What have I got myself into? she thought.
Simultaneously, her wife thinks,
What have I agreed to?
Neither says a word. That is, until….a man walks towards them, beaming with a big smile. Welcome to Taiwan. I’m Pin-Jui from the company. Let me take your bags and settle you in to your new home.
They reply: Fantastic Thank you. I can’t wait! Me neither, I’m so pleased to be here.
Sound familiar? Expatriate postings are like those extreme sport team-building days. There’s tension in the air, but you’re not quite sure if the adrenalin is exciting or terrifying.
My good friend Sundae Bean, says that as globally mobile people, we live ‘Olympic Level Lives’. Believe me, she knows her stuff. She’s an intercultural strategist and solution-oriented coach who also lives this life.
She right. This life kind of takes you apart, then puts you all back together again, many times over. And that’s now in 2020 when we are at a all time high for ease of instant communication. What about 10 years ago? 20 years ago? Or even more than 50 years ago?
It’s almost unfathomable to me. Imagine setting off in the 1920s unsure of where you’d end up and when – or if – you’d ever see your family again.
So what’s it been like through the Years?
There’s nothing better than words from the people themselves. For this, I have turned to my trusty resource, ‘The Source Book’, which I bought from the Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague in 2018. This wonderful centre describes itself as a home for expat life stories.
So with my copy of The Source Book at hand, let me introduce you to our community of life-builders, the heroes, the brave, the determined, the emotionally resilient, the fiesty, the inventive, the survivors, the thrivers, the problem solvers and the inordinately adaptive people we call expats.
As you read on, I invite you to think about the skills developed, the lessons learned and the life review that these remarkable experiences trigger.
Take a moment too to reflect on each ‘PAUSE FOR THOUGHT’.
Malaysia in the 1920s
The day for my departure came so, in 1926, with my two small daughters. I embarked on the P&O liner ‘Morea’ at the start of a six week journey to a place called Lutong, Miri, Sarawak. At last after four weeks we reached Singapore…and were met by my husband… After nearly a week sailing over the China Sea we arrived off the coast of Sarawak….
On our arrival at the Lutong wharf we were met by the company men, Chinese coolies[sic], with four wheeled trolleys. Sitting back to back we were pushed through the jungle along a rentus (track) for two miles… our luggage on a following trolley, and so we arrived at the bungalow that was to be our home for six years.
– JG about EM, Malaysia, 1926
[The Source Book, page 035, EAC Ref 0500/479]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
How would a long journey like this help alleviate arrival culture shock and subsequent transition?
Husband in Prison
My husband was one of the many rounded up and put in Seria Police station. The rebels took possession of all the cars. One night…some of the hostages were taken in a truck to part of the road near Panaga Police station. They were lined across it and used as a shield and were caught in the crossfire between Police and the Rebels. One man was killed and several others were badly injured. Lachie had been a POW for five years during the war and there was no way he was going to be locked up again. He escaped across a bit of jungle.
– EM, Seria, Brunei, 1960s
[The Source Book, page 75, EAC Ref oacl/33/4/1]
Civilities in the Aftermath of Civil War
I heard the door being kicked heavily, and, as I turned to see what was happending, a soldier, gun pointing towards me, propelled himself through the new open door…. Unable to speak I simply raised my eyebrows – “I want your school closed down now” he demanded. “All right” I finally managed to quake, no problem at all – can we discuss this?”
As the gun began to drop slightly lower and away from his face, I realised he was looking as frightened and unsure as I felt. Throwing caution to the winds, I asked him in what Province he had been at school… The gun lowered, he relaxed and we leafed together through one of the standard English texts in use in most primary schools. He had wanted to continue his education, but the army provided a surer living….
He finally confessed that what he had come for was to ask me to provide…some space for use as a polling station. Together, we toured the compound and decided that one classroom nearest the entrance would be quite sufficient…. As we parted he almost shoook my hand – but his gun got in the way.
– AR, Nigeria, 1960
[The Source Book, page 119-120, EAC Ref 0401/54]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
Have you and/or your spouse worked out what are your non-negotiables? What scenarios have to happen for you to leave the country? Natural disasters? Civil unrest? Threat and experience of violence? The currency become vastly inflated?
Tanker Hit by a Missile
I was taken to the Graille Hospital in Saigon and eventually operated on to take the shrapnel, glass shards and burnt wire strands from my many wounds I had to my side, shoulders, head and neck, and then was stitched up well vaccinated with a syringe the size of a stirrup pump.
The French surgeon wore shorts, a flowery shirt and flip-flops on this feet, with a Gauloise cigarette haning from the lips, ‘picture the scene’…. and asked Carol to come and watch while he operated, no anaesthetic, of course…. just like out of war movie, only this was for real.
– CM, Vietnam, 1972
[The Source Book, page 98, EAC Ref 0905/763]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
What has using local medical services made you grateful for?
How do you actively apply that gratitude in your life?
First Week in Bangkok
In our first week I was browsing through an antique shop and asked the owner to recommend a good rug dealer. He stared blankly, so I squatted to show him the floor. “Ah Toilet!” he said delightedly and ushered me to the back of the shop.
– CC, Bangkok, Thailand 1984
[The Source Book, page 41, EAC Ref 0600/166]
Women may not drive, cycle or employ female domestic help. Some feel they are living in ‘gilded cages’…. Homesickness can be a real problem especially as extended family members may not visit and living in such a restrictive atmosphere can lead to paranoia and depression in various degrees.
Officially we’re not allowed to gather in groups and certainly not mixed (male and female). We are extremely fortunate however, in having a great GM’s wife who pointed out that we all have talents which we should use…I have just set up a small mixed choir (no previous experience in conducting!) and we plan to have a house concert very soon: prohibited of course and we have to leave out potentially provocative words.
– PH, Saudi, 1984
[The Source Book, page 57, EAC Ref 0007/732]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
In what ways can you ‘get creative’ and use your talents to create great connections and purpose in your life?
When our seafreight arrived in Nigeria, we were informed that the agent had been thrown into prison because customs had found consignment of military uniforms in our possession. What?! In fact my husband had an old pair of camouflage trousers he used to wear when photographing in the Gabonese jungle…. He was summonsed before the General at the military base to apologise. [Shell paid a large sum and the agent was freed]
… A similar thing happened to friends of ours a couple of years later. They were accused of importing ‘espionage equipment’. This was in fact a small canoe acquired for their children.
– KM, Nigeria, 1997
[The Source Book, page 70, EAC Ref oac5/1/1/12]
A Guide to Etiquette in Delhi
The plumber – sadly everything leaks but he will persist in his repairs and come immediately. Sadly he fails to understand why we want the luxury of water out of both taps.
– SP, India, 1995
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
The best cultural interactions occur when both parties feel ‘met’. How do you deal with challenges within another culture? Do you only see it your way, or are you able to stop and meet them in the middle? If your way is not working, perhaps try another option and open yourself to their cultural approach. What have you got to lose?
Bacon and Eggs
We knew we were moving because mum offered us bacon and eggs for breakfast
– GL reporting words of her son CL: Den Haag, 2005
[The Source Book, page 122, EAC Ref oac5/6/2/7]
Relocating with Special Needs Children
When a family of a child with special needs learns of a possible international relocation, the rug literally is pulled out from under them. Even when research and treatment may be more advanced in the new country, parents need to learn an entirely different system, understahd the cultural context of special needs, and rethink best practice when considerable time, energy, thought and effort already have gone into the project. There may be insurance issues to be explored or mastered.
– LP, London, UK, 2004
[The Source Book, page 103, EAC Ref 0100/4/3/2]
I don’t know anyone who sent their children to boarding school because they wanted to.
– AM, Den Haag, 2005
[The Source Book, page 123, EAC Ref oac5/6/2/22]
My husband never drank alcohol until we went to Nigeria.
– KM, The Hague, Netherlands, 2006
[The Source Book, page 101, EAC Ref oac5/6/5/7]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
How we behave off the situations that present themselves to us can dramatically influence our mental and physcial health This includes what we’re like to live with and work with too. How can you transform your choices that you choose through gritted teeth into ones taht you welcome openly, warmly and with purpose?
I hope that you can grace me a minute to remind you of the words I used at the beginning to describe expats:
Life-builders, the heroes, the brave, the determined,the emotionally resilient, the fiesty, the inventive, the survivors, the thrivers, the problem solvers and inordinately adaptive.
I don’t see how we can see them as anything else. Do you?
They’ve worn their shoes well.
So well, they might need to retire them, but that’s another blog for another day.
“No matter what the situation, remind yourself, I have a choice”