The 10 best things about being an expat wife

The 10 best things about being an expat wife

Being an expat wife was good for me.

Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving Day earlier this week, and reflecting on my blessings naturally got me thinking about how grateful I am for all the good that came of living abroad.  So in keeping with the theme of the season, and in no particular order, here’s my (very personal) list of the ten best things about being an expat wife:

1.   Shock and awe. Expat life comes fully loaded with the joy of discovery. Although many of these wow moments come from the external environment (“OMG! A drive-through liquor store!”), the possibilities for self-discovery are endless. Such bursts of insight can encompass big things (you’re much more adventurous than you ever realized) or small (no matter how it’s prepared, you really can’t stand tofu.) These little nuggets are the gifts that make this lifestyle truly worthwhile.

2.   A built-in support system. When the only constant in your nomadic life is your family, you learn to draw strength and inspiration from each other. Although the vicissitudes of expat life (a parent who’s always travelling, for example, or an over-reliance on live-in childcare) can tear a family apart, my own experience is that living overseas creates a strong and loving bond among family members. (Ours has even withstood repatriation, and that’s like kryptonite.)

Singapore hawker centre

Singaporean hawker centres: a whole new world.

3.   A whole new world. Immersing yourself in another culture gives you an entrée into a way of life that’s often completely unlike anything you’ve ever imagined. We frequently operate on autopilot, doing things as they’ve always been done; it doesn’t occur to us that there might be a different approach. Shaking things up is good for the soul. And the beauty of it is, those tweaks you make to your repertoire of attitudes or behaviours aren’t tied to any particular location. Once you start viewing the world as a cultural buffet, you realize you’re free to pick and choose whatever works for you, no matter where you’re living. (“I’ll have some of that French work-life balance, please.” See? It’s easy.)

4.   Multilingualism. Learning a new language is a big job. Even if the language spoken in your host culture is ostensibly your native tongue, odds are it’s not exactly what you’re used to (as I learned the hard way.) The benefits of multilingualism can’t be denied, though: when you speak like a local, you function better socially and adjust more quickly. Even cooler is evidence that certain facets of our personality are expressed more fully depending on which language we speak. (Don’t believe me? Check out this article from CBC News.)

Learning how to buy pretzels in Istanbul.

A learnable moment: buying pretzels in Istanbul.

5.   Stealth learning. You know how you sometimes trick your kids into eating healthily by pureeing brussel sprouts and hiding them in the pasta sauce? This is the child development version of that. Expatriate life is bursting with learnable moments: about the world, about human nature, about the kids themselves. Every day is a geography lesson, history class, sociology tutorial, and language lab all rolled into one. And the little darlings don’t even realize it — they think they’re just living normal lives, bless ‘em.

6.   A “new and improved” you. There’s something about starting a new life that makes you want to be a new person. A better person. And why not? Moving to another country is license to wipe the slate clean and begin afresh, without the weight of others’ preconceptions and expectations. The drive to reinvent lets you explore those aspects of yourself you never got around to developing before. Go for it, I say. Become who you really want to be… or at least take a few steps in that direction.

Kindred spirits

Kindred spirits: my good friend Sue.

7.   Kindred spirits. Moving internationally means meeting people from all over the world: locals and expats alike. Some touch your life briefly and then move on, and others become Facebook friends. Those rare souls who “get” you, know everything about you, and love you anyway are the keepers; hold them dear and they’ll enrich your life forever.

8.   A new skill set. You pick up a lot of useful stuff during your time as an expat. I’m referring to personal growth here, qualities like adaptability, patience, language fluency, social skills, and intercultural competence. They may help you in a job search, or they may just make you a more well-rounded person. Either way, you win.

Seeing the world: the Great Wall of China.

Climbing up the Great Wall of China.

9.   Seeing the world. By this I mean travelling for fun, not business. When we moved to Singapore, we grabbed the chance to see as much of Asia as we could. Who knew when we’d have the opportunity again? The bonus: more of numbers 1 through 8, plus #10.

10.   A sense of adventure. There’s nothing as challenging, as adrenaline-pumping, as heart-in-the-mouth terrifying as taking the leap into the expat realm. Everything you knew to be true: gone. Poof, just like that. You’re often flying completely blind, just making it up as you go along. When it works out, it’s exhilarating. When it doesn’t…well, that’s the topic of my next post.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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16 Responses to The 10 best things about being an expat wife

  1. bookjunkie says:

    What a great list! I think I want some of that French work life balance too!

  2. Judy says:

    I would add a LONG list of funny moments which your family can look back on, like the 6ft sturgeon in the back of a mini van and the neighbour with a cow on their balcony. A sense of the absurd is essential for any expat and the ability to know when to laugh rather than cry.

  3. Arwa says:

    Thanks for sharing this Maria. Being an expat wife myself, I agree with all the above pointers, specially the feeling of discovering and learning something new every day. The opportunity to realize the hidden potential within oneself and to see the world, that the expat life provides makes it all the more worthwhile.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Arwa. I know a lot of women who discovered a hidden passion or talent because of their time as expats. I think it sometimes takes a major life upheaval to force us to really look inside ourselves and see what we’re made of. As an Indian woman who moved to the Netherlands, I’m sure you’ve experienced this — and benefitted from it, if Orangesplaash is any indication. It’s a beautiful site, and very informative.

  4. mariecbrice says:

    Loving the ‘Stealth Learning’ piece… also your article on blogging in Expat Women… very apt!
    The ‘new and improved you’ is my personal favorite… personal reinvention can be quite addictive. It’s like having a home movie theatre in your viewmaster every day with the inspirations flowing faster than you can keep up with them.

  5. Maria says:

    Reinvention does seem to be a recurring theme whenever expat women get together. I think the real challenge is keeping the momentum going once we’ve returned back home. It’s all too easy to slip back into our old ways of being and thinking once the excitement of living abroad is behind us. Hmm — maybe I’ll write a post about the 10 best/worst things about repatriating and explore that a little further.

  6. Sarah says:

    Wow a drive-through liquor store? Where is that (besides the USA)? I’m new to this expat wife adventure.. My husband and I have been married for only a little more than a year and so far I’ve been following him to Doha, Amman, and Istanbul. It’s been exciting but it’s almost always hard to find new friends. Expat community is the best starting point but at age 22, sometimes I feel so naive, inexperienced and inferior among other expat wives. I’m keeping on and getting better at this.. I should read more of your posts to help me grasp a better idea of what the whole thing is about :)

  7. Maria says:

    Hi Sarah! You’ve crammed a lot into a little over a year! It sounds as though you already have more experience than you’re giving yourself credit for. My advice would be to pick the brains of those other expat wives. They’re a great resource, so learn from them as much as you can. (You can find tons of useful information online as well — check out my blogroll for a list of good starting points. And read everything you can get your hands on by Robin Pascoe.)

    You’ll get better at the expat thing with time. Just remember to enjoy the experience as it unfolds. Oh, and do yourself a favour: write it all down. You’ll be glad you did a few years down the road. Good luck!

    PS The drive-through liquor store was in Sydney, Australia. I still dream about it sometimes :)

  8. Pingback: The 10 best things about being an expat wife by Maria « RELOCATION MATTERS! by Dr Rona Hart

  9. patrician says:

    If you think about it we’re really lucky to be apart of this AMAZING adventure !!!!!
    LOVE IT !! :)

  10. I love this post! so much in fact that you have inspired me to do my own list, hope you don’t mind :-)

  11. cortney says:

    I am delighted to have found your blog! I am 18 months into my first expat experience (USA to Switzerland) and reading through your posts feels a bit like peeking into the future – most aspects of this experience are good (sometimes I lose sight of that), the rest is manageable (and everyone goes through the not-so-good stuff), and there’s always more to the expat community to discover. Looking forward to reading, and learning, more here!

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