Expat life can be lonely. Very lonely. It’s true that if you are a sociable type, and lucky enough to live in a country in which it’s easy to make friends with both expatriates and local people, you will make a lot of contacts, and quickly forge a few real friendships. But if you are a shy person stuck in a strange megalopolis, there’s a good chance that you will be isolated for the duration of your posting. There are moments you take for granted when you’re in your home country: a cappuccino with a friend, phone calls at unthinkable hours when you need a shoulder to cry on, a girls’ night out. But as an expat, all these things need to be started from scratch, and sometimes it’s really hard work. And often, just as you’ve managed to get close to someone, it’s time to say goodbye. Expat life is a constant making and breaking of close relationships. You become fond of people who for a short while become an integral part of your life, and make you happy, and then wham – all it takes is one intercontinental flight and they are gone for ever.
If you leave your job to go abroad, expatriate life can also mean professional isolation. It might be that you can’t work in your new host country, or you can’t find the right job. Suddenly you find you no longer have an identity, suddenly you’re that model housewife your mother always wanted you to be, and you don’t recognize yourself any more. Your desire to work, to be involved in something more stimulating than baby burps or the latest TV series, can be enough to bring you close to a nervous breakdown. And on top of it all, you have to contend with Dreaded Question 5, and be humiliated for being ‘only’ a mother.
Shall we talk about being an expat mum? Let me refer you to an article I wrote a while back, which clearly no one read (otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here discussing this subject now).
‘Behind a child happily settled in school and in society, there is sure to be a mum who has forged relationships with other mothers, teachers, and school staff, who has attended meetings of all manner of associations in a bid to discover what her host country has to offer, who has explored every avenue to take her child to extracurricular activities, who personally drives that child across strange cities with traffic rules totally different from those of her country, who picks him afterwards, blocking her entire afternoon; there’s a mum who organizes parties and play dates, and who does everything she possibly can to invite as many people as possible to her home, who works out what to feed people, who scours unfamiliar supermarkets to find trinkets for goodie bags which will make or break a birthday party; there’s a mum who communicates in foreign languages with as many locals and expats as she can, to win people over so that they will entrust their kids to her, to share precious moments with her own kids, and perhaps one day even sleep over: all these events are part of a routine which is formed from a child’s first day at school in her home country, and which is taken for granted, but which the expat mum has to reinvent every time she lands somewhere new.’
I was almost forgetting: not only are we mothers: we are also daughters. And do you know something? It’s hard, at a distance, to take care of aging parents. But can you imagine just how tough it is, knowing that your mother is living out the last few months of her life and you are not there with her? Or that your brother is going crazy trying to cope with her, and you can’t give him a hand because you are thousands of miles away? Do you have any idea how many sleepless nights expat women have, imagining the phone call which will be followed by a twenty-four hour journey which may, at best, get them there in time for the funeral?
And what about health? Being ill in an unfamiliar context, surrounded by an unknown language and doctors you’ve never seen before, with medical theories light years away from anything you’ve ever known, is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But it’s something likely to happen more than once, particularly to expats living in hardship posts.
Along with the undeniable joys of having the opportunity to directly experience new cultures, learn new skills, and develop as a complete and enriched person, expats have to learn to deal with complex emotions that are nothing like anything they ever experienced at home. Maybe, opening up with empathy to the less glamorous aspects of life abroad could enrich the lives of those who stay behind.
And certainly, it would help forge good relationships, relationships which are well worth fostering. Always, and anywhere in the world.