My advice to those of you, embarking on a new expat adventure, regardless of the destination, which can be less attractive or promising than an another, is the following:
1. Get out
Overcome your demotivation or fear of the unknown and take a walk in the streets around your building or house.
When I moved to Taipei, I spent the first week at home venturing out just to buy groceries for our survival or to drop something off at the dry cleaner as my washer was pretty basic and threatening.
However one day I woke up and realize that I couldn’t be doing that for the following two or three years without ending up in therapy for misanthropy.
I then committed myself to take a short walk everyday either in the old part of my neighborhood, pushing the stroller mostly in the middle of these very tiny alleys with no sidewalk and lined by what I believe are the ugliest buildings in the world, or inside the intricate pathway connecting all the fancy malls recently built around the 101 tower which is Taipei’s landmark.
Every daily trip helped me getting a better sense of my whereabouts and gradually making me feel more oriented and settled.
Look out for a coffee place or a store that you like and try to go there at least a couple of times a week, kids permitting of course.
This is a key element in order to build up your new routine.
Wherever I went, the priority was for me to find a nice place to hang out by myself.
Ideally it should be a cozy café or a restaurant where to sit and spend sometime outside home while pondering over your catastrophic new life and hopefully meet new people.
In Taipei the verbal interaction with other customers was a bit challenging but being recognised or even greeted by a smiling barista or cashier would make my day.
Whereas in Montreal or even here in New York City my Monday morning cappuccinos brought me to meet very nice and interesting strangers who, either locals or aliens themselves, often turned into new good friends.
3. Be curious
While busy getting your family organized, save yourself half a day or just a couple of hours to go and be a tourist of your new city.
Bring along your guide book if, old fashioned like me, you still believe in printed paper and patiently discover, neighborhood by neighborhood, the place where your life will be staged in the upcoming months or years.
I often came across other expat women who’d spend their days in the closed perimeter of their neighbourhood, especially if an expat compound, completely ignoring the surrounding areas. What a waste!
Unleash your curiosity and, on the contrary, even if not extremely practical, include other parts of town in your everyday life by, for example, picking, like me, your hair salon a bit farther than down your street.
4. Keep a journal
At the beginning, what really helped me in Taipei was writing about my days.
Notes about funny discoveries, discouraging moments, adventurous trips to the grocery store, endless misunderstandings have, first, filled long emails to my family then become the content of a blog, Quitaipei, which I am still keeping years later.
I am not alone in this. Internet is swamped with blogs kept by erratic people like me recording their experience worldwide.
Writing often helps sorting yourself out without spending too much money on a therapist. Sharing your first impressions and feelings is not only helping you to gradually take it all out without reaching your breaking point and hit your husband, but also your family and friends to better understand the challenges of being a so called trailing spouse.
Too often, in fact, people have a pretty distorted image of an expat woman as a privileged human being who is spending half of her time playing tennis and the other having her nails done. A very unreal scenario considering that, at least for the first few months, you have no friends to play tennis with and not a clue where the closest nail salon is. And even if you knew, no time whatsoever to go.
4. Hang around at school
Your kids’ school quickly becomes your main source of social interaction. Or at least it should. I personally have contradictory experiences but at the end that’s where I have always met at least a couple of very good friends.
In Taipei, I put Matteo, my oldest child in a Chinese Montessori-oriented preschool where, with the exception of another American woman, I was the only non taiwanese parent. I have no regrets but let’s say that my interaction with other parents was almost zero. The language barrier turned out to be the greatest obstacle in spite of my efforts to use the little Chinese I learned. Good morning, how are you? I like rice were somehow never enough to persuade some parents to invest in a possible friendship.
On the other hand, their lack of confidence in English often discouraged them from making any attempt to talk to me. Sometimes they were simply not interested at all.
However I was paid off in Montreal. The preschool both my kids attended was where I met almost all the people who have become such an important part of my life and the reason why, at the end, it was so difficult to leave.
Most of them, like me, were coming from other countries which helped creating an immediate bond but a few others were lifelong Montrealers and yet extremely welcoming and open.
New York is a bit tricky. A much busier place, here people are always rushing and less into meeting for a coffee after drop off. Most of the moms are also working which understandably doesn’t leave them time to hang out with you. And some of them, well, they just don’t care.
However, once again and particularly in my youngest son’s class, a small group of kids whose parents are meeting every morning in the classroom, I met lovely people for a daily quick chit chat before parting in different directions.
This is how I got first tips about kids’ activities, babysitters, doctors and many other things I was curious about.
Anyways my suggestion is beforehand to ask the school principal or the head of the admissions to put you in touch with other families who, like you, are from abroad. Getting to know people who have been through the same experience can be helpful and reassuring. And if you’re lucky they can also become your first good friends.
I never cried so much since I became an expat. Tears have copiously run down my cheeks during departures, arrivals and bad days when I simply felt lonely and lost. Partly it was because of the hormones after two pregnancies, partly because living this kind of life is often emotionally overwhelming.
However I also laughed as much. Laughing is essential and the best way to make it through the day.
I’m always trying to look at myself from the outside like a clumsy super hero who’s desperately trying to survive on another planet.
I know laughing doesn’t come easy for certain people but being an expat can transform you and, at some point, you’ll understand that laughing at frustrating situations, annoying people but most of all at yourself is quite beneficial. Putting a smile upon your face will also make you more likeable and attractive, making your life much more enjoyable.
Crying or moaning over the past is very understandable but not helpful. Unfortunately we always know what we leave behind but not what’s ahead of us that is often even better.
Or as Kierkegaard puts it: “Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forwards.”