Getting ready to go home

This weekend I had to say goodbye to one of the closest friends I made in Taiwan. We spent all of the most memorable moments here together. Waving goodbye to her from the other side of the barricade, waiting for the metro to come was the hardest thing for me to do. Seeing her with all of her suitcases packed made me want to go home and pack too. Maybe if my bags are packed that will mean that I’m going home as well. I’m not saying that I am not enjoying myself here, I just know that the life that I created is slowly slipping away. Over the past few months, my closest friends have gone home, leaving me as the last remaining member of our little group. You are probably thinking, why don’t you make new friends. Well, it isn’t that easy. I have friends with whom to meet for dinner and drinks, but not the kind of friends that I can call when I need some advice or a moral boost.

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What it really means to be an expat

After living as an expat in three different countries, I can easily say that there are a number of misconceptions about this kind of life. Part of the reason for putting together this blog has been to attempt to address some of these misconceptions. I’m always flattered when people congratulate me on the life that I’m living, but I fear that some of those praises stem from preconceived ideas of what being an expat actually is. So, here is my attempt to address some of these misconceptions.

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This is not how I imagined our first years of marriage

“This is not how I imagined our first years of marriage.”

This is what Thomas told me late one night while talking about the distance between us over the past two years and our uncertain future. When he told me this, his voice was filled with sadness, pain, and a hint of frustration. I’ve written before on this blog about how lucky I am to be in a marriage that has traveled globally and accepted my decision to live in Taiwan for nine months, but that does not mean that my time here has always been smooth sailing.

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The hardest period, to my surprise, was when Thomas went to Canada over Christmas. I thought that while he was at home with his family and friends he would not miss me so much. However, surrounded by all of our friends, he could see how their relationships had progressed, some buying a house and some thinking of having kids. I chuckled when he emphasised that some even had a fireplace! It was not that he desperately wanted a house, kids, or even a fireplace, but rather that he envied their stability. He envied their ability to plan ahead with decent certainty, while we are currently separated by a continent. People naively assumed when we got married that we were starting a stable and predictable life. Little did they know… 

Thomas supported me in my decision to study in London and now in Taipei, but that does not mean that deep down he is not saddened but the fact that over the past two years and therefore most of our married life, we have not been able to live under the same roof, save for two months last summer. I know that if he could, he would meet me in whatever city I chose to live in, but currently neither of us have that kind of flexibility.

Now, how does this affect my career path? I’m a logistically oriented gal. I like understanding how things are organised and how plans are made feasible. Sitting at an event organised by the Swiss Office in Taiwan, I couldn’t help but get distracted and think about how the Swiss diplomats got there. What were their families doing? How did they accommodate the various postings of their husband/wife? It’s because of such concerns that I’m having to really question any aspiration of going into the diplomatic service or working for large aid agencies. Both of these career paths would require me to spend more time abroad in areas that would be very hard for Thomas career wise. In no way do I regret my decision to come to Taiwan, however I know that I will not do this again. It would be unfair for Thomas and unpleasant for me to pack my things again and move to another country.

Before moving abroad two years ago, I chatted with family about Thomas and I’s respective fields and our career goals. At that time, several people told me that Thomas or I would have to accommodate the other’s career by sacrificing some of our ideals and that we would not both be able to reach our goals. It was harsh advice and I didn’t really pay attention to it. You always think that you are the exception to the rule. However, I’m finding now that I’ve started to make alterations to my career goals. I’ve taken my aspirations down a notch. There are things that I don’t strive for anymore. One could argue that those things were never really attainable, but it is more the process of choosing to delete these options from my possible career paths which is important here.
I’m therefore re-evaluating my career aspirations based on my relationship, something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. When I naively made myself that promise I thought that my career was the most important thing and that my relationship would always accommodate my choices. Although I know that it would and that Thomas would always support my decisions, I’m now realising that it’s not necessarily what I want. Yes I want a cool job in an area that is interesting, but really the most important thing to me is my relationship. I’m still a strong independent woman, but I’m also recognising what really makes me happy.

 

Anticipations

Moving to a new country is a lengthy process. It begins with the all important initial decision to pack up everything that you own and start somewhere new. Once that decision has been made, the process of getting all of your ducks in order to actually move abroad takes quite some time. For me, it ranged anywhere from six months to a whole year. During that time, the process of moving took over my whole life. Whenever I wanted to buy something, I had to stop and think about how much time it was going to take me to finish that bag of rice or whether I will be able to bring that cute dress with me to my new home. It also took over my conversations with constant updates on the progress of my preparations. All of this lead to a growing anticipation of this new chapter of your life.

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When I actually get to grab mygiant backpack and get on the plane, I felt like the fun times were about to begin… but they’re weren’t. As with any new thing, there are bound to be teething problems…

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Moving Abroad with Children

Gabi.jpgGabrielle: When my parents told me that we were moving, I was devastated. Despite the fact that we were not leaving the country, this move seemed like the end of the world. I was leaving a school that I loved, great friends, and a fun neighbourhood for the complete unknown. My friends and I promised to keep in touch and see each other very often, but because we were dependent on our parents to drive us an hour so that we could see each other, such a promise quickly fell through.

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Although it was not a new country, it sure felt like it. The people, the language, and the culture in Quebec were all so very different from what I had known. Furthermore, because of the historic relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada, classmates felt it necessary and cool to emphasise our differences, creating an “us and them” sensation. Although I spoke perfect French it wasn’t the right kind which meant that I didn’t fit in. It also warranted me nicknames and mean comments. Even after years of living in Quebec I still feel like I’m straddling two worlds without quite fitting in either of them.

Because of this experience, I became worried about how an international move would affect my future children. Travelling around the world with babies seems fine, but what do you once they’re older and want to go to school and have friends?

Sarah Hansen NEW headshot.jpgSarah: This last move from Hong Kong to Zurich was really difficult for our 4-year-old son. He mentioned HK at least once a day for about six months. It was heartbreaking because it took so long to integrate into Swiss life. The best thing about being an expat kid is that it is a passport to making other expat friends. It seems that he has a strong connection to other little boys who moved here about the same time and who also must miss their previous life.  Keeping children busy and establishing family rituals are key.


cristina-pop-headshot-modCristina
: Hi Gabrielle! Traveling and moving to different countries when having a baby can be challenging too. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. We paid attention to health risks, access to good healthcare systems, safety when driving for example. It can be really complicated. But yes, maybe it’s easier than with children that are already “rooted” somewhere. When they go older, you face different challenges. You need to support them to say goodbye well and to adjust to new environments. Also to build their identity despite the lack of stability.

nicola-beach-headshotNicola: Never underestimate how much kids learn from traveling—whether it be bartering in markets, understanding the elasticity of demand (e.g., hiked-up prices in airports for captive markets or how to convert between currencies) and soo much more. If you live for any length of time in other countries—you send them to school…and they make friends. Just as in your home country, there are great schools (and of course not so great schools) all over the world. The language of instruction may or may not be in English, but most kids tend to thrive wherever you plant them, particularly if the parents have a positive attitude to the location. For many children experiencing different school systems or language can be extremely beneficial and help them become a more rounded individual. It becomes trickier if you’re in rural Africa, for example, or if your child has special educational needs, but that’s a totally different story.


vanessa-jencks-headshot-modVanessa
: This is completely a personal choice in what family finally does, but opportunities abound. There is an international school in even the most remote of cities in China (looking at you Xining!). My personal perspective is if there are local children growing up healthily and happily in the area where we plan to live, there’s no reason our children can’t live there and have friends since children are more action friends than “let’s sit and chat over coffee.” Language isn’t really needed like it is for adults. Is there anywhere in the world where people are that children are also not there? Maybe that means educationally we’ll need to homeschool or find private tutors for a time, or even mix our education choices, but we’ll make it work if we want to live where we do. By the way, did you know China’s math and science test scores are higher than the math and science scores of the US?

lucille-abendanon-headshotLucille: It seems to be standard that once your child reaches 12, 13, 14 years old, moving becomes more challenging. We said that we’d move until our kids start high school, but I know some families who had to stop earlier because their kids refused to move again. It’s a tough situation, because how much say should you give your kids?

 

You got married at 22? You must be crazy!

Thomas and I got engaged when we were both 21. At that time, we didn’t have a set timeline for when we would get married, only that we would tie the knot once we were more settled. We were both still studying and already thinking of studying abroad. We thought that a perfect timing would appear after my bachelors was complete, or his master’s, or something else. At some point, we were bound to be more settled and ready to get married. However, in the year following our engagement, we realised that in the short and even medium term we would never really be settled and that there would be no perfect timing. This realisation culminated when I came back from a month-long research project in Berlin. While I was away I realised that I wanted to continue living and studying abroad and that I wanted to do it with Thomas. Coincidentally, when I arrived home, Thomas told me about seeing his friend’s sister and father practising their father/daughter dance in her wedding dress. This got him thinking as well, and he came to the same conclusion that there would be no perfect timing. My little heart melted when he asked “when will it be our turn to get married?” The following year we were married.

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Balancing Careers And Family Life As An Expat

Here is part two of our collaborative series with the women of  Knocked Up Abroad Again. This week, we look at how to you accommodate the needs of two independent people, who are now a couple, but have different careers, family concerns, etc. when choosing where and how to travel for work?
Amanda + Steve - Ottawa, 2016 - Friend's wedding.jpgAmanda
: For the past 3 years, I have been working in the world of International Development.  Since most of the work is contract, I’ve also been doing the “long-distance thing” with my boyfriend in Canada during my last two contracts (5 months in Ghana, and 7 months in Bangladesh/Nepal).  This time, my contract is for an entire year in Bolivia, so my boyfriend agreed to take a year off work (he’s a Chiropodist – a foot and ankle specialist) to come travel with me.  We both agreed that it’s a good chance to explore the world, work on our Spanish, and live outside of Canada to learn about a new culture.  I know it’s really difficult to find someone to uproot their life to join you on your newest adventure, and I feel really lucky to have such a sweet guy here with me on my journey!

As women with families, how do you balance the needs of each member of your family (partner and kids included)? Assuming that you have different careers, different family needs back at home, and different friend groups – how do you come to a compromise?  How do you decide what jobs to take, where to live, how long to stay in one place, and how often to see your families “back-home”?  It seems a bit easier for us since we’re only 2 people, without a lot of commitments, and no kids or family responsibilities yet – but how can we make it work over the years to come?  I would love to hear any tips, advice, or recommendations you have from your years of experience!

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What’s in a name?

I’ve always felt that using the English names was using the easy way out to avoid actually learning their real names, but things aren’t that simple.

I’ve always found it amusing when Asian people take on English names. The concept of adopting another name was very foreign to me. Why would you adopt and then use a name that is not your own? It also surprised me to learn that each person chooses their English name. How do you sort through the possible names in a foreign language and choose one for yourself? It was hard for your parents to decide on a name, but they had it a bit easier because they had less to consider. When choosing a name for yourself, you have to pick one that represents you, knowing what your parents couldn’t have known when you were born. (That being said there are obviously fads in the choice of names. I’ve met way too many Kevins for it to be a coincidence.)

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Lost Friendships

Throughout my time living in Korea and in the UK, I’ve been reminded on many occasions that there are very few basic common features that cross cultures. Such things as family dynamics, the relationship to space, and the way in which to nod one’s head to agree or disagree with a statement do not cross cultures. I’ve found out the hard way that the same can be said about friendships. Cross cultural friendship on the surface seem like any other, but this, in my experience, has been the source of naive assumptions and costly mistakes. These invisible differences can ruin the friendships that are so very important when moving to a new country.

As soon as arrived in the UK, I actively sought out new connections and friendships to make the time spent in my new host country as pleasant and meaningful as possible. Making Canadian friends is very easy based on our shared background. That being said, I don’t actively seek out these connections by joining Canadian associations or clubs, because the point of living abroad is to expand my horizons and not to limit myself to what I already know. When it comes to making local friends, it is very difficult to make good connections with locals because they already have an established network of friends, making it hard to accommodate new ones. The next obvious choice is therefore to connect with other newly established expats who are very open to making new friends.

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However, when venturing into new territory and making friends with expats from other countries, I’ve made the mistake of crossing lines that I didn’t know existed. Worse, I crossed them oh so casually because the same situation would never have been an issue with friends from home. In one case, it even brought about an abrupt end to the friendship. This lost friendship really hurt because of the value I place in the few good friends I was able to develop over the past year and how stupid it made me feel to lose one of them in this way. I cannot however tip-toe my way through new friendships to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. I cannot question every action to ensure that I won’t make an international faux pas. Simply concluding that these rookie mistakes will lead to lost friendships is way too pessimistic for my taste, but then what is the alternative?

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Women and Networking

At one of my university’s career events, I met a recent graduate who was just starting her career in the field that interests me. I therefore sought out her advice for breaking into the business. Among the pieces of advice given to me, she emphasised that security was a man’s world and that my best means of succeeding was to play up the fact that I am a woman.

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I was really troubled by the advice she gave me. On the one hand, not unreasonably, I believe that I should be taken seriously regardless of my gender. The things that I have to say regarding current affairs and international security should be judged independently of my gender. On the other hand, by not playing the “woman card”, I may be making things more difficult for myself because it is a male dominated industry.

Throughout the subsequent year, as I networked ruthlessly to acquire new contacts and break into the business, I often thought of the advice I was given. During networking events, despite the fact that I received more attention than my male counterparts, I was no better off. In every case, I felt that I needed to emphasise that I was at these events because of my knowledge, interests, and abilities and not just to be a pretty face.

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So, am I playing the woman card? If so, can I stop? Probably not. I realised that I have to play the woman card to set myself apart from the pack and make the initial contact through my natural tendency to smile and laugh a lot. However, as the conversation progresses, I need to emphasise my capabilities as a manager, a project developer, and a security analyst to truly establish contacts with the kinds of people who could hire me in future. The industry will continue to be driven by men, making them the prime target of networking events. However, I need to make sure that things remain professional and not just a pleasant conversation over a glass of wine because hiring processes are ruthless and a pretty face will only get you so far. Establishing good contacts means balancing between being a woman and a young professional with something to offer.