The Expat Life, or the art of taking life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye

If your partner works for an international organization, the kind that seems to not give a hoot about the families trailing behind, the process goes something like this.

You’ve been at your duty station long enough to know that you must start studying rotation lists. In some cases, you wait for those vacancy bulletins with an eagerness that borders on obsessive mania (when we were in Nigeria), in others, you have profoundly mixed feelings (as when we were in India). You start selecting postings according to a list of prerequisites : in our case, the number one priority is schools ! We learned that the hard way ; out of our six years in Hyderabad, only the first, when our older daughter was still in Kindergarten, and the last, after we’d switched her and her then kindergartener sister to another school, were satisfactory. The rest was of the pulling-one’s-hair-and-not-sleeping-at-night-worrying-about-my-child’s-education variety. Then come the living conditions and the financial package.

This is when I usually spend days searching the Internet, checking websites like Tales From a Small Planet, the Expat-Blog, and sending emails to complete strangers, asking for information. Then, comes the waiting. And more waiting. Until you hear that all the research was for nothing. And you start all over again.

But one day, when you’re about to give birth to a baby (Nigeria) or just happily enjoying your vacation in France, with zero issue about returning to India where you’re now happily settled – especially since the children switched to their new school –  you’re told that you’ll be moving to Bangladesh in August, and you’ll have exactly six days to pack and move your house, plus, aren’t you the lucky ones, you’ll arrive in Dhaka one afternoon before school starts for your children – the only school which is able to take them, because this late in the day, they have no place left anywhere else anyway.

What can you do but grin and bear it ? I read a good post somewhere, recently, about the high levels of tolerance of trailing spouses. Indeed.

So, you put on your happy face, and show up at the new school on the first day, ready to LOVE that school, because if you don’t, aren’t you in for some miserable time. And more often than not, you do. Love it, I mean. Sometimes for the right reasons. Other times, just because if you didn’t, the worry would drive you insane. If there is one thing I’ve learned, in my ten years+ life as an expatriate mother (being an expat as a single woman was not the same ; it did not carry the same consequences, at least for me, as a writer and a translator with a portable career) it’s the ability of the expatriate to consider their life circumstances through a very peculiar looking-glass, one that allows us to diminish the real impact of our situation as much as we possibly can. It’s a mixture of wisdom – something akin to the beginning of the famous Serenity Prayer : grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference – and total denial.

The trick is to know when we’re being wise and strong, and to recognize when we might be going into denial, which then requires to switch gears and back pedal to that second part of the aforementioned prayer.

Because it takes courage to change things, especially when those changes involve your children, who do not have the experience and hindsight to know that a school they like, where they have their friends and habits, is not the right choice for them if it does not challenge them, does not teach them the basic curriculum that will allow them to be at their grade level, or lets them get away with pretty much anything, as was the case in our first international school in Hyderabad, India.

It takes courage to see your child cry, and cry when you tuck her in at night, because she misses her friends, because she finds it hard at the new school, ’cause, guess what, they have all these funny rules about not crawling under the tables, interrupting the teacher, or throwing paper balls across the classroom. Plus, imagine that, they now have to learn their multiplication tables ! It takes courage, and it takes persistence to listen to them, dry their tears, and explain, again, and again, and yet again, why it may be hard, now, but they will thank us, later. Like when they hear about their good friend who moved to another country and found he had to repeat a class.

Next school year, our daughters will enter their fourth school in four consecutive years – a decision we’ve had to make in a matter of days in order to secure their places. I have lost countless nights of sleep over the matter since April (which is when we realized that our older daughter’s maths level was appallingly low, in spite of a report card at the end of January stating that she was at her requested grade level, and several emails to her teacher inquiring about the alarming dearth of homework throughout the year, and said teacher replying each time that all was well.)

I have mixed feelings about where they will be going next year. It’s very different from what they’ve known up to now. This new school is very small, and has none of the perks they’ve grown accustomed to: nice campuses, great sport facilities They teach a British curriculum, which will be another difference. And they will have to sit through Bible studies. As someone who grew up with a very Catholic Spanish mother, and spent a few years in a Catholic school, you do NOT want to start me on that one. And yet, it feels somewhat right. It’s not perfect. Then again, there are no perfect schools. But the environment seems to fit our values, if not all of our expectations, better than the previous one. Our kids spent a trial day there, and they liked it. I was amazed to see the confidence, and ease with which they both settled into this new place where they knew no one. I’m so proud of them.

I now need to renounce my own dreams of grandeur. Because the truth is, I liked entering their previous campuses and admiring how beautiful and well equipped they were, and thinking that I was giving my children opportunities I had never had. But this was me stroking my maternal ego, and forgetting what really matters : a solid education and sound values.

So far, this posting in Dhaka has all been about tolerating. Our apartment is nice, but we need to move, and the house we will most likely move into is kind of okay, but I doubt I’ll ever really like it. It just makes sense, in our current situation. Same for the school. Same for pretty much everything. If I can tolerate it for another two years (hopefully not more), the time will come again to start studying rotation lists and to send emails to strangers about our next location. And to be prepared to shift our lives, yet again, most likely in the blink of an eye…


7 thoughts on “The Expat Life, or the art of taking life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye

  1. I am exhausted just reading this essay. I can’t imagine the strength–and the love–it takes to live the life you have. You make me feel spoiled with any complaints about a life in which I have only myself to consider–and the freedom to change countries at will.
    Keep writing, Katia.

  2. Love it Katia, and you are spot on 🙂

    Except that I at least get sligthly longer notice than you guys.

    Take care and enjoy the well deserved holiday.

    xxx Mette

  3. A few days (weeks?) ago, I wrote about the moving thing and how it is to settle down after having lived that way all of my life on my blog. I’ve been talking about it with a couple of (lady) friends. The first one is a diplomat kid. The second one got bitten by the expat bug after college. The three of us have different views on moving around (I wasn’t the true expat kid, life and war made the rest).
    Though I thank my parents for the rich life I lived, I don’t thank them for the same reasons. It’s tough being almost 30 and not knowing where home is and what it looks like. I am at a point of even moving from one neighbourhood to another makes me angry…

  4. But then expat life is so glamorous and exotic! No, not so much. If you have children and you have to move so often the stress is enormous on everyone. You described it so well. I remember my own daughter in tears over a new move,

    My dh and I just moved to Moldova, and without children (now) it’s a whole different scene

    I read about another expat study which found that expats are more creative than people who stay in their own countries. As if this was a surprise and needed the spending of large sums of money on research to discover that.

  5. Thanks Katia…your post is a timely reminder to us just when we are about to begin our expat adventure. I can identify with all the emotions you have mentioned especially since we are going through this at this very moment. I guess like you said the wisdom/denial tells me I should thank our stars since hopefully in another five year both the kids would have gone to university. But hats off to you….and your endurance…it’s just not easy.

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