As I introduce myself I can see the panic in your eyes. Another name to remember. 4, in fact, counting my husband and children’s names. 5 if you count the dog. I had already heard you were arriving because here the company likes to make sure people are made to feel welcome when they get here. You’ll appreciate it later but for now it’s a bit overwhelming and a bit Stepford Wife-like what with us all living in the same houses on identical looking streets. It’s a bit weird being the new expat woman.
We chat a bit
You ask me how long I’ve been here and I’m stunned to realise it’s almost three years. I remember meeting people like me when I was someone like you. It was hard to imagine not getting lost 5 minutes after leaving the compound. How would I possibly know who everyone was or be the one talking about families who had already left? Families who I would never meet?
I make my excuses, I have to leave for a meeting. I see you watching me leave, envious of my ability to just jump in the car and drive away. You still don’t have your driver’s licence yet and it will be weeks before you can do that. You can’t imagine having meetings without having a job or even just having lunch plans with someone today.
I see you everywhere
The truth is there are hundreds of you. Maybe not hundreds. But a lot of you. All of you a bit scared and nervous however confident you seem.
It doesn’t matter how many international moves you have done. Each one brings new challenges. There’s always a bit of apprehension. And I can usually spot you a mile away.
You e-mailed me
Mutual friends put us in touch. We message back and forth about all sorts of things. Before we arrived I trawled the internet looking for any detail of where we would be living. I was desperate to know what the future looked like for us but of course I had no idea.
You ask me what to pack in the shipment and what to pack in the suitcase. I offer to lend you a travel cot and a box of toys because, well, that’s what we do here. They let me into your villa so I can leave some groceries there when you arrive.
I bring you dinner and a bottle of wine the day you land, disorientated and jet lagged surrounded by equally jet lagged Things who have no idea of the enormity of what you have all just done.
I e-mailed you
You asked for some information in a Facebook group and I answered you. Before I knew it we were messaging and I’d asked you over for coffee. You came with a sleeping child who stayed asleep the entire time and woke up just as you were getting ready to leave.
This would NEVER happen at home but it happens with incredible regularity here. I’ve met countless people over a Facebook message or a blog post. You’ll think it is weird before you get here just as I did. After a few months you’ll get it. You’ll probably be doing it with the rest of us!
You see, we get it. We’ve all been there. We all remember, oh so well, the crushing loneliness. The long day stretching out in front of you with 2 little kids and no plans in place. We remember getting lost and getting frustrated with arranging residence permits and drivers licenses. It costs us nothing to extend a hand when you need it most. Whether we are emailing you some advice or meeting you for coffee, we know it might just be the thing that gets you through today. And who knows? Maybe we will make a new friend.
You were at the coffee morning
I’m organising this one so you know who I am. You introduce yourself nervously. I ask how long you have been here and you tell me it’s been 10 days. I am suitably impressed and give you a hug to welcome you to the city.
You look relieved. It’s your first expat assignment and you quit your job to come here. You’re not exactly sure what you’ve done and you realise how much of your identity came from your job before you moved here. This is the first time you have ventured out on your own and it took some bravery just to get in the taxi to come. You’re young and I see echoes of a young me in your face.
I know in a few months you’ll be buzzing about confidently in the city but right now you daren’t even dream about such a time. Right now you message your friends at home from the safety of your house and burn through data calling your family while on a walk with the Things.
Trust me, it will change.
You moved on to our compound
We meet in the street as you walked to or from the pool. I put on my most welcoming smile. You’ve been here for a few weeks so I know you’ve met a few mutual friends and acquaintances. I know you’ve asked them if they like living here. And I know you’ve had the no eye contact response with the highly unconvincing commentary of “yeah… yeah its great…. no we love it here….” before the clincher “of course, it is what you make of it…”.
I know because I asked and got those responses. I was so demotivated. Why did we move here??? I hated all the negative responses when I first arrived. People mean well. I know they’re are trying to prepare you that the expat life is hard. But those responses? They dragged me down.
After about a month, we met some people who have become some of our closest friends here . We asked them how they found it living here. Their faces lit up. “We love it here!” they said, before listing all the reasons why. I immediately asked for her phone number and on the way out we agreed that they could be “our people”.
So when you ask, I make sure I put on my brightest voice and smile. I make eye contact with you and I tell you the truth. “It’s brilliant.” I tell you. “We’re having a great time”.
I pause. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re the only one who doesn’t get it when everyone else is enjoying the party. “It takes some adjustment but you’ll get there. You’ll meet some awesome awesome people and there are perks to this lifestyle that you don’t get in many other places. Its a great place to live, I promise.”
You want to believe me but you’re not sure what to believe at this point.
You were at school
A friend introduced you. Your Thing is in her Thing’s class. You drill us on doctors and summer camps and countries to do visa runs to. We chat about previous expat assignments and where the best schools and childcare have been.
I don’t have much to add here – this is only the second country where we have had to really think about care and education. You’ve been on the road for 15 years or something equally impressive. You’ve navigated school and health systems that would send most of our friends at home into a fully fledged panic attack.
Suddenly I feel quite the novice at this expat game with my 6 years and 2 countries of expat experience.
I see you getting into a taxi
I watch you hauling carseats into the taxi and I have an instant flashback to my first month here when I did the same. Every day was meticulously mapped out so we had something to go to, some reason to leave the house.
I’d time our outings to perfection: The taxi would arrive while Thing 2 was still napping. We’d load the carseats into the taxi and buckle Thing 1 in. In went my bag, which would have 10,000 snacks, water, nappies, a change of clothes for each Thing, some spare toys and a picnic lunch. Then I’d finally wake Thing 2 and put her in the car, still sleepy. Because we drove everywhere, I would feed both the things a picnic lunch on the way home so that they would both be ready for a nap as soon as we got there.
It had backfired on me before. I wonder what tricks you have up your sleeve.
You were at the mall
I don’t know if you have seen me. I’m in a cafe and you come in looking frazzled with 3 young Things. I hear you order a hot drink in a cup with a lid before changing your mind and asking for a water. You get your 2 eldest Things an enormous cookie to share. You don’t really want to but you bribed them to get out of the house and out of the house you are so….
The table next to me is free and you all sit down at it. The baby throws his toy on the ground over and over again while the other 2 fight over which half of the cookie they want. You guiltily check social media on your phone. This has 2 effects. The cookie argument stops almost immediately but only because their attention is now firmly fixed on watching something on your phone. You say no even though you want to let them because you can’t face arguing with them to turn it off when it is time to go.
In her distress, one of the Things flails her arms around a bit and knocks over your water. As you turn to mop it up the baby throws his toy on the ground again. I want to give you a hug but I suspect I’ll send you over the edge.
I see you blinking back tears. Why should an outing to a cafe in a mall be so difficult? You all get up to leave. Later on I see you chasing after the toddler as she runs geleefully away from you.
How things have changed
Now we leave every day for the school run and often I don’t come home again before I pick the Things up from school. Afternoons where I don’t have to leave the house are a welcome relief!
That first summer we went to the pool or the playground. Every. Single. Day. It’s only round the corner but now I spend so little time at home during the week days, I relish a bit of down time with the Things. If I open the front door to our house we know we will find 5-10 other Thing friends playing in the street. Their mums will be out there or on the porch.
Depending on the day there may or may not be wine.
You go home to realise that you have changed in ways that your friends and family have not. These experiences are special and to be treasured. We might not have it any other way but we cannot avoid the fact that they make us different.
3 years in and I have things to do and things to occupy my time. Not all of it is good but all of it keeps me busy. We live with the constant reminder that we must one day leave this all behind. In the mean time we watch other friends, close friends, leave us behind. It doesn’t matter if we are ready or not.
We face stereotypes that we probably wouldn’t have faced at home. Contrary to popular belief we don’t drink gin all day and we aren’t *just* ladies of leisure.
But stereotypes are based in something.
If you look at my calendar this week and you’ll see I do have a lunch and a coffee in there. I have a meeting for the school PTA and an event that I’m running for a volunteer organisation. I’ve got school runs to do and taking the things to all their after school activities. I’ll be helping at Brownies (Girl Scouts for you Americans reading) and I may pick up an extra kid or 2 after school to help out a friend.
And I probably will drink gin at some point.
We have a full social calendar
It’s so hard at the beginning. Yes, we might make friends quickly and friendships go deep so much faster here than at home. It’s hard not to when you have to ask almost complete strangers to be your emergency contact for school.
You can’t expect to have good friends within days of arriving and of course you don’t actually expect that. You know it takes time to really find your people.
One day you will turn around and realise that these people you have met have truly become friends who you rely on for everything. From exchanging kale recipes to having once in a lifetime trip to see Guns ‘N’ Roses, these people will have become your tribe. Not only that but you’ll find that your day is filled with meetings. However you have decided to fill your time (volunteering, school PTA, portable careers, retraining, paid employment, exercising or whatever), you’ll find your days are suddenly full.
We met in the street
You were here visiting. It’s a familiar story. Husband comes first, mid-year. Family with school aged Things come later when they have finished the academic year.
We watch your youngest Thing playing in the street with some other kids. “He makes friends anywhere,” you say. “He would be fine if we moved here.” I notice the “if” and turn to look at you. It turns out your oldest really doesn’t want to come. He’s older and on a successful high school basketball team. You’re worried about friends and grades and how he would settle here.
“Doha just isn’t in the plan, you know?” I know. “I don’t know if it’s ever in the plan,” I say. “It’s not for everyone.” We both laugh.
I think about the conversation several times over the next week or so. I get it. Really, I do. Our plan is to have the kids home much sooner than that. The older your Things get, the harder it becomes. Still, I wish we had talked more about it instead of shrugging our shoulders and laughing it off.
I wish I’d told you how I had originally planned to go straight to uni after school but somehow ended up in South America. I wish I’d told you I didn’t want to move to Houston and ended up loving it. That we didn’t want to come home from Houston but renovated the house of our dreams and thrived on being back so close to our families and friends. I wish I’d told you I really didn’t think moving here was a great idea. Now I have friends here who are as close as friends from home and the idea of leaving makes me feel quite anxious.
Just because it’s not in the plan, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Moving doesn’t get easier
It doesn’t matter where I met you. You’re an old hand at this international moving malarky. You’re on your 8th move in 20 years but the last assignment was a longer one and you actually, dare we say it, put down roots. You look back to you first international moves and can’t believe how you got it all done. How brave you were. You reflect on the audacity of youth and how you had no fear. I’m not sure if it’s that or if you just that you had less things to go wrong.
On our first assignment it was just the 2 of us and we both had jobs. Over the years I’ve had to find jobs with moves and we’ve acquired 3 dependents who all need increasing levels of logistical organisation with every move.
The truth is that every move brings it’s own challenges (and opportunities). It all depends on your particular circumstances at the time and your mindset (for whatever reason that might be. It depends on where and what you’re leaving as well as where and what you’re going to.
No move is easy.
So to the new expat woman
All I can say to you is this.
It is hard, hard work being one of us but it is so, so worth it. You will have experiences that you could only have dreamed of before. You’ll make friends for life who will end up scattered all over the globe (think of the awesome future holidays). And you will leave a changed person because of the people you have met and the things you have seen.
In the meantime, I see you, I feel you. I’m looking out for you and rooting for you.
It’s going to be okay.