Reflections from the Road
I have returned to Dubai after a long summer filled with remodeling, traveling, catching up with family and friends, and sending the littlest one off to college. During my three months at home I had a lot of time to reflect on my first year of expat life. My experiences ran the gamut from fabulous to infuriating to incredibly funny. Many were totally unexpected and some, very unsettling. In retrospect, I was pretty unprepared for moving to Dubai. I suffered from over-confidence, assuming I would just figure everything out. The rosy but not always accurate assurances of my expat acquaintances added to my bravado. The endless list of details and requirements needed for entry into a foreign country was daunting, but administration was my gift, right?
I distinctly remember my husband telling me, “Shirley, this is going to be hard”.
I should have paid more attention. In stubborn pride I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’
In reality, my transition was great and grueling at the same time. By the grace of God, I persevered and my life is richer and my faith stronger, after my first year in Dubai. But, all the same, I can’t help thinking about those new expats starting their journey this fall. Trying to figure out how to drive, stressing about the schools, wondering if their internet and phones will ever work and, most importantly, trying to find Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. All while wondering why they are being stared at, honked at and yes, sometimes laughed at. How well I remember. It’s a lonely and isolated feeling sometimes.
Recommendations for the Road
Fortunately, there is a new resource that offers guidance to the expatriate trying to navigate their life abroad. Andrea Martins, Victoria Hepworth and Robin Pascoe’s Expat Women: Confessions – 50 Answers to Your Real Life Questions about Living Abroad, is an insightful look from the road already traveled; real experiences of expats around the world. The question and answer content is gleaned from the highly popular Confessions tab on the Expat Women website. What I would have given to have this jewel in my possession before our move last year! The stories made me feel validated. It turns out many of my experiences are common among expat women. I found my way somehow, mostly through the advice of friends and trial and error, so I can attest to many of the recommendations from the wise in Confessions’. I’ve highlighted some that mirror my own experiences.
Realities of the Road
Will Culture Shock Happen to Me?
For this confessor, the authors emphasize the importance of personality and attitude, expectations, support networks and work prospects in successfully making the transition to a new locale.
“… when English-speaking expats move to an English speaking country, they typically expect life to be mostly the same and only allow minimal time to adjust. They are often not prepared for the myriad of emotions that comes with relocating—leaving everyone and everything familiar; moving house and belongings; dealing with potentially resentful children, and so on.”
Many of my early disappointments were directly related to my unrealistic, self-imposed expectations. Even though Dubai is mostly an English-speaking Emirate, the culture is vastly different from what I knew. An adjustment to my very American attitude and a supportive group of friends helped me manage a more even-tempered response to my new environment.
I endeavored to replace my irritation with curiosity. This helped when I couldn’t figure out why certain segments of the population greeted me with, “hello ma’am/sir”. I thought, ‘Hmmm, I think I’ve learned a new pronoun.’ Or why others wouldn’t greet me at all and refrained from looking me in the eye. I mistook this for rudeness, when in fact it was intended to be respectful.
Becoming a Trailing Spouse.
It’s tough to leave your career, family and friends in order to accompany your spouse to another country. The personal sacrifices of a trailing spouse are often greater in the near term. Confessions’ advice for the new expat is to remember they are not alone, ask for assistance, stick to a schedule, get active and be creative and relish the incredible opportunity to live abroad for a time.
With my professional life behind me, at least for a season, I found myself looking for new ways to challenge myself. I came to the UAE with a list of goals I wanted to accomplish while I had the time and flexibility. A very good friend who spent much of her life as a military wife gave me some excellent advice; take care of your health – mental, physical and spiritual. I kept her words in the forefront of my mind. The focus of my first weeks in Dubai was on finding a church, developing a fitness routine and getting involved in things I wanted to pursue. Maintaining a daily routine that included focusing on my faith, writing, exercising, being with friends, and learning about Dubai was important to my overall health and wellbeing. The discipline of my days helped me when I was feeling down and struggling with my emotions. It was tougher to stick to the plan but doing so helped me in the long run.
I Need More than Coffee
After daydreaming about her well-deserved break from work and the time she would get to spend with her husband, one confessor laments,
“…we have been here for six months and I cannot believe how lost and dissatisfied I feel. I am shocked and embarrassed to feel this way, as I genuinely thought I would get enough stimulation from my surroundings, supplemented by the local expat club activities. I realize now that I need more than coffee.”
The honeymoon was over for this expat and she now needed a plan of action and some serious networking.
I can relate. My life in the states was full of purpose, intellectually stimulating and very service oriented. I was busy! Throw in family obligations, a wedding and preparing to move and you could have mistaken me for the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil. For a while after our move, I enjoyed my new-found freedom, but it wasn’t long before I was pacing the floor and questioning my worth. The incredible network of expats in Dubai was so great for me in this regard. I utilized it to pursue many of the goals I’d set out for myself and made some really great friends in the process.
Confused About Finances.
For many, the financial aspects of living abroad are the most misunderstood and the most eye-opening. Confessions’ encourages the expat to seek sound advice and make sure you are covered, especially in regards to hidden costs. They advise weighing all options carefully before agreeing to a relocation assignment. Even so, it’s impossible to know every detail.
I did not know near enough about the local laws before our move. Living in Dubai presents unique challenges for women. I quickly realized the importance of protecting my financial security in my home country.
Confessions’ is right in stating how critical it is that any woman moving abroad get wise counsel regarding her finances and develop a plan that ensures her own security.
My Teenager is not Adapting
I empathized with the expat confessor who wrote about her teenage children,
“Far from my image of them becoming global citizens with a love of adventure, they cannot seem to see any positives about our move abroad and only want to go back home—with or without us.”
Sadly, I did encounter a few teens who felt this same way in our first year abroad. I found Confessions’ advice affirming about how to approach relocation with a teenager, and to be aware of the importance of friends and signs of depression. Even though my daughter was excited about moving, sadness over leaving her friends and nervousness over making new ones occupied much of her thoughts. At times she was quiet and withdrawn. Praise God for the many outgoing expat teens that befriended my daughter and included her in the lives right away. She formed many close relationships in the short amount of time she was abroad. Leaving her Dubai home of one year to return to the states for college was much, much tougher emotionally than leaving her Texas home of 17 years to come to Dubai. We were blessed. I know the outcome could have been much different.
Friends Back Home
How do you maintain your relationships with your friends back home? It can be so tough because let’s face it, you’re just in a different place, physically and emotionally.
I can relate to the confessor’s frustration when she says,
“I try to share stories of all the amazing things I am discovering abroad, but I feel my friends are jealous and do not want to listen. Other times, I want to confide in them about the guilt I feel over living so far away from our aging parents, or about how my children are struggling to fit into school, or confess the loneliness I experience during my husband’s travels, but when I try to voice anything about my expat life, my friends cut off the conversation and are not interested.”
This voice could have been mine. I had aging parents, a struggling teen, and a traveling husband. I found the reality of my new situation and that of the friends I left behind to be vastly different. Social media tools like Facebook and blogging made sharing experiences and keeping up with my friends’ lives easier, but I still felt cut off at times. It didn’t take long for me to figure out which of my friends genuinely cared about my triumphs and trials. My relationships with them became stronger as a result.
I don’t know what percentage of expats are baby boomers, but I would venture to guess that we make up the largest age group working around the world today. Many of us left behind aging parents in our home countries, often creating an emotional mine field consisting of sibling relationships, administrative and financial details, quality of care issues and tremendous guilt.
I experienced this trauma first hand with my aging parents and it was heart-breaking. Confessions’ counsels about the importance of making decisions through consensus and being sensitive to each family member’s care giving abilities. Since I was not able to be in close proximity to my parents, I took on the role of handling their finances. Thankfully, technology makes this quite possible and I was able to relieve some of the burden of care from other family members.
Remember the Road
A very special lady I know always says, “Life is an adventure!” Her expat experience was Switzerland with five children. There were no cell phones, communication was a hand written letter and traveling by ship was still common. Although our challenges are different, all expats appreciate the road made easier by those who have traveled it before. Expat Women: Confessions – 50 Answers to Your Real Life Questions about Living Abroad is that traveled road. Perhaps it will help to relieve the struggles in such a way that we can remember more fully the enduring aspects of the expat life; strong bonds of friendship, a chance to see the world, a unique global mindset and the stories for passing down to the next generation.