Who are you?
My name is Mary Tod. For thirty years I worked in the information technology and consulting industries in various roles including marketing, sales and senior management. Now, I am obsessed with writing historical fiction and being an expat is the reason for that change. I am happily married and have two adult children.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
Summer 2004 – the summer that changed my life. In July of that year, my husband’s company asked him to consider a three-year assignment to Hong Kong. We hesitated only long enough to consult with our children and mothers then plunged into planning and moving, riding the waves of fantasy and euphoria for the next few months. Everything seemed full of possibilities.Although we moved at the request of my husband’s firm, I had every intention of securing a job in Hong Kong. However this proved more difficult than anticipated which left me in the position of ‘trailing spouse’.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Because my husband was immediately involved in his new role, the most difficult aspect of the move was handling everything solo which included selling our car, arranging all necessary insurance and documentation, choosing what to take and managing shipments from two geographically separate locations. I thought things would change once I arrived in Hong Kong but the pattern of my husband’s travel was to continue throughout our three-year assignment.
How did you find somewhere to live?
We made a quick decision to go to Hong Kong – after all, how often do you get an opportunity to see another part of the world? – then went for a ‘look-see’ visit, arriving in late July to the most overwhelming heat and humidity imaginable. Fortunately, we had a relocation expert who took us around to many different parts of Hong Kong all the while emphasizing the advantages and disadvantages of each locale.
We ultimately chose to live in Midlevels where many expats are located and where access to the central facilities, stores, restaurants and so on was ideal. Of particular importance was distance to the airport, since my husband would be travelling quite frequently. But we were also keen to experience a location that was different from our home in Canada. The thirty-second floor of an apartment building overlooking Victoria Harbour was definitely different from our two-story 1920s home in Toronto.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Mid-levels is a mecca for expats from Canada (my home country), United States, Britain, Australia, Europe and so on. In addition to a large population of expats, Hong Kong also has several organizations such as the American Women’s Association that smooth the way. Ideal for meeting people, or so I thought.
What do you like about life where you are?
Hong Kong offered us the opportunity to see the many parts of Asia one only dreams of.
During three years we visited India, Thailand, Australia, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Bali, Maldives, Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan and Indonesia; a few of these places more than once. Beyond the travel, we learned what it was like to be a minority in a different culture and found ways to thrive in a place so far away from everything that was familiar.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
By winter 2005, the bite of reality set in as I struggled to find occupation and purpose and to satisfy intellectual, emotional and social needs. My husband was frantically busy, travelling every week to locations throughout Asia. I had found only a few friends and no job. For a woman accustomed to juggling career, family and social activities, endless free time felt like a burden rather than a luxury. Excitement was replaced by loneliness and intense dislocation. How would I survive?
I dithered. I continued searching for a job. I complained to those back home. I prowled the streets of Hong Kong extending simple outings to multi-hour, blister-inducing walks. I joined an association of expat wives who met for coffee every Thursday. I read books and bought stacks of DVDs. I shopped. I visited Cambodia, Taiwan, and Australia. Gradually, an idea emerged like the slow unfurling of spring flowers.
My grandmother died on the way to her second wedding. I had often thought this dramatic curtain on life would make a good story and one day, sitting in our mid-levels apartment with a wonderful view of harbor and city, I decided to write about her life. I had some notes my mother had written about her family. I had my computer and oceans of time.
The first step was research. To create a story based on the lives of my grandparents, I would have to understand WWI, the Depression and WWII. Not being a student of history, I felt the need to begin at the beginning. What caused WWI? Who were the players? What did soldiers experience? What happened on the home front?
Happily, the Internet offered reams and reams of information on military and political events as well as maps and photos and stories of individual experiences of war. I found soldiers’ diaries lovingly transcribed by relatives (or perfect strangers) intent on preserving and honoring long ago sacrifice. I found regiments maintaining information about those who had fought in WWI, the weapons used and uniforms worn, the rations eaten and songs sung. A world of chaos and bungling and death emerged and I was utterly captivated. Hours and hours would pass without any awareness of time.
Writing gave me more than an occupation; it gave me the thrill of doing something new. Unwittingly, I had accepted the need to let go of my old world and reinvent myself, had taken charge rather than allowing myself to continue wallowing. I had emerged from the culture shock of moving to a foreign country with a sense of purpose. Interestingly, that change opened other possibilities as I took on writing projects with a few volunteer organizations and presented some of my research to a women’s study group.
Contentment settled in. Time passed. The story and my writing skills evolved.
In June 2007, we returned to Toronto. Before leaving, I took several last walks to favorite haunts—The Peak, the walk along Bowen Road, Dragon’s Back, a lively Vietnamese restaurant in Soho, the streets of Central, Stanley Market, the Man Mo temple, Teresa Coleman’s gallery—these familiar places were friends, touchstones in that bustling Asian city.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
I believe there are six steps to every successful expat assignment. The following outlines and illustrates each step.
Step 1: Build Awareness
The first step to thriving as an expat is to understand how moving to a foreign country has affected you by considering all dimensions of your situation as dispassionately as possible. Use the following example (Chart 1) to prompt your own thinking. While building awareness, it is important to listen to your feelings and take time to explore them.
Step 2: Accept Need to Change
Because so much has changed, an expat spouse needs to face the reality of reinventing herself. She does this by acknowledging that she is the one who has to adapt and by letting go of her old world. Spend time looking through your personal version of Chart 1 as you consider where and how you will change.
Step 3: Discover Possibilities
With awareness and acceptance it is now time to take charge of your life again. Each individual has a blend of roles that forms part of her identity (mother, professional, mentor, wife, friend, care giver and so on), a personal set of interests, strengths, and skills (see example below) and a range of activities she finds motivating.
During Step 3, an expat spouse brainstorms a wide range of possibilities for using or exploring her interests, strengths and skills in light of each role, in light of her changed circumstances and with an understanding of her personal motivators. Listing possibilities opens the way to new beginnings.
Step 4: Establish Your Focus
After working through Step 3, the challenge is not whether there are possibilities, the challenge is where to focus. Without deliberate focus, an expat spouse runs the risk of circling around and around the issue but making no progress. During Step 4 an expat spouse sets priorities and make choices based on her personal goals, motivators and constraints.
Step 5: Plan Your Steps
Dreams are seldom fulfilled without a plan. In Step 5 an expat spouse creates a structured, realistic plan to facilitate the Second Settling In stage of the expat cycle. Such a plan will enable focus, progress and a feeling of accomplishment.
Step 6: Work Your Plan
The final step to thriving as an expat is to work the plan. It is exhilarating and energizing to have a realistic plan and to commit to action, one step at a time, against the plan. With imagination, commitment and a sound plan almost anything is possible.
My plan led me to changing careers and becoming a writer of historical fiction. Without the move to Hong Kong, I would never have developed such a rewarding passion.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two Wars. Two Affairs. One Marriage, will release in paperback and ebook formats in September 2013. To contact Mary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mktodauthor.