In my years of being an expat I have been to many 'coffee morning' groups. These have ranged from the official ones hosted by The American Womens Association and the British Association in Hong Kong, to a discussion forum one in Singapore and a 'meet-up' group in Zurich.
They attract a group of (usually) women who have moved half way across the world for their husbands jobs and find themselves without jobs or friends. Going to a coffee morning for a lot of people is an easy way to meet others in a similar situation.
I have met some wonderful people at this type of event, several of whom I am still in contact with years later, however they also attract their share of people I fondly refer to as 'crazies'. The crazies always have issues with their new expat status and these coffee groups appear to be the ideal place for them to discuss these.
Their issues range from the obvious 'I feel so lonely as I have left my friends behind' and 'I don't have any identity now I don't work' to the absurd 'I hate Singapore because it is so hot' or 'I can't believe I can't find tinned pumpkin here in Hong Kong'. The first two are understandable but the second two, well, what can I say. I can only assume that people don't google where they are moving to and that they don't realise that different continents (or even countries for that matter) have different groceries and weather ??
Sadly what happens at this type of group is the everyone bonds over a mutual dislike of their new home country focusing on why its not like at home, and they get together regularly to make each other miserable. Its all very negative.
For someone like me where my new home is going to be home for a long time, this kind of negativity isn't something I want to be around and so I have been thinking about how to avoid this type of group and still meet new people....
After a bit of thought I understand why the coffee mornings can become so negative.... there is no group focus.
So in pursuit of a more positive experience, I joined a German speaking coffee group during the day time in Zurich run by InterNations. It was refreshing to discover that the attitude of (most) of the people who attend is completely different and much more positive.
Generally they have accepted that Switzerland is the new home and things here are different. Food is different, attitudes are different and of course the language is different. The focus of the group is to speak as much german as possible, thus slowly improving. No time to complain about Vegemite/Oreos or crumpets if you are concentrating on your nominatives and accusatives.
These people have committed themselves to learning German as they understand that they need to be able to communicate with the people around them. English isn't always an option here.
So my advice for any new expats is to join a group with a focus. Something you enjoy doing or something that will give you more positive experiences. A photography group will give you to opportunity to look at your new home differently, or a walking group to give you time to appreciate your new environment.
In 2015 I'm going to commit more time to playing at my golf club with the ladies group. Improve my handicap, get some exercise and speaking German all at the same time. No time to complain about not being able to buy back bacon in my local supermarket !!
One of the things about having lived in different countries and in different continents is that you learn to adapt. Its either adapt and survive or spend your time as an expat moaning about the lack of whatever food ingredient/service/weather that you tried to buy.
I had a few moaning moments this week that prompted me to I put together a list of all the things I miss or missed at some point over the last 9 years.....
In Switzerland I miss:
*Constant hot water, here we don't have mains gas so its back to old style emersion heaters that remind me of the UK in the 70's.
*The huge selection of toiletries in the supermarkets or in Boots in the UK.
*going for a country walk and stopping off at the pub for lunch like in the UK.
*Having a pool and gym in the building as in Hong Kong and Singapore.
*shops being open on Sundays like they are just about everywhere!
*'normal' pours of wine in a bar. 100ml which is the standard size is really just a sample!
In the USA I missed:
*Being able to walk to the shops. No sidewalks meant a walk anywhere was dicing with death.
*good bread. The bread I bought in the US looked great on the outside, but inside it all looked the same, a little like ciabatta/sourdough. Bizzare.
*the flower markets in Asia.
*being able to get a taxi anywhere at anytime for a couple of dollars as in Asia.
*Cheese and salami. Unless you can find a specialist deli who imports cheese and salami you are stuck with the selection in the supermarkets which tastes like plastic.
In Singapore I missed:
*seasons. Its a bit odd when everyday is 24-28 with 90% humidity with a rain shower in the afternoon.
*reasonably priced vegetables/wine/meat. Everything was imported and really expensive.
*being able to go for a walk without being drenched in sweat.
*having a conversation that wasn't littered with 'can lah' and other such nonsense.
In Hong Kong I missed:
*having a chat with the taxi driver, or in fact even having the taxi driver being able to understand me.
*'fat size' clothing. If you are anything over a UK 8 / USA 4 then being told "missy no fat sizes here" becomes a regular occurrence when entering HK clothing stores!
*bread. The bread in Hong Kong is so bad that this was where I first bought a bread machine.
*Cakes. Cakes in Hong Kong looked fabulous, but tasted like they had been made solely from different coloured spray cream.
There were of course all the food and clothing things you can't get in other countries that constantly drive you mad. I often visit 2/3 different places to gather all the ingredients I need for a recipe.
I have also become pretty good at shopping internationally....
I would buy Asian spices and curry pastes in Hong Kong and take them to friends in the UK on visits home, re-filling my suitcase with bacon and suet and biscuits to take back to Hong Kong.
In the USA I would take gifts from Ralph Lauren Polo and bring back cheese and salami.
In Switzerland I buy chocolates and take them as gifts and bring back yeast and baking powder in large pots (only sold in small sachets here).
When visiting friends in Japan I take salami and bring back table wear and gadgets from Tokyo Hands. When travelling to the US I take an empty case and buy trainers, Michael Kors and Nine West.
I still buy things in Asia that are very expensive in Europe. When visiting Singapore I buy the Laksa soup packets and in Tokyo I buy the fabulous Japanese crackers.
Of course as an expat the biggest thing I miss when I have lived anywhere is friends and family. Old friends from school and work and even new friends you meet along the expat journey are of course all skype-able but you can't put a price on dropping into a friends for a cup of tea / glass of wine and having a good natter.
Having moved house 5 times in the last 8 years I think I’ve gotten quite good at the whole packing malarky. My friends are usually blown away by my level of organisation and even the professional packers that come and do the actual wrapping and boxing are impressed. And I really have to say the key for me is in the run up to the actual date.… I don’t work well in chaos and to the annoyance of all those around me I am just very well organised.
Everything has its place and I can probably find most things in my house with my eyes closed…… scary but true.
We have used different companies to do the actual packing and shipping every time. Not through choice, simply some companies have a better representation in certain countries and have local offices etc. Sterling Relocation took us from London to Hong Kong, Crown Relocations took us from SIN to USA and then from USA to CH and Asian Tigers took us from HK to SIN and also a move within SIN. We have had excellent service from all the companies we have used.
Unfortunately all relocation companies are only as good as the person who actually physically wraps the items and often this job is sub-contracted out anyway. I would highly suggest getting professionals in to do this job. Its expensive if you have to pay yourself, and make sure you tell them this when you get a quote - but what price can you put on sanity ??
When it comes to packing and moving I am usually one step ahead of lots of people, simply because I am quite organised to start with, that aside here is my bullet point list of how to cope with the minimum amount of stress when the actual packing and loading the lorry day arrives…
When putting together the boxes list it is also helpful to write descriptions on the actual paper shipping list of what is inside each box. When we moved to Switzerland I had the floor plan of the flat and I enlarged it and printed it out. I was able to write on the plan the numbers of the boxes that needed to go in every room. (see photo) Once you get boxes up flights of stairs you don’t want to have to take them back down again. Get it right the first time. As I had good thorough lists I was able to take my time and do this properly in advance of the unpacking day and everything went very smoothly. The people who arrived to unpack had a bit of a giggle at my instructions but it saved LOADS of time and dramas in the long run and when they left they admitted I had a great system. They thought I was bossy and controlling but I was the one laughing because after 4 days I had completely unpacked a 3 bed house, everything had a home and I was able to have friends over for dinner that weekend.
Last but not least... Have a bottle of bubbles and a few champagne glasses 'borrowed' from a local bar or restaurant to say good bye when everything has been packed and the day is over. I would also book a last night (or even 2) in a local hotel. Just in case there are any last minute hitches. Its easier than being on a plane and realising you didn't do a final meter reading or you forgot to disconnect the internet service !!
So you move to a new country, you’ve found a new place to live, the boxes are unpacked, you’ve managed to negotiate the aisles of the supermarket, the public transport system and even know where to get your hair cut….. what you need now is friends.
Having been through the re-location process a few times I can say from experience that making friends can potentially be the biggest minefield that you will encounter. When we first moved to Hong Kong I went from having lots of friends from a very busy work and social life to NONE.
I joined lots of expat groups in an effort to find new friends. I did manage to fill my diary but sadly those coffee/lunch/cocktail dates were with people that I was trying desperately to replace my old friends with. I didn’t put too much thought into the process for at least the first 6 months. Then after one of those lightbulb moments I stood back and thought ‘who are all these crazy people and why am I spending so much time with them?’ Then I took a good look at what I was doing.
Not all of them were crazy and I still have a couple of amazing friends I am in touch with 6 years down the line. However, many of them were really not a good ‘fit’ friendship wise. They were acquaintances, but ones I was seeing 2 or 3 times a week, and committing so much time to them that I didn’t have enough time left to meet other people who may actually be a better ‘fit’. I often found myself going to lunch and halfway throughout thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here’, not laughing and enjoying the company of someone I wanted to be with. If you find yourself looking at an appointment in your diary and thinking ‘I’d rather stay home and do the ironing’ then be honest with yourself, the person you are meeting is not going to be a lifelong friend.
I think that expats are often guilty of lowering their standards when it comes to friends, I know I was…. It sounds a bit harsh but I think its the best way of describing what happens.
As I can now take a step back and look with new eyes I can also see how this has happened to both myself and other people I have met along the expat road. The desire to feel needed, part of a group, funny, sociable, accepted are all strong urges that many people feel want to fulfil.
My advice is, and it is something I do still today is to ask a few simple questions.
If this person left the country I am living in - would I go and visit them ?
If I left the country I am living in - would they come and visit me / would I want them to visit me ?
If I had a crisis could I call them at 3am ?
Will they tell me if my ass looks big in something ? (well maybe this isn’t as important as the other three but you get the idea)
Also, If you are meeting people through Expat Groups such as Internations, British Association and the American Womens Association etc choose wisely. You may instantly click with someone who has the same sense of humour or comes from the same city/country as you, but if that doesn’t happen maybe invest your time getting to know people who share your hobbies so you have something more than coffee and cocktails in common, and the friendship will have at least a good starting point.
Its good to remember that some people are more accommodating than others and can easily find themselves being the shoulder to cry on… the reality of the situation comes when they in turn need a shoulder and find themselves surrounded by people who don’t have time, or simply don’t care enough.
Lastly, and for me most importantly, is to spend time with people who you can be yourself around. For me personally I don’t want to have to analyse everything someone has said or how I think they might of interpreted what I said, or how their anger may be a reaction to something I said after something they said after I was late for a lunch that they think I did on purpose because they were late for coffee despite them having a crisis that they think I don’t understand because I was having a more important crisis and didn’t listen to their problem bla bla bla bla bla…….
Seriously LIFE IS TOO SHORT, and its certainly too short to spend time with fake friends….
When my husband travels for work he usually travels to big cities where the company have other offices. London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney and Singapore are regular features on his yearly calendar. If he is going for more than 3 days I like to go with him - especially as I've I've lived there and still have friends....
Its a great opportunity to have a short break, you can visit interesting places that maybe you wouldn't go on holiday (Seoul, South Korea was never on my travel list but it was a great city for 3 days) you don't have to make the bed, or cook dinner - whats not to like?. You can see an exhibition of Wedding Dresses at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or spend hours people watching in Central Park New York without anyone moaning about it.
As I've said before, I really enjoy traveling and I am quite a happy solo tourist, also, I think it adds some interest for him, especially on the evenings he doesn't have client dinners or meetings. And really, my alternative is being home alone, which has often been in a place where I don't have a social network of friends to hook up with.....
I do still spend quite a bit of time alone On the evenings he has work dinners I have to entertain myself. My choice is either room service, a fast food stop or a solo dinner.
I learnt at an early age when I travelled for work if I didn't get over the 'I don't want to go to a restaurant alone' thing then I had a life of bad room service and take away food to look forward to. I usually have a queue of books on my iPad waiting to be read, so I take this with me, in case there aren't any interesting people to watch! I find most restaurants are used to solo diners, sometimes you get hidden away in the corner, but I usually ask for a table where I can see some activity. I usually make a point of telling the waiter that's I don't want to be rushed (as is often the tendency when you are alone). I want to enjoy my meal as I would if I was with company.... And it's never a problem.
The one thing it is important to remember, especially if you are in a new city, is to restrict how much wine you drink. The only person getting you back to the hotel is you, and sadly it doesn't matter where you are in the world or how safe the city is, there is alway a risk attached to being tipsy and alone in the evening.
Also be prepared to be able to politely decline any unwanted attention.
A short 'that's very flattering but I'm joining my husband and his colleagues after dinner' will usually do the trick. Especially as most guys have fragile egos and won't want to be rejected twice !
If any situation gets out of hand the restaurant will usually help out and call you a cab so you don't have to resort to climbing out of a toilet window !!.
In over 20 years of dining alone I've never had any major problems or felt physically threatened, however it's just good sense to be aware that not everyone out there can be taken at face value. (Or maybe I watch too many American crime dramas!)
Solo dining also has many advantages, like with being a solo tourist, there is no compromise to be made. If you want to eat pizza you can, you don't have to consider that your husband/partner had pizza at his lunch meeting. You can be fabulously selfish !
Of course I would always rather have dinner with my husband, but Im certainly glad I took the step to eating out alone a long time ago. I have had some amazing food experiences, and sadly have forgotten most of the restaurants names. - why wasn't trip advisor around 20 years ago? Some fabulous restaurants have been reduced to descriptions like 'a tiny restaurant, next to a pub on a side street in Bantry Bay'... Which isn't very helpful to anyone going to Bantry Bay.... In fact even I would struggle to find many of the places myself... But that could also be age...
A Happy Spouse = A Happy House.....Becoming a Desperate Housewife ?? I'd heard the phrase 'A Happy Spouse = A Happy House' in the run up to our first move. We were having dinner with some of my husbands colleagues who had been re-located to London. At first I dismissed it as rubbish dreamt up in an HR dept where they constantly heard the cries of misery from their relocated employees. As the discussion progressed I became more aware of the responsibilities that would fall on my shoulders and also how I had underestimated what my role in the overseas assignment would be.
I learnt that my husbands company actually made financial commitments to the spouses of their employees. They would contribute to the cost of language lessons in Hong Kong for example. They also hired a relocation specialist who would drive us around for a few days and help out on a practical level. She helped us to find a new home, told us how the transport system worked, took us to supermarkets and gave us great information about English speaking doctors and dentists. So they did take the Happy Spouse = Happy House seriously. I was however, still a little reluctant to embrace the Expat Wife title, after I had spent years working hard and retaining my independence. I didn't want to be reduced to being a 'housewife' I had so much to learn !!
Let me say that with or without children the role of the Expat Wife is neither a small nor an easy one. Its challenging, sometimes stressful, often frustrating but actually quite rewarding.
I'm sure there are lots of people out there with books and or therapy sessions to dissect the issues. but for me it was simple. I just had to stop resisting the inevitable, I was a housewife and a 'dependant' and it even said so on the visa page stuck in my passport!! There was nothing I could do about the situation, or my new 'title', but there was something I could do about how I dealt with it. I embraced it.
I thought about the times I had spent sitting in my office in London wishing I had more time to learn to take better photographs, wondering how hard it would be to make pasta from scratch, wanting to spend more time playing golf and dreaming about studying for a Batchelors Degree. When I found myself in Hong Kong, I realised I actually had the time to do all of these things. Why was a wasting time complaining about being a 'housewife' ? I now had the luxury I had so often dreamed of. This is one of the first bits of advice I give whenever I meet new expats struggling to come to terms with their new status. EMBRACE THE LUXURY OF TIME.
I started to take Cantonese lessons, I joined the YWCA and took some cookery classes, I volunteered at a local dog rescue as a dog walker - I later became involved in fund raising for them also, during the time we lived in Hong Kong and Singapore I completed a Social Science honours degree with the Open University. This expat lark wasn't too bad after all.
I did of course meet many women who were desperately unhappy. I met a woman who drove herself (and those in earshot) crazy trying to recreate America in Asia, and always complaining that she couldn't find a particular brand of breakfast cereal or cookie mix, and a woman who gained kilos as she spent most of the day on the sofa eating crisps and biscuits watching British TV shows. What most of the unhappy women I met had in common was their lack of desire to embrace their new lifestyle. One woman in particular who was from Chicago. She hated that her husband worked such long hours and travelled a lot. He was a lawyer and earned LOADS of money. I reminded her that he didn't get paid his big salary for nothing and that it was his long hours that enabled her to live the lifestyle she had. My words fell on deaf ears. She was miserable, and when he got home from the office or back from a trip, she nagged him and cried. He was committed to a 3 year contract, there was nothing he could do, she was adding to his stress. He dealt with it the only way he knew how - he worked longer hours to stay away from the drama at home. She was in a terrible cycle. She was negative about everything in Hong Kong, and consequently the new friends she made didn't stick around for long. She stayed in Hong Kong for about 7 months before she left the island and her husband and returned the USA
It was then that I realised the importance of Happy Spouse = Happy House. And it has a lot to do with attitude and your own self worth. I see my role as the person who keeps the wheels of the household turning as vital to our marriage. I don't complain that I have to collect the dry cleaning, I see this as one of the tasks in the job description 'Housewife'. What I do is I try to make sure I have something nice/interesting to do on a daily basis or at least something to look forward to. It might be as small as lunch with a friend or it could be as exciting as flying to New York to spend time with my husband while he is working there. These things give me something to smile about and something to focus on when I am mopping the floors, and also give me endless things to chat about and giggle with my husband over when we sit down to dinner together.
The first few weeks of a new ‘posting’ are exciting and everything is an adventure, you still feel like a tourist discovering new things, sightseeing and experiencing new food and transport. I’ve read many articles that compare this to 'The Honeymoon Period' of a marriage. Its quite an appropriate analogy. Quirky differences are cute, funny and endearing…. however these can quickly become annoying and irritating. I went from thinking the wet markets in Hong Kong were fascinating to being repulsed by the smell in a little over 3 weeks !! ’Singlish’ is another example I heard lots of times when I was living in Singapore. Its a cute adaption of English but after a couple of months you want to slap the next person who puts ‘Lah’ on the end of their sentences…..Thats when you know the ‘honeymoon’ is over and you have moved to the next stage…..
Part of this stage is also the feeling of 'Its not like Home’. You just want to find 'proper' bread/chocolate/coffee (feel free to insert whatever it is that you are missing!). You miss the familiarity of home, friends and family. This can be especially hard if your partner travels for work or has long working hours. At this stage it is really important to have found a sanctuary. This could be anywhere from a Starbucks, to a beautiful park where you can take a sandwich and a book and escape … it also helps to have new friends who can remind you that 'home' wasn't quite the rosy place you remember. I used to go for walks around Victoria Peak in Hong Kong listening to my iPod and while casting my mind back a few months to standing, waiting for a delayed train into Central London on a wet November morning…..
The next stage consists mostly of feelings of ‘not wanting to be there’. This is a turning point in the expat experience. You can either reject everything that is part of your new host country and stay at home watching TV and eating overpriced foods from an expat supermarket or you can accept the quirks and irritations and try to ignore them !! Learning the host language can also help at this stage, or joining a club where you meet locals. This certainly helps you move to the next stage where you start to feel like this is home. You accept the differences in language and try to understand them. You may even start to like the food and find you prefer some of the things you couldn’t get at home.
Lastly is the stage where you start to worry about going back home, all the things you have gotten used to and are going to miss. Being able to take a taxi EVERYWHERE in Hong Kong or having a full time domestic helper. These things are not in most peoples budgets in the UK but it was completely normal for most families in Hong Kong and Singapore to have a live in helper and taxis were a cheaper option than car ownership. I guess this is when you really feel like the host country is home, it feels familiar when you return from a trip and you look forward to being there and getting back into your life and routine.
These stages can take anywhere between 3 - 9 months. All the stages don’t necessarily happen in this order and you may well skip some, but I feel certain that every expat out there reading this is smiling and empathising with many of these stages.
At this point I’d also like to add that its not only leaving your home country that is hard, returning home can also have its problems. You’ve been off travelling around a new country and having ‘exotic’ holidays while everyone at home has just been getting on with life. Nothing changed there and many people don’t want to hear about your adventures. When you complain that your domestic helper STILL couldn’t make pastry after you’d been trying to teach her for 2 years, you will see them rolling their eyes. Not only is it highly likely that they are simply not interested but its almost certain they just don't understand your frustration !!
Everything you remembered with those rose coloured glasses looks very different through the eyes of someone who has travelled and lived in a different culture. Maybe they are even better but maybe they become a source of irritation.
I didn’t invent these stages, I just wrote about them from a personal perspective !!
The Anthropologist Kalvero Oberg wrote about the stages of culture shock and if you’d like to read his article you can find it here….
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