Cycle of uncertainty

April 25, 2010

Expatriate families deal with significant uncertainty over prolonged periods of time. I’ve decided it comes with the territory. No matter how well you try to manage it, it is always there beneath the surface. It starts when you are first asked to consider moving overseas, and comes in stronger waves when a contract renewal is imminent.

While in Lima – we continually lived with uncertainty. We found that we could generally plan 9 months ahead. While not ideal – I became used to it and generally knew that we would finish a semester at school, which is how we used to measure time – semester by semester. Other families know year to year while others have moved with less than one month’s notice.

As soon as you are asked to move overseas, the uncertainty begins. There are a million questions that come to mind. There are the obvious ones: Where? For how long? Then other ones creep in: What kind of housing is available? Are there decent schools? How will the kids adjust? Will I be able to learn the language? What about pets? Is it safe? How often will we get to see family and friends? What do we do with our current house/apartment/cars? Despite the endless list, I find the first two questions generate the most uncertainty.

Funny enough, the simplest question – how long will you be here is one of the most difficult for many people to answer. Contracts can be extended if things go well, they can be shortened as happened to many people during the global economic crisis. Others can be relocated on very short notice due to security and political issues or due to promotions. I have friends who were transferred to one city and then promoted which required another move within 3 months.

While it is polite when meeting people to ask how long they have been here, or how long are you staying, it really is just an ice breaker. Unless people are short timers – meaning they are 2-3 months from leaving – the answers are always  vague. Most people answer, “well the contract is for x years, but who knows!” I speak from experience – Lima was supposed to be a 12-18 month venture and turned into 4 ½ years! How long we would be there was always on a rolling 9 month basis. I never thought in March 2005 that we would be there through 2009, nor that we would be in China in 2010! I could never have predicted this.

Not knowing how long you will be somewhere can create a lot of stress if you let it. The stress connected with the uncertainty is bigger than many of us realize. It can last for a long time. You generally have a rough idea of how long you are supposed to be in a place. However, I have seen that when you are roughly 10 months away from your “target” end date – the uncertainty begins. This is true for corporate and diplomatic expats. For diplomats, they know their contract period is ending and they start a bid and match process for their next post. That can last several months. For corporate expats, I have met people who are repatriating to the US in 2 months time but still do not know their exact location – as in it could be Texas or Michigan! Others are “supposedly” extending beyond this June, but are still waiting for final contracts. Even people with contracts can be repatriated or transferred on short notice due to business conditions or promotions.

That being said, in spite of the uncertainty, you need to keep living your life. We received some excellent advice when we first moved to Lima in 2005. My husband’s college roommate had been an expatriate for many years at that point. His advice was “to live your life like you will be in Lima for a long time”. His reasoning was that if you viewed it as a short-term option, you would not take advantage of all there was available. We lived our life that way and it was the best thing we did.

We are not facing an imminent transition, however many friends are in the midst of these discussions and decisions. I am continually amazed at how well the majority of families deal with it. I am not saying it is easy, I sense frustration and anxiety in many of the conversations. However, most people prefer to take a positive attitude despite occasional tears and sleepless nights. Listening to them and reflecting on my experience have helped me realize that living with uncertainty is an undercurrent of expatriate living.  While I will not go so far as to say it is “chronic”, there is definitely an ongoing cycle of uncertainty.

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