’Tis the Season – Lena

Our expat life is often perceived as a longterm holiday because we tend to live where people vacation. The reality is that, while we love living in these places for many reasons, we definitely face the same challenges as “back home”…bills, jobs, childcare, errands, dirty dishes, relationships. Consciously creating a simplified life probably mitigates some of the typical stresses, but here’s a realistic glimpse into what’s actually going on.

Pardon the self-indulgence. But isn’t that what blogs are, really? For me, holiday blues and job search stress collided. Hard. For the second year in a row. And were compounded by culture shock. And very well managed ADD. I have survived and am quite familiar with all of these intense experiences. They have several overlapping features: deep reflection, fluctuating emotions, anxiety about decision-making, constantly streaming internal monologue, careful management of scenarios and expectations, fatigue, and the conflicting desires to simultaneously withdraw and connect.

Let’s start with holiday blues. The weeks leading up to Christmas seem to dredge up social and performance insecurities that I manage much better at other times of year. I am vulnerable because I know I’ll be away from family, and friendships are only slowly developing. I know the first year is always the hardest. But knowing doesn’t make it easier.

Wherever I am at this time of year – I love the music (which we only start playing after Brian’s birthday in early December). I love the food and drinks. I love the family time. When abroad, I usually love the accomplishment of expat ingenuity in the face of culinary challenges and the camaraderie among friends far from home. My blues center around high expectations based on stereotypes and the resulting sense of failure when they are unmet, which would probably be the case whether home or abroad. 

Decision-making paralysis is exacerbated as an expat. Which food and drinks? Where will I find the ingredients? Who will we share them with? How am I going to concoct Pinterest-worthy decorations? What kind of tree in the tropics? Do I kill a real tree, contribute to plastic overuse, or figure something else out? We have way too much stuff, why should I spend money on more of it? What will I do with it when we leave? Should I even bother decorating if we are only going to use the stuff once? Should we be spending money frivolously before we have secured jobs for next year? Oh wait, no offer is ever secure, so we better not travel anywhere this year (there goes a tangent in another direction…) Let’s throw parent guilt into the mix. How do I feel about the creepy Santa narrative? I don’t even need to ponder the elf situation, that’s a no for me. What are my kids missing out on if I don’t make a big deal about this holiday? How will my kids be messed up if I do make a big deal about it? Am I focusing enough on charity? Where do I even find opportunities to do that?

Culture shock can correlate to holiday blues, but really it happens at any time of year and at any point in the expat experience. Essentially, people who immerse themselves into a new culture experience several stages of anxiety and emotions as they adjust to the environment. In 1960, Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identified four stages of culture shock that are still popularly referenced, which include honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment. The stages are not necessarily linear and change without warning. I studied and experienced culture shock while doing anthropological fieldwork in university. Now as a permanent expat, these stages are the seasons of my life. With every move, I know the highs and lows are coming. Recognizing them is certainly important, but they are intense nonetheless. 

Getting married in Puerto Vallarta in 2013

Honeymoon

When we lost our jobs unexpectedly, Brian and I quickly replaced that gut punch with a huge adrenaline rush of impulsively by moving to another country (the ultimate fight-or-flight response). Mexico is my psychologically “safe” country that I often imagine fleeing to when life feels tenuous. This is where I first stepped out of my ethnocentric bubble in university. I got married and literally honeymooned here. So the timing was not ideal, but in some ways, it was a dream come true when we ended up in Sayulita. The anxiety of an imminent job search constantly simmered below the surface, but we tempered it with tacos, margaritas, and warm ocean waves. Now that the job search is full on, whatever figurative honeymoon we were on is fully over. 

Crisis

The crisis is multifaceted. Our charming jungle cottage has tons of challenges (and tiny visitors that live in our roof and poop a lot). Financial stress has been exacerbated by needing to purchase a car because Brian began working maternity cover at the American School of Puerto Vallarta. It was an opportunity we had to take, but it means he leaves at dawn and returns at sunset. While he struggles with a long commute through the jungle and teaches two grade levels each day, I get our kids to school, keep house, apply for jobs, cook, etc. We also took a marathon business trip to Bangkok last month to attend a job fair. And will do another one to London in January. With Christmas approaching, we were still jobless. And tired.

Our newest wheels

I am not doing yoga, having lunch with friends, or spending time at the beach. What I am doing is drinking a lot of coffee and feeling lonely. That is hard to admit because I carefully curate a life in photos that looks amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positive moments where I’m very happy. However, the social anxiety of being new in a very small expat community has put this introvert way out of my comfort zone. Sayulita expats seem to split into long termers who don’t need to invest in relationships with short termers, and short termers who are far more extroverted than me and my clan. We are low key. We are definitely social and love a good time with friends, but we often hold back until we have the lay of the land. Family playdates are reliable social endeavors, but incompatible age ranges and busy schedules make those infrequent. Since we only have one year here and did not benefit from a ready made cohort of colleagues, more effort is required and the timeline is rapidly shortening.

Beach time with Babo

Recovery & Adjustment

After a few weeks of feeling underwater, I finally called home. And contacted friends from afar. And thanked my husband for recognizing and facilitating my need to just curl up in bed and give up occasionally. My parents graciously dipped into airline miles, and within a week my dad was here. And my sister’s brood was coming for New Years. Recovery was rapid because my dad’s arrival also brought luck. We landed multiple interviews while he was here, and he guided us through the pros and cons of various scenarios. Before he flew back to San Francisco, we were able to toast to a new future. 

I ended up loving our intimate and very sweet nuclear family Christmas. I searched on Pinterest  for “Boho Christmas” and realized that decorations were not problem. Sayulita is a mecca for boho chic clutter; I bought garlands of pom poms, felt trinkets, and mini cactus motifs to my heart’s content. I even managed to transport a toddler-sized cactus in the golf cart, carry it up a flight of stairs, and only sustain minor puncture wounds. It’s not plastic and it doesn’t shed. And it’s year round decor so I don’t even have to take it down. (Update: Chad the Cactus did suffer a minor setback but appears to be recovering with sunlight and rockier soil.)

Brian and I traded shopping days, so we simply hit the local market for all the tourist stuff that we otherwise overlook because we live here and don’t need that stuff. (And then regret not buying when we leave.) Santa delivered art supplies and beautiful felt animals. Owen was worried he wouldn’t come because we don’t have a chimney, but he did. My dad left them a zillion matchbox cars wrapped up next to the Christmas cactus, so they were plenty excited. And he handed me a gift certificate for a massage before leaving. Because dads just know. 

I focused on small victories. Neither of our families do a full-on traditional holiday meal, so Christmas Eve was homemade Chinese and Christmas Day was take away tacos. I didn’t even have to change out of my pajamas. I found Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cookie Mix (which in my heart is totally cheating, but I had zero capacity to locate molasses). We managed to bake the day after Christmas. Unfortunately, we failed to hand them out to friends and ended up eating them all ourselves. I’m not going to beat myself up too much over that minor fail, though it would have been a good friendship initiative. My major success as a parent this particular season is that I finally purchased an advent calendar (I ordered one on Taobao – aka Chinese Amazon – last year, but it never arrived), and the kids ate a piece of chocolate every day as they practiced counting to 24.

After a few lazy days, my beautiful sister whisked in with her kids and kicked the energy up a few thousand notches. Four toddlers. So much life. And love. Although her visit was short, it punctuated a very long year with exactly what I needed. Brian and I rang in the new year cuddling on our front porch equally amazed and at peace with this life we’ve chosen to lead and all the directions it’s taken us. 

Oberg, K. 1960. ‘Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments.’ Practical Anthropology 7, 177-182.

Life and Death Decisions – Lena and Brian

A major motivation for moving to Sayulita was access to amazing beaches. Our favorite and the quietest is called Playa de Los Muertos, which translates to {Beach of the Dead}. This has nothing to do with anything bad happening at the beach itself, but rather that the entrance is located adjacent to a cemetery. At four years old, death is a concept Bug is beginning to contemplate. The first time we walked to the beach, he burst into tears after learning that dead people laid within the elevated concrete graves. He now loves riding in the golf cart over the jungle dirt track, but he’s still is a little unsure about the interred neighbors we pass on the way to the playa. We have offered to stop and explore the colorfully decorated site, but both boys are hesitant. Bug verbalizes his fears of death. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to live to be 100. He is afraid of shadows that could be ghosts. But he does want to walk like a skeleton someday. I wonder if this has anything to do with Héctor in the movie Coco?

Charro {cowboy} on a dancing horse in the Día De Los Muertos parade.

Celebrating Día De Los Muertos showed the kids a different approach to death. Leading up to the three day festival, we did watch Coco again (it was too scary this summer) and found many similarities in Sayulita. They loved all the skeleton statues and painted faces. They loved the alebrije {spirit animal} crouched on top of an ambulance in the parade. And the dancing horses (except when mommy dropped a piece of candy that got squished by a hoof. Oops.) They loved the marigold-covered tunnel in the plaza that represented crossing over, which was shown as a bridge in the movie. They loved the curlicues on charro costumes, booming tubas and engraved guitars. They loved the street food and energetic playmates zipping around the mayhem.

Reactions to death vary greatly across cultures – from stark, solemn funerals in the US to the celebratory Famadihana {turning the bones} in Madagascar where ancestors remains are exhumed. In Mexico, Día De Los Muertos is a multi-day festival for remembering and celebrating deceased loves ones. Although adjacent to Halloween, it is fundamentally very different. We encountered devoutly Catholic Mexicans who were offended by the ghoulishness and dark tone of Halloween. Outside religion, many villagers in Sayulita rightfully defend the indigenous cultural roots and sacredness of Día de Los Muertos. Nonetheless, scary costumes and trick-or-treating have seeped into Mexico and skulls have become quite kitsch in the U.S. as a result of global popular culture and transmigration across the northern border. The international school in Sayulita is very careful to honor both traditions.

Our own cultural tradition for Halloween with a twist – pumpkins carved as a vampire, spider, alien, and cyclops.

As a hub for expat culture, the biggest Halloween event is at the school. This was the first year our kids really understood Halloween and the whole costume thing. We spent time leading up to the event discussing all the pretending. They practiced wearing costumes and needed reassurance that friendly faces hid behind scary masks. We watched videos of face painting to see how people could look like monsters. We were proud of Bug that he agreed to wear a costume this year because last year he completely refused. Brian was even able to take them through the haunted house put on by the secondary students, although they still talk about how frightening it was. After ample treats and games, the party ended in time to head to the plaza to launch the Día de Los Muertos Festival. Along the way, children stopped at local businesses to trick-or-treat, but it was very low key (fine with us, less candy). Also, instead of spiderwebs, witches and bats, Sayulita was decorated in colorful Ojos de Dios {Eyes of God}, papel picado {colorful flags}, and elaborate alters called ofrendas. The only shared decoration was skeletons. But even the skeletons in Mexico have more personality with distinctive shapes, elaborate outfits, and detailed biographies.

A key aspect of the festival was the ofrendas built around the plaza, at businesses and in private homes. The tiered shrines displayed photos, clothes and favorite foods of the deceased, and they were decorated with Catholic symbols, marigolds, skulls, and candles. The children’s school built one for a teacher who died several year ago. It was a moving experience to participate in that, even in our very small way of placing marigolds.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.”

Charles R. Swindoll

Mexicans choose celebration. Of course they are devastated when their loved ones die. All humans feel that. But they choose not to make it taboo. The choose to remember. They choose to let the dead live again through laughter and memories. They remember people in their entirety, which includes and surpasses the moment of death. It was an honor to share in that experience this year.

Blending of indigenous and Catholic belies, as a priest offered blessings at the end of the symbolic tunnel.

For us and our current situation, losing a job is so small. But the lesson is the same. Do we choose to mourn the broken dream? Or do we choose to celebrate everything we’ve gained along this journey? The bigger picture needs time to reveal itself, but we are working on putting the pieces together in a new way and moving forward. The humor and cheekiness of this holiday speaks to our dry sarcasm. Death is painful? Dress up as a skeleton. Life sucks? Go to the beach.

“Todos somos calaveras.” {We are all skeletons.}

José Guadalupe Posada

Celebrating Halloween and then Dia De Los Muertos validated so much about being expats and raising third culture kids (TCKs). We value the traditions that belong to our own culture – the small ways of understanding what it means to be “American” (which is a contentious term in Latin America anyhow because members of both continents consider themselves American) – while simultaneously embracing our identity as global citizens. We immerse ourselves in other cultures to develop empathy, connect with people who appear different but fundamentally aren’t, and ultimately learn more deeply about who we are and why. There are so many perspectives and exploring them truly enriches our lives.

From Heartbreak to Blessing – Lena

One month ago, I was packing winter parkas and snow boots in anticipation of our move to northern Europe. The following week, I read the devastating email first, and Brian ran to my shouts of “No!” The children peered from behind him, frightened to see me crying on my knees. My gentle husband crouched down to hold me and tenderly lifted me up. Together we carried our toddlers to the couch and nestled them into our laps to explain that we would not be moving to Russia. We shared openly about our sadness and welcomed their litany of questions. They wanted to know if they could still build snowmen, when they would see their toys again, and why Bug couldn’t go to his new school. It was heartbreaking. The next few days went in slow motion as we held ourselves together for the boys, scrambled for jobs we didn’t want, and figured out the logistics of canceled contracts. Two weeks ago, we decided to halt the search and repack for Mexico. And last week, we stumbled into our new lives. 

Where we landed in Sayulita. A lovely little apartment aptly called the “Heart House.”

Through this whirlwind of deep emotions and drastic changes, I am beginning to embrace the blessings of this unplanned detour. Although quite nervous about how the year will unfold, I actual feel content most of the time. In a very short time of winging it in Sayulita, I can feel that Mexico is shifting something within me. Ironically, prior to accepting teaching contracts in China, I had actually tried to take time off from work, but we had been unable to negotiate a contract for Brian and three dependents. Two years later when we accepted our jobs in Russia, I wasn’t even considering not working. Now, as the last hints of baby-ness linger on my children’s cherub faces, my lost wish has been granted.

I love teaching. As most working mothers do, I often struggle with balance and guilt. However, I believe in the long run that it is important for my sons to see me as a multifaceted woman with gifts that include and extend beyond motherhood. Nonetheless, each time I went back to work at 3 or 4 months postpartum, a deep angst rested in my soul about being separated from my babies too soon. And I know it’s cliche, but I was beyond exhausted. The quiet joy that new moms feel during late night feedings and early morning wake-ups became shrouded in anxiety about how few hours of sleep I got and how early the kids needed to be up for school. Those middle of the night moments comforting my babies are once again making my heart full. I can just hold them, caress them, smell them. There is no underlying dread. It’s simply an intimate moment to treasure. And at their ages, I know full well that these moments are fleeting.

Now I am excited to just be a parent at school. Not a teacher-parent. I can actually spend time engaging in my own children’s classrooms, connecting with their teachers, and getting to know classmates’ parents. I can pick them up from school on time. Take them to the park. Or meet up with new friends for a playdate. I don’t have afterschool meetings and unfinished work looming over me. Of course, Brian and I will need to navigate some online work and the creation of this blog, but one of us can and will be there for our children. This is such an unexpected relief.

We have been truly grateful for the love and support of amazing in-home childcare that we’ve afforded up to this point. In Mozambique, our nanny and housekeeper, Sonia and Julieta, not only steadied me as a new mom but enveloped my babies in meticulous care and genuine love. In China, Aliu brought the boys to and from school, cooked nutritious meals, arranged playdates, and contributed significantly to their upbringing. Not to mention washing dishes, doing laundry and mopping floors. These women were the glue that have allowed Brian and I to commit to our professional growth and given us peace that our boys have had a village raising them. Despite my gratitude, there is often a twinge of sadness about the special moments shared between nanny and child that do not include me. Yet this is the guilt I swallow in an attempt to balance motherhood and with intellectual fulfillment. 

I’ve always been a writer. And a night owl. As a teenager, my poetry flowed as my family slept. As a university student, my thesis was born through late nights in the library stacks (which dates me!) and around-the-clock writing binges sustained by microwave popcorn and instant coffee. Once I got a “real” job and became a mom, I said farewell to that impulsivity and the creativity that came with it. I occasionally reminisced but cringed at the potential exhaustion. Interestingly, since arriving in Sayulita, my old rhythms are resurfacing. Blog posts are flowing into the wee hours (including this one), and consequently Brian feeds the boys breakfast and plays with them while I sleep in a bit. I’m not consumed with guilt that he’s doing more than me (because we I have often been overly sensitive about having equally demarcated parenting responsibilities). I’m content and well rested, which makes me a more engaged mom and partner overall. And if I need a bit more sleep, I just siesta with the kids in the afternoon. I could never nap with the kids in my past life or else the evening would have fallen to pieces and a late night would have destroyed the morning and so forth. Now it just is what it is. 

After sitting alone and writing, I have been laying awake next to my sleeping husband each night, his rhythmic breathing stirring meditations about the distance in our marriage. Fundamentally, we are solid. We are co-parents. We are passionate teachers. We are a travel team. But we are often disconnected. In part, this is because I have often felt emotionally drained and literally over-touched by my babies, who rightfully cling to me like little monkeys and constantly engage in curious chatter. (They really are that adorable.) Need I mention the energy and patience needed to teach elementary school? I am ashamed to admit that I have actually recoiled at my husband’s touch. In defense, I was at the point where my stolen moments of seclusion were on the toilet – and even those were often intruded upon by toddlers. I truly hope that our break from teaching and experience co-writing this blog will facilitate a deeper understanding of how Brian and I arrived at this point in our marriage and how we can move forward with more intentionality and tenderness.

What I have come to realize is that this year is a miraculous opportunity to be fully present with my children, my husband, and myself.

Parenting and partnerships are always full of joy, contradictions, truths and uncertainty. One’s sense of self can be lost in the (often unrecognized) work of connecting to and sustaining the people we love. When we finally create spaces for solitude, they can be emotionally laden, rushed and unfulfilling. How are you striving to find balance? What are some self-sustaining practices you have learned along the way? Please share!