Sh*t’s Getting Real!

A sudden pang hit me in the very pit of my stomach just now as a few boxes were delivered to our apartment in the anticipation that we may wish to pack a few belongings ourselves.  Reality is sinking in.. we are leaving.  And soon.  Well, we are leaving in ear14917034_10154617429418433_9134804190214221941_oly January after a little holiday but our uplift (i.e., when all of our belongings are removed) is in 3 weeks!

The first pang arose during the property survey conducted by Allied Pickford a few weeks back.  The rep walked in created an inventory and provided dates for the uplift.

The second pang hit when we gave our domestic staff notice, provided references and advertised their services widely within the expat and Embassy communities.  That was difficult because we know that if they do not secure employment there is no Government assistance in this country and that has implications as both are the breadwinners for their families.

The third happened just now and was accompanied by mixed emotions – sadness, excitement, anxiety, happiness all delivered with these boxes!

The next pang will surely emerge during uplift.. and again when we head off on our holiday.. and for the last time when we return to Indonesia, our current home, before we board our final flight to return to… Now what do I call it when it’s not “home”?

Generally speaking, no one likes change.  Change is challenging.  It’s a process of upheaval of all that is known and familiar and hurls us into the unknown with lashings of anxiety and trepidation.  Some worries that I have include no longer connecting with old friends; experiencing difficulty settling back into my old life easily, or not at all; concerns about work and changes to relationship dynamics with my spouse.

The repatriation process is thought to be more stressful and difficult to navigate than the initial move interestingly.  Many people believe that returning to your country of origin from your new home will be a smooth transition as you are returning to your old life.  But I have changed and evolved as a result of this experience and these new found beliefs are returning with me.  My world view is now different – not better just different.  The stages of adjustment are claimed to bite harder with repatriation and repats require a lot of support, patience and understanding from loved ones and work colleagues for up to a year after their return.


So, as the title suggests, reality is setting in and fast!



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.


Surviving the Return Home

Repatriation.  At the beginning of our posting, the idea of repatriation was blissful. Returning to the familiar.  The lifestyle, career, home, people.  The pull was tangible.  Now the thought of returning home is anxiety inducing as we prepare to leave our new home and the lifestyle that is our normal.  We have friends, work, routines and experiencing a new culture has altered our world view.

Recently I wrote a post “I am now a Triangle” outlining how I feel like I feel like a misfit in my native culture and in my adopted country.  This got me to thinking about how we will make a smooth and successful return?  Basically, I don’t believe we do.  I think we will once more ride the rollercoaster of change and work things out as we go. Reflecting upon our initial move to Indonesia, similar feelings were brought to the fore and we managed.

“Think of shapes: Imagine you are a circle, living in Circle Country. Then you move to Square Society. You will never become a Square, but that culture starts to embed itself in you. When the time comes to return to your Circle Country (home), you have become a Triangle (”

Here are my thoughts/strategies for our successful return:

Be kind to yourself.  Allow time to settle and adjust to this life change.  Work through emotions and the grieving process just as you did when you transitioned to the expat lifestyle. Schedule protected time to nurture yourself – join a yoga class, walk the dog, coffee with an old friend, find a hobby that fills your bucket.

Reconnect with expat friends who have returned home.  These folk understand the expat bubble as well as the challenges and positives of repatriation.  Monthly dinners/catch ups like we used to schedule will be happy distractions and good for mental health.

Say yes.  Accept invitations to coffee and other social functions just as you did when you landed in your new country.  Eventually you will make new friends who are a good fit and are a good support.  You won’t connect with every person and that’s okay.

Reconnect with old friends.  Authentic friends will be interested in your expat experiences as well as your intentions now that you’ve returned.  Be aware that you may need to evaluate these friendships and let some fall by the wayside and that too is okay.

Seek support.  If things are not going well, seek professional support. Asking for help is  sign of strength and may assist to develop a plan of action as well as developing coping strategies for this challenging period of transition.

Plan holidays.  Having a mini break or holiday to look forward to in the first few months back home may help to recharge and provide time to reflect upon how well you are managing and coping with this major life event.  Taking time out may assist in recognising and celebrating achievements and milestones since your return as well as leading to a new and positive perspective on life.




Trailing spouses, healthy relationships & mental health

Today I woke up, made a coffee and viewed the world from the kitchen window like I do most mornings. It’s a lovely ritual that allows me to gently wake up and plan for the day ahead. This morning however was different.  I woke up, made a coffee and viewed the world from the kitchen window and the tears rolled down my cheeks.  That was 9am and it’s now 1.42pm and I’m still not “together”.

There are many issues and frustrations to deal with as a trailing spouse and relationships with others is a major source of angst, anxiety and frustration.  Particularly relationship issues between spouses even if both parties are highly supportive (like mine) and like most others is generally wonderful.

The issue was exacerbated however when through the steady stream of tears it dawned on me rather quickly that for most trailing spouses it is extremely lonely to not feel comfortable to confide in new found friends who are geographically close by.  For many these friends are partners of your own spouse and the community is quite an incestuous bunch.  Work colleagues don’t need to know the private goings on of colleagues and in some cases the information is used as gossip or ammunition in the workplace.  This leaves trailing spouses vulnerable to feelings of depression and isolation.

So how to cope?  With my spouse working in another country I texted to let him know how I’m feeling and what the issue is, outlining that text or email is never the mode of communication for resolving personal issues.  True to form he is so level headed and wonderfully understanding that he agreed to wait to talk face to face upon his return and suggested booking in for a spa day to take care of myself.

For me, confiding in family back home is currently not an option from my perspective due to the mental health of my brother who is currently battling clinical depression.  Not wanting to add to this, I choose to keep my own needs and worries to myself- not ideal. But I do know that I will be ok once D returns home and work together to resolve the issue face to face.

And so, I sat by the pool and flicked through a magazine for an hour.  A friend and her husband offered for me to join them for coffee but the tears returned and as I sneakily wiped them away, I declined their offer.  Instead I continued to read and cry, read and cry until it was time for lunch. And so here I am…

Is homesickness a chronic disease for trailing spouses?

Recently we took leave for a mental health vacation from the hustle and bustle of the city. Diving and snorkelling in the ocean that offered shades turquoise and inky blue waters that invited you to venture in and surrender to the gentle waves and warm sea breeze.

Upon a lunch date with friends posted to Malaysia, I chatted with a veteran trailing spouse who offered such kind, comforting and generous words of wisdom and support. But her words didn’t ‘get to me’ as much as the way she hugged me when parted ways.  Her hug was a ‘mum hug’. She had told me that her adult children, all in their mid to late 20s where back home in Australia and that she missed not seeing them as regularly as she would if she were back home.  Coming from a close-knit family myself, I could relate as she enquired about how I deal with my own homesickness and missing loved ones back home. She sensed how much I miss my family and close friends, hence the ‘mum hug’.

Like other trailing spouses, sometimes I hate being here. I hate the fact that I have no control over where my partner is posted and how long it is between going home (real home) and physically being with loved ones. These days are rare, but they are valid and they help us to recognise the great days we have while away and even allow us to truly realise the true value of loved ones. Back to the ‘mum hug’..

The hug brought me to tears, which I expertly hid from my partner, and alerted me to the fact that homesickness had indeed creeped back in.  Fortunately for me, my own mum is visiting next week and her timing could not be better.  And sometime Skype doesn’t cut it.

Only yesterday I attended an official ‘spouse brunch’ where many new faces discussed their experiences and frustrations of moving to post.  They asked me how I fill my time and keep busy so to counter homesickness, the feeling of being dependent on their working partner, making friends and the questions continued. During these conversations, I realised just how resilient trailing spouses really are and the many strategies we use to thrive during our time overseas. Below a just a few of mine.

1. We have all  heard the expression she would “attend the opening of an envelope”, well here is your chance to be that person.  Say “yes!” to every invitation whether it’s for a quick coffee and chat, a book signing, a lecture a visit to the bank.  Don’t think about how boring it may seem, just go.  You meet new people at the most random places and the beauty is, you don’t need to go again if you did not enjoy the experience or the people.

2. Get involved.  The internet and social media are wonderful tools for researching community groups, volunteer opportunities and upcoming events around your town or city.  Make a time to go check them out and see if you like what they have to offer.  Many groups such as ANZA, AWA, BWA are not just for women and allow nonmembers to engage in social functions and events.  There are many newsletters found online that yo stumble across as you “surf” away.  Join, you can always unsubscribe!

3. Learn something new.  If you are unable to work or are enjoying the downtime make time to figure out what you’re passions or interests are.  Study something, anything! Enrol in a course, art classes, language classes, cooking, yoga, book club.  You are limited by your own imagination and willingness to explore.

4.  Self promotion.  Don’t be shy and offer you number, email, Facebook to people who you feel that you connect with.  You never know where this may lead.  Remember that down the track, it is ok to decide that this friendship is not a good fit for you BUT you may just find that someone who becomes a real friend.

5.  Work if you can and want to.  This may be a vehicle for fulfilling your intellectual, emotional, financial and social needs.

6.  Talk to trusted friends and family about how you’re feeling to gain a true perspective. “This too shall pass” reminds me that it is ok to have a low day and to miss home, but nothing lasts forever.

How do you manage?