I started this list a while ago, in response to a post a saw on the TED.com conversations webpage.   I decided to finally publish it since it seems to have withstood the test of time (10 months in queue).  It is a great reminder of what I have taken away from our 7 years as an expatriate family, especially as we start our 8th year!   The list is in no particular order.

1.  The life you are living is better than no life at all.

2.  An open mind leads to many great experiences.

3.  Collecting experiences is more important than collecting things.

4.  Unconditional love is the greatest gift a child gives a parent.  It is also the most important gift a parent can give their child.

5.  Trying new things is one way to avoid boredom.

6.  Busy-ness is not the same as having a fulfilling life.

7.  Taking the road less traveled is often the more interesting path.

8.  We are more similar to each other than different.

9.  The “Golden Rule” withstands the test of time.

10. Life is too short to surround yourself with negativity.

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As Memorial Day and the beginning of summer arrive in the US, it is a bittersweet time in “ExpatWorld”.   The upcoming end of the school year is always a time of transition in the expat world.   The kids (and parents) are excited about another school year ending, however it is also the time when many families repatriate or move on to their new posts.   Needless to say, this is a very emotional time.

It is amazing how quickly close friendships form when in a foreign country.  And no matter how many times we go through it – the emotions and pain are just as strong each and every time.   It also seems to affect us as a family – I am not sure why in expat life, but we seem to bond with other families more than with individuals.  Perhaps because in the expat network – your friends become your surrogate family – pseudo aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces & nephews.  You look after like your own and vice versa.  An open door policy seems to be the norm.   In Peru, it was “mi casa es su casa”!

My kids are now at an age where they recognize what is about to happen.  My daughter’s best friend is moving back to the US — needless to say there have been lots of tears in our house for several weeks.   And not just hers!   Whenever I think about the two of them being halfway across the globe from each other, it breaks my heart.  Never mind that we used to live a stone’s throw from each other and have had countless BBQs that lasted well into the night with lots of wine and laughter.

My son is also losing two close friends — one we’ve known about for months, one we just found out about 2 weeks ago.  That is also expat life – sometimes you have a long-time to prepare for someone’s departure, other times it is quite quick.   Not really sure which is better or worse — kind of like pulling off a band-aid — the pain in the same — just whether you prefer it quick or drawn out.

Fortunately we have today’s internet and social media tools.  My kids are whizzes at Skype, Facetime and email.   (What about Facebook? — well we live in China.  Enough said.)    As for me – I remind the kids that my husband and I are often friend’s with their friends’ parents, which means we like to visit them in either their exotic locales or when back in the US.  Via these vacations/visits, the kids have realized the benefit of having a global network — it is always better to have the inside scoop when visiting a new place!

As for me — I am also losing one of my dearest friends in Shanghai – she took me and my family under her wing when we arrived.  She has always been there when I needed a shoulder to cry on, or a stiff drink at the end of a long day or week.   She helped get me back on track with my fitness regimen when I had strayed.   She has loved my kids as if they were her own.  You can’t ask for much more than that.  I know we will cross paths again and again and again.

To close, I want to share an Irish Blessing with those who are on the move in the coming weeks as well as with all my expat friends who are flung across the globe:

An Irish Blessing
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.
Author unknown

I have heard from several of my friends that they miss my posts.  My apologies!   I have been reinventing myself over the past 18 months.

When we first moved abroad 6 1/2 years ago, a very dear friend asked me “what I was going to do with the opportunity that had presented itself”?  What he meant was: “what was I going to do with all my free time?”   Let me explain — one very big advantage of moving from the US to a developing country was that I suddenly had a lot more free time on my hands.  My kids were suddenly of school age and I didn’t have any prior “commitments”.   This was a double-edged sword because I’d never had such a clean slate placed before me.   My first forays were into the obvious — learn the language (check), learn a new hobby (check), get back in shape (check), volunteer at school (check plus).   These were  all great ways to both learn the language as well as become a part of the local community – not just the expatriate community.  After 4 1/2 years, I’d built a life full of great friends and rewarding volunteer experiences and could communicate in Spanish.

However, after coming to China, I realized I never really answered the real question, e.g. what was my passion?  Now that I had all this free time (again), I found that those activities I had pursued didn’t hold the same excitement or attraction.   I realized I hadn’t really answered the original question – that is, I filled my time and made some amazing friendships, but had I really pursued my passion?

Fast forward 18 months and the answer to why I haven’t kept this blog updated!  Shortly after arriving, I was offered the opportunity to take an interim role with my former employer.  This was a rare opportunity and one I jumped at – perhaps my “passion” really was my previous career?   Rejoining an established multi-national company after 7 years was a shock to my system to say the least – but it was one that was worth it.  It was like drinking from a fire hose as I like to say, but that has always been something I have enjoyed.   It also made me realize that while my previous attempts at finding my passion had helped me find balance, they weren’t really filling the bill.

The role was only temporary and time flew by – before I knew it I had to think about “what next”?   Did I try to find another position in the company?  Did I go back to being a “tai-tai” as they say in Shanghai?   I could certainly find things to fill my days again – never an issue with 2 young kids and a city as dynamic as Shanghai.   But was that what I really wanted?   Here I was in Shanghai – in the midst of China’s booming economy – how could I just sit back and watch?   However, with so much opportunity, I really needed to finally answer that question — “what was my passion”?  What did I really want to do with my time and energy?

After a lot of soul-searching, conversations with my friends, family and mentors, I decided to volunteer my time with a local NGO.   I do believe serendipity struck again because all signs pointed in the same direction, e.g. with an NGO where I had an opportunity.    It turns out my passion is to help protect our planet for the next generation – and my skills and experiences can be put to use promoting sustainability initiatives here in China and finding ways to replicate them elsewhere.    I have never worked so hard — but also have never felt so motivated by the work I am doing each and every day.

So please forgive me if I don’t post again for a while!!

Taking pets along

May 17, 2010

Having family pets makes moving to another country even more complicated. We have moved twice and have taken along family pets each time. Both times there have been various complications. However despite the hassles, it has always been worth it.  Having pets helps when talking to children about the challenges of moving, e.g. leaving friends or well-known areas, or adjusting to a new home. They also provide great comfort. Our house in Shanghai started feeling more like a home when someone gave us their fish tank and 4 tiny fish; and even more so when our cats arrived a few days later. The best part is that pets provide companionship for everyone in the family – even our cats are usually good for some cuddling during the day! They seem to know when someone is feeling a bit down and tend to go and sit with that person. Then again, our golden retriever trained the oldest cat so he has some very dog-like characteristics.

Some people will say that moving pets is not worth it. I think that depends on how attached you are to your pets and vice versa. Our dog was already 12 years old when we moved to Lima; we were concerned that he would not do well physically on the flight. However, our vet’s advice was that he would be worse off if we left him behind. Her advice was worth its weight in gold. He was a great companion during my first months in Lima and adjusted quite well. He was always there beside me like he had been in the US, and it provided some much-needed continuity for the entire family during the early months.

That being said, moving with pets is not easy. Whether or not you use a pet relocation service, glitches happen. When we moved to Lima, the airline canceled the dog’s reservation 48 hours before departure. Many hours, and who knows how many phone calls later, my husband managed to get space on another airline. However, it meant one of us left the country with the kids, and the other one left 24 hours later with the dog. Given my husband viewed the dog as “mine”, he chose to go with the kids. In hindsight, that extra 24 hours that I had in California was necessary but it was very hard watching my family leave without me.

When we moved to China from Peru it was an even more frustrating process. First, the paperwork requirements were never made clear to us because we were using a pet relocation service. Second, it was more complicated because we were moving from one foreign country to another; we couldn’t do it ourselves like we had when moving to Peru. Then H1N1 influenza complicated matters further when a cat in China contracted the virus. Suddenly whatever rules had existed, were suddenly changed! We were already en route via the US, and the cats were awaiting their flight from Lima. There was nothing we could do because we were literally half a world away. Luckily the cats finally arrived, though 2 weeks later than originally anticipated and after nearly one month in a kennel.  The cats still freak out when they see a suitcase appear or if I unpack a moving box!

Finding a vet in a new city can also be challenging, especially when you do not speak the local language. We have come across good ones and bad ones – but that can happen in any city. We almost lost our dog when he developed a bad skin infection. The original vet did not know how to treat it.  These situations are difficult when you are operating in your own country and language; I was at a loss even though we had been in Peru for over 2 years.  I knew something was very wrong, but did not know where else to take him.  Luckily a close friend knew the name of a great vet and he was able to cure our dog.  After that, he was the only vet I trusted even though it meant more time in traffic to get there.

There have been pets we have had to leave behind when moving.  When we moved into our house in Lima, we adopted a huge yellow box turtle which had been left by the previous tenants.  Its diet amused us – cooked chicken, lettuce and hotdogs.  Who knew turtles ate meat – not that they are fast enough to catch it!  I soon found out that they are scavengers and will eat pretty much whatever they come across.  Our turtle would come into the kitchen when he was hungry, usually during Sunday BBQ’s which was always amusing to children and adults!  Unfortunately he was not allowed to move to China with us .  I don’t think the US would have taken him either given the zookeeper’s reaction when I asked her what to feed him during a trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  She looked like she was ready to have me arrested until I explained that we were living in South America.  

Of course, sometimes it is hard to have pets in countries where there is still a lot of poverty. You realize that they truly are a luxury. Feeding and caring for them costs money and seems superfluous. However, I believe pets are important because they help teach children life’s lessons – caring for another creature, dealing with life and death. They have provided companionship and continuity from one place to another. Despite all the hassle and heartbreak, I can’t imagine not taking the pets along!

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.

Before having kids, I was never a big fan of “routines”. I was more a fan of spontaneity. Becoming a parent changed all that. I immediately saw how important routines are for my family, as well as for myself. While I still remain flexible, we definitely have daily, weekly and even annual family routines. This has become even more important while living abroad.

When moving to new places, it has been critical to establish routines in order for the family to feel settled. However it is very overwhelming at first because everything is new and different – for all of us. Everyone’s routines are getting reshuffled, at the same time, across all aspects of our lives. Where do we shop for groceries? How do we get to school or work? What after-school activities are available for each child? Where can we workout or play sports? How much homework does each child get and when is it due? Where is the dry cleaner? Where do we get our hair cut? Where do we find health care providers? Throw on top of it operating in a new language and daily life is suddenly quite chaotic and challenging!!!

The good news is that after 3 months, we are establishing new daily and weekly routines. The kids know what to expect at school and are even buddies to newer arrivals! Amazingly while still “new”, they are no longer the “newest” kids in their classes. They have selected new after-school activities along with some old favorites. I am settling into a routine as well, though it has taken longer than I would like. We can get through regular household routines easier and daily life is not as overwhelming. We know which store has the best fruit, and which one carries the kids’ favorite cereal. We know where everyone can get a haircut. That being said, the routines are not completely settled yet, but we are getting there. This phase took much longer when we moved to Lima; perhaps there is a learning curve after moving multiple times!!

No matter how hard we have tried, the routines are never the same from one place to another. In a positive mood, I would say moving is a chance to try new things; in a negative mood, I would say it is a forcing mechanism. For instance, I could not replace my Masters swimming group from California when living in Lima; nor was I willing to ride my bicycle in Lima’s infamous traffic where stop signs are merely recommendations! Therefore I traded one sport for another: triathlons for golf. I am extremely glad I did. While completing triathlons was rewarding, often it was a solitary pursuit. Golf is a more social sport and through it we met many of our close friends in Peru. If we had stuck to our old California routines, we would have missed out on many great memories.

I have also realized that while some aspects of our routines are similar from one place to another, they need to be different. If they are the same, it is too easy to compare “here” with “there”. Continuing on the golf theme, I am the most homesick after playing golf with the local expat league. While I have a great time while playing and everyone is very friendly, it is not the group we grew close to over the last four years. That being said, I will get back out there, because I love the game and it is a great way to meet new people. However, we have realized we cannot replace what we had in Lima and we have found other ways to build a new community of friends here in Shanghai. Luckily there is a strong and very friendly expatriate network so it is not too difficult.

I am relieved that we have established routines in our new environment. While I am still not a fan of rigidity, I can see how everyone seems calmer now that we have a rhythm back in our days. I know that routines keep our family grounded. They are something that we can control when everything else is completely new and different.

I wrote earlier in the week about how nice it is to have guests. I want to expand on a key part of it. You get to play tourist in your new hometown. Anyone who has lived in a tourist destination knows that the last thing you want to do on weekends is hang out in tourist zones. However, when you have guests in town, this is the time to let down those defenses and enjoy the city you live in with a newcomer’s eyes. From a tourist perspective, we did several things this week that I have wanted to do since we arrived. I am once again amazed by our new city and very happy that we are able to live here for an extended period.

First, we went to the top of the World Financial Center. This building is currently the 3rd tallest building in the world, and the tallest in China. I say “currently” because they are building an even taller tower next door to it. I gained a different perspective on how vast and dense this city is. From 100 stories up you can see how rapidly the city is changing – new tunnels, new bridges, new buildings. The city is changing to handle phenomenal growth, but also in preparation for World Expo 2010 which starts in a few weeks. You gain a different perspective when you visit these architectural attractions.

Next, we took a traditional Shanghai cuisine cooking class. I learned a lot, but we also had a good time. Hopefully I will be able to remember some of what we learned since the most interesting takeaways were not on the printed recipes! Our chef/teacher then took us to a local tea shop, due to the outgoing nature of my guest who has a way of instantly befriending people. I hadn’t visited a traditional tea shop yet. It is an experience that should not be missed. Varieties of tea are quite complex, the flavors are affected by growing location, climate and time of harvest. We tried the first harvest of green tea for this year – it was completely different from what I have been drinking from tea bags or even the loose tea I buy in the supermarket. The owner even recommended a traditional tea for my chronic sore throat! We will see how it works.

Finally, we rounded out the week by visiting the flagship Barbie Shanghai store. It is a spot that I have wanted to visit since we arrived, especially since friends from college designed the space. It was a fun experience and a wonderfully unique retail space. My 7-year-old daughter announced that she wanted to hold her birthday party there! On the flip side, it may not have been the best destination for our 10-year-old son.

I look forward to our next visitors – I can’t wait to be a tourist in my own city once again!

 

How did I choose my username for this blog? Since moving overseas, I have always referred to myself as “the trailing spouse”. However, that username was already taken as it is commonly used in the expat world. In looking for a new “nickname”, I started researching synonyms and quickly realized they were all quite negative, including terms like “drag along”, “tow”, or “haul”. I realized that these words did not appropriately describe who I am!

Was I being dragged to another country against my will? Of course not! I have encouraged my spouse to take these new opportunities, and gladly viewed them as adventures for our family. Though I have had to take a break from my career to do so, more often than not it has been a positive experience. I have done everything in my power to make it a successful and enjoyable experience for my spouse, our children and myself.

I recently heard someone use the phrase “supporting spouse” which I like better but still defines this group relative to their spouse and not as individuals. Yes, we manage the “back office” work that makes the working spouse successful – e.g. the move, getting the children settled, finding the house, the school, the grocery store! In addition, we are the ones who usually learn the language because in many cases because it is a necessity for everyday household management and survival. In most business situations, the working spouse can get by using English and not the local language. However, we also do much more than that.

In talking to other expat spouses, I find many feel this way. Most are not being “hauled” to their new environment and are not just “supporting their spouse”. Many trailing spouses are the ones who volunteer at school, and start-up or support various local charities. Often expat spouses talk about “renewal”, reinventing themselves in their new environments. Personally, I have learned new sports, studied new languages, taken the photography course I have dreamt about for 20 years, and started this blog! I know others who have started new businesses or earned degrees while overseas.

Yes at times I have been homesick, but that comes with the territory. However, I seek friendship and support from those who have been successful and who have learned to adapt and adjust. It is then that the expat network is at its best. Everyone knows what you are going through because they have been through it themselves and are willing to listen, but also to let you know that you will get through it.

Therefore, I have chosen “chameleon” as my username because that is what best describes me at this point. According to one on-line dictionary, a chameleon is “someone who is able to quickly adjust to new circumstances” (1). In my opinion, this describes the type of people who choose to live in a foreign country and make it a positive experience. We are very good at adapting to our surroundings.

 

(1)    Source for definition: http://www.ninjawords.com

Houseguests

March 29, 2010

 

Someone once told a close friend who was staying with us for an extended period: “honey, houseguests, like fish, smell after 4 days”! Luckily for that particular guest, I was never one to subscribe to this point of view. And it is a good thing, because over the last five years we have had a steady stream of visitors. Our first Shanghai houseguests have arrived, and we have looked forward to the visit for weeks.

In my opinion, one of the best things about living in a different country is that people love to come and visit. Some visitors are on the trip of a lifetime. Others are just passing through for work. Some stay for only a day or two, some stay for a few weeks. We love all types and have been lucky enough to rent houses with sufficient space.

Last weekend, I heard from some friends that they know expatriates who do not like visitors. Perhaps they haven’t had the right kind of guests? Or perhaps their visitors stay for too long? Perhaps they are not willing to play “sherpa”? Guests at our house are usually asked to bring us things we cannot get locally, or else are far too expensive to make it worthwhile. That usually means English language books (heavy), favorite US cereals (bulky), decorations for particular holidays (Easter, Thanksgiving), clothes or shoes in large sizes to accommodate our above average height. I always have a twinge of guilt when our guests arrive and say – see that extra-large suitcase, it’s yours!! However, I know in the back of my mind that they will fill it with souvenirs on the way home and will be glad they had an “empty” bag with them. In addition, they usually see the reaction on the kids’ faces and then they completely understand why we asked them to bring generic supplies like a child’s favorite toothpaste.

Visitors do take some extra planning, but we have always found the benefits outweigh any inconveniences. I tend to save the “touristy” things to do with our visitors. Things we take for granted – the scenic views, particular museums, shopping venues – are suddenly exciting and exotic again when viewed with a newcomer’s perspective. I also look at it as an opportunity to see how well I know my new city. Similar to when we were in school and you felt you really knew a topic when you could explain it to someone else. If I can play “tour guide” or “booking agency” for my guests, than I must know my new city and country quite well.

Guests also bring a touch of the US with them. And I am not just referring to the extra suitcase. It is different hearing about local politics or news first hand vs. just what you read on-line or hear from CNN International. It is also a fun time for the kids to show off their new school, or neighborhood, or friends. I have already seen my son’s spirits perk up by the opportunity to take our visitors on a tour of his school. Instead of comparing to what we left, they explain what is new and different here and what they like the most.

So we will enjoy the time with our guests, it always seems too brief. And we look forward to many more visitors coming in the months and years ahead. It is one of the many joys of living in a foreign land.

How did we get here?

March 26, 2010

How did we become an expat family? When I think about how we ended up moving to South America and now Asia, I often hear the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” in my head. In particular the classic line “how did I get here”? To be honest, it was serendipity. Well, serendipity coupled with receptiveness. The opportunity arose at a time when we were willing and able to take advantage of it.

Early one morning in February 2005, while getting ready for work, my husband asked me what I thought about moving to Peru for a year. My answer – “why not”? That single question and immediate response set off an incredible chain of events and started our family on this amazing journey.

I still recall that morning – we chatted about the opportunity and whether we were comfortable with the idea. Whenever we think back on that day, we are still amazed at how quickly we decided. Within 45 days, my husband was in Peru working for a new client. Several hectic months and 80 hours of intensive Spanish training later, the kids, our dog, and I arrived in our new home in Lima.

That first assignment felt risk-free – it was only expected to last 12 to 18 months. If things didn’t work out, the kids and I could move back after 6 months and my spouse could commute. Not an ideal situation if it happened, but we felt it was a no-lose decision. We had good friends to look after the house in the US. We found good schools and a great house in Lima. There was no career risk for me since I was already taking a few years off from the corporate world while the kids were young. In the end, the decision was actually very easy.

What happened next we never could have predicted. We immediately fell in love with the “expat life”. An incredible group of fellow expatriates and Peruvians embraced us and made us feel at home. We did not want the experience to end. Luckily the “12 month” project extended and extended, and new clients appeared. After 2 1/2 years, we sold the house in California. Our brief experiment had turned into a way of life!

By early 2009, after 3 1/2 years in Lima, we knew our time in Peru would be coming to an end. We just did not know exactly when nor where we would be going next. The options were all exciting: Brazil, China or back to the United States. In our view, there was not a bad option in the bunch but we hoped to stay abroad. While the uncertainty was hard to manage, we did our best to keep living a normal life. In reality, we were in denial; we tried to ignore what was on the horizon. Despite the stress of not knowing, that last year in Lima was one of the best of my life. I took on and accomplished new challenges, despite the uncertainty. If anything, I was more focused because I knew I had a limited time to get things done.

In September 2009, we accepted a proposal to move to China. Things have been a whirlwind ever since. After a “look-see” visit in early September, we decided to move during the Christmas and New Year’s school vacation. That gave us a few months to unravel our life in Lima and it was a natural transition point for the children.

We arrived in Shanghai on New Year’s Day 2010 and the whirlwind continues! As the song goes, “how did I get here”?