Recently, a fantastic piece that sums up the expat trailing spouse’s experience made the rounds on Facebook. Comments among my friends came in fast and furious. We nodded our heads in unison in front of our respective laptop screens, reading in different time zones across different continents. We held a hand to our chest in recognition at this story that could’ve been our very own. Wow, we thought as our eyes misted over at the author’s words. She was a stranger to us, and yet she knew us so well.
These are the ties that bind us. They are borne from the shared experience of being outsiders in a strange new place. We all want to succeed at this business of adjusting and making this place our home. We are all driven by the need to feel less isolated with every passing day.
Some hit the ground running and are efficient from the get-go. Some take a long time and eventually find the one thing that makes expat life more bearable. Still, there are others for whom the main agenda is counting down the days to when the movers come back and the plane takes them far away from here.
We come in all shapes, sizes, and persuasions. There is a magnet that draws similar souls to each other; you may not be able to explain why you’ve become friends with a particular expat spouse. You just knew you would click. You don’t have to be from the same villa compound, school, company, gym, or country. All it takes is a chance encounter at the butcher to strike up a conversation and know you will become friends.
No matter the circumstances your friendship blossomed in, expat trailing spouses become your family here. If you are lucky, you will have one, two, or even a few really good friends who keep you going and remind you how great this journey can be.
Newcomers, I won’t lie to you and say it’s all good all the time. But you can make it work for you more often than not. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my own relocations, many imbibed from the kind and wise souls I’ve had the fortune of meeting along the way.
- Be yourself. You will be happier if the friends you make are the ones who accept you as you are. You may or may not enjoy the things that most tai tais do, but that’s OK. You don’t have to take up a sport or hobby just to fit in; if you do, do it for yourself and not to please others. Women the world over know that “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
- Don’t compare. Let’s get something out of the way: It is really impolite to talk about money or expat packages. You will find yourself in situations where you can’t escape being grilled by certain people. Packages take into consideration the working spouse’s tenure, responsibilities, and potential for advancement. If you’ve got it better than someone else, don’t flaunt it. If someone else has it better than you, don’t be envious. If it gets embarrassing, change the topic. You can always say your mom taught you never to talk about money.
- It’s not one size fits all. What makes one person tick won’t necessarily float another’s boat. One of the great things about Beijing is the sheer amount of choice. Even shopping becomes an art, with venues as varied as Tianyi, Yashow, and Shin Kong.
- Laugh a lot. Cry a lot. Sometimes a pity party can be good for the soul. Whether you get together at the local coffee shop or sprawl on a girlfriend’s couch with a bottle of wine in hand, having a cleansing talk with someone can do wonders. She will be your mother, sister, and best friend all rolled into one (and she will give good hugs). Go out and find her.
- Keep your eyes peeled. Not just for the day’s AQI reading or where to get the best discounts. Be conscious of all the good things around you. It could be as simple as encountering less traffic than expected as you head downtown, finding something that reminds you of someone back home, or your child finishing their homework a few minutes earlier than usual. These are small blessings that keep us all sane.
- Be grateful. I am hugely grateful for my ayi and driver who, quite simply, allow me to have a life. Our ayi is my surrogate at home, while our driver literally gets me from point A to point B. Although I grew up in a country where household help is common, I’ve also lived in places where it was non-existent or very expensive. Believe me, any frustrations I may have with my staff here are nothing compared to not having them at all. In them, I’ve also found very patient teachers of Chinese.
- This won’t be forever. For most of us, the movers will one day come back and that plane will take us away. I hope that we’ll look back with a sense of achievement as we made new friends, carved out new identities, and stretched ourselves beyond our comfort zone. These experiences are all part and parcel of being an expat trailing spouse, and things that we carry inside us beyond the last move.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.