The Highs and Lows of Expat Life - The Grace Tales

The Highs and Lows of Expat Life

The Grace Tales reader Kristen Swenson is an expert expat. Moving internationally (twice) for her husband's work, she has grappled with the loss of her identity, writing, "everyone I meet here only knows me as a wife and as a mother". Luckily, she's open to new experiences: "Bible studies….hmm…do they serve wine?"

I am currently two years into my second stint as an ‘expat’. We spent two wonderful years living and working in Hong Kong and now we are two years into setting up our life in the USA. We have moved for my husband’s work both times. We have two small children, one who is three years old and one six months. Life as an expat is exciting; there is definitely an adrenaline rush that comes with moving to a new country, the travel is a wonderful perk and our cultural understanding of the world at large continues to expand on a daily basis. However there are also challenges and many of these challenges, in my experience, feel more poignant for the women in these situations. Developing friendships, settling children into schools, finding meaningful work and the guilt of leaving family fall inherently onto the women in expat relationships.

Friendship dating is hard work, exhausting and relentless. It requires a great deal of resilience – you have to keep putting yourself out there and this has resulted in me being invited to some events that are way out of my comfort zone.

“Bible studies….hmm…do they serve wine?”

“Dragon boating…okay, I’ll give it a go”

“Tennis…sure, why not…”

I feel I am constantly checking myself, monitoring my speech, wondering ‘is that an Australian phrase?’ Or ‘will this be funny here?’ Humour is such a cultural phenomenon. People often do not get my jokes – maybe they never did at home either? I miss discussing politics. It doesn’t seem culturally appropriate here. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells sometimes. I want to have real conversations with people, not just superficial chit-chat, but I’m nervous about saying the wrong thing or offending someone.

One of the things I miss about not living at home, is that everyone I meet here only knows me as a wife and as a mother. I do not have friends who knew me a child, who knew me at university, or as a professional. And as such, the majority of my friends I have made are through my children. This has many upsides, don’t get me wrong – and I am very grateful for these connections, but the downside is that often it is the only thing we have to talk about. And as much as I love my children, sometimes these conversations seem prosaic. These are not the people I want to talk to when my mum is diagnosed with cancer, when it feels like my career is going nowhere or when there is a global crisis (hello bushfires!) I miss my friends who know me at a deeper level and who understand the journey I have been on and unfortunately it takes time and trust to get to this point.

Things feel temporary as an expat. Even though the reality is that life is temporary. I put off buying that piece of furniture that we need, or that house plant or pet because I won’t be able to bring it home. I put off applying for a job, buying a house, starting a new degree because what happens if we have to move again at short notice, if our visa is not renewed, or if my husband is made redundant or posted somewhere else?

Resentment is a difficult and powerful emotion. I have felt a huge amount of resentment towards my husband, even though it was a joint decision to move and one which ultimately benefits our family. The combination of having children and living in three different counties in the last six years has really taking a toll on my career. I have fought hard to keep it going, and there is still a faint heartbeat, despite the major hurdles of securing work permits, applying for licenses or reassuring an employer that you are definitely staying here for the foreseeable future! But in reality my career is not where I hoped it would be at this point in my life, and I have to accept this and find peace in the knowledge that at some point my time will come.

I know I say these things from a privileged position. I am an economic migrant. I am here because it is advantageous for my husband’s career and our family’s future. While sometimes it feels like we are stuck on this path and can’t get off, the reality is we can leave at any point. Our homeland is not a war zone, our country is relatively prosperous and we have enough privilege to move around the world with ease. I have had wonderful experiences; I have seen how truly amazing our planet is and I have met so many terrific people who I know will be with me for life, despite us all living in different parts of the world. I am stronger for these experiences. I am lucky and I am grateful.

Image: Amankila