’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.

Simplifying Isn’t So Simple – Lena and Brian

We’ve always known that we have too much stuff. Every time we struggle with a million suitcases and spend thousands of dollars to ship our possession to our next port of call, we swear we will have less stuff next time. Our last two moves have nearly done us in. 

The issue of too much stuff compounded with the birth of our children. In Mozambique, we lived in a single family house with lots of space and storage, and even had a detached garage. We truly wanted it to be our home, so we invested in nice furniture and artwork. Living in a malarial country with limited resources also made us nervous parents, so we stocked up on “necessities” during shopping trips to South Africa every few months. This sense of urgency led to an oversupply of groceries, medicine and baby goods that we ultimately had to purge when we finally moved to China. 

The boys were 7 months and 2 years old when we departed Mozambique for China. Talk about a life change. Although we did our best to sell and donate much of our baby gear, kitchen supplies, furniture, camping equipment and old technology, we somehow ended up with 17 suitcases and a shipment of 62 boxes. And we were downsizing to an Asian apartment! 

Our parenting anxiety waned a bit in China, since the futuristic city of Shenzhen was essentially an enormous, endlessly stocked shopping mall. But considering Brian is an Eagle Scout (Be prepared) and I am a natural worrier (What if), we still held onto some of our vices. For example, strollers seemed to multiply in the entryway to our apartment. We had three. It was embarrassing but justified, we felt. First was the BOB, perfect for the broken sidewalks and unpaved roads in Maputo and jogging on Shenzhen’s beautiful boardwalk (which we each did maybe ten times total in two years). Second was the UppaBaby Vista, perfect for two kids at once, which we used enthusiastically for dinners out because the boys slept beautifully while we had a few more glasses of wine. And third was the Joie umbrella, the one we actually traveled with and used the most because it was lightweight and incredibly durable (cobblestones of Lisbon, hills of Hong Kong, and countless haphazard gate checks). We won’t even get into the Deuter Baby Backpacks which were hidden in the closet.

Unbelievably, our living space is actually quite tidy. We just seem to end up with stuff despite periodic purges and regular donations. Donating in Mozambique was wonderful because expats settled for longer and we had relationships with people who were extremely resourceful and eager to take our things. In China, expats were noncommittal in many ways and everyone wanted things that were shiny and new. As mentioned in our previous post, leaving China with toddling little people was a great opportunity to ditch the last of our baby gear. Moreover, we have always seen part of our responsibility as world travelers to help those who are less fortunate. Although the purge was a challenge, we did end up donating the money raised to an organization we care deeply about called Captivating International, which is committed to sending rural Chinese girls to school.

We also knew our apartment in Moscow would be smaller, and we wanted to create a more “European” lifestyle. To us that meant less junk and overall just being much cooler people. But how do you pack for a country that has a temperature range from 80°F/27°C to -40°F/-40°C? We were leaving China’s 90°F/32°C humidity, visiting family in the Phoenix desert (110°F/43°C) and San Francisco fog (60°F/16°C), and then not receiving our shipment until it would already be snowing in Moscow in October. So our streamlining was rather derailed. 

Art, toys, technology…what we decided was important to ship

When all that packing was rendered useless with the cancelation of our teaching contracts, Lena was ready to burn it all in a spectacular bonfire. Moving to Mexico without a plan forced us to strip our stuff down significantly because we really didn’t know where we would live or how long we would be there. The glitch was that Lena wanted to be in the temperate highlands and Brian wanted to be on the tropical beach. Due to proximity to an international airport, the presence of a great little eco/international school for Bug, and ample opportunities for community involvement – Sayulita won. But a few cooler weather pieces still made it into the packing in anticipation of side trips to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic. Nonetheless, many items that were deemed necessities when packing in China didn’t make the final cut and were donated in the US. And it felt good. Which is the point of this twist – strip down and refocus.

The dream of arriving with only one luggage cart had always been there but never been realized. It finally happened!

We have acquired a lot of things throughout our travels and living abroad which are meaningful to us. Our life is international and our home is where we are living. We don’t have a location in US where we can display things we have bought, so they come around the world with us. For us, stuff is familiar – an identity, comfort for our children, and sense of home. What does your stuff mean to you? And how do you manage it? 

Change Of Course – Lena and Brian

We have spent the last decade intentionally building our careers as international educators. Gaining experiences with various curriculum, developing departments and programs, and financing professional development opportunities. The goal has always been to land a stable position at an established school that shares our pedagogical beliefs. We would grow as professionals and our children would receive a fantastic education in a nurturing community. This past winter, we shelled out thousands of dollars to fly to London for a week and engage in the highly competitive meat market/job fair for international educators. The investment worked in our favor, as we walked away with our dream jobs. Champagne on the flight home. Months of excitement and preparing our kids for the upcoming transition. 

Ready for interviews. Would you hire us?

It would be an understatement to say that wrapping up the school year, packing up our lives, and managing all the paperwork of moving to a new country were stressful. Once we arrived “home” in the US, where we planned to visit family for the summer, we were finally able to relax. Although we had no news about our pending visas, we were not concerned. We’d heard stories about them being approved at the last minute. It had never crossed our minds that we wouldn’t be hopping on a plane in a few short weeks to put down roots in our new country, settle into our new jobs, and enroll our children in their new school.

Until we got the email. Our visas were not going to be approved. Not just ours but the majority of the other new hires, as well. The school was releasing us from our contracts. We were in a state of shock. How could this be happening? What were we going to do now? Were there any jobs still available at the end of July? Or ones that were a good fit for us professionally, financially, and as a family? We had many deep discussions about our path forward. We had wanted to settle somewhere for the long term. Four moves in ten years had taken its toll, and we truly wanted the boys to have a community of relatively settled third culture kids. 

The idea of taking a year off had been circulating through our lives for quite some time. Several colleagues with families had recently begun or were planning to embark on carefully budgeted and well planned gap years. However, we had decided that this wasn’t right for us. Our life was already full of adventure and travel. Of course, life often gives you exactly what you have not asked for. The idea of moving to Mexico came up early in our decision-making, but was always the second option. We spent the week after losing our contracts scrambling to find last-minute jobs. 

Finally, a solid prospect came through. But we both had doubts. As the kids played happily with their grandparents, we stepped outside to clear our heads. We decided to walk through the city in silence. For two blocks, we convinced ourselves that we were accepting the job offer and allowed all the thoughts and feelings to bubble up. For the next two blocks we convinced ourselves that we were halting the job search and moving to Mexico. Finding ourselves at a bar, we ducked in to reflect over a pint or two. Still not talking, Lena wrote down her reflections on the exercise. Then Brian had his go. As we drained the second pint, we arrived at the realization that although we had chosen not to pursue a year off, it was actually the best option.

We left China with 13 suitcases and a shipment of 63 boxes. Then we walked in the door of Lena’s parents house to find a mountain of Amazon and Zappos orders – winter parkas and snow boots – that we had meticulously chosen for our new job in northern Europe. Once we decided to head to tropical Mexico with as little stuff as possible, the excess was shoved into suitcases that Lena’s family graciously agreed to store for us. Then we worked for days sorting, deciding and purging our China detritus and got down to 3 suitcases (and a couple small backpacks). With a limited budget, we bought our flights with airline miles that we had been saving for years and began our transition from a fancy life of excess to a much simpler life focusing on what truly matters – experiences and each other.