The Family Transplanted
It was hot in the headmaster's small office. Even with the air conditioner turned on high, the air was thick and sweet with the odour of mould and old carpet. We were talking about leaving Hanoi, us one month before him, when a large rat ran past the closed window above his head.
It was big, about 30 centimetres from nose to tail. Its rear had barely disappeared when another scuttled after it, smaller but sturdy, well fed on refuse strewn around the market stalls outside the school.
"Big rats," I say. Jim, the headmaster, turns to see the tail disappear behind the brickwork. "Yeah," he says in a North American drawl, "They come past around this time everyday."
Rats - and cockroaches and odours and sweat and heat and traffic - are just some of the challenges facing families who venture overseas to work. We have to adapt to new conditions, new languages, new ways of doing business. The at-home partner has their own set of challenges in a foreign country. Just finding food for the table in some postings can make them feel like hunter-gatherers when finding a certain vegetable or food staple can be a small victory.
For children, the challenges are many. They have not only to deal with the physical change, but also the emotional challenge of fitting in to a new school community, of finding friends and learning new ways to get by outside school in a foreign culture.
Expatriate postings are as varied as they are numerous. A small Asian posting, such as Hanoi, has its own set of problems and rewards. Bigger postings, such as in the larger cities in Asia like Manila in the Philippines, have different problems, though the physical needs are easier satisfied in the more modern postings.
Parents of expatriate children try to nurture the feeling of belonging - to a club, to a class to a community. In small expatriate postings - in hardship postings where the community must cling together to get through the difficulties of daily life - parents plan hard to keep life for their children as normal as possible.
The physical isolation in an overseas community, as many of us know, can be tough for a child. The problems of just settling in can seem overwhelming. We, as parents, not only have to find the physical comforts, the familiar things that can settle a child, a favourite food, entertainment or friends, but the psychological comforts to counteract the feeling of "apartness", the feeling of being here while everything else is happening "over there" usually meaning at home.
Many expatriate children are expert "blenders". For many, a new posting means leaving school in the middle of a year, travelling to a foreign country, where they may not understand the local language, and fitting in to a class in a school devoid of the facilities in the home country.
They get used to children coming and leaving. Goodbyes are frequent. In new postings they know they have to adapt quickly, to the curriculum, to new friends, to the basics of getting to and from school in sometimes unusual modes of transport, to finding their way around a new house and new house help.
And they have to get used to their parents dealing with stresses of their own in a new posting, a new job, a new neighbourhood to a new lifestyle. But doesn't the experience they gain in these postings outweigh the hardships?
How many students can observe their junior school principal arrive at campus in a school cyclo, a neat white pedicab, with a blue canopy with the acronym UNIS (United Nations International School) painted across the top. He's travelled the kilometre between the school's two campuses in the most nerve-wracking if reliable transport around Hanoi.
He sits like a big pale buddha in shirt and tie, arms firmly planted on the wooden rests while his driver lurches down one side, then the other, shifting his lithe frame rhythmically side to side. If the cyclo driver is hot, he doesn't show it. He just smiles as he pedals up to the steps of UNIS's Giang Vo campus and deposits another staff member.
The schoolchildren at this school are used to unusual sights. For school outings they visit pagodas, go rock hunting way out past the rice paddies, or visit a stone carver. For art they sketch the street life, old black-toothed women in baggy black trousers, noodle stalls, sellers of vegetables and peddlers of tin pots, crouched on the ground.
For short family holidays they go to the north to Sapa to see the isolated Muong hill tribe people who wear elaborate costumes and head gear. For weekends they go to Halong Bay and drift out past the thousands of island limestone formations and eat fish freshly caught and cooked by the boatmen. On Sundays they go to lunch at the Metropole, at the Daiwoo, the big hotels in Hanoi where foreigners congregate and gossip and eat familiar food. The children all know each other.
Young finicky eaters rapidly lose their aversion to foreign foods. At school, for tuck shop they bring 20,000 dong (around $2) and buy sushi, nem (Vietnamese spring rolls), Danish meat balls or Korean delicacies.
At play they talk in clipped sentences - many at the English-language school are still learning the basics of the language of tuition. At lunch and recess they develop an international language of their own, where play is more important than the verbal sparring of growing up in the schoolyards of their homelands.
At Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, they have a holiday and watch the lion dances. On weekends, the children eat out, visit friends. There is little organised sport. They go to the American Club, though, and play on the basketball court. If they are lucky enough to live in a compound with a swimming pool, they invite friends over. They ride bikes or roller blade around narrow lanes inside compounds, they wouldn't dare do it on the street.
And on holidays, they fly off to visit family all over the world. Few stay behind. It's important, their parents say, for expatriate children to have a sense of their homeland, to see family and friends and feel anonymous for at least a small time. For three months, nearly always in the northern summer, the children have their main holiday from school.
It is a time for relaxing. A time for not being a "foreigner". Foreign-ness sometimes makes children edgy. They try and blend in, but often their looks set them aside. Their habits and their speech are telltale signs that they do not belong.
But even in their home countries, the differences are notable. They talk with no sense of bragging about their home abroad. They mention a housemaid, a driver, key players in their daily routine and their old friends and family read privilege. So many expatriate families say to learn to be quiet about their lives abroad, especially the conditions in which they live.
Whereas a housemaid, driver, gardener or nanny may be commonplace in overseas postings, where language is a problem, driving impossible and shopping in the market difficult, in the home country these seem like luxuries. Many at home spouses in expatriate postings return home to hear the oft-repeated line "But what do you do all day."
And they get tired of explaining that in a posting where they know little of the local language, where the local customs are difficult to interpret, where it is not possible to drive yourself, where it is difficult to buy even essential goods some days, where travel in traffic may take hours and houses are always dirty with the dust of an undeveloped city, that it is essential to have help.
In many expatriate postings, it is not possible to just call a babysitter as required. It is difficult to just go and do the simplest tasks. In some postings women, such as the Middle East, women find themselves unable even to drive by law.
In other postings, the quality of health and medical care means food preparation must be scrupulously supervised, small injuries can become big problems should a doctor be needed urgently. The at-home partner is responsible for a major part in holding the family together when the working spouse has stresses and challenges of his own.
To be available is one of the greatest jobs the at-home spouse has to face. To be available for the small everyday disasters which are easily solved and taken for granted in the home country. A blackout, storm, an electrical fault can have dire consequences in a posting in a developing country.
To be available for children who have few others to turn to, who feel lonely and sometimes afraid of their outside world. To be ready to organise when things go wrong is a necessity. When the at-home spouse gets asked by those in the home country what she does all day, the answer "I'm available."
She, or he, is the trouble shooter, riding shotgun to solve all those problems the working spouse cannot solve. The working partner's lack of availability means the at-home partner has to become a jack of all trades, prepared for situations that would usually not occur in the home country.
If the posting is one where natural disasters are common, such as the Philippines, the at-home spouse must know the procedures to take to safeguard her family. They must know the school's disaster procedures for students and act quickly in times of emergency. They must know how to secure the house, how to operate the generator if they have one during a blackout, how to ensure a safe supplementary water supply in times of flood, how to notify worried family and friends in times of civil emergency or a natural disaster.
They must make networks of contacts who can help and be helped in times of trouble. They must know where the best medical and emergency care for them is when injuries occur, the most direct routes to the hospital when traffic is heavy.
They must organise, on their children's behalf if they are too young to do it themselves, the links to make the child's life comfortable: to make contacts for play, for special interests, for sport.
In many postings, it is difficult for an an-home partner to find work in the community. Despite a university education and years of work experience in a profession, the local community may not offer the payment or the kinds of work to make it worthwhile for the at-home partner to find employment outside the home.
When the primary expatriate worker in the family is employed to work long hours, and is often away, the at home partner must decide if it is worthwhile for them to devote the time and energy an outside job requires. In some postings, travel time to a job may be up to three hours in traffic.
How much time will it take from the whole family routine if another career is pursued in the expatriate posting? The at-home partner is often frustrated by the problems pursuing a career outside the home poses. The personal satisfaction of doing a job well outside the home is difficult to replace. The ability work in a profession and achieve goals outside the home is paramount to many people.
If a two-career family at home becomes, through the needs of the family, a one-career posting abroad, I found it helps to consider the whole spectrum of consequences beforehand. From my own experience and those of my friends abroad, it seems boredom is one of the biggest dangers for many at-home partners in an expatriate posting, even though the prospect of living in a sometimes exotic location can be an attractive lure - time to do all those things the soon to be at-home partner has always wanted.
But the rose-coloured glasses can soon become misted when loneliness and frustration set in once the family is organised abroad. The feelings of not achieving can be overwhelming, especially for those who have devoted their working life to achieving career goals. The clubs and organisations available in some expatriate postings sometimes simply do not satisfy the needs of everyone. Sometimes it is necessary to look a little further - perhaps to distance education from Australia, courses offered by local universities or some other outlet.
I've found that, when times get a little tough, sitting around and moping does not solve the problem (though I also think that a bit of reflection can do a lot of good). Looking back and remembering why we chose to take the posting might help. If the posting was taken for a short term and a return to the home country was anticipated after a two or three year contract, the at-home spouse has a window through which the readjustment to life at home, and the career or lifestyle he or she has missed, can be visualised. But, when the family is likely to be overseas long-term, it is sometimes difficult to get past the point of pack-up and settling-in. It can sometimes seem like the at-home spouse has turned into a part-time travel agent, organising moves and the intricate logistics that coincide with home visits and house moves. I doubt there are any easy answers to making an expatriate lifestyle easier. Sure, there are lots of advantages, and I guess that's why many of us made the decision to leave Australia to work overseas. But I don't believe that the stresses expatriates face can all, as so many tell us, be blamed on the old chestnut "culture shock".
That may have been so decades ago when the shift of Australian professional expertise overseas was not so great. Perhaps then, when expat families were not so well exposed to foreign cultures before leaving home, it might have been more of a shock to be transplanted into a foreign culture.
But now, our international experience first hand and through the media, is so great before leaving Australia that few go away ill-prepared. To say that every gripe and grievance, every down day and depression experienced by the transplanted family is caused by culture shock is naive.
I'm not a psychologist. I don't have any answers to the situation of other expats who find that life overseas can sometimes get a little difficult. But I do know that just talking to other expats who are in the same boat has helped me. They might have an elderly parent they worry about back home; they might feel they have difficulty talking to their old friends about their life abroad; they might have worries about day-to-day problems in their host country. It all helps to know that someone out there identifies with what you're going through.
It also helps that these same people can get identify with, and maybe share a giggle, about the funny and amazing things with which we come into contact in our host countries.