Thursday, June 23, 2011

What I wish I had known about becoming an expat

After blogging about the questions you should ask before and while you are becoming an expat, here are a few tips on the things you should know about becoming an expat.  You are going to get hundreds of different opinions on moving, sometimes it will feel like when you were pregnant and every other person in existence, even those ones that have never gone through the experience before, are willing to dispense great tips to you.  Take it all with a pinch of salt and select the advice that will best assist you in your decisions.

These are a few realities that I have picked up along my journey :

1. Will your marriage survive.
Let me clarify this statement, our marriage has been tested on many an occasion over the last 20 years.
Having our first child was probably the greatest test for us, going from being independent and care free for over 10 years together to having someone completely and utterly dependent on you was a shock.  I never wanted to be a parent, then one day I woke up and decided that being a parent was all I wanted to be.  I did not realize how much it would affect my husband (or not affect him) he continued through life, work and sport as though I was soley responsible for the little bundle of joy. Which I gladly did until I went back to work, then it had to become a joint partnership of feeding, diapering, cleaning and loving.  We were tested for sure in those first few months and came out of it all with shining colors.
Then came the second bundle of joy, this time baby number 2 was born with physical problems, we went through 2 horrific years of hospitals, doctors, specialists, operations and more of the same.  Our marriage survived all the late nights, the trauma, the emotional turmoil, soul destroying and moments of elation.
Becoming an expat is probably up there amongst those experiences, I remember standing in our kitchen after being in our new country for 4 weeks, hands on hips and shouting at my husband that this was not what I had signed up to do.  Tears streaming down my face with the realization that I had left everything and everybody that I loved thousands of miles away.  How could I possibly have even considered doing such an insane move.
I have in the interim heard of so many marriages that have not survived this type of a move. Wives that have not settled, continuously going home and leaving their husbands behind.  Husbands left behind, who are lonely and found other acquaintances to keep them company, culminating in affairs and divorces.  Children who have to live through unhappy marriages and fights.
Be sure that YOUR marriage can survive.  Our marriage has, it is stronger than ever before and our children are happy, but we have had to work at it.  We continuously share our highlights and disappointments with one another, we are open and honest in our communication and most of all we support each other especially when one of us is down and needs to be perked up.

2. What circumstances are you moving from and to
What are your circumstances at the moment, are you working 12 hours a day with 3 weeks of holiday a year, traveling 2 hours to and from work?  Are you living in a large home with a maid and gardener, with 6 weeks of holiday a year, 2 cars and very few worries? Are you moving because you are being transferred, relocated, promoted or because you are looking for a better job from the one you are in.  Perhaps you are leaving due to country circumstances, political or economic.
Consider all these factors and then look at your new set of circumstances and compare the two.  Make sure that you are going to be as comfortable as you were in your old circumstances.
We moved from a big 6 bedroomed home, with a maid who lived in her own cottage, a gardener and all the other luxuries you can imagine.  Every school holiday was spent on the road exploring new places (within our own country), my husband worked from home and could spend time with us, he could also go to school functions during the day, making the children's lives as important as our own.
As expat's we live in a much smaller villa than our old home, acquiring a maid took patience, time and it was a costly experience.

Our expat experience was fueled by the need to leave a country with a volatile political situation, where murdering someone is a common day occurrence and thought very little of.  We had decided to persevere more for our children's future than for our own.
We are happy with our decision and quite frankly a smaller home is a lot easier to maintain and makes me more vigilant in keeping the house tidy and eliminating unnecessary junk.  Recapping on the reason you have made your move can also help you during those times when you want to pack it all in and just go home.

3. Education
This was a tough one. You really need to find that school that suites your child, if you move to a remote town in the middle of Africa you may not have a choice, but if you have choices take your time and find the right school.
Our children were in private schooling back at home, the sport fields were immense, lush and green with views of the city, the classrooms were kitted out with the best of everything and the children were educated for University exemption.  Before we left we started the process of applying to schools, we had 6 weeks to pack and sell our belongings and move.  Our applications started in the June, a month before summer holidays were to begin.  Schools were filled to the hilt and there were no available spaces for our children to be slotted into at any of the schools we had applied to.  We took 10th best, and this was to ours and our children's detriment. The children lost out on a full years worth of education, as the school was not of a very high standard and it took us that long to find a better school for them to move to.  The schools in comparison to our schools at home are 2nd rate, very few have decent sporting, computer, music or science facilities.  Extra sport needs to be taken outside of the normal school curriculum, I was and am still not happy with the standard that they are receiving.  It was not the ideal situation and in retrospect we should have taken our time with the move. Keeping the children in the school that they were in back at home and having the non working partner remaining behind to look after them.
Boarding school in these circumstances could well be a better solution when the schooling is not of a high standard.

4. Logistics
Where you live in the new country is of the utmost importance.  After selecting the school, check on the distance your partner's work is from here, then find your accommodation.  It does not help if either of you are spending most of your day traveling, it is exhausting and results in a grumpy family.  Children also take strain when they are either in a bus or car for hours on end, just getting to and from school. Then they still have to do homework and after school activities.
Initially we moved into a villa that was on the outskirts of the city.  The school run was a 2 hour round trip, which meant 4 hours on the road for me, excluding after school activities which took place at other facilities which meant more travel time.  Now, include housework, homework and cooking into the equation and by the end of each day I was exhausted and had no energy to spend fun time with the family.
Route your daily travels and find a location that will suite all family members, and remember to keep a shopping center close at hand for those last minute shops you may need to do.
Relocation companies in your new location are experienced in helping you with the logistics of your move.

5. Finding friends
It is always tough to find new friends, unless you are the extravert type that can walk into a room and know everyone by the end of the evening.  Often you are faced with people from different cultures, languages and backgrounds to your own.  A good start is to find an expat group that is from your own country or in a similar situation to yourself, e.g. Being a New mom, there are always Mommy expat groups to join.  Then you could look at joining gyms, sport clubs or groups that have similar interests to yourself such as quilting, art, scrap booking, etc.
Find the groups that are going to interest you and your friendships will blossom, you need friends to help you through this new situation, to welcome you into a safe environment, to teach you the ropes.  Friends that can direct you to the hardware store or the best doctor in the area.

I hope my tips have helped you just a little bit, I know I would have liked to have someone guide and support me on this first expat experience.

Denise is an Expat, Mom, Wife and Marketing Manager at  http://www.xpatulator.com/ a website that provides cost of living index information and calculates what you need to earn in a different location to compensate for cost of living, hardship, and exchange rate differences. The complete cost of living rank for all 300 locations for all 13 baskets is available here.