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Expat Life – A Matter Of Flexibility

When I came to the USA in 1990, there were quite a few Brit things I couldn’t get. I remember looking for mint sauce (to go with the lamb), being gone for hours and finally settling for fresh mint and vinegar. It worked by the way, but there wasn’t a hope of buying a jar of mint. Ditto with egg cups, electric kettles and melamine table mats with beautiful prints on them. (Those I had to haul back from the UK, and they weighed a ton.)

Of course, back then there was no Internet. I know. Gasp. I had to locate items myself, phone up and order things or ask visitors for the UK to bring things over.These days, not only can you get a lot of British merchandise in American shops, you can also peruse the plethora of online British goods web sites, pay through the nose and pretty much order whatever you want. Indeed, given the limits on baggage these days, it’s probably more socially acceptable than asking your guests to use up valuable luggage space with M&S underwear for you.

Fellow Expat Focus columnist Michele Garrett is an American who’s lived in England for over twenty years. She remembers – “Gosh, 20+ years ago there was a lot I couldn’t get in the UK and the thing that was probably most notable for me at that time was stuff to make Tex Mex food. I made do with what I could get but there were no tortillas, no pinto or black beans (well, possibly in health food stores), no coriander (cilantro), no jalapenos; there were peppers in Asian supply shops, but they just taste different. There weren’t even any Doritoes or other corn chips!”

I myself, remember going back to England every summer when my oldest two children were little and in that “I’m only eating broccoli if it has ranch dressing on it” phase. You couldn’t buy Ranch dressing anywhere in England so I had to take the powder sachets with me and mix them up with milk. Not quite the same. Now I see, you can buy Newman’s Ranch dressing at Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

French author Veronique Martin-Place is currently living in Shanghai, China. Although Shanghai has been home to expats since the 1800’s, it is only in recent decades that they have ventured far from the enclave of the Portman Hotel. It is now the largest city, by population, in China and in the world and has a huge expat community. Veronique says “Yes, we can find a lot of European (French, Italian and German, mainly) and American products in Shanghai. In my neighborhood (which is very expat oriented), there is a Carrefour, a French supermarket. It is organized like a French supermarket, you can find everything but … all the products are Chinese. There is a small “imported products” department where I can buy a lot of French products but it is very expensive. You can find everything but it is very expensive and sometimes the products disappear for a couple of weeks or sometimes longer. So you have to be flexible in your diet! You have to be flexible.”

Echoing Veronique’s experience is Shanna, blogger at “My Beijing Expat Life”. While she too can get foodstuffs from her home country (the USA) it’s expensive, the supply is erratic and it’s not all in one place. “Grocery shopping is so stressful in Beijing. I find needing to go to 5 different stores and praying that one of them have the imported food I want stressful. One time you can go in find sour cream, the next time you can’t find sour cream. Or you find a good bag of chips, and you go in to buy them two days later and they no longer have them and you never see them again. Last year I could buy Diet Dr Pepper, now I haven’t seen it since May 2013.”

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Flexibility is obviously key for a successful expat experience, even though there’s a much greater availability of global goodies. As Michele Garrett pointed out, “I guess as a long term expat you stop thinking about what you’re missing and start enjoying what you do have–or at least what you have in this country that you didn’t have before.” I agree. Even the stuff I still can’t get, like Dettol (my guilty little secret) is more of a novelty than anything else. Of course we have disinfectant in the USA, it just doesn’t smell like Dettol and no memories are evoked. I’m guessing that Americans in the UK feel the same way about Pine Sol?

Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.

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