Expatriating, Now and Then

January 8, 2015 — Leave a comment

Expatriate publications and books are a growing niche deserving of a separate category rather than lumped, as in most bookstores, under travel. To expatriate is so very much more than mere travel. It is about curiosity, excitement, happiness, sadness, resilience, longing, adaptability, disappointment, depression, and sometimes a smattering of foolishness. For every positive emotion there is, for some, a negative one, which can occasionally be insurmountable resulting in a return to base, a failed assignment.

There are memoirs (mine is Expat Life Slice by Slice), practical guides, books for TCKs, counselling and therapy books – all are valid, and many can be obtained from www.expatbookshop.com A recently published book by Christopher O’Shaughnessy called Arrivals, Departures and Adventures In-Between is well worth reading if you have expatriate teens.

With the plethora of books one could be forgiven for believing life as an expatriate is one of emotional hardship and distress, but for all the angst, the modern day expatriate wife (still the majority of accompanying partners) on the whole has a comparatively easy time. Granted many have put a job or career on hold to accompany a spouse, but a choice was made and it is up to us to manage our expectations and make the most of that decision, to accept a change in identity. And if we are open to that change, if we can prove ourselves to be adaptable and resilient, the benefits of being a guest in a foreign land are immeasurable.

It is of course not always easy. Not always easy to give up the freedom of having our own income, of having our own identity in the workplace. It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to not be confined by our own often-perceived role as an appendage to our spouse or partner. It takes courage, hard work and a dash of luck, to jump into a new venture – never mind the adventure of a new land – to start, what Jo Parfitt and Colleen Reichrath-Smith call A Career in Your Suitcase.

And no matter when our children leave, or we leave them, whether at eighteen, thirteen, or eleven and sometimes even younger, it is painful. But we do at least have the benefit of easy communication and travel nowadays, and can reasonably expect to see our children every year.

I am not suggesting all is rosy in Expatland, but I am suggesting we need to temper our expectations, to realise we do have a relatively easy time of it. That sometimes it is important to remember, without in any way advocating a return to the ‘bad’ old days, that life is what we make of it no matter where we are, or when it is.

I have recently read a book by Anne de Courcy called The Fishing Fleet. For those not familiar with the term, it was what young women who headed out to India in search of a husband were called. De Courcy not only documents the travails of finding a husband (those unsuccessful returned to Britain termed ‘empty vessels’) but the, in some cases, extreme hardships experienced particularly when not living in the cities. The anguish of sending children, often infants, back to Britain for their health and education, who might only be seen a couple of times before reaching adulthood. That was true dislocation, as Iris James wrote, “When my mother went back to India my brothers went as boarders to Berkhamstead School and I to school in Watford. I was six, and I remember on the first evening sitting by the window of the common room with the laurels in the rain outside tapping against the glass, night and aloneness of a kind so desolating that all other separations take me back to it…”

In the 20th century, Ruth Van Reken, in her book Letters Never Sent spoke of similar pain when, as the child of missionaries based in Liberia, she was left first at a boarding school in Nigeria and then in the US, and of how as children, emotions were often subdued so as not to distress parents. I remember as a ten-year old going to boarding school in Australia, which I loved once I got over the first few days of intense homesickness after my twice-yearly visits home to Malaysia. I never wrote home about it though my long-suffering aunt was subjected to many tears, as were my dorm mates.

I learnt also in de Courcy’s book of what must have been one of the first ‘how-to-cope-with-expatriation’ books published. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook “was in fact a pocket bible for the new memsahib…..”

Depression is an debilitating illness that drains the reserves of anyone afflicted, and professional help must often be sought. However for most of us, if we give a country a chance, the bad days, which we also have in our passport country, can be few. We can choose to be happy, to make the most of the opportunities to maybe do something we’ve only dreamed of, to learn a new skill, to give back to the country hosting us.

So while you’re rifling through the travel section in your local bookshop looking for a book on expatriation, just remember the life of the accompanying partner is not one of misery; it is what we make it. It always has been!

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