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?

 

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.

The Coffee Ritual – Part 1

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.

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An Australian-style café

Erin

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.

lampMelbourne 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.

Gabrielle

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.

img_20160602_170614Now 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.

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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.

Angelique

Angelique nana.JPGI’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.

Amanda

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

Amanda Waiting for Hot Chocolate to cool in Toronto, Canadaa “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 Amanda Drinking Hot Chocolate with Friends in New Zealandvendors 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. 🙂

10-Year Plans Suck

I was recently asked where I see myself in 10 years.

Since moving to the UK a year ago, I have tried as much as possible to avoid such questions. Before moving abroad, I knew exactly what my career path was. It was such a great plan that I could pretty well plan when we would buy our first house and have our children. However, when I left Canada for the UK, I could barely plan the upcoming year, let alone what I wanted to do afterwards. Thomas was starting a degree in Oxford meaning that there was a good chance that I would stay in the UK for the next four years. When instead I accepted an offer to study in Taiwan for a year, my very rudimentary (and ill-defined) three-year plan was squashed.

Now, I was being asked what I was going to do in TEN years. As I babbled my way through a generic (and unsatisfying) answer, I realised that my career choices depended not on what I wanted to do, but where I ended up.

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