Tag Archives: TCKs

Coping with expat homelessness - My Family in Global Transition. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partner.

Coping with Expat Homelessness – My Family in Global Transition.

Coping with expat homelessness - My Family in Global Transition. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partner.It’s the latest expat dilemma in the Defining Moves household, and in answer to our newly homeless state, I’m moving in with my sister. She may be currently unaware of her impending fate, but I’m guessing that she will be the recipient of quite a few panicked phone calls to inform her within minutes of this post being published.

It’s been a tricky few weeks in our family life; a combination of relief/grief that our home (albeit not one we have lived in for the last 7 years) has finally sold. It’s the first home that the OH and I bought together, the one we spent 8 years of blood, sweat and tears (and near financial ruin) renovating, and is the place where Feisty entered the world, prophetically at high speed and interrupting a particularly good Royal Variety Performance.

It’s hosted Millennium parties, expat students, copious numbers of chickens and too many renovation weekend projects to count. Friends and family have been coerced into everything from installing septic tanks, tiling bathrooms and ripping up floorboards, regardless of ability, stage of pregnancy or copious quantities of small children. Ask most of my Facebook friends for their memories of the house and they will cite brambles, dust, chaos, dodgy alcohol, and hopefully, laughter.  But for the last eight years, it’s been rented by a number of tenants ranging from the delightful to the dire, and is beginning to show the strain.

Throughout our expat travels, it’s what we have always called home, so ten days to pack up a household and fifteen years of memories, friendships and roots were all too short. We saw so many friends that we have missed, and missed seeing too many more. All the while, we worried that we would lose our roots, our stability, and our sense of home.

But a funny thing happened as we drove away, en route to my sister’s house. As the house disappeared from the rear view mirror, we didn’t feel sad anymore. We had had a brilliant ten days, surrounded by people who we only get to see every few years, and yet we picked up the threads as if it were only yesterday. We blended back into life without so much as a ripple, and when answering questions about when we would be returning, it was clear that not only would we be coming back, but that we knew how, when and what adventures we are going to have. This particular chapter may be over, but the story is far from finished.

I had imagined that the kids would be sad, saying goodbye to the only home that they had ever known, but I had missed the obvious point. It has not been their only home, and everywhere they have lived, they have been surrounded by people who care for them, whether blood relations or friends. The people at ‘home’ have taught them about friendship, strength of character and what is really important, and those values are what the rest of our gathered global family have in common.

We have gained so much more than we have lost, and it took selling the house to realize it. We were so focused on the safety net below, we had forgotten to look at the view. Somehow, having no house to call our own meant absolutely.. nothing. We still had the laughs, the stories, the catching up and the paintball bruises. We still have friends who find time to spend with us, who tolerate the months of silence followed by hours of chaos and who understand that if we didn’t catch them this time, we will definitely see them next visit. The memories of good times didn’t disappear once the pictures were packed, and we don’t need to be in the same room to share a common ground.

As the miles began to build up between ourselves and our former home, the Wiggy One made a observation, in rather less sombre tones than you might expect.

“Auntie Sarah’s is our home now”. He was smiling when he said it.

I had been thinking the same thing only that morning, when I woke up in her house, on a makeshift Ikea bed, amid the accumulated debris of my (temporarily displaced) nephew’s bedroom. In under two weeks, my physical residence in my home nation has gone from 6000 to 3 square feet. The only things I owned were in the suitcase on the floor and in a top drawer of the dresser – my drawer.

It represented permanence, the expectation that you are returning, and when you do, you will always have a place here. It’s all the things that we treasure about ‘home’, acceptance, love, laughter and a profound sense of stability. What we didn’t realize before was that it was held in bonds not bricks, hearts and not houses and people, rather than simply places.

It’s funny what having your own drawer can do. And a wonderful, kind and incredibly generous global family, who welcome us home; wherever, whenever.

 

 

This is how a heart breaks. Expat parenting

Expat parenting - this is how a heart breaks. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation

You think when you have left school, taken exams, graduated from college and reached adulthood that the slings and arrows of the school playground can never hurt you again.

And then you have children of your own, and you realize that you were wrong. Only this time, it is magnified through the lens of their pain, your sense of powerlessness and the weight of parental expectations. I sometimes think that I should just have ‘Bad Mother’ tattooed on my forehead and be done with the pretense. It’s one of the harder realities of parenting.

A wonderful, heartbreaking post by Anne Egros at Zest and Zen International reminded me of the pain of middle school all over again – not my own (the UK doesn’t have a ‘middle school’, just primary and secondary) but instead the joy of experiencing it in all it’s misery; the challenge of expat parenting.

Middle school is widely acknowledged in the US as the tricky one. It serves the 11-14 year olds; that explosive mix of puberty, hormones and identity crises. It’s when the differences between girls and boys are no longer about sports and hobbies, and all about body shapes, gender expectations and the excruciating embarrassment of sex education.

Ironically, my son nearly made it through unscathed. He had a solid group of friends who played football in the park, consumed junk food in gigantic quantities and who had a healthy respect for parental sanctions. We heard of bullying, shoplifting and alcohol consumption, but they seemed either too lazy, too disinterested or too involved in the destruction of opposing medieval forces to be affected by it. His grades were decent, his self esteem was intact and when graduation came around, it should have been a very happy event.

It was awful.

In Britain, the only place you graduate from is college. Everywhere else, you just leave, mostly with only a modest school dance to mark the occasion. And although I knew the parents of my son’s school friends by sight, they didn’t know me well enough to know how uninformed I was. So when we turned up to the Middle School graduation ceremony, I expected a general gathering with a bit of applause, the acknowledgement of the star pupils and very little else.

The first clue I had of impending parental humiliation was the distant sea of undulating teal. It was the massed forces of the graduating 8th grade, all wearing robes. Despite many opportunities over the course of my former life to wear a cap and gown, I had managed to repeatedly avoid it, and yet here all 300 were, at the grand old age of 14, already donning the robes of academic advancement.

It got worse. They were also all in formal wear; shirts and ties, prom dresses and heels. Unlike my son who had dressed himself – in his own personal uniform of shorts and a t shirt. Yet again we had got it wrong, but never so publicly. We were all completely unprepared, and at that moment, I truly hated the fact that I was an expat.

We have faced floods, earthquakes, angry mobs, police questioning and personal injury, but there have been very few moments in my expat life that have brought me to tears. And yet, sitting in that auditorium, surrounded by parents I didn’t know all whispering about the ‘parents who had let their son come so inappropriately dressed’ was by far my lowest moment. It was humiliating, frustrating and unfair, and there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it.

Which is why, when Anne wrote her article yesterday, I was reminded just how important an expat support network is, no matter how many global transitions you have been through. You get better, smarter and more practiced at the art of relocation, but there is always something waiting in the wings to trip you when you least expect it.

The good news? We’ve all been there too, and if we can’t warn you about every challenge you will face, we will at least hold your hand while you pick yourself up.

Welcome to our world.

 

Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog. Defining Moves, Relocation Resources for the Trailing Spouse

Unconventional but Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog

Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog. Defining Moves, Relocation Resources for the Trailing Spouse

I’m writing this in the relative comfort of my bedroom, with the morning sun streaming through the windows, surrounded by the sight and sound of rampaging dogs. It’s chaos in here, a sea of wagging tails, mock growls and flying fur. And every so often, the smiling face of the Feisty One pops up from the middle, pausing in her efforts to teach three mentally challenged canines ever more elaborate tricks.

It’s madness and sanity all at once.

We discovered by accident that dogs are part of our essential expat coping equipment. Our first ‘expat therapy’ dog was Murphy, a stray from the wilds of Ireland, who was abandoned on the ferry to Wales where we adopted him. God knows how he got on the ferry, but it was only the first journey in a life spent globe trotting.

 

When the OH was transferred to London, Murphy spent hours peering out af the car window at the passing landscape alongside the M4, the main motorway that runs between London to Wales where the children and I still lived. Over the course of his travels, he brought a gentlemanly raffishness to the elegant paths of Holland Park, was joined by Hedgehog (another stray mutt) in Kenya and spent 3 years lounging in the sun in LA.

By the time we moved to San Francisco, his teeth looked like he had spent his life chewing tobacco, and his breath was so incredibly rancid that we did the 6 hour LA – SF drive with the windows wound down.
He died earlier this year and my heart broke a little, but he taught us a powerful lesson about the value of dogs in expat family transitions. Here are Murphy’s Laws.

 

You have a friend from day one.

Transitions are hard on everyone, especially the kids, and we all need someone impartial to talk to. Dogs make incredible listeners, stroking and scratching make excellent use of anxious hand movements, and dogs understand pitch and tone of voice far more than we do, so they know when you are upset. Should you need to throw something, make it a ball. Do it over and over until you’ve worked out whatever frustrations are driving you, safe in the knowledge that it’s making both of you happier…

 

They get you out of the house.

One of the hardest parts of any change is facing the new world on the first day. If every journey begins with a single step, it’s much easier when someone is physically pulling you out there, desperate to find out about the sights, sounds and smells of your new environment. Just remember the other rule of kindergarten: Clear up your mess.

 

You find unexpected friends.

Dogs get you to places that you wouldn’t ordinarily go and to meet people that you you wouldn’t normally meet. Take the cargo section of Jomo Kenyatta airport for instance – not the most obvious place to find a new best friend, but when you see another linen clad, jet lagged, disheveled dog-owning Brit already in heated negotiations with the customs official, you have a feeling you may have been sent a soulmate. You know nothing more about them than that they own a dog, but that is enough.

 

You don’t need words.

We get tied up in the need to speak clearly, but time spent with a dog teaches you how irrelevant words are in forming relationships. Dogs remind us that the best way to understand one another is to learn a language together, that friendship, fun and laughter don’t always require words, and that what you do is far more important than what you say.

 

Dogs bring a sense of permanence.

Our family motto is “no one left behind’, and the pets are part of that. The Marines (who we stole that particular phrase from) talk about how there is a comfort and security in knowing that whatever happens, everyone stays together, and the same is true for our family life. It is an acknowledgement of the magnitude of what we leave behind, that the move must be important enough to go to the effort and expense of transferring the WHOLE family.

 

Or to paraphrase George Orwell;

With four legs we’re good. Just two legs? Bad.

Sometimes, It’s better not look.. FIGT 2012

It’s been a very tricky day, which has taken me further and further from the cosy little comfort zone that I have created for myself. Up until now, I had considered myself successful at this relocation stuff, mainly because we managed not to lose anyone en route, the family are happily installed in work / school /dog training classes, and I had finally got around to finding a personal sense of purpose – this website. It’s not intended to set the world on fire, counteract global warming or generate world peace, but hopefully, someone somewhere will find at least one thing useful.

Not really an ambitious goal, but it works for me. So when someone suggested that I submit an application to present at the 2012 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) in March, it seemed like a good way of meeting like minded people. Which brings us back to today.

I spent the morning with a Social Media consultant to sort out my inept and haphazard Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter accounts. She wanted to know why I needed help, so I told her about FIGT and not wanting to be caught showing my knickers, metaphorically speaking. After a lengthy and very informative discussion, she gave me homework, which involved researching the other speakers at the conference so that I would have a list of people that I want to meet.

It has backfired badly. I am now in a state of abject terror. They are all far more qualified, experienced and connected, with excellent relocation pedigree, and I don’t know a single soul in the entire conference. I feel like the pound mutt at the Kennel Club show, and not only am I too frightened to want to meet any of them, I would rather eat my own tongue than admit my own existence. I have paid the registration fee and booked a vendor’s table and have no idea what to put on it apart from an all-you-can-eat pastry selection and a ‘Sorry I Missed You’ sign.

The Feisty One was with me when I began to hyperventilate, and was quick to offer a bracing pep talk. “Mummy”, she said “You have to stop being silly. You have a website, you’re building an app, you were a lecturer and a nurse” (here she starts to look a little panicky as she began to run out of material) “and you have a husband and two children and three dogs.” A glowing recommendation indeed – especially when two of the dogs run away on an almost daily basis -, but not necessarily the most professionally reassuring.

Thing are not going exactly to plan and I can see only one way forward – fake popularity and alcohol consumption. If you promise to Share, Like, Tweet and otherwise make me look popular, I promise to share all the gory details of what may well be a three day marathon of rabbit-in-the-headlight moments and any leftover pastries. And for those of you familiar with Washington D.C.; know any good cocktail bars?

 

Top 10 Concerns of Expats #4 – Defining Moves Version


8. Standard of Living

“Few people willingly move abroad to accept a lower standard of living – there are exceptions of course such as those who volunteer to help in nations affected by wars or dire economic circumstances.  The majority of us move abroad expecting to find or achieve a better or equal standard of living to what we previously enjoyed – but everything from the cost of living to the availability and quality of infrastructure can impact this.”  (Shelter Offshore)

Concerns of Relocating Expats - Standard Of Living

What most of the studies don’t show is that we have a mental idea of what our new life will be life that doesn’t just revolve around granite kitchen countertops and a pool. I for one had a mental image of expat life in Kenya as a cross between Out of Africa and Gone with the Wind, with martinis, perfectly pressed linen clothing and a serene demeanor featuring heavily. I would finally have the time to write a book, master yoga and cook gourmet meals. Hours spent on the phone trying to get my electricity / phone / internet reconnected (an oft repeated task that had no relationship to whether I had paid the bill in person, by mail or at a bank) and days spent sobbing with loneliness did not ever appear in my fantasy life. So when we talk about standard of living, the corporate assumption is that all we are expecting is physical comforts like modern housing, air-conditioning and household help, and while we need to be aware of the cost and availability of the ‘home comforts’ that we consider essential, they are not the route to expat happiness. What we also should know is that more time can be spent managing staff than the work itself would take, that the cost of air-conditioning is not just in electricity, but also in time spent locating a repairman and then waiting at home when he doesn’t appear for the fifth time, and your elegant clothing makes you stick out like a sore thumb in the local markets..

Try to articulate your anticipated life before you go, and then compare it to the average lifestyle of the local and expat population to see whether you are really being realistic. Most physical comforts can be achieved with a little planning and effort, but you may find that once you are there, they no longer have the same appeal. Thinking of your standard of living in a holistic way allows you to sort the needs from the wants, and will give you a far better chance of contentment long term.

9. Bureaucracy / Corruption

“No matter where in the world you live you will always face bureaucracy – and by its very nature bureaucracy is usually mind numbingly ridiculous – but as an expat it’s so much worse because it is foreign bureaucracy so it is even more unintelligible, nonsensical, impossible to understand and yet imperative.”  (Shelter Offshore)

I like to think of bureaucracy as a hoop that has to be jumped through. The difficulty is in defining where exactly the hoop is, and how high we have to jump to get through it. And while I think of corruption as someone with the power to move the hoop to make getting through easier or harder, I also happen to know that there are plenty of ‘jobsworth’ civil servants and who may not be corrupt, but are just as unhelpful.

Getting frustrated with it is universal and understandable, but doesn’t change the fact that it exits, and you still need to get though it. If you have a corporate relocation package, your company may have already hired a professional to guide you though and expedite the process. As an individual, your local and expat network will prove invaluable, because everyone will have already have jumped through those hoops and can give you advice. And as a final note – try not to get angry. I have yet to hear of a situation where it helped, but by contrast, I have many, many personal experiences where staying calm, smiling and asking very, very nicely for help has smoothed the way for everything from getting school places to US visa appointments.

10. Raising Children

I’m pretty sure that concerns about raising children are not exclusive to expats – quite the opposite, in fact.  For where we are wondering if exposing our children to multiple vaccines, repeated school moves and language barriers will warp them for life, our less transient counterparts are worrying about their child’s gluten allergy, lack of global awareness, and Spanish grades. It comes with the parenting territory, and unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how we are doing until they hit teenage years and are only too willing to list our shortcomings..  There are a number of strategies for relocating expat children and Third Culture Kids but my Four Basic Rules are:

1. Keep them informed, but not overwhelmed. Tell them early, include them in discussions about family life, and give them a say in matters that affect them.

2. Move at the end of a vacation, not at the start. It gives them time to say goodbye, and less time spent without friends to play with.

3. Fill the void. Assume that for the first month or so, you will need to keep them occupied with family activities, and keep them in contact with friends from their old location via text, email or Skype.

4. Expect issues. Everyone is under stress during a transition, so try to be patient, allow for a some acting out, and get help if you need to.

 

Diddle Diddle Dumpling, My Son Tom.


Sons are funny creatures. I should know, I have one, and I think I may be of embarrassment to him. It doesn’t help that I constantly broadcast his less competent moments on this blog, about which he is endearingly long-suffering. So I thought it was about time I redressed the balance. Because although I seem to spend every waking minute talking to him in a high-pitched voice, and most of our conversations revolve around grades, mass Xbox slaughter and the odd school project, he still has the capacity to make me laugh out loud, and then take my breath away with his kindness. And then just as I start to go misty eyed, I’ll open the fridge and discover that yet again, he has drunk all of the milk and is now mercilessly teasing his sister.

We have a firm belief in our family that in terms of children, you get what you’re given and make the best of them. It’s held true for Tom. From the minute he was born, he watched the world, and waited to see what it would bring. He didn’t want to be picked up and held, and cuddling resulted in a sturdy arm pushing you away so that he could turn around and see the room. He’s still the same today. His early years were spent carefully observing the world and only joining in when he fully understood the rules of the playground. Repeated relocations have not changed his fundamental make-up – he spends the first months or years of each move learning how each new world works, and is agonizingly (for us) solitary until he decides who his new friends will be. But his choices for friendships have always stood the test of time, and with each move, the time between arriving and settled gets shorter.

He’s grown from a sturdy eight year old to a 5’10” young galumph, who now gets to do all the heavy lifting. The last year has seen the most speedy growth, and he still hasn’t quite figured out where he ends, and the wall / door/ person next to him begins. It was a strange sensation after a lifetime of ‘hold my hand’ or ‘stay close by’ to have to physically move him to arm’s length when walking after being ‘run over’ by him three times in the previous ten minutes. And yet despite his testosterone-fueled choice of field sport, he is the one that can be found gently stroking Murphy, the blind, deaf and ancient dog that has traveled along with us. Or sitting motionless on the couch in cramped contortions because he doesn’t want to disturb a friend’s youngest daughter who has fallen asleep while curled up next to him.

He has a great ability to laugh at himself. His teenage moments have been all at once insulting, infuriating and hilarious, but if you can hold on to your temper and tongue and keep smiling at him, eventually his lengthy tirade on your failings runs out of steam and hears himself.  And a wry smile will creep across his face, and inevitably makes him laugh. Most of his early pictures show a great grin and a huge twinkle in his eyes, and for the early expat years, they were replaced by a cautious watchful expression. But with impending adulthood, his twinkle is back, and with it a confident, dry humor that’s accuracy has been honed by the years of watching the world.

Next week’s final exams are looming, and with them the return of the ‘parent as dictator’ role. But just for now, I’m going to remember how lucky I am to have a son that I not only love, but really, really like. I might even tell him that I love him. Loudly, in the school parking lot…

 

 

 

The F Bomb – Expat Education Challenge Update

Update – He has just received his PSAT results (yet another test of which we have very little knowledge) and apparently his results were considerably better than his grades predicted. He is now avidly consulting college resources to explore his career options, with the current frontrunner being anesthesiologist. The reason for this? “It’s well paid, and you get to sit down and read magazines”. I can sense a visit to the career counselor coming on, lest he be unleashed on the health service..

We had a particularly interesting moment with the Wiggy One this week. Normally very mellow, he occasionally explodes into a seething mass of hormones, hair, uncoordinated limbs and spectacular examples of poorly thought out accusations.

The latest detonator was the high school ‘Grade Point Average’ system. For the non-US expats amongst us, college entry in the US is based on academic scores over the high school period across the classes. An A requires an above 90% score for the class, and gives you a 4.0 GPA; a B is 80 – 90% and scores a 3.0, and so on. Sadly for all concerned, this level of academic scrutiny is carried out for the next three years, during which they are going through puberty, growth spurts, acne and obsession with all things Xbox, so the potential for disaster is huge.

Needless to say, the grades that prompted the explosion were not A’s. Nor were they B’s. They appear somewhat later in the alphabet, and are usually associated with profanity. Which is exactly the unguarded response that they triggered in the Other Half at the dinner table when we finally learned of their existence.

Parentline, an excellent British parenting resource (which sadly does not have a toll free number for expatriates, but really should have) recommends staying calm in these moments, and maintaining channels of communication with the Tasmanian Devil formerly known as Tom. (They also don’t specifically refer to him by name, but I’m thinking of suggesting it for future advisory publications.) So I took a deep breath, washed it down with a large amount of gin, and reminded him that the longer he took to inform us of these small hiccups in his school transcript, the less able we were to help him resolve the issue, and the fewer choices he would have down the line when he was applying to college. (Excellent Mother Moment, even if I do say so myself).

His response showed the maturity, wisdom and critical thinking skills that can only be gained by an expensive, global, carefully chosen and often privately funded education, which has been our highest priority throughout our expatriate journey. It showed passion, attention to detail and considerable volume. And it took us a little by surprise.

“I don’t even want to go to college – it’s just four more years of work!”

Quite what he felt would happen to those ‘college years’ should he chose not to attend is a mystery. Maybe they give out scholarships for excessive hair growth or ability to sleep for extended periods, without the necessity of attending an institute of Higher Learning? He appears to be under the impression that work and/or college are optional extras only to be attempted as a last resort between editions of Call of Duty, and that living with your parents is a long term life plan.

So I’m off to see the school Career Counselor today. We obviously need to start with the basics. Like ‘Where do  Mummy and Daddy go when they leave for the day?’ and ‘How does money work?’

Wish me luck. I may be some time..

Teen Social Networking Infographic

It’s no longer just putting pen to paper – like many expat and TCK kids, mine rely on social networking sites to keep in contact with friends around the world. But while we keep track of them in the real world, Zonealarm’s infographic outlines just why we should be doing the same in the online one.
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Other Resources: