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.”
In the shower, the only spot where I manage to be alone for a few minutes, sometimes a question is buzzing my head: Why did I become an expat? How did it happen that I decided to leave whatever was familiar to me to embark on this perpetual travelling around the world?
I don’t have a short answer because it did not happen in one day and for one reason only. It was more the combination of different factors affecting my life since I was in college and well beyond that.
In fact I actually think that my drive to travel was unconsciously triggered by all the trips abroad with my parents when I was following them only wishing to be somewhere else with my friends.
Not to mention that I was often blamed for not being brave enough to use my little and scholastic English with the locals unlike my brother who was even younger than me.
Few years on, my brother is still living in the same neighborhood where he grew up in Milan while I have already changed four countries and three continents.
Yet in order to prove my parents wrong and also get a break from them and their holiday trips, it was me who decided to take one year out of architecture studies in London, which ended up being a life changer not for my academic achievements but for finding the man I would later marry and follow around the globe.
When I met him and learned he was from a different country, I kind of knew right away that travelling would become the theme of our future life.
When, few years later, he was offered his first assignment as an expat abroad, in Taipei, though I just had a baby and a job waiting for me in Milan, my hometown, we said “yes”. Primarily, I guess, for his career progress and a much better financial condition but also for curiosity and sense of adventure, because, after all, you live only once and such an experience can make your life more interesting for the better or the worse.
There is just one minor detail that went totally overlooked: once you start moving, it can be very difficult to stop. Plus, in our case, going back “home” was never an option as we’re coming from two different countries.
I must say that, in my case, I was lucky enough to feel pretty confortable everywhere I lived, particularly, in Taiwan where, at the beginning, I thought several times to take the first plane back to Europe. However, at the end not only have I survived the initial cultural shock, endless misunderstandings, queer food, earthquakes shakes, torrential rains but also decided to give birth to my second child, which was a terrific experience.
Eventually Taipei was “home” for me and so it happened in Montreal and now in New York. I’m slowly growing attached to these cities and what is becoming really hard is not really being far from “home” but rather saying goodbye to places holding precious life memories and that I’m not sure I will be able to visit again.
If it weren’t for friends, photographs and one child reminding me of each experience somewhere, it’d feel almost unreal as if it never happened.
Have I ever lived in Taipei or was it a dream?
Goodbyes are the hardest part of it all. Every time I move I promise myself not to get involved and not to get attached to my new apartment, to my new street and to new friends.
I hesitate opening all the carton boxes and I’d rather use them instead of furniture so they’re ready for the next move. I try my best to be as unsociable and unlikeable as possible, I don’t go out and in my downtime I’m simply weeping over my nostalgic sadness.
It usually lasts max 48 hours and after that I am back again exploring the neighborhood, socializing with people and slowly getting myself settled before being uprooted again. As a matter of fact I’d rather suffer and be awfully nostalgic afterwards than choosing not to live at all.
I met expat women refusing to integrate and rather sitting at home crossing days off on the calendar until the end of their husband’s assignment Some of them are still there crossing and waiting to go back home.
Friends are often asking me whether am I not tired of this kind of life and am I not feeling too drifted and lonely.
Yes, at times, I am. However I am now such a disassociated human being that, on the one side, I do want to put the roots somewhere permanently but on the other, perhaps, I still don’t mind moving.
I’m now used to it and wrapping up a whole house to ship it to the other side of the world is, for me, not a big deal. My only concern is my kids who, frequent travellers already, are growing more attached to their friends and school. Perhaps, at some point, they will ask us to stop somewhere.
Anyways, no, I have no regrets for the choice we made almost six years ago.
So far our life has been wonderfully interesting and has benefitted by each experience. I am now, for instance, much more self-confident and aware I can pretty much survive everywhere. Not to mention that my packing skills are now outstanding!