The Glamorous Lifestyle of the Expat Wife

13310497_10154151836188433_3125960751107131055_n.jpgRecently, I read a Facebook post from Expat Housewife of Jakarta, a fellow trailing/expat spouse, who posted a photo showing her enjoying a visit to a hair salon.  The salon was located within her apartment complex, which is not uncommon, and in the photo was the stylist and a therapist doing a pedicure.  To misguided outsiders this image encapsulates the wonderful lifestyle of the trailing spouse.  Spa days, boozy lunches, more pampering, maids, drivers etc.

Delve deeper. Firstly, remember that Facebook profiles show only the highlight reel of all users.  Rarely do we catch a glimpse beyond the shiny, happy facade. The woman (most supporting spouses are) continued that while she enjoyed these pampering sessions they actually fill a void.  It was here that things become very familiar to expat spouses.  She states “..the reality is, I’m lonely and I need to do these kind of things to get through the loneliness.” And there it is, the true expat spouse experience.  Many of our partners travel away a lot for work and must also fulfil week night work commitments – all of which takes them away from the family.

On top of this, in places like Jakarta, the notorious traffic makes spontaneous catch ups with friends virtually impossible; this limits your ability to socialise and impacts your mental health.  And this leads us to the topic of taxis..

Expat Housewife continued that even the myriad of entertainment options on offer in this vibrant city, she felt trapped as she hadn’t asked her driver to work late that night and she didn’t want to take a taxi alone at night.   Another very familiar situation for expat wives. Female expats, including myself, have experienced uncomfortable and down right unsafe taxi rides when traveling alone and so I refuse to go anywhere alone in a cab especially at night.  Another inhibitor of spontaneity.

Don’t go feeling too sorry for us, just keep in mind that all is not as it seems on social media pages.  Delve a bit deeper..

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Indonesian wedding

This blog had to be shared; the photos of this wedding are beautiful and offer an insight into the world of weddings for the upper class of Indonesia.

Translated from bahasa Indonesia:

“Wedding of Ganesha and Ganisya divided into two different sessions the day. The marriage ceremony was held on 15 March 2015 and the reception took place in Puri Ardhya Garini on 20 March 2015. To add to the impression they are important, they were in the presence of the special invited guests of Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia, Mr. Jusuf Kalla.”

Image and description of wedding courtesy of:
http://www.javasstudio.com/the-wedding-ganesha-ganisya/

@aubergine_jelly : life is what you decide
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The Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg concluded there are four stages experienced by expats when adjusting to life in a new country and culture.  Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride, so let’s explore each stop from my own perspective..

Honeymoon phase

During this phase everything is new and exciting and this feeling may last up to a two months; for me this euphoria lasted 2 weeks to the day. Expats possess a positive mindset and feel enthusiastic about creating a life and career in the host country.

Negotiation phase

Culture shock emerges and can last up to 6 months or so into the move.  This phase finds the expat attempting to reconcile what is known or normal from ‘home'(i.e., the social and cultural norms and expectations) and those of the new country.  New knowledge needs to be created regarding social sublties (e..g., subtle gestures, greetings, social interactions, facial expressions etc), making purchases at stores, ordering food at restaurants,  dealing with domestic staff, expectations for conduct of men and women – everything yon take for granted at home.

This time can mess with your mindset and may be a period of confusion, depression, grieving, stress, disorientation, anxiety, depression or frustration.  Talk to others able their experiences as well as their coping strategies, it helps. The negotiation phase lasted from 2 weeks – around 9 months into our posting for me and I found that at times I moved between the negotiation phase and adjustment phase around the 9 month mark.

Adjustment phase

Towards the end of my first year at post, I had developed and implemented coping strategies and this is when I began to feel comfortable and confident within my new country.  Venturing out to malls and supermarkets and catching taxis became ok – I knew some basic language and possessed a limited mental map of the city.  Things start to look promising once more.  The people, language, food and culture start to become the new normal and familiar and I found that when I visited home, I started to feel like a misfit.

Mastery phase

Within 12-18 months I had found that my host country was now ‘home’ and home became ‘Australia’.  The mastery phase was a time of high functioning  and feeling comfortable in my host country.  From this point I found that I had become a triangle (see my post I Am Now a Triangle).  I had moved from a circle country to a square country and had morphed into a shape that did not truly fit either.

Repatriation phase

I have added this phase as this is a dangerous phase.  The thought of returning home home lulls expats into a false sense of security – friends, family and colleagues ask how hard can it be? You’re returning to the familiar, to normalcy. wpid-wp-1401709243607.jpeg Hati, hati (danger)! We often reminisce about how beautiful our home town is, happy family and friends, returning to our previous workplace and colleagues and somehow we have forgotten the day to day frustrations.

The stages of cultural adjustment will kick in all over again.  Reverse culture shock emerges and can be more debilitating than when moving to the host country and familiarising with the new culture.  Changes to work culture and expectations, socio-cultural changes and unrealistic expat expectations may all be contributing factors.

My world view has been altered and returning to Australia is both exciting and anxiety inducing.  I realise that once more I will need to extend patience, understanding and tough love to myself and partner as we make another transition and support each other to thrive through the process.

 

Could repatriation be more challenging than expatriation?

wpid-wp-1421210277801.jpegThinking of “home” conjures memories of blue skies, smiling faces of love ones, our dogs and an easy lifestyle.  These rose coloured glasses of mine are building me up to fail at our upcoming repatriation.

Many expats buy into false assumptions about the ease of returning home.  Home is familiar so the move will surely be straightforward, as will the transition back to normalcy. This is when the gods of reality check laugh and throw a few curve balls.

Those returning home experience similar challenges to when they moved abroad – sourcing accommodation, cars, school enrolments, possibly securing a job for the spouse and so on.  However this time, the family completes this transition without the support from the employer.  After all, you’re home now  how difficult can it be?

Reverse culture shock 

The romanticised view of ‘home’ often omits the forgotten frustrations and stressors of everyday life.  Home has changed – people have changed and experienced new and different things and may have moved into a different lie stage.  You have changed too as a result of experiencing a new culture.   Your beliefs, values and essentially your world view have evolved and these may be at odds with what awaits you at home.  Be aware that this may make it difficult to simply pick up where you left off with friends and coworkers upon your return.

Further, your lifestyle abroad was fairly comfortable.  Here, we have domestic staff who assist with minimising the daily stressors of navigating anger inducing traffic (machet), limited parking opportunities, lengthy travel times as well as home cleaning.  Returning home means doing everything for yourself.  Additionally, you may find that money becomes a consideration without access to expat financial allowances (though this may be countered by the spouse being able to work once again!).

Supporting children

Leaving the familiar is difficult for adults who have the language to communicate frustrations and fears.  Children on the other hand may not and their anxiety may present through behaviour.  Repatriation for kids is an enormous deal – they are leaving their home, school, routines, friends and significant adults – everything that is familiar and predictable.  Some children may have developed a strong connection to the adoptive country and some may not even remember life back home.

So how to manage this transition for kids?  Communication is key.  Talk positively about the transition and ensure that the child knows that the move is inevitable.  Children should feel supported to talk openly about how they’re feeling about the move without judgement.  Other strategies may include:

  • schedule proper goodbyes prior to leaving
  • ask your child what they might like to know about ‘home’ and research together
  • once you’ve made the move, set up the child’s bedroom in a similar way to provide a sense of familiarity and comfort
  • establish routines within the home and
  • keep in regular contact with teachers or carers

Many organisations do provide counselling services for officers and their families; consider utilising this service to support with the transition before, during or after relocation.  Repatriation offers many additional challenges for expats and their families due to the perceived ease of returning to the familiar.  Good luck.

Why is the transition challenging for trailing spouses?

Firstly, lets celebrate the trailing spouse and make time to reflect on the enormity of of this supporting role and thank them for their sacrifices.  For me, the two biggest challenges I grappled with were no job and no friends and the baggage that comes with …that.

The majority of trailing spouses at our post are women.  Highly educated, driven women who have willingly put their careers and professional aspirations on hold to support our partners to further theirs.  Many of these women who join their partner at post and find that they are unable to easily find work due to visa requirements, political environment and so on.  This is huge.

Many, like me, find that making the transition from career women to home maker quite confronting.  Our careers are heavily intwined with our identity; who we perceive ourselves as people. Some successfully find short term employment within our post while others take to the ‘ladies who lunch’ lifestyle like ducks to water.  Good on them, but that’s not me or most of my friends.  With no job, zero way to contribute to the household financially and without financial independence this leads us to deeply reflect on ‘who am I without the additional layers?”

Now if like me you have a supportive partner, you will survive the emotional rollercoaster and implement many coping strategies that will serve you well beyond the posting.  For the majority of officers, life carries on as normal.  They work in a familiar environment with policies, expectations and procedures from home, they interact with fellow countrymen and they have routine.  As spouses we struggle with the lack of routine, limited social interaction, running a household with little knowledge of what’s available within our new community, financial and emotional dependency on our partners and constant self doubt.  These factors all chip away at your happiness and mental health and the biggest factor is that you have left your support network at home.

Things to improve and mostly in random ways.  One day you will happen to meet someone who asks if you’d like to join them for a coffee.  Be brave, say yes and actually turn up. This person may end up being your best friend at post OR they may lead you to the next friend. Slowly you establish a small yet trusted support network and everything gets better from this point on.

From this point, you remember the person you were prior to posting – the vibrant, happy, confident, interesting women with hobbies. And she begins to emerge once more.  You notice it, your partner notices it and loved ones back home notice it too during Skype chats.  You venture out of the house more and more, your mental health improves (along with your outlook), you rediscover your confidence once more and you’re no longer dependent on your partner for emotional support.  A weight lifts off your shoulders and you suddenly find yourself thinking life ain’t too bad – this is a huge accomplishment!

And life as a trailing spouse isn’t too bad.  The lifestyle affords us the gift of time to study, explore a career change, start a family, experience a new culture, relax, whatever you want to do.  Initially all of these positives come at the price of happiness and anxiety.  Spouses are forced out of their comfort zone and compelled to work through many challenges.  This experience will make you stronger and more resilient both personally and professionally.  Valuable skills for life after post.

@aubergine_jelly

Pembantus (helper)

Indonesian culture has a long history of employing domestic staff within Indonesian and expat homes.  The term ‘pembantu’ is derived from the term ‘bantu’ meaning ‘help’ and I tell you that our pembantu (Ibu A) is more than ‘help’ she is a godsend.

Employing domestic staff is quite foreign to many expats as culturally it is not the norm at home.  Getting used to having a stranger in our home to begin with was quite uncomfortable and sometimes quite well..awkward for me initially.  The loss of privacy, negotiating work hours, conditions and salary in addition to feeling like a lazy westerner were just a few things to overcome personally.  Ibu A just got on with doing her job.

With her quiet, non intrusive behaviour we began the dance of getting used to one another, expectations for the household and how to be in a space respectfully together.  After 2 years we have developed a mutual affection for one another while maintaining a professional distance.    We swap stories about family, our countries, cultural expectations and life in general and this has impacted most positively on my world view.  Pembantus become family members – if you allow them.  pembantu

(image: Machael Fanny via Facebook, October 2016)

And that sentiment leads me to this photo.  The sight of a pembantu, often a young woman, sitting at a separate table and sometimes even the same table, watching and waiting for her host family to finish eating is quite common in Jakarta.  Often we have dined out and witnessed the family all but ignore the pembantu as they tuck in and enjoy their meal.  This disturbs me at a basic human level – these women are not well to do and often come to big cities from rural villages to seek emplyment to support their own families.  Quite frankly, what’s one extra mouth to feed?  The message is that you’re not of value. You don’t matter.   Perhaps this signifies placing my own values and beliefs into another cultural context;  the fact that this image has been shared via FB 57,000 times may indicate that it hit a nerve with many Indonesians too.  Just be prepared to see this – a lot.

Whilst we pay Ibu A above minimum wage, we often throw in an extra bag of rice when grocery shopping, give her unwanted clothing, household appliances or give her our unused and perfectly fresh fruit and vegetables if we no longer need them.  We value her and try to demonstrate this by small acts of gratitude.  In return, we have found an honest and loyal employee and friend.

@aubergine_jelly

You’ve Got a Friend in Me..

Moving into the expat bubble as a trailing/supporting spouse is like time travelling back to high school. How will I meet people? Will anyone like me? What if nobody talks to me?

Social isolation is part and parcel of the process, initially. The dialogue in your head can be pervasive and counter productive. So too can be factors like the lack of language skills in your adopted country, a newly diminished self  confidence, heightened anxiety and so on.

Interestingly all spouses have similar experiences and most will extend a welcoming hand of friendship to newbies. However the first step is up to you. Tough love is needed to accept invitations to functions or events and push yourself out the door.

Be bold. Don’t fear rejection. Take a breath, smile and say hello. Put on an extrovert hat for a moment and ask open ended questions to start a conversation. If you feel that the person are a possible good fit, ask if they’d like to swap numbers or even meet for coffee. The worst they can say is no!

Utilise technology. Explore Facebook and join community or interest groups in your area. You’ll meet new people in addition to getting out of the house which is a double boost for mental health.

Say yes. Accept every invite and attend with a positive attitude. You may not gel with the person who invited you but you will meet new people and you may even meet that one special person who becomes your new best friend! 

Be patient. Know that forming your new support network takes time. Be patient and be willing to cull those who do not lift you higher; the ones who drain you of your life force and happiness. Remember that you won’t gel with everyone and you won’t be everyones cup of tea either. 

So be brave, be bold and more importantly be you as you begin your journey as a trailing spouse. 

@aubergine_jelly