In a few days from now it will be 7 years since we set out on this expat journey. Quite honestly, 7 years ago I had never quite understood what this term meant and in 30 years of living in my home country, I always referred to other foreign nationals living there as ‘foreigners’. Never had it crossed my mind that one day I would be them in another part of the world.
Well, destiny is truly what happens while you’re busy making other plans! And that’s what happened to us. While I was on maternity leave with our 2nd baby, my husband’s company offered him a role he couldn’t refuse – in West Africa! My hormones had not fully stabilized after the baby and when my husband told me he was considering the offer, I had a panic attack!!! Over 7 years of our marriage, we had built a life we cherished. I had a job I loved, 2 children, a well-trained domestic staff, a reliable support system (and a family wedding coming up in 8 months) – how could he possibly think I would leave all this to follow him to an obscure place? And for what? And where is West Africa anyway? – these were my precise thoughts and there was no way I would let him make this stupid decision. But I did.
After 7 years and 2 moves across continents, my jerky pit-stoppy career following my husband; I have to admit I am a bit of a ‘reluctant expat’ but it has been the best school I ever went to. Our journey through these 7 years as a family has given us some incredible life lessons and we are so glad to have had the opportunity to unlearn so much as individuals. Without getting into the granular issues or benefits of being an expat, I want to share some of the most invaluable experiences that came our way.
Chapati or Salsa, it ain’t a perfect world.
We have completely and totally changed the way we look at the world-a 360 turn. Back home, the world was an idea that we defined with nationalities, economies, flags, languages and history. But moving out has made us realise how ‘small’ our world is and it’s all about the ‘people’ who are so different and yet so similar in so many ways. Interdependence is not just a fancy term but a fact. With each move, we saw how communities came together to help, advise and make us feel welcome, we hailed from different parts of the world, yet faced the common challenges of an international relocation-and that was an eye opener. My worry about not finding the right brand of aata (wheat flour) was no different than my Spanish neighbour’s who just wasn’t happy about the quality of tomatoes available for making salsa.
Blind Spots. Adjust the mirror to see a different view.
Our inflated pride in being well-educated and well-travelled took a solid beating when we realized how little we knew about life in other countries. And why go too far, how little we knew about our neighbouring country-Pakistan. The narrative we grew up with seemed so hollow in front of the deep friendships we formed and open communication we had as Indian and Pakistani expats.We realized that the rift between our countries has nothing to do with the man on the street. Now some of our dearest friends are from across the Indian border and it’s impossible for us not to question or debate the perspective that exists in our home country about theirs; this was just one of the many biases. A close 2nd would be our belief that all westerners come equipped with good English-speaking skills. In fact, the very opposite is true. Speaking incorrect English is something to be embarrassed about? Not really. Guess what, over half the world doesn’t speak English and it doesn’t matter. Speaking of biases, another one worth mentioning would be-everyone around the world knows cricket or about cricket. Well, as it turns out, most don’t! We played our part in shattering a few biases about Indians too.
Think Global. Do Local.
Moving away was a decision I took, so the sooner I embraced my new home, the better. Listing the problems of the host country as a daily ritual, was only going to make one person miserable-me. Learning to go with the flow was never more apt than it is in one’s life as an expat. You may have landed up in a place that’s more developed than your home country or a place that’s 30 years behind in its developmental cycle. You may find yourself amidst people who are warm and friendly or people who are very private, but either way, finding fault with the place or the people will only make settling in that much more difficult. If their way of life has worked for the locals, it may not be a bad idea to adapt and give it a try. Integration is key.
Do Not Unpack Regrets. Make room for New Friendships.
This is critical to survival. Diwali and Eid are joyous, month-long affairs at home, while in your new country you’re still struggling to make friends. Birthdays and anniversaries are still celebrated without you while you have to align time zones just to receive calls on your own birthday. But as you live the expat life or get on to your 2nd. or 3rd. move, you do start appreciating certain positives of getting away. E.g. festivals back home come with their set of must-do obligations while away from your homeland, you do get to choose the ‘fun’ bits only. It may not last a whole month but within the little community you build, all festivals do get celebrated with zest. Some of us choose to be part of a bigger circle while others are content with a handful of friends they can connect with. Either way, the effort has to start from the person who has newly-arrived and not the community that existed.
Raising 3rd Culture Children. Doing it Right.
This one takes the cake for being the toughest challenge. When we move from one country to another on short-term stints we face a new set of parenting challenges. I don’t have all the answers to this one yet, but I do feel the pros clearly outweigh the cons and that’s good enough for now. For starters, our kids do not judge anyone by race, religion, language or skin colour, and that’s a huge achievement at their tender age. They also view the world as their playground, not limited by geography or citizenship. They have had to adapt and embrace their new lives which has hopefully prepared them better for the challenges of adult life. A move also brought us closer as a family facing the common challenges of settling in and cheering each other up. The cons: well it does take a toll on their teeny-tiny selves, to build their own social network and adjust to new schools and neighbourhoods. As a mother, it doesn’t make my job easier and part of my reluctance is only because of this challenge.
Before I brace myself for another move, another new country (hopefully not in the immediate future), I continue to enjoy the bounties of my current host country where I feel every bit settled as an expat, and I raise a toast to all my fellow trailing spouses who are redefining community living everyday, pushing their own boundaries and raising beautiful children who will one day become global citizens.