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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.