What I didn’t expect about being an expat

In multiple ways, I was prepared to do well as a first-time expat leaving my country, family, friends, career, routines, lifestyle, and almost everything that I knew too well.

My husband and I decided to move to the Middle East when he accepted a new position.  I “retired” from my career as assistant vice president for a multinational insurance company and decided to take a break from a 13-year career in marketing, branding, and business development.

Six months into the move, my mental preparation commenced with a lot of research that some years in market research helped me with: I ravaged online sources for information on the new culture I was all set to embrace, I chatted with friends who had lived in my new city, and I followed sites which fed my cerebral appetite with content about life in the Arab world.

Four months in, I now find the time to reflect on the new life with the many things I’ve learned willingly (and perhaps begrudgingly) as an expat. By the way, I am by definition an expat even if apparently, some sources only refer to white people as expats! (There is this article by The Guardian on  Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?)  

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The view from our apartment in Taguig City, Philippines as we were packing for our move to our new city and country that would be 8 hours’ flight away.

Optimism helps, but… it can also serve delusion. I remember many well-meaning friends asking me about how I was feeling, and my feelings largely dwelled inside a big no-one-can-burst-bubble of excitement. I had thought it through. I’ve read a lot. I would be with my husband in a new life that we had talked about. I was ready and eager to be a “model expat” who welcomed the changes and soaked in the joys of discovering a different region in the world.   

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Abu Dhabi, UAE

As insistent as I was on keeping my sunshine-y optimism intact, I found that dealing with changes don’t always need a happy filter. I realized, with a little struggle, that it was fine to stop smiling for a little bit, to say “Oh!” with genuine puzzlement, to peacefully process the realities that are outside of my sphere of influence to change, and yes, to give myself the “permission for sadness” even for short lengths of time.

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Photo credit: Expat Living Hong Kong

It proved to be healthy to carve out a quiet time at the end of my day at home to think things through, to welcome the myriad of emotions that came with some little but telling moments and encounters, and to make peace with the thoughts and emotions without inhibiting myself from at least acknowledging the incomprehension, dejection, indignance, sadness, and that “This really sucks” feeling.

The self-awareness, the vulnerabilities, the self-permission… It all led to building a stronger resilience and a less-ignorant brand of optimism that found it was okay, if not beautiful, for the sun to get a little bit mixed in with the clouds (even in our desert home where it only rains a few times a year).  

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The mesmerizing sand dunes of the Middle East.

The humility of starting over tastes bitter-sweet. Remember tasting an exotic food that you were at once hesitant and excited about, and when you finally tried it, you wanted to spit it out? But you kept chewing and trying to make it taste better inside your mouth even if you couldn’t half-surmise what it was. And then you found that you have to eat the same thing for breakfast every day until you actually begin to live with it, like it, and prefer it.

That is as close as I can get to describing the feeling.

I developed newfound respect for expat spouses who have been on this journey that I’m still on: one where they leave behind a prolific career, a way of life, and a big network of friends for a life in a new country where they literally start over. There is one too many stories similar to this: an American corporate executive living in Switzerland and being rejected for jobs mostly out of companies’ preference to hire locals, a highly-skilled and highly-reputable American Indian doctor who is legally unable to practice her very niche specialization in the Middle East, an excellent South African lawyer who is bound by a “cannot-work permit” as a spouse in Southeast Asia.

And so for some, they start over. They find something to do that will exhaust their energy and utilize the skills that they spent years to build. Others keep searching until their next big move.

Over summer at a wine tasting soiree in Bordeaux, my husband and I met a family whose parents were senior life insurance executives in Singapore and they were both extremely familiar with my old role and old company. Their eyes gaped wide at the thought that I would not resume my career and instead start over in an entry-level post at a new industry to experience something akin to an internship. The mom listened with furrowed brows, and later on, her powerful reply to my decision was a story that I will never forget. She said her friend left a job as a very well-paid corporate executive because he wanted to own a restaurant and to become a sommelier. How did he prepare for this complete career shift? He became a waiter to fully understand what he was about to build.

I remember that story every time I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing and when I’m struggling. The people around me do not know who I am and all that I have done in my life, and that is a good thing. There is peace and a whole deal of humility in the knowledge that who I am is not defined by a role or a massively different learning experience. Roles are impermanent. Currently, I am amassing volumes of insight that I know are valuable to the path I’ll take.

The humility of starting over is making me better. I am waiting for the time that I’m sure will come when the most difficult days will make the most sense.

I read it somewhere before: When you’re in a dark place and you think you’ve been buried, you’re actually being planted.

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Musandam, Oman

Your gratitude list will expand in more ways than you can ever imagine. Gratitude really is an unbelievably potent force. My husband and I recount the many things we’re grateful for, and enumerating the little things that go on and on and on fill up our hearts and bring light to our eyes.

Some big things: new friends from everywhere in the world, safe new city, ease of travel, a long stretch of beach within 10 minutes from where we live, light traffic (compared to where we came from), people who genuinely disregard race stereotypes, the opportunity to build a new home with your husband who supports and shares (mostly) the same interior design taste, the warmth of Filipino friends who know a lot behind their quiet smiles, a warm community, easy access to global cuisines, my husband enjoying his new role and working with his mentor, palpable concern from people you barely knew but who cared enough to ask after you when you needed minor surgery or stayed home sick, a new culture to respect even more, and it goes on.

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My husband working from home (and not too happy that I took a photo of him).
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Chez Willy, our new home, is fully decorated with our travel mementos and is a living proof of my shameless bargaining skills wherever we go.

Amid the chaos of a world turned upside down, I’ve learned to find solace in the small joys that come with my new life: a kid’s smile for me, a little girl’s hug, five minutes of peace and quiet in the middle of a busy day, very convenient apps that deliver just about anything to your home (from appliances to groceries to manicure services), a friendly neighbor, the Filipino bus lady and her overflowing niceness, a lovely wine night with ladies, and of course, a husband who will dance like a silly monkey to cheer me up.

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I find that my gratitude list keeps getting new things added from the new experience, and these things all add up in a way that makes my brand-new expatriation a truly rich life experience that is worth enduring the complexities that come with change.

Abraham Maslow said, “In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.”

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Photo credit: Travelzoo

I know that all the many little and big experiences will add to my depth, my maturity, my emotional strength, and all the many more of life’s changes that are yet to come.

 

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