Is home really where the heart is?
If you type 'where is home' into a google search one of the first results with be a page of quotes telling us all about what the home is.
'Home is not where you live but where they understand you' - Christian Morgenstern
'It takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home' - Author unknown.
If you are an expat where is home?
For many expats the answer is usually as simple as the brick and mortar house left behind when the shipping company came to pack up the possessions. This 'home' is also where many people intend to return to. So this probably is where their heart is, where they want to go back to and where their friends and family are.
For many serial expats - myself included the word home doesn't really mean anything more than the current rented flat that houses my expanding shoe and handbag collection. I guess its true to say that the luxury of having a home is another of those things that get sacrificed when we take on the expat life. Sadly, along with friends and relatives you can drop in on at a moments notice.
For me, personally the concept of living in a home is a distant memory. Manchester was where I was born but I left my 'family home' at 18 and at 21 years old I moved to London. London always felt like ‘home’ but I will probably never be a permanent resident again. When I say London, I really mean the city. Its the city that feels like home - not a single address because I actually lived in 9 different 'homes' during my time there.
Switzerland is my current and official domicile but I don’t really feel like I belong here. I guess its still early days as we have only been here for 2 years and I'm still struggling with the language. Also we are still renting a flat and are very limited with what we can do. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really feel like ‘home’.
I do think its important to try to 'feel at home' wherever it is you are currently staying. What you need to do to achieve this will vary from person to person and will also depend on your own circumstances.
There are a few things that I have done on various moves that have helped us to feel more 'at home'. For me buying a new duvet and bed sheets has certainly helped especially for lengthy stays in serviced apartments. Also I love fresh flowers and a small vase can usually be fashioned from a drinking glass.
When we moved to the USA we knew that our electrics wouldn't work as the voltage was different so I bought a Nespresso machine and a blender for the kitchen. On the grand scale of things the financial outlay was quite small compared to the benefits and comfort that comes from fresh coffee and breakfast smoothies.
What I would suggest to everyone preparing for a move is to check out if your employer will cover the cost of a few boxes sent air shipment. Maybe sneak a few things in with the office boxes. If not investigate the cost of sending a few small boxes via the local postal system. A few framed photos and a your favourite coffee cup may not seem so important while you are packing up the house but they will be worth their weight in gold when you get to the other end.
Moving house is also a great time to clear out old linens and crockery. When you arrive at your destination and replace these things they are nice way to give a personal touch to your new residence, even if it doesn't feel like 'home'
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.
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….
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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