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.
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
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.
Before I moved to the UK about a year ago, I had established myself as a freelance writer in Australia. I’ve mostly written opinion and analysis for online news as well as the odd feature or personal essay, and the more occasional literary essay. Freelancers like me get paid for their output rather than a regular salary and aren’t allotted office space so they tend to work from home, their favourite café, or a co-working space. I regularly get into workflows that take place on my floor.
Despite living in different countries, there are common threads in our experiences. This project therefore aims not only to give a voice to each of the women, but also to highlight things to bring us together despite the geographic distance. In this two-part series, we aim to bring all seven Expat Coffee Club women together around our first shared theme of coffee.
My drink is anything with caffeine, but despite my jittery desperation for stimulants, I’m quite the coffee snob. I won’t drink, lord forbid, instant. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, which is pretty much the hipster capital of Oceania (although I’m told Wellington is a keen competitor for that title). Coffee is important there. It’s made with an espresso machine and perfectly foamed milk with floral designs on the surface served in pretty cups with mismatched pretty saucers.
Melbourne coffee culture has pretty much ruined me for all travel purposes. Living in Oxford, UK has been a repeated experience in getting not-right coffee at three times the price I’m accustomed to. When I can, I gravitate towards what I know – cafés that operate in the Australian or New Zealand tradition (Scandinavian-inspired is fine too).
And so, when I drink coffee in my adopted place of residence, I have to face the lies I’ve been telling myself: I’m not an intrepid traveller who is too excited by new things to get homesick. I’m not the kind of person who moves thousands of kilometres away and adopts the style of the locals (and it’s not just coffee, the Brits seem to like to measure distance on the imperial scale of ‘miles’ for some reason), I’m not humbly accepting of the idea that people just do things differently in different places nobody is better or worse. The coffee, by and large, sucks, and it brings out all that is stubborn and judgemental and parochial in me.
So, I’ve tended to order tea when I go out in the year that I’ve lived in Oxford.
Funny enough, the days that I end up not having coffee are the days that I travel. I wake up nervous about being late and missing my flight, making me unable take the time to sit down and drink my daily dose of coffee. By the time I’m out the door, my nerves have kicked into full gear and have compensated for the lack of caffeine. On any other day, the taste and smell of coffee (as well as its caffeine boost) are highly satisfying, but it is fundamentally the ritual of making and sitting down to drink coffee that I enjoy.
Now that I think of it, this ritual is one of the only things that have remained constant through my travels and moving abroad. The clothes I wear, the food I eat, and the jobs I do, all change but this ritual remains. No matter where I am and what I am doing, I have a coffee in the morning.
That is not to say that the ritual has not been altered. While living in the UK, my consumption of tea increased substantially. This was due to my absurdly cold room in the winter caused by my ignorance of the need to “bleed” a radiator. I just thought that a very cold room was normal and that I needed to suck it up as a true Canadian. In the summer, my rate of tea consumption was maintained because of my new British housemate who kindly asked if you wanted a tea about four times a day (to which I always answered yes). When it comes to meeting with friends for coffee (or tea), my habits also have changed somewhat while living in the UK. When asked to meet for coffee by a friend coming from London to visit me in Oxford, I had difficulties suggesting a cafe. I answered that I knew the pubs much better than the cafes and we agreed to meet over a pint instead.
I expect that my ritual will be further altered now that I am in Taiwan, but no matter what, my day will always start with a coffee.
I’ve been taking tea with my Nana since before I can remember. It would happen on visits to her south Florida home, when Popi settled in for his afternoon nap. I would go to her enormous China cabinet, full of carefully arranged, mismatched porcelain cups and choose one for the day. Each had a story behind it; my grandmother remembered them all. Many were gifts, some Chinese, some adorned with irises (her name), one is even hand-painted by my German great-grandmother. She taught me the order to put in my sugar and milk, to check the watermark below to see which house had manufactured it (or maybe that was Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping Up Appearances, obsessed with her Royal Doulton). We’d stick to Twining’s English breakfast with a few Lorna Doone shortbread biscuits on the side (a southern twist), until I started to travel and cultivate broader tastes. I would bring her back afternoon bends from Harrod’s (which used to be her local grocery store as a teenager, living just two streets away), and we’d settle in, as always for a good chat. She told me colourful stories of her youth in England, Scotland and later Jamaica that gave me the travel bug and a severe case of Anglophilia.
Now, when I take tea in England I think of her, and remember her vividly through its tastes and smells and sounds, like Proust with his jasmine tea and madelines. It makes me feel a little more connected to the place and the choice I’ve made to live so far away from family. I was really wonderfully surprised when I moved here how much tea still reigns mighty in Britain. I suspected it might be one of those customs fetishised in American movies like monocles or bland food. But “put the kettle on” is a phrase used without the smallest hint of sarcasm, even if the kettles themselves are all electric.
I still use porcelain cups, a strawberry Wedgwood set I found covered in dirt and leaves in the garden. The rest of the house doesn’t really get it, because of course, most of England moved on to big builder’s mugs of tea ages ago, but invariably I never finish those, and, truth be told, I’m one of those purists who think hot drinks taste better out of bone china. My favourite place to have tea now is Louis Patisserie on Hampstead High Street. It’s a Hungarian spot that’s been open since the 1960s and apparently hasn’t changed much, in price or decor. It’s one of the first places I take visiting family. There’s no wifi, stuffed leather wraparound booths, chestnut cakes, sugar cubes, and of course, fine bone China.
I’ve never been a big coffee or tea drinker. I’m used to everyone around me not functioning in the morning until they’ve had their first cup of Timmy’s. My sister even has
a “tea maker”, similar to a coffee maker that most people have, which has a timer and automatically brews you a cup when you wake up in the morning (of course, her tea is super-caffeinated!). It’s weird but I only drink coffee on planes. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because I’m just sitting there, watching a movie, and it’s free – so why not? Obviously I add way too much sugar, because that’s how I like most things in my life – a bit too sweet :) All my life, whenever someone asks to go for “coffee” I always substitute the word “hot chocolate” or “cold, fruity drink” in my head.
However, when I moved to Bangladesh (and then directly to Nepal) in 2015, that all changed. Tea became a major part of my life. There was even a “tea lady” at work, and tea was served about 3 times a day to the entire staff. There were so many different kinds: black tea, milk tea, lemon tea, chai tea, and sometimes just hot water with lemon and honey (great when you have a cold!). Not only is it rude to refuse, it’s also an important part of the local culture. Not to mention, during cold winters in Nepal, tea is essential for warming up your hands. It also provides an important part of the local economy, with tea ladies in the office, and small tea vendors on every street corner (instead of Starbucks). Drinking tea in the office is a great way to be social and learn more about your coworkers each day. Now that I live in Bolivia, Coca tea is something I drink regularly, as it helps keep warm during the cold nights, and helps to stave off altitude sickness. So cheers – to tea, for bringing people together and keeping us warm. 🙂