The trailing spouse syndrome is often given a more glamourous term by the name of Expat Wives. Much as I would love to play the part and pretend I am a Prada Bag toting housewife with not a care in the world, I have to admit, the role-playing stops the moment I enter ‘my home from a trip back home’, suitcases and all, the empty fridge staring back at me and the laundry, vacuum cleaner and grocery list beckoning unrelentingly as my family of 5 collapse into their beds, craving Daal Chaawal or Chicken Qorma. I fumble for that last frozen pizza or box of fish fingers before we all turn in for the night!
However, that is just one part of it. There is another part, which is glad to be home, wherever it is – a continent, a land, a destination that is miles away from where we grew up. Home is where we can sink into our bed and call out for someone to bring us a glass of water or a cup of tea. Kick off those shoes and grab a duvet to lounge in the living room, fight for that TV remote and favourite place on the sofa, live in our pj’s on a lazy Sunday and dine on fried eggs for dinner because-fried eggs taste great any time of the day, especially when fried in your own kitchen, with your favourite cup of Tapal chai and Rainbow milk…beat that…home is any place you want it to be.
So, expat wives, or those who aspire to be one, those who were and those who might become one soon…here is my list of what to expect when you sign up for the job. I am no expert, but having spent the past 6 years in 2 different continents, I do believe I can give you some insight into the life of a spouse, mother and a woman who’s been there, done that, and knows a bit more than when she embarked upon the journey for the first time-FOB ( fresh off the boat, as you’d call us).
1. Sometimes you don’t choose the country you land in, but don’t ever doubt the power of the desi community to find you and connect.
Our first move was Singapore. Our second, Switzerland. One has a large population of desi expats including Pakistanis, the other has very few. But communities will find each other through Facebook forums, Whatsapp groups and local Eid, Ramazan gatherings. Someone will know someone, and before you know it, you will know enough ‘desis’ in your new country to discover where to get your Shan masala, drop in for a cup of chai and samosas and get a handy man to fix that broken light bulb. The secret is to be patient and receptive. In other words, don’t miss home too much, because home will find you. The faces and names might differ but when the conversation flows free and easy…you’ll soon be calling it home!
Useful Tip #1: Join that desi expats Facebook group in your new country. You’ll thank yourself later, even if you’re not the desi type.
2. Trailing spouses or expat wives-it helps to be mentally engaged.
All the women I have come across, who live away from their home countries, are engaged in some measure or another with a support project, a cause, part-time or, if they are able to, full time work. If one seeks, one shall find. And I have found that there is no dearth of work, paid or unpaid that can give satisfaction, a sense of adding value to our lives and our families when we are distanced from familiar surroundings. Some spouses have thrown themselves into supporting social causes within their new country or from Pakistan. Some have switched careers and found reliable child care. Self-fulfillment can be rewarding, even if it comes at the price of juggling the work-life balance. Don’t wait too long, and do throw your heart into a project that comes your way. It might just be what you need to find your feet in a new place.
Useful Tip #2: If you manage to finish your ‘To Do List’, you’re not doing enough. So go out there and challenge yourself!
3. Don’t look back. Look ahead
Not every one is happy to sign up for the job. Expat wives might seem like a role to aspire to, but many of us would rather stay home, satisfied or fulfilled in our present roles; be it a job, a settled family life, aging parents or all of the above.
Here’s the deal. If you have to move, you do. But once you make that decision, think ahead. Sometimes, we pine for home and our desi comforts to the extent that we don’t see opportunities till they hit us smack in the face…and then some…never see them at all. As our children and spouse continue to start out fresh in a new country, so can we. This is our time to experiment, try out new things and reinvent ourselves. After all, who’s watching? New people, new experiences and new places give us a chance to wipe the slate clean and begin at the beginning. Learn to play the Piano, try a new language, and sign up for that Salsa or Baking class. Whichever you are in your heart – a dance diva or a celebrity chef – it’s all good.
Useful Tip #3: Life happens once, and we get a chance to explore more in a new environment so dance like no one’s watching and BE the diva in your life!
4. If you miss friends and family, call them over, and make new ones too!
You want your children to get a feel of home. There’s nothing more wonderful than having close family and friends visit you abroad so you get to share the good times together. All said and done, you can’t visit home ever so often (unless you live in Dubai and home is barely a shuttle flight away), so it’s good to have home come to you. (Also good to keep those Party Slims and Chilli Milli supply going). After all, it’s not just the family and friends we miss…its the small things in life when we sit down to relax at night. A packet of Slims will do it for most of us.
For the rest, it’s important to create a ‘home away from home’. This is our takeaway after many years of living abroad. The people that counted, with whom we spent many afternoons or even a vacation; over chai, gup-shup, sharing anecdotes over a meal, gathered at a table with family. These are the relationships that enrich our lives. Seek them if you have to, they will count for wondeful memories and eternal bonds. Friends are like family when we move abroad. Cherish and value them!
Useful Tip #4: If asked, ‘What can we bring for you when we come to visit’…don’t be shy and speak your mind. Else you’ll only see that Nimco-Paapri in your dreams!
5. If you have children, help them connect to home and abroad.
Children fit in more easily than we think, most of the time. But when they don’t, there can be quite a few tears, sleepless nights and queasy tummies at the early morning school run. Sometimes, all they need is for us to be patient, hold their hands, and tell them it’ll be alright. Sometimes it helps to tell them, that we are also as scared inside as them but maybe just better at hiding it. Sometimes, it helps to just listen. They have a right to miss a life they left behind, and they will take time. In a family with more than one child, one settles in smoothly and the other takes time. Just like one spouse might find his pace faster than the other. It pays to talk things out. Sometimes, being in a foreign country gives the nuclear family a chance to connect with each other in ways we might not have when living at home. See the opportunites, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel things are beyond you.
Useful Tip #5: Schools have counselling services and most children just need time, patience and a lot of love…they’re just like us.
6. If you don’t have children, sometimes the equation seems simpler, but not always.
Where parents shoulder extra responsibility, they also reap the rewards of connecting more easily with other parents and the school community. The couple with no children might find it harder to integrate in new surroundings unless they’re both working. On the other hand, there are opportunities not to be missed by the spouse who can go ahead and explore a new city to his/her heart’s content, and take up a course or learn a new skill, free from being time-bound by school and children’s schedules.
Useful Tip #6: Look for the opportunities that your unique situation gives you, and you will make the most out of your expat experience!
For some of us, an expat life fits like a glove – we thrive on it, but some of us need more help. Help to sort out which side of the road we’re driving on, why home seems so far away, why it’s so difficult to make friends in a foreign country, again and again and yet again. Where ever you are on that expat line, remember you’ll get there eventually…how you get there is a choice you have to make. Embrace the change?… And you open up a whole new world of possibilities, the rest, as they say, will follow.
A version of this article first appeared on www.thegrid.pk