Checking in from the land of smiley, happy faces….
One of the undeniably pleasant perks of being an expat in Asia, coupled with having a husband in hotels, is the opportunity to fly to idyllic destinations like Phuket in just a few short hours and revel in 5-star luxury.
I get it… I’m lucky! Very!
I will even go so far as to use the word ‘spoilt,’ as I sit here trying (in a lazy, half-hearted kind of way) to wrestle my sleepy gaze from our villa’s private plunge pool that is beckoning me to immerse myself in its crystal clear oasis.Yep!… livin’ the dream!
Wait! What’s that? Do I hear a bird squawking in paradise? Nope! it’s a toddler! In fact it’s my toddler…she’s awake and screaming… Mummy, Mummy…MUUUMMMMY!!! My pool-side peace shattered…(ok I may have failed to mention there were half a dozen rubber duckies and a pair of fluorescent orange floaties in my ever so enticing plunge pool) but still – kid’s paraphernalia aside, the sun is shining and my cocktail awaits.
It’s times like this, it’s fairly easy to understand why I get a lot of friends back home talking spiritedly about my fabulous “expat existence.” “How’s it going living the dream?” they ask. Well right about now, it’s bloody good thanks.
BUT yes! (at the risk of being a spoilt so and so) there’s a ‘but’ – being an expatriate (as they formally call it) is not without its challenges.
If you’re an expat reading this column you probably already get the gist of what I’m saying but if you’re in the throws of deciding whether to take that life-changing leap and relocate your family to an unfamiliar place on a wing and a prayer for that once in a lifetime opportunity, you might want to stick around.
First up, whatever happens, know you’re not alone there are 200-million expats in the world today, all no doubt with their own heroic tales still fresh in their minds of the day they got the call, that life as they knew it was about to change, forever.
These days, being described as an expatriate is probably a little over the top and outdated. Defined in its broadest sense, an expatriate is any person living in a different country from where he/she is a citizen. In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals sent abroad by their companies, as opposed to locally hired staff.
Lets just say those pioneer expats of 20 or so years ago led a much more prestigious ‘foreign’ lifestyle than today’s so called expats…(that’s not to say it was easy). Back then, travel was expensive and uncommon and it was hard to get professional workers to venture too far from home and set up a new life. So those who took the plunge (promise I’m not in my pool, yet) were compensated and well! Traditionally, these expats didn’t integrate into the community they’d been sent to and more often than not only associated with society’s elite.
Today being an expat is not quite so exotic or snobby and there’s not a whole lot of enticing required. Travel is cheaper and therefore more accessible and living overseas for a ‘stint’ can seem like an exciting and worthwhile career move, not to mention lifestyle.
English (depending on your destination) is widely spoken and mixing with different cultures far less intimidating and lets face it, incredibly intoxicating.
To have the chance to assimilate yourself into a new culture has got to be one of the most life-altering and rewarding experiences…
Naturally, arriving in new territory where you don’t know a soul is a little bit terrifying and it takes a lot of deep breaths, but to get a glimpse into another world where everything from the language to the food, climate and its customs are unique from that which you know, is priceless.
To me this will always be the best thing about being an expat. That’s not to say there haven’t been many times when I’ve fallen victim to culture shock! Our decision to live life on the edge isn’t without it’s hiccups. It’s particularly hard at times if you’re the one they call the ‘Trailing Spouse’ (can’t say this is a term I’m fond of, last time I checked I wasn’t on a leash being dragged kicking and screaming. Truth be known I was probably leading the way!). But alas, the reality is we are not here for my career and if you do a quick google, admittedly a lot of the issues associated with playing the ‘supporting role’ do ring true.
The quintessential view of the champagne-quaffing expat wife popping out a few sprogs and handing them over to her full-time helper before swanning off to lunch and a game of tennis before cocktail hour is a charmed one.
Then, there’s a little thing called reality.
That new culture you found so captivating in theory can sorely test your patience in practice. Alone with a baby (or two) you might have a helper, a driver, a nice home, fancy holidays and the fringe benefits to make it bearable, but until you find your own niche it can be tough.
Without the support and security of family around you, it’s even harder. Those raucous Sunday family lunches somehow seem incredibly appealing from 10-thousand kilometres away.
Mercifully, we have email, Skype and cheap phone calls these days to soften the blow and traveling back home regularly is ‘par for the course’ in your new transient life. The minute you become an expat, your frequent flyer points enter into a whole new stratosphere. Catch ups with fellow expat friends are scheduled between trips back home, work trips and family visits. Conversations are constantly peppered with talk of beating jet lag, entertaining toddlers on ten hour journeys and praying hard to the airplane gods for a good flight.
Despite the rushed and sporadic get-togethers, the ‘expat bond’ is enduring. Finding likeminded people in an ever changing situation is, thankfully, far easier than you might think (in most locations anyway.)
You can usually sniff out an expat within a five k radius (for a number of reasons not to mention that knowing look you get from complete strangers!) (Or is that just a mother thing??)
You’ll love these people, mothers or not. Many will become life-long friends and you’ll also, reluctantly, understand when they make the decision to return home for good, and most do eventually.
It’s the on-going internal expat debate. When to go home? When is the right time? Is there a right time? The never-ending pull of family calls but the work and lifestyle opportunities don’t always correspond in a timely fashion.
When all the planets align and your return home is nigh, for most of us, this is where the expat journey ends, but of course, there’s always the possibility you’ll ignore the homecoming signs and become so entrenched in the thrill of expat life you simply can’t give it up. (There are always holidays you’ll say!)
Tis now the season to be jolly and there’s an unmistakeable buzz of expat excitement in the air. Bags have been stuffed to the brim with presents for the much anticipated Christmas visit. The mission – to pack three months of quality-time into three weeks. As always, time is of the essence.
For us, this year, staying in Hong Kong for Christmas will mean a decadent lunch in a fancy hotel with our beautiful daughter and other orphaned expats. It will be important and special but it will also mean there’ll be no Nanny and Poppy or Grandma and Granddad or aunties and uncles to inject that extra ‘jolly’ into the season. It’s no doubt one of those times when your decision to live the expat life is on display in all its heart-wrenching glory.
Yet in my heart of hearts, I know when it’s our turn to leave this dynamic and diverse city we’ve come to call home (and that time will come) it’s not going to be easy. There is a lot to leave behind, but I’ll be packing my suitcase full of memories I would otherwise never have had. The Expat Experience. We know we are lucky to get the chance to live a life where more often than not it feels like we’re living the dream. Sometimes it’s a bad one, sometimes it’s a downright nightmare and other times it’s just plain sweet.
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.
Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.