Category Archives: Accompanying Partner

Relocation & Expat Resources – Family Accompanying partnerInformation, Inspiration, How-To Guides and Tools for Trailing Spouses, Accompanying Partners, and Families in Transition and

Expat family essentials: Estate planning checklist. Defining Moves: information, inspiration for the global expat family. Trailing spouse, supporting partner, expat partner, accompanying partner, international assignment

Expat Family Essentials: The Estate Planning Checklist

Expat family essentials: Estate planning checklist. Defining Moves: information, inspiration for the global expat family.  Trailing spouse, supporting partner, expat partner, accompanying partner, international assignmentWhen my mother came to visit us in Los Angeles, she neglected to bring her swimsuit, and was faced with the challenge of what to wear in our pool. My generous offer of a string bikini was rudely rejected with the words “Over my dead body”. I am taking her at her word, and when she moves on to a better place, we will be marking her passing with an open casket viewing and the aforementioned attire.

Just to compound your already low opinion of me, I also respond to unwanted maternal points for improvement with the words “ Just remember who’ll be choosing the nursing home”…

Let this be a lesson to those of you who are feeling complacent having written your will; if you also want a say in your care and send off, do in it writing, and make sure it can be found before the services (healthcare, financial or spiritual) have taken place. It applies to all of you, but if you are an expat, the risks are even higher..

 

There are four more documents that you need to consider preparing:

  • Guidelines for your funeral arrangements
  • Power of Attorney
  • Trust / Catalogue of assets
  • Letter of intent

Funeral arrangements. 

If, like myself, you have specific ideas about your funeral, you need to put a plan in place so that loved ones left behind can honor your wishes. For those of us with a somewhat warped sense of humor, it’s a great time to mess with everyone a little, but I appreciate that not everyone out there is as cruel as I.

The key points to cover include:

Location for service (church, crematorium etc.), preference for cremation or burial, memorial service, storage / distribution of ashes, etc.

Funeral preferences – hymns, caskets, flowers, donations, clothing (yours, but feel free to have a little fun with their dress code too…). You could even write your own eulogy and obituary, complete with an embellished (and  potentially wholly fictitious) list of accomplishments.

Funding – it’s the one we all forget, but if you are living overseas and wish to be buried in your home town, make provision for the costs of repatriating both your body and your family. Your embassy can give guidance, but the costs are entirely your own. Bear in mind that your heirs can’t easily access accounts left in your name once you have died – funeral expenses are deducted from the estate before it is divided between the beneficiaries, but flights etc are usually paid in advance, so ask your lawyer the best way to facilitate this.

Power of Attorney.

The Durable Power of Attorney / Enduring Power of Attorney is a document that designates a representative to make financial, health care, or other business decisions for you if you become unable to do so for yourself.

This can be general or limited / springing. A general durable power of attorney gives permission for whomever you name to make every decision on your behalf, if you are no longer able to advocate for yourself. A limited durable power of attorney cover specific events, like selling property, making investments (often given to financial advisors / brokers) or making health care decisions (also called an Advance Directive of Health Care).

You can choose anyone to act as your agent, but commonsense rules apply – choose someone trustworthy who has your best interests at heart, and who is physically able to make those decisions; while many decisions can be made remotely, those living overseas should consider choosing someone who is able to travel.

Trust.

I am not a lawyer, nor have any legal expertise or qualification, so I am leaving the explanation of what exactly a trust is to those in the know – click here for the best explanation I could find, or check out the additional resources at the bottom of the page. Your task is to go away and get legal advice on whether trusts are applicable to your situation.

Simply put, a trust is a legal holding zone for assets, which are controlled by individuals known as ‘trustees’, for the benefit of other named parties “beneficiaries”. You nominate multiple trustees and beneficiaries, allowing both flexibility (it is relatively straightforward to change the conditions of the trust) and smooth transition of both control of and benefit from the trust.

The vast majority of people set up trusts for financial reasons – properly crafted, your trust can help to avoid significant estate taxes. However, for expats, the ability for assets to be transferred seamlessly is often far more important; especially where the remaining spouse is on a dependent visa and no longer legally entitled to remain in the host country.

It also has the advantage not just cataloging major assets but also specifying how beneficiaries can access the funds contained in the trust, meaning that should the unthinkable happen and both parents die, they can leave instructions for funds to be released at appropriate intervals (for example, lump sums to cover college tuition and living costs, down payments on a first home etc) rather than giving total control when the children reach legal adulthood.. As someone with a 17 year old who is unable to manage his birthday money effectively, the thought of leaving him in charge of half our net worth in a year’s time sends shudders down my spine.

Letter of Intent.

Finally, it’s the easy one – your letter of intent. It’s not a legal document, instead simply some guidance to the guardians of your estate and your dependents about what your wishes, your hopes and your future plans for your dependents are.

There are two things to bear in mind:

  1. Think of your letter of intent as a set of guidelines, not rules. You are handing over the job to someone who is not you (and never will be), so let them do their best with the situation they have; if there are any ‘dealbreakers’, it’s probably a good idea to discuss them in person before you assign them the responsibility.
  2. Make sure you have the funds to back it up. There’s nothing like being left with a laundry list of expectations, and no money to do it. It’s the same lesson we teach our children; if it’s that important, you should be willing to pay for it with your own money..
  3. Don’t assume children are your only dependents; you may need to make provision for your parents, your pets or your clients.

So there we go – you are well on the way to getting your plans a little more ‘future-proofed’, whether in terms of money, care for your dependents, or what they say about you in your obituary. Just remember; your epitaph really is the one thing that is written in stone…

 

Expat Success - Make your mistakes quickly. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, international assignment, expat family, expatriate

The Secret to Expat Success… And Why.

Expat Success - Make your mistakes quickly. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, international assignment, expat family, expatriate

 

 

I knew it. Finally, the insanity that is my expat life – and most of the website – has been vindicated, and it’s all thanks to Ellen Mahoney over at Sea Change Mentoring. She introduced me to the groundbreaking advice given by a tech start-up entrepreneur, as a recipe for global success and world domination…

 

Make your mistakes quickly

 

As a person whose family motto is “Disaster soon follows”, I have long been a proponent of this approach, with no idea that I was such thought leader. I had just assumed I was incompetent and (in a rare moment of self-acceptance) decided not to fight it. It’s a phrase that could be part of every expat mission statement, and should probably replace a lot of the well intentioned advice given in the all-too-brief briefing sessions; “learn the language”, “ get out and make friends” and my personal favorite “ join a gym”… Hmmm. Instead, the secret to expat success is familiar and effortlessly achievable – the global gaffe. And here’s why.

 

1. It reminds us that we will make mistakes.

In the assignment planning stage, it’s important to focus on the positive, but in doing so we often forget that expat life is still life. Mistakes happen, and when you are in an environment with unfamiliar language, culture, rules and expectations, they happen a lot. Making your mistakes quickly reminds us to expect – and even plan – for those mistakes. Whether that means working with a destination service provider or an expat coach, doing your own exhaustive research or simply being patient with yourself while you transition (or all of the above), it’s vital to acknowledge that perfection is impossible, and good enough is, well, good enough.

 

2. We focus on ‘right’ as a victory, rather than ‘wrong’ as a failure.

I once did a stint as a sales consultant and one of the job requirements was calling customers to set appointments. It was (and no doubt, still is) a miserable task –  you knew that your cheerful introduction could be greeted with anything from interest, to polite refusal, to a torrent of abuse and a dial tone. Thankfully, I was armed with a secret weapon; the company set targets for calls made, and let the actual results take care of themselves. So every call made was a relief – one less to do, one step closer to reaching the goal. Acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable (and in the early days, we are more likely to get it wrong than get it right) is incredibly freeing. It gives us permission to focus on the actions and let the outcomes take care of themselves. It prepares us for failure, and when things do go right, we get to stop, acknowledge it for the triumph that it is, and celebrate.

 

 3. It gets you out there.

Having taken away the fear of failure, there’s nothing like the element of competition to spur us on. Experienced expats (i.e. those who have been comprehensive in their cock-ups) can entertain for hours with hilarious stories of endless mishaps, miscommunications or general disasters; just visit the bar at any FIGT conference and listen for the raucous laughter if you don’t believe me. It’s the expat version of the Olympic Decathlon, with extra points for speed, style and variety. All that’s missing is the opening ceremony, the national uniforms and the lycra. But don’t let us stop you…

 

4. It helps you to bond.

If there’s one thing that unites the expat world, it’s our inability to watch people struggle without feeling some serious empathy. It’s one of the unwritten laws of expat life; we’re all in this together, and in my mind, there is a special place in Hell for expats who don’t help each other. Putting yourself out there and making mistakes publicly transports us all back to our early days and disasters, and gives us something in common that transcends language, culture or belief. It reminds us that we are human, and we love you for it.

 

5. It makes you brave.

Fear of failure is crippling, and stops us doing so many things that would take ordinary life and make it extraordinary. By contrast, being forced into situations where mistakes are inevitable and accepting them as a mere part of life’s journey gives us the motivation to be creative, to take risks and to try new things constantly. We dream big, and even if it doesn’t work out perfectly, we don’t go home. We learn that it hasn’t killed us, and we are really are stronger.

 

So there you have it – official permission to create chaos and have fun doing it. Providing of course, you follow our lead and share all your finer moments. Now we just need merit badges and an awards ceremony…

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture.

(Often Ignored) Expat Essentials – Writing a Will.

Yes, I know. You don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it, which is why I have been getting shifty looks from most of my expat network this week when I asked them the seemingly simple question: “Do you have a will?” Want to know how many people said “Yes”?

Two. Out of about thirty people, all of whom have high net worth, children from at least one relationship, and often dual citizenship / resident status. A little worrying, no? 

I can’t claim the moral high ground – we recently unearthed our Will, dusty from 10 years in an unmarked cardboard box in a storage container in Walthamstow. Not exactly accessible in the event of our demise, and even worse, was so out of date that the paperclip holding it together was rusty and the Feisty One was not even mentioned. So on her behalf, I am doing something about it… Here goes.

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture. I have a new dirty word: intestate. For those of you who have been living a carefree life of blissful indifference, it’s what happens when you don’t have a will. For non-expats, the implications are unpleasant: it gives the state responsibility and control over the division of your estate, decisions about who will take care of your dependents, the timeframe it all happens and (of course) access to a large chunk of your assets via taxes.

It’s a simple fix – a Will. It’s the document that tells those left behind what you want to happen to your dependents and estate.  Most of us overthink it, imagining a torturous process requiring three weeks of desperate hunting for title deeds and old bank statements. Nothing could be further from the truth – the best wills are simple statements of intent, which give executors something to work with and a few clues about where you have hidden your treasure. Combine that with a good estate planning lawyer and you will create a plan that saves everyone time, money and heartache at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Introducing first part of the Defining Moves “Ducks in a Row” program. Our aims are simple:

  • To inspire you to act. Right now. Because this is important.
  • To get you to the lawyer on time. We want to prompt to you think, discuss, list and plan, so that any legal advice you get is based on reality, not just the bits you could remember in the car on the way to the lawyer’s office. And make sure that when whoever prepares your will asks a question, you know the answer and are not paying $300 per hour for them to watch you think about it / argue with your spouse / try to remember whether or not you mailed the last life insurance premium.

So grab your pencil and paper, and let’s get started…

 

Step one: The People.

There are three groups of people you need to consider when drafting a Will;

  1. your dependents
  2. your beneficiaries
  3. your executors

 

Dependents.

These are the people who rely on you for some sort of care, support and/or protection. Traditionally, these were children still living at home, but modern families are often complicated with blended families, shared custody arrangements, adoptive children, elder relatives and even pets added to the mix. Thankfully, lawyers have seen it all before, and, even better if you have a family as nutty as mine, are sworn to secrecy…

Make of the list of those who you are responsible for, whether physically, socially, financially or legally, and the type of care you provide. Keep it simple – the rest can be figured out later – at this stage, your task is to create a comprehensive list.

Now list any special circumstances that will have to be addressed.  For many families, this may involve shared custody, child support or special needs but for expats there may also be issues of differing nationalities, citizenship and resident status that may have tax and legal implications.

For those of you with your own business, bear in mind that you may also have professional responsibility for continuity of care of clients – check your licensing organization or professional code of conduct if you are unsure.

 

Beneficiaries.

Your beneficiaries are the recipients of your estate – usually immediate descendants, siblings, friends and charities. Typically, assets are divided equally between your children, so if you want to use a different split, make this clear to your lawyer so that they can prevent your will being subject to legal contest. Note also that laws differ about division of assets when you die intestate – half siblings, step and adoptive children are often treated differently, and the portion of the estate automatically assigned to the spouse varies widely internationally.

If you have any other people or organizations who you want to leave money to, add them to your list now.

 

Executors, Financial Guardians and Legal Guardians.

It’s your group of guardian angels, so pick wisely. These are people who you trust to administer your estate and make sure your wishes are carried out, to care for your dependents and to manage the finances of the beneficiaries if they are unable to do so. The roles carry huge responsibility, so discuss whether or not your intended choices are both willing and able. They can be family members, friends or lawyers; typically, lawyers are paid (and aren’t given custody of the children…) whereas family and friends are less likely to be.

Note that guardianship differs from child custody: while custody refers to the physical care provided by a parent (who may have no legal powers), legal guardianship may involve physical and/or legal custody, and continues until the child reaches adulthood or the guardian’s death. By contrast, especially in the modern family, custody is far more flexible and changes according to the situations of the parents.

Here’s where expats need to be especially careful, because the local laws may be very different to those of your home nation and custody / guardianship arrangements and next of kin may not follow familiar rules. In the UAE, for instance, if no will is in place, Sharia law prevails, meaning that assets and custody of children potentially follow the male line – your husband / partner’s parents, brothers and sisters. How is your relationship with your mother-in-law, by the way?

 

Step Two: The Money

Your estate is the sum total of your assets, and while many of you will be rolling your eyes that I am pointing out the obvious, I can guarantee that there will be plenty of things that you will have forgotten. The temptation is to run to the filing cabinet / junk drawer and fish out the most recent bank statement, and start noting down numbers, but don’t. Your assets are constantly changing, so you only need to include categories – current and savings accounts, property, jewelry stocks, shares, businesses, investment accounts, life insurance, digital assets (websites, videos etc) – and where those assets are held. For a starter list, click here for pdf cheat sheet.

While you are making your list, make note of who your beneficiaries are, and how they are reported. Typically, life insurance goes to the spouse, but in a world where divorce rates run at about 45%, there are a huge number of exes who are still listed as primary beneficiary. Take note, and make any necessary changes…

 

Step Three: The Decisions

Now that you have the information, you can start making decisions about how to pass on your legacy, human or otherwise. Your key priorities are the welfare of your dependents, so start with those and work from there.

Guardianship of dependents.

Who do you want to care for your dependents if you are no longer around to do so? Depending on the complexity of your family and the types of dependents, there may be more than one answer to this question, so set it all out clearly, naming each dependent individually. Talk to all the parties concerned before you head to the lawyer’s office – you may be surprised to hear who your children would hate to live with, or which relative is intending to move to Outer Mongolia next month – to prevent return visits. Factors that may affect your decision are not just emotional – also consider location (how will your children feel about leaving the country, for instance), age and health of potential guardians, relationship with other friends and family, support network and financial ability to provide care.

Include financial provision for your dependents and decide who you want to manage your estate for them if they are still minors. In many cases, life insurance helps to cover the cost of raising children, but once you include the cost of college education it may not go as far as you think.

Financial, legal and professional dependent provision will require discussion with your lawyer and with those who you nominate to take over; the good news is that if planned in advance, the process is straightforward (and certainly infinitely preferable to leaving your legal advisor / executor to try to unravel the mess in your absence).

 

Step Four: The Division

This is the fun bit, providing you have money to leave. But before you start divvying up between your offspring and the local cat protection league, here are a few pointers:

  1. Remember that your debts and liabilities (taxes, funeral expenses, etc) will be deducted from your estate before the remainder is distributed. You can offset many of these by establishing a Trust, which will will talk about in the next chapter, but for the moment, just remember to include your loans, debts and other obligations when you are cataloging your estate.
  2. Ensure that you own your assets outright before you will them away. Anything jointly owned needs careful consideration to avoid passing on a headache rather than a well-intentioned gift. If you hadn’t already discussed future plans with the co-owner(s), now is the time to do so.
  3. Now is not the time to make a point. Sure, you may have favorites, but remember that in many cases you are not just leaving behind a bequest, but a lifetime of family discord and ill-feeling – not to mention legal challenges. It may seem a lovely idea to leave the bulk of your estate to your newest grandchild/ favorite nephew or next door neighbor, but the resulting fallout can often sour the best of intentions. The same rules apply for property – find out which mementos, furniture or jewelry are most loved by your friends and family, and divide accordingly, informing all of them who has been given what. That way, any discussions, disagreements or disappointments can be directed at you, rather than unwitting recipients.
  4. While we are on the subject of leaving objects to people, think carefully about whether they want them, and the responsibility you are handing over. It’s difficult to part with things, no matter how ugly, unwanted or expensive to maintain without feeling disloyal to the person who gifted it.

Now you have done the difficult bit, it’s time to put pen to paper and make a rough outline to take to the lawyer’s office. If you are an expat, you may be advised to get legal input from both your home and host nation perspective – while the laws of your home nation usually take precedence, extended residence overseas may change the rules, so be sure to explain the situation rather than making assumptions.

You need to include:

  • Your name, and identifying details (usually your address, but if you are an expat, you will need to clarify your domicile (primary place of residence) with an experienced lawyer – it has significant tax and legal implications.
  • Names of beneficiaries; the people and organizations you want to leave your assets (whether money, housing, land, stock options, digital assets etc ).
  • The name of your executor (the person responsible for making sure your wishes are met).
  • Guardians of your dependents – Legal and physical.
  • Who gets what.
  • Your legal advisor should also include a “residual clause” that states the recipient for any assets you forgot to mention, or have been accrued since you wrote your will. “I bequeath any residue to” should take care of it.
  • Signature and date, with initials and date on every page.

Congratulations if you made it to this point- you are well on your way. In the next post, we’ll be introducing the fun stuff.. Planning your funeral, Living Wills and frustrating the tax man.

Bet you can hardly wait.

 

Further Resources:

Nolo.com – Legal encylopedia – Wills

USA.gov – advice on writing both social media and regular wills.

UK Citizens Advice Bureau information on writing a will.

Australia. gov – Resources on wills and power of attorney

The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse. Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation

Women, Money and What ‘Dependent Partner’ really means. The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse.

The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse. Defining Moves, The Art of Successful RelocationUpdate: After considerable lobbying from consumer groups, the US Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection has amended the rule requiring evidence of independent income when applying for consumer credit, replacing it with a declaration of household income. This is excellent news for accompanying partners in the United States who had been denied access to credit and left unable to build an independent financial identity, in a country where a credit card or credit history is required for everything from hiring a car to setting up a cell phone contract. Sanity is restored…

I came to a horrible realization the other day that I was beholden to my husband. It sounds incredibly old-fashioned; even using the word ‘partner’ in that sentence would be wrong, because it implies an equality that I had let slip away.

The dictionary describes the term beholden as owing something to somebody because of something that they have done for you’, so if you view being shuffled from pillar to international post as a favour, the word pretty much covers it. I realized that although I live in California, where community property and a 50/50 division applies, I did not have the independent means to pay for legal advice. And when he leaves all his dirty breakfast dishes on the counter above the dishwasher for the 5 millionth time, there is a big emotional difference between don’t want to divorce my Other Half, and CAN’T…

As with the vast majority of dual career couples, when I agreed to the OH’s first relocation, I was aware that from now on my own career would take a back seat. Global mobility research discusses the change (usually reduction) in income when a couple relocate, but discussion centres around household income, rather than individual earning power.

Which is exactly what I have lost. I have never worked in professions known for lavish salaries (nursing or teaching, anyone??), but I was able to earn significant personal income with opportunities for promotion. Now, however, my sole income in drawn from the ‘household’, and as such, is vulnerable. And I’m not alone.

It’s not just those of us who relocate that are in this position. It’s anyone who has chosen to reduce or give up work to manage family commitments, whether you are in constant global motion, or have never set foot outside your home town. If you have no independent source of income, whoever earns the salary holds the keys to your supposed household income.  And while you are legally entitled to a portion of those, it requires court approval to gain access to them, whatever the circumstances. Which also requires legal counsel, who (funnily enough) will want to be paid.

Take credit cards. Over the last 20 years, we have become used to being approved for credit, regardless of our personal income; the household income has always been taken into account. Sure, the credit limit may be small, but it’s quickly increased once our payment history shows our ability to make payments and manage the account well. However change is afoot, certainly in the US, where credit card issuers are changing their rules, and making it far more difficult for the accompanying partner to gain credit (and a good credit history), unless they are employed outside of home.

Last year, the Fed ruled that credit card applications should ask about a consumer’s individual income or salary rather than his or her “household income”. This isn’t just for students under 21, but for everyone. That means that a stay-at-home parent is considered as unworthy of credit as an unemployed college kid–and seven out of eight stay-at-home parents are mothers. No one without a pay stub, no matter the value of her contribution to her household, can get a line of credit unless her spouse cosigns the account. (Anisha Sekar,  July 7, 2011)

Now, in light of the recent economic meltdown, placing more focus on individual income and ability to repay debts is no bad thing, but it does have ramifications for those of us who suddenly lose the ability to get even the most basic forms of credit like a cell phone contract or credit card. It also means that unless you are named on the account, you lose the ability to make financial decisions, access accounts and resolve disputes, which if, like mine, your partner spends a great deal of time out of the country and on air flights, can make financial management impossible.

The Other Half is also the primary name on the host country bank account, and I don’t have automatic access to his account. Typically, he goes ahead to take up his new post, while I remain behind with the children to finish up the school year and pack the house for the move. It works well for us, but does mean that he has sole responsibility for setting up basic financial services in the new location, so it is his name on the salary transfer and tax details, and therefore his name on the account, at least until we get around to updating it.

We choose to manage this by having me sign all the checks (if he signed one himself, it would probably be dismissed as a forgery), I have the ATM card and PIN number, and I’ve set up the internet banking with my passwords. And while this unusual state of affairs makes for amusing dinner party conversation, it gives me absolutely no legal right to the household funds in that account, nor access to them should he suddenly develop amnesia / get run down by a London bus / decide to trade me in for a younger, blonder model…

The mention of Tax ID and salary above should alert you to the fact that opening your own bank account is not necessarily as easy as it first appears. Requirements vary from country to country, but most require evidence of who you are, your legal right to be in the country, how you will pay tax on any interest, and how you intend to fund the account. So when you turn up with your passport and cash, you may be disappointed… However, it is something that is worth doing if you value your sanity, because things can and do go wrong, and I am willing to bet that it is you who will be left holding the can when it does. If the money is in your sole name, you have control over it; if it’s not, you don’t. Simple as that.

And finally, let me mention the dying thing. I have known a few situations where a spouse has died at a young age, and not once did I ever hear the words “well now, let’s get on and sort out the money”. What I saw were people who had their lives knocked out from under them, who were trying to cope with immense loss, overwhelming grief, and devastated children. Imagine how much worse it gets when you are overseas, your right to be in the country expired with the demise of your spouse, and all your assets (and therefore your ability to get home, to make funeral arrangements, to pay medical bills and to pay for normal household expenses) are now severely compromised. I have seen it happen, and it was horrific.

So, if you do nothing else today, do these things for me, wherever you are. Get started on your own personal credit history, even if you have to take out a secured credit card to do it. Promise to keep track of your credit score, every month. Get an independent bank account in your host country, and commit to funding it, every month. And finally, make a joint will, keep it simple and safe, and make sure it is legal in the country that you live in.

Oprah would be proud. I feel more secure already…

Expat Parenting – The International Peace Treaty..

expat parenting - how it takes more than one village to raise a CCK / TCK. Defining Moves, information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, international assignment transferee..  When I originally wrote this post, I had yet to hit the expat parenting minefield that is the adolescent CCK (Cross Culture Kid). I now know firsthand the dubious pleasure of putting a career on hold to focus on transplanting children, only to be calmly told that I have “ruined” their lives.. 

Thus comes the realization that parenting is a truly thankless task, and it’s only the support of fellow sufferers that keep one from running screaming to the nearest liquor store. It’s why expat parents become experts at nurturing a large group of people who will provide support, comfort, alcohol and surveillance services through our child’s teenage years, people who, regardless of location, language, culture or religion, follow the same, previously unwritten code. For those of you who we rely on for our daily dose of sanity, here it is..

  1. Thou shalt not post pictures of home-made birthday cake excellence on Facebook, so that my children spot them and spend the next ten years bringing up my own birthday cake inadequacies.
  2. Thou shalt not point out that your child is walking and talking while mine has spent the last three hours with his hands down his trousers.
  3. When spying my child indulging in antisocial activities in public, thou shalt utter the words “her mother will be very cross when she finds out about that”; implicitly underlining that a) I am the all seeing, attentive parent, and b) I have high behavioral standards. It is irrelevant whether you believe this or not, and extra credit is given for saying it when other parents are present.
  4. When spying my child inappropriately dressed, thou shalt sing out in a helpful tone “Would you like me to call your mother to drop off your sweater / trousers / anything that doesn’t look like a Britney Spears outfit?”, thus communicating to the child that a) she’s busted; b) you are willing to go there; and c) there are eyes everywhere. Extra credit is given for not telling me about inappropriate attire unless there is a repeat occurrence.
  5. When my teenage child makes an inappropriate remark, thou shalt enter into a lengthy and awkward story about your own teenage angst, preferably with reference to kissing. The mental picture of adults ever indulging in such behavior is enough to silence any outburst, and serves as a cruel and unusual punishment which rarely has to be repeated.
  6. When my child comes looking for sympathy about my latest parenting gaffe, thou shalt listen kindly and then retell the story about how aforementioned child once had diarrhea next to the deli counter in a crowded supermarket, and until life roles are reversed, I still have the moral high ground.
  7. When my child comes looking for support in opposition to the latest parenting policy, thou shalt listen sympathetically, nod furiously, make noises of agreement, and then reiterate policy without the benefit of parent type shrieking. Extra credit is given if child thanks you for being so reasonable and fails to notice that it is the same policy.
  8. When my child leaves home, thou shalt not mention how many times I uttered the words “I can’t wait for them to leave home” and instead hand over tissues and gin to drown my sorrows.
  9. Should my child get married, thou shalt attend the wedding without publicly mentioning the pant fumbling, the diarrhea, the inappropriate clothing or the teenage years. Extra credit is given for having photographic evidence for use in ensuring timely Christmas visits etc.
  10. When my child has children, thou shalt join me in watching them recreate all my worst mistakes, smile and enjoy the show..

Photo courtesy of Clare Kruse, who inspired this post by breaking Rule 1..

Gender, Communication and the Adolescent Male. A Recipe for Disaster.

The years of intercultural miscommunication are finally paying off. Having created chaos and given offense across three continents, I am now the acknowledged expert in the art of the apology, and thanks to Wiggy One, yesterday I got to practice them, Yet again.

For those of you with teenage sons, I know you feel my pain. For those of you who have yet to experience the joy that can only be found in trying to raise an adolescent male, you might want to file this letter away for future reference, because you are going to need it.

Dear Ms X,

I was somewhat alarmed at The Wiggy One’s current English grade, and on close questioning he confessed that after completing what he felt was an inspired essay on the themes contained within The Scarlet Letter, he followed it up with the classic line ” And I didn’t even read the book”. I was unsurprised to see your “Let’s talk” response, and can only congratulate you on your restraint.

I can vouch for the fact that he has in fact read the book in its entirety, mainly because he generously shares his discontent with the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne on a nightly basis at the dinner table, and has stolen all of my Post It notes. I can only hope that War and Peace is not on the curriculum this year, or I may have to abandon home cooked meals in favor of TV dinners and a locked stationary cabinet.

I have yet to comprehend the inner workings of the teenage male mind, and consider my day a success if no-one died and nobody got pregnant. Low standards, I know, but it’s either that or risk developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. What I am looking forward to is that pivotal moment in college when he realizes that all the interest, time and effort that others have invested in him over the years has been because we are all kind, good and caring people, and not because he is the Uncrowned King of the Universe or the Second Coming, both of which seem to be common delusions in adolescent males.

We have had a sustained discussion on the value of knowing the line between off the cuff humour and being a disrespectful arse, and how he has crossed it. I have also pointed out that if he fails to rescue the situation, his dreams of college may be rather closer to home (i.e the local Community College) than he anticipated. You will be delighted to know that not only did you succeed in fostering his understanding of classic literature, but also of the consequences of ill-thought out comments and a newfound respect for the role (and power) of educators in shaping one’s future.

At this point, I should probably be pleading with you to grade him on his written efforts rather than his verbal idiocy. Truthfully, I would rather not have to deal with the repercussions of a 0 grade for the next 18 months, nor his potential extended residence at home, so I do appreciate any clemency that you might offer. However, I must also thank you for teaching him a very valuable lesson about words, actions, consequences and adolescent insanity. I have a feeling that this will be one of his defining High School moments.

Yours sincerely,

Me.

 

(Photo courtesy of The State Library of New South Wales)

FIGT Conference March 22-23 2013

Why You (and every expat) Should Be Going to FIGT 2013

FIGT Conference March 22-23 2013It seems incredible that a year has passed since the last Families in Global Transition conference; forever infamous as the one where I had a complete (and very public ) online meltdown at the eminence and credentials of my fellow presenters, only to have my cover blown by one Judy Rickatson, (aka @wifeinasuitcase) who is the expat online version of Wikipedia. If it’s out there, she knows about it, Tweets, Likes and Pins about it, and, I strongly suspect, has superhuman powers. If she was in charge of the search for the Holy Grail, it would have been found years ago, and it has become my life’s work to try and find an expat blog that she hasn’t yet discovered. She is the Simon Cowell of the expat social media world, discovering talent from the four corners of the globe; only much, much nicer.

Hence my blubbering gaining the attention of various members and supporters of FIGT, who all headed across to the Defining Moves website to offer kind words, support and offers of hospitality. It was the single most generous spirited gesture, and it embodies all that is special about the FIGT organization. People with years of experience, a hugely diverse range of backgrounds and an incredible depth of knowledge, all passionate about making expat life better.

It’s why I can’t wait to go back this year, and why you should all be joining me too. It’s a two day whirlwind of people, presentations and discussions from every perspective; starting with a keynote presentation from the brilliant Pico Iyer. Whether you are an accompanying partner, a expat service provider or from corporate HR, you will leave with a wealth of information and a host of new friends and real, live expat human resources. The only dilemma is how to fit it all into two days.

As for me, I have very personal reasons to want to go there too. It will be the first time I will actually meet many online friends in person, both those who regularly pop up here in the comments sections, on the Facebook page and on my Twitter feed.

At the top of my list?

Judy, of course.

 

If you need more information about Families in Global Transition and the FIGT 2013 conference, here’s the link to their website, including information on registering, becoming a member (as well as all the other benefits, you qualify for a reduced registration fee), global affiliates, sponsorship,  the New Attendees information webinar and the New Attendees welcome evening. I hope to see you there!

Cultural Orientation - How to Make Friends and Introduce People. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation

Really Useful Cultural Orientation – How to Make Friends and Introduce People..

Cultural Orientation - How to Make Friends and Introduce People. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful RelocationYou’ve spent the first half of your life learning acceptable social behaviour, the last ten years telling your kids not to care what people think, and then wham! Relocation. Suddenly you’re stuck right back where you were on the first day of high school, having to walk into places you really would rather run screaming from, and make nice with a sea of people who have no idea who you are. Welcome to our world.

If your cultural orientation training was anything like mine, it revolves around the country currency, demographics and religious practices. What it might not tell you is how to find the people with whom you can laugh, cry, and everything in between with. So here’s my best advice, based on years of social gaffes, awkward situations and offending people.

 It does get easier. Just as the first day of school was the worst for most of us (apart from the boy who had diarrhea in assembly in 9th grade – that’s a tricky one to beat), the first few weeks of any move are the hardest. The quicker you get out there and start circulating, the quicker you will find your first friend.

It’s a numbers game. You didn’t expect to like everyone in high school, and nor will you like everyone you meet, but you have to go through the numbers to get to one who will become lifelong friends. Go to as many gatherings as possible, safe in the knowledge that somewhere out there is someone who is doing the same thing and hating it every bit as much as you do..

Talk to a cherished friend beforehand, so that you are

  1.  more confident about yourself and will present yourself in a more relaxed way
  2. have vented all your relocation angst so that your new acquaintances don’t think you are a moany old whingebag and hereafter avoid you and,
  3. so you have someone impartial waiting to hear all the gory details. Knowing that you have someone far, far away who relish all the post party gossip and can never tell makes putting up with the fifteenth “what does your husband do?” far more palatable.

Go to where people gather to be social. This issue cropped up the other day – in Europe there are higher numbers of dual income families, so there are fewer opportunities to meet socially through school, and so a friend with school age children is struggling to meet new people.  Instead, take a class, or do something that people go to alone. And no, I don’t mean bars.

Be prepared to watch, learn and smile. There will be new social rules (cute does not have the same implicit meaning in the UK and the US), a new dress codes, language differences. You may be an avid taxidermist, but that’s probably not going to be your best icebreaker at the school social. And if you are anything like me, try to avoid sarcastic, flippant or hilarious remarks, such as “Will there be alcohol served?” at the new parent breakfast. My strategy is to seek out the person that sparks the most antipathy, and watch for who else in the crowd is wincing. Instant friend, right there.

Don’t undervalue yourself. Most relocation advice suggests voluntary work as a great way to develop a social network, and while this may be true, I have seen more people than I care to count take on the first volunteer opportunity that comes their way, only to end up in glorious isolation doing the photocopying for the PTA. (Actually, I met one of my favorite people doing exactly that, but I just got very lucky..). Find something that both gives you a sense of fulfillment and attracts like-minded people, and feel free to test drive opportunities before you commit. Tell them I said so.

Talk to anyone. My mother does this, and it drives me nuts, but she can find a friend faster than anyone I know. Her favorite targets are anyone with a British accent, anyone in a book store, anyone wearing Marks and Spencer clothing, and anyone with grey hair. And if you happen to have a baby, your chances of escaping uninterrupted are nil.

At all costs, avoid asking “What does your husband do?”. A little piece of my soul dies every time that question is asked in social circles, as if the person being spoken to is unworthy of interest. Add in the fact that you are assuming that they are a) married, and b) they don’t instead have a wife. My personal answer when asked is “Put a gun to my head and I still couldn’t tell you”; it conveys accurately both my knowledge of what he does, and my interest in finding out. As yet, no-one has taken me up on it, but feel free to find your own, less dramatic response.

In the interest of fulfilling the entire title, when you do finally get out and meet people to talk to, the basic etiquette rules of introduction are as follows:
Self Introduction:
“Hi /Hello / Nice to meet you”, “I am XXX”;  and then a single descriptor (e.g. “friend of the host”, “so and so’s colleague”, etc.)
Introducing Others: Generally, men are introduced to women, younger people to older people, and lower-ranking individuals to more senior – think of it as presenting a subject to the queen. So it would go: “Your majesty, this is my husband, the Other Half.” In a social setting, it is considered good form to give the newly introduced couple something to talk about. And no, that does not include politics, religion or embarrassing facts about each other..
I would like to pretend that I know these facts from early presentation to the Queen and life in elevated circles. Alas not.

Now it’s your turn – any suggestions?

Relocating? Essential documents that every expat should keep, copy and/or carry

We are in the process of applying for our Green Card, and it’s nothing like the film. For a start, we are legitimately married, and have been for so long that our vacation family photos usually just feature the Other Half and the kids, because having planned, packed and catered for a weeklong sojourn, there is no way I want my exhausted, disheveled state recorded for posterity. Anyone who wishes to verify that we are married just needs to spend half an hour in the same room and listen to a disjointed conversation that involves car pool commitments, emergency meal planning and a reminder of outstanding (not in the good way) household tasks..

However, back to the Green Card bit. So far, we have fallen foul of a lack of vaccination records for myself and the OH (resulting in a fresh round of childhood vaccines and a very sore arm), the inability to recall exact dates of employment from back when work meant I was actually paid, and an inadequate birth certificate. As our original posting was a year long temporary assignment, all our official documentation, wedding and baby photos, etc. etc. are safely in storage and completely inaccessible from sunny San Francisco. My latest interruption has been attempting to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from 4000 miles away – pausing only to pray to whatever God might be listening that my online order a) is not an elaborate scam, and b) gets here before next Christmas.

For those of you who like myself, had no idea what documentation might be needed over the course of your expat relocation adventures, I’ve prepared a checklist.

Essential Docs Checklist

It doesn’t just apply to relocating expats – it’s a good idea for everyone to have immediate access and back-up copies of the documents listed, so please feel free to share. Buy a scanner to make electronic copies of documents and store securely – you’ll be surprised how you need copies, and how useful it is to be able to email them  immediately. If nothing else, you will look and feel supremely organized. Unlike me..

 

5 Simple Steps to Staying in (Social) Shape

Everyone loves to receive a card in the mail, and never more so than when you are 4000 miles away from home. And while most of us send out holiday cards once a year, birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations are often left to a last minute message on Facebook. So here’s a step by step guide to successfully mastering the original social media; going back to basics, putting it in writing, and getting it there on time.

1. Update your contact list. Right now, you will probably be displaying holiday cards from most of the people who are important to you. Before you file the cards away or send them for recycling, use them to update your contact list and add any new children, friends or addresses. If you don’t keep addresses on computer, now is a great time to start – either on a desktop program such Outlook or Address book, or online on Yahoo, Gmail or a card company like Moonpig.com. I like Plaxo.com for basic online storage and automatic syncing to smartphones – it takes a little getting used to, but it makes merging duplicate contact details simple, and will let you print off a complete list or individual labels.

2. Make group lists. While you are sitting down with all your contacts in one place, make lists of those who you want to send greeting cards to. Group them under headings like ‘birthday’, ‘anniversary’, ‘religious holiday’ (remember to group under the specific holiday) ‘thank you’ or ‘keep in touch’.

3. Set reminders. If you are using Outlook (PC) or Address book (Mac) or Plaxo.com, there is not an attached reminder function, so you will need to enter them into a calendar. It doesn’t matter whether you use a printed calendar, a desktop one or an online reminder system, you just need one that you pay attention to and gives you enough time to buy, write and mail a card. Two weeks is usually a good rule of thumb – it doesn’t matter if the card arrives a few days early, and it allows for the idiosyncrasies of weekends, holidays and international mail. Good online options for travelers include Cozi.com which will send a reminder via text or email, or Moonpig.com, which emails you a reminder and will also allow you to send customized cards direct from its site, wherever you happen to be in the world. Cozi has a million and one other fabulous functions, but no address book, whereas Moonpig.com does store addresses that you have used, making it a cinch for future years.

4. Buy back-up cards. You’ll be heading to the stores to restock on groceries at some point over the next few days, so grab a few one-size-fits-all cards while you are there. Make sure you buy standard size rectangular ones, with no extra weight or decoration, so that you can be sure of postage costs. In the US, square cards are charged at an additional rate, and the padding needed for many popular decoupage cards takes them over the weight limit for a standard postage stamp. They also often get caught in sorting machines, and are more of a target for tampering / customs inspection in places where hand sorting is still used. If you are determined to include cash, use a standard office type envelope rather than the colored birthday card one for the same reason.

5. Send out a fill-in-the-blanks email. If you are missing information, send out a New Year greetings email with a request for the relevant bits, and update your lists before their reply gets lost in email swamp. If email doesn’t work, try Facebook, Twitter or other social media, but make sure you use the private message function rather than plastering their private details across the internet..

6. Sit back and enjoy!