When I decided to move abroad, I felt like the move was itself the opportunity I wanted. Living in a new country is a really interesting experience, it gets you to think through the pragmatics of how other people live, it allows you to see new things, and learn about the world. But moving also gave me other kinds of opportunities that I never would have imagined in my doctoral research, my professional development, and in forming some big picture thinking.
My personal/professional situation is a thing. It’s a situation that many people find themselves in. Perhaps it’s common enough to even be a phenomenon. It’s called being a digital nomad.
When I finished my undergrad degree, it was really hard to find paying, relevant jobs while I completed my Masters part-time. Sure, as an aspiring writer I could be an unpaid intern at a publication, but it was hard to see the point of doing so much busywork for free when, if I applied a little initiative, I could be paid real human money for doing interesting work. So I created my own job. I registered as a business and I emailed publications about ideas I had and some of those publications said (more or less), ‘Yes! We’d love to give you money for words!’
A lot of the pieces I wrote were very location-specific. I wrote about local events, state and national politics, and stuff I saw around me. Increasingly though, I diversified, wrote about things that could interest people worldwide and for publications in countries on the other side of the world. When I moved abroad, my work became even less tethered to the spaces I actually inhabited. In the last year, while living in the UK, I’ve written about gluten free flour in Kenya, youth engagement programs in Haiti, global challenges relating to HIV, the European Union’s robotic workforce policy, the Australian Prime Minister’s five-dollar donation to a homeless man, a Scandinavian teen TV show, and so on. The nature of the work is likewise distant – I’ve worked with dozens of editors and have actually met about three of them.
A digital nomad is a person who conducts their work remotely. They can be anywhere in the world (as long as it has an internet connection) and do their job. This frees them up to travel when they like. I can live in Norway for two months without any disruption to my career, for instance. It’s a privileged, agile position.
I’ve lived at six different addresses, four different cities, and two different countries since my eighteenth birthday (nine years ago). The first was my parents’ house, a property at the end of Melbourne’s stretch of suburbs adorned with dry grass, lizards, and the smell of eucalyptus. The second and third were at a residential hall affiliated with my university in Canberra. One room I took there for two years was a tiny box in super-utilitarian block which overlooked other tiny boxes and a barbeque area. Then I lived in a share flat on the College premises with four other people and oh, the stories I could tell about that year (I will never forget the experience of opening a freezer and finding a dead pig’s head staring back at me). When we were kicked out of there I lived in another, smaller share flat conveniently located just off-campus where the sun could never convincingly shine through the poorly situated windows. The fifth address was in a hip, inner-city part of Sydney in a townhouse that had been subdivided on a very busy street. The floor boards were a deep brown, the ceilings were high, and technically we had a garden though nothing stayed alive in it for very long (we put it down to pollution, though it may have been a matter of poor gardening).
Now I live on the other side of the world with my partner, in a one bedroom flat in Oxford with double-glazed windows and a bathroom that doesn’t have power points (I’m told this is the British way).
I have a certain fondness for all these places – both for their desired aspects and their (in some cases, multitudinous) flaws. All tingle with familiarity – I can remember where we stored the cutlery and the parts that were hard to reach and how the floor felt on my bare toes – but none are definitively my home.
In my experience, being an expat hasn’t meant cutting ties with my nationality. If anything it becomes more important. It’s a site of reflection, and one of the main topics of conversation you have with those you meet.
Even though I’ve never felt very patriotic, patriotism is rife in Australia. The reason why I’ve never felt it myself is because the symbols are cartoonish and unrelatable. Patriotism is drinking a cold stubby [a can of beer] by the barbie [barbecue] (which usually only men do). It’s an appreciation for the bush (where only a minority of the population actually live); a hunger for kangaroo meat (which is so unpopular on a day-to-day basis that you find it next to frozen dog food in the supermarket); fondness for Australian slag (which nobody under age 50 actually uses); and an admiration for white, male lyric poets who died over a century ago.
Many people who don’t feel they belong in this stereotypical Australia might feel “cultural cringe”, a kind of inferiority complex which makes people dismiss their own culture as less valuable than others. Continue reading
This will be my second Christmas in the UK. As I wrote recently for The Age, a northern hemisphere Christmas is not as delightful or necessarily snow-laden as you might expect. In fact, I find a lot of the Christmas celebrations here both mystifying and annoying to me. I do not understand bread sauce. I do not understand Christmas jumpers. More than anything, I do not understand why supermarkets insist on playing that awful Wham song for over a month in the lead-up to Christmas. You’re better off having Christmas under he Australian sun so that you can go outside and bask in the summer break.
I’ve never been a hugely enthusiastic Christmas person, but living abroad has made me realise that certain things do make the time feel more festive. Having family around – especially children (my cousins are quite young and excited on Christmas morning) – who tell silly Christmas cracker jokes and strew wrapping paper all over the place make things feel a little cheery. Having things you do each year – eating certain foods, watching certain movies, sleeping on the couch after lunch – also contributes to the good vibes. Christmas away from home last year didn’t really feel like Christmas because it lacked those things. But my husband and I are making our own traditions we hope to repeat next year. We watched the Christmas episode of Peep Show, prepared a delightfully non-British Christmas lunch, got excited by the fact that we had passed the winter solstice and the days would finally get longer, talked to family and friends abroad, and went on a walk in the cold. It didn’t feel like the real deal, but it was genuinely nice.
And, despite my misgivings about cold Christmases, I definitely came around to the Christmas lights of London and the cosiness of looking at a Christmas tree in the cold.
Have a good one!
Upon embarking to live overseas, I was surprised to learn that what I would call myself – and what others would call me – as a person living abroad has a long history of debate and can be deeply political. It’s important for members of the international community understand these complexities and to respond humanely to the issues.
I never really identified with the term “immigrant” or “migrant”, because to me they denoted a degree of permanence in the UK I don’t have (because my visa will run out in 2020) and I’m not sure I want (in case I want to live somewhere else in the future, or move back home). Terms like “tourist” and “traveller” have the opposite problem. “Expat” is not a term I use for myself very often (despite blogging for a site called “Expat Coffee Club”!) although I think it fits best.
But “expat” isn’t simply a term that describes my visa arrangements. It describes my age, my profession, my socio-economic status, my race, the conditions of the country I came from and its relationship to the country I live in. “Expat” has a deceptively simple definition but a ton of political connotations which makes the label a very privileged one. Although privilege is like a built-in blindfold that makes it easy to ignore issues, ideally privilege should be countered responsibly – through listening to others and being an ally.
Earlier this month I participated in a panel with two other Australian women who manage their writing career while living abroad. We talked about some of the things I’ve brought up before like managing different time zones and moving out of your comfort zone. But also some other topics like how moving has changed the kind of writing I do and has expanded my thoughts. We talk about some of the more surprising parts of moving abroad as well.
And there’s a part two which talks about the experience of being an expat writer who has moved TO Australia:
It was a really fun panel to be a part of! My hope is that it’ll encourage people to follow their yearning to travel (in a prepared way) and help them adjust.
My native country of Australia is incredibly isolated. For me, travelling abroad and travelling overseas are pretty much the same thing. Even our closest neighbours like Vanauatu, Indonesia, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea are a long-ish flight away (depending on which city you’re embarking from). Often people in the UK talk of ‘Australia and New Zealand’ in a single breath, but it takes at least three hours to fly between them.
One of the exciting things about moving to Europe is the easy and exciting proximity to heaps of countries. It’s as quick to get to parts of Northern Africa from London as it is to get between some Australian cities. It isn’t however, as cheap or spontaneous as I thought it would be. I spent my first few months here realising that if you want to travel through Europe, you’d best book well in advance.
Nonetheless, Australians in Europe tend to get a bit over-stimulated with the range of travel options available here. And I’m no exception.
Great things happen when women come together. Great things therefore happen when women collaborate to learn from each others’ experiences with motherhood, love, and loss. This series brings together women from Expat Coffee Club who are near or far away from having children with the contributors to the anthology, Knocked Up Abroad Again who became mothers while living in a foreign country.
This is the first in a series of articles between the two groups of women where they share their questions, fears, and possible anxieties about some of the challenges of creating a family abroad.
Erin: There’s a strange transition time in between referring to the family you grew up in as your “family” and forging a new family of your own. My new family is small, my husband and I, which makes big decisions a bit easier. Only the two of us have to be on board, which made moving away easy enough: it was all-round exciting, if a little nerve wracking, and although life in a new country has its challenges we’re both happy here.
But there are nonetheless familial complications with moving abroad. My tiny, new immediate family might be happy; but there’s still a family I’ve left behind – my parents and siblings that I grew up with. They have not so easily embraced the idea of our moving overseas. There’s a certain neatness, I suppose, in having all your loved ones around you, that they now miss out on. From my parents in particular, there has been a reluctance to accept the oceans between us.
I think the reluctance, however, has been mitigated a bit by the fact that our extended family has travelers. My grandmother was born in the Netherlands before coming to Australia and (skipping a few years here) marrying my grandfather and having my father and his siblings. Like many people, I wouldn’t exist were it not for international travel. Likewise, my mother’s brother moved his family to the US around a decade ago for his career. The difficulties they must have had in convincing everyone it was a good idea and figuring out how to keep in touch despite the distance has probably flattened out some of my potential challenges. There is still dissatisfaction with my living abroad, but because of this history, I know they can put up with it.
Families: it’s a wonder how any number of people (even if they do share large spans of DNA) will agree about what to eat for dinner, let alone what country to live in. Some of our friends at Knocked Up Abroad have navigated huge challenges (or in a few cases, surprising smoothness) at getting their families to agree to pick up and move, and share some interesting advice about getting everyone on board to go abroad. Has your family been excited to move abroad or have they found it difficult to be uprooted?
I was just as excited as my husband, Lindon, was when he was accepted to Oxford University to do a doctorate in applied maths. Oxford is one of the best and most recognised universities in the world, an Oxford DPhil is the sort of qualification that sets you up for life, and its super-competitive to get into. It was a really great accomplishment for him and the kind of opportunity one packs up their life and moves for.
But it was also a huge opportunity for me. Packing up and moving my life was fairly easy because of my unusual flexibility in my work and study life. More to the point, it has been a long-term ambition of mine to live overseas, at least for a few years. I’ve always been intrigued by the UK and by Europe more generally and I’ve learned a lot in my first year here. I feel like I’ve moved abroad as much for me as for him.
But even in this ideal, close to compromise-free scenario (which I imagine barely happens to begin with), there are still challenges. I’ve not read much about those before leaving and I certainly didn’t anticipate the extent of one difficulty: how to be yourself when you’ve moved for someone else.