It may sound like packing up worldly belongings and heading off to pastures new sounds deeply romantic, glamorous even, and in many ways it is. The response or reaction as you take your leave can be mixed but you can see it in their eyes. They envy you just a smidge.
When I told people that I was leaving UK to live in Tanzania (though it was a heck of a long time ago), the response was, “where did you say? Tasmania?” Since Tanzania was not on most people’s radar, I simplified it to ‘Africa’. Oh right. They said. “Hot over there then I expect?” They also said, “Isn’t it dangerous?” Not 100% encouraging for a soon-to-be-married ingénue that I was back then. But I shrugged my shoulders. It would be an adventure and I was only too delighted to hand in my resignation at my boring job. I couldn’t wait for sun and blue skies.
Scroll on a good many years and some of the sharper edges of that transition have worn smooth but there are still aspects of living far from home that are a struggle and cause for marital strife.
More relevant and thought provoking questions as I left might have been:
- “How do you feel about giving up your job/career/identity for that of your partner?”
- “What exactly do you plan to do with your time? Will it be possible work over there?”
- “How do you feel about leaving your support network (family & friends) behind?”
- “How easy do you reckon it will be to find friends over there?”
- “What if your two year posting turns into more? Have you got a long term plan?”
- “How do you think you will develop as a person?”
I guess that when you stay ‘at home’ you follow along a similar trajectory to your age mates (correct me if I’m wrong). Career (plus time to figure that out, qualify etc), marriage, kids, hopefully owning a home. Followed by juggling kids, career and marriage. In expat life it shakes out a little differently.
Watch out. When you first arrive in your posting you are totally dependent on your spouse financially and socially you are left hanging mid air. Without a support network or perhaps the job that you were doing before, you will suffer from a loss of identity. Money may be tighter than you’d anticipated – food, rent, electricity etc will probably be more expensive and you are spending on different things – in our case, domestic staff, drinking water and security companies (night guards and back-up services). Plus you need to factor in the cost of flights for annual visits home (if you can afford them).
Common triggers for rows:
- Your partner, possibly stressed out by the challenges of his or her own job, might be a little frustrated with the fact that he is working and you are not (read; drinking coffee, going to the gym, meeting friends). Your inevitable reaction: “I gave up my family, friends and my job to come over here, I’m also finding life hard – how dare you criticise me!” Everything that was familiar has been stripped away and that is hard to put into words.
- Challenging times can come in the form of political unrest, security threats or just day-to-day issues. “Nothing works in this country.” “The traffic is terrible.” “I don’t feel safe.” “I’ve lost my independence.” “I’ve no idea how to introduce myself other than as your spouse.” “I’m sick of living behind gates.”
- You might be worried that your kids are not getting the same quality of education as they would if they were at home. “My friend just moved back home and the teachers said that little Johnny was a whole year behind in the syllabus.”
- When kids are overseas at school, divorced from your former role of doing school runs and watching matches, contact with your kids is dramatically reduced to a daily Facetime call (if you’re lucky) over a dodgy wifi connection, or text message, leading former caregivers to question their identity all over again. “Without my kids, why am I here? What is my purpose?” “Who am I?” Normally this is the moment to consider going back into the work place more permanently, but that is tricky too (see below).
- You might think that living overseas offers the perfect chance to re-train or qualify professionally but educational opportunities are often limited. “What does the future hold?” “I’ve been out of the workplace for too long”, “I have nothing to show for my time here.” See previous, recently updated post: DRAINED.
So, not wanting to be a Debbie Downer, fun in the sun can have its drawbacks. It may afford you more quality time with your kids and partner, more opportunity to travel and a higher quality of life, all of which is valuable, but there will inevitably be rows. Who was it again that coined the phrase ‘Another shitty day in paradise’? For that ailment, I would prescribe a sunny outlook, endless positivity and ideally a plan and timescale that works for both of you. #ifeellikethebitchwhoisneversatisfied.
*If you have any tips for a harmonious expat balance then let me know.
Employment prospects as a trailing partner:
If you do work overseas as an expat partner (which I highly recommend if at all possible) be mindful of the following:
- You won’t be able to farm out childcare to family members or even close friends but instead will be relying on employees.
- Flexible, part-time work will probably not be financially viable as work permits for foreigners are often extremely expensive (and need to be renewed every 2 years).
- Without it necessarily being said, your position at work will be under constant scrutiny as, strictly speaking, a local person should be doing your job. Any professional qualifications that you may have will come into their own here (both in getting you a work permit and your prospects for employment).
- There may be different standards and different work practises in your adopted country.
- You may well be overqualified for the job you are doing. Conversely, if you are lucky, you might be able to have a stab at doing something that you are not at all qualified for! #howtheheckdidibecomeamagazineeditor?
- However well qualified or enthusiastic you are employers will be wary of taking you on as a foreigner for two reasons; 1. If you expect them to meet the cost of your work permit then the cost of employing you could be prohibitively expensive. 2. If there are already foreigners in the company, then employers may not wish to draw undue attention to the fact that they are not training up a sufficient number of locally employed staff.
- Setting up your own business offers a steep learning curve but could be a good strategy. You may need to partner with somebody locally in order to formally register the business and will probably need to show ability to make significant financial investment.
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