I’ve been reading Expat Women: Confessions: 50 answers to your real-life questions about living abroad.
As an expat woman twice over, I was fascinated to find out what this book had to say. Over the last twenty years I’ve learned the hands-on way about moving and living abroad, and while there can never be any better teacher than experience, a book such as this can be an invaluable springboard to the adventure.
There are six chapters which discuss the following areas:
- Settling In: This is a very strong, positive chapter, which grabs culture shock by the scruff of its neck and gives it a good shake! There are lots of ideas and tips on how to help yourself settle in to your new surroundings and make the most of this new experience. It deals with minimising culture shock through good preparation; the positives and negatives of living abroad, especially when family ties are strong; managing expectations; coping with being a ‘trailing spouse’; overcoming isolation; setting up a social club; making and mistaking new friends; making yourself feel welcome in your new surroundings, even if others don’t do so immediately, and the pros and cons of hiring help around the house.
- Career and Money: The emphasis of this chapter is on retaining your sense of self-worth in your changed working, or non-working, situation. Specifically it looks at how to cope with giving up your job when you move abroad with a partner and how to assess the options and resources that are open to you; coping with a job abroad that turns out to be disappointing through improving your relations at work and thinking ‘big picture’; getting the work-life balance right; dealing with lack of respect at work; networking and volunteer work; starting your own business; getting financial advice and planning for contingencies; dealing with financial dependence on a partner, and sticking to a sensible budget.
- Raising Children: Children can be the make or break for a move abroad. I know several families who have either not taken the plunge to become ex-pats because of worries about how it would affect their children, and others whose unhappy kids have been the reason for them returning home. We ourselves moved to France from Ireland with children aged 4, 12 and 14. They each had their own minor problems at various times, but with common sense and optimism we overcame these and all three are now completely French and proud of being pioneering and bilingual! Issues discussed here include pregnancy in a foreign country and deciding whether or not to go back ‘home’ for the birth; dealing with child unfriendly temporary accommodation; international adoption; raising bilingual children with particular emphasis on the value of learning languages; special needs children, and here research and support are crucial; helping teens adapt – the older the child when you move abroad, the harder it can be for them; dealing with teen suicide; overfocussing on the children as a trailing spouse, and, in contrast, dealing with empty nest syndrome.
- Relationships: At first glance this chapter might seem rather catastrophic, but it’s simply preparing for the worst-case scenario. Ex-pat life is often nothing but good for a relationship, since you are drawn closer as you deal with the new experiences living abroad throws at you. Speaking for myself, I have now spent 5 years working alongside my husband in our new business, 24/7. It’s been brilliant. Actually getting to spend time with the person you wanted as your life partner has a lot going for it! The chapter contains advice on dealing with a dissatisfied trailing spouse; overcoming difficulties in intercultural couples; adjusting for different needs and aspirations where one half of a working couple is happy as an ex-pat, and the other is not; keeping communication channels open; dealing with divorce, both during and afterwards; coping with domestic violence and infidelity, including online betrayal (here ex-pat triggers play a part – culture shock, cultural differences, one partner feeling isolated etc); ending an affair.
- Mixed Emotions: this chapter takes a considered look at overcoming negativity; undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country and culture; adapting to different holiday traditions; dealing with alcoholism; becoming settled as a TCK – third culture kid (someone who, as a child, has spent a lot of time in cultures other than their birth one); missing friends; retiring abroad, and caring for aged parents from a distance. This last issue carries a lot of guilt with it, and is another frequent reason for ex-pats to return home. The authors talk sensitively and sensibly about coping with guilt in this respect and building the life you want away from them.
- Repatriation: returning home can be welcome, in which case it should be easier, but it can also be sudden and unwanted. There will inevitably be upheaval on return – reverse culture shock, emotional upheaval. There is plenty of calm advice on how to make the best of the situation and help yourself re-adapt.
The whole book takes the form of 50 questions and answers. I was sceptical of this as a suitable structure for it to start with, but it actually works out extremely well. OK, it may not mean that every single aspect of ex-pat life can get dealt with, but that wouldn’t be possible in any book. (As the authors’ disclaimer says: This book is not comprehensive … .) However, as the chapter reviews above show, this book covers a lot of ground, and in a very sensitive way. The whole book is grounded in actual experiences and this method of presentation lends a conversational, confiding tone to the book that makes it very easy to read.
The conclusion is frankly inspired. It sums up expat life succinctly and expertly:
Expatriate life can be, and almost always is, an incredibly enriching experience. It can stimulate your senses, tantalize your taste buds and introduce you to a world of wonder you might never have experienced had you not dared to pack up your belongings, journey outside your comfort zone, and immerse yourself in the culture of a foreign land.
But the most important phrase of this summary is undoubtedly … ultimately you are the greatest determinant of your own success.
If you are tempted by expat life, or are having it thrust upon you, do read this book, and, as it urges, remember that you are the crucial ingredient. It will be what you make of it.
There are plenty of resources at end of the book: information about the authors – Andrea Martin and Victoria Hepworth, two energetic, determined and go-ahead expats – their acknowledgements, information about the website www.expatwomen.com with 2 pages of testimonials, 4 pages of books for readers to refer to, and finally an exhaustive list of ex-pat-life related websites from The Adoption Guide to Zest and Zen International.
There is a lot of wisdom and information packed into this book, but even more humanity.