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2016 – A Year In Expatland

As is now the tradition, in the last days of the year, I’m taking you on a journey: the story of an expat woman, Susan, through a compilation of all the articles published on the blog in 2016.

Disclaimer: Not all characters appearing in this work are fictitious. In fact, they’re all either clearly identified or aggregated parts of several real expats where I took some liberties to change location, names and chronology. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is not purely coincidental. It’s my aim that you’ll recognize yourself somehow in this adventure and that you’ll benefit from this experience. Enjoy!


Susan generally enjoys her expat life, even if she sometimes gets frustrated because she can’t always tell her truth.

But there’s one thing she isn’t comfortable with: the transition period.

When the time comes to leave, she becomes anxious. She hates the packing and the farewells while at the same time feeling a great sense of excitement and adventure for the new place. She struggles to sleep well. She has a knot in her stomach. Her body aches but she has no time to take care of it. Add to this that finding a new house, arranging new schools for the kids and organising new hobbies is an intense and demanding process.

Rebuilding a whole new social network takes a lot of effort too. She’s very grateful for her portable network of online friends especially since her husband is often away from home, travelling for work. When he comes back, he’s exhausted or stressed out and she can’t really rely on him to lend her a listening ear.

This year particularly, she needed to confide in someone because she worried a lot about her parents back home. Her mum got diagnosed with cancer. She spent sleepless nights wondering whether she should go back to support her parents or trust someone to take care of them.

Repatriating should be easier than any other expat assignment, shouldn’t it?

Not sure though. Already going back home for a holiday brought up some disturbing experiences. Moreover, some of her expat friends who reverted back to their home country were quite surprised of how difficult it was to readjust.

They never thought repatriation would be so hard! And with the children, how can you know you’re doing the right thing?

Susan’s kids had such a blast at school this year: her daughter in grade 7 and her son in grade 9 won sports awards and academic prizes. They were selected to be part of teams engaged in national competitions and have built strong friendships.

They’re now so well adjusted after the initial impact of losing a home three years ago. Susan is very proud of them.

Furthermore going back is not straightforward. Her husband would have to lobby his management to relocate him back home. Living closer to Susan’s parents will put some strain on their marriage. Especially because her husband never got along with her mom!

That’s why Susan is hesitating. Her childhood girlfriend just went through a divorce. She can’t risk the same! What would she do with the children abroad?

There’s a wonderful thing that happened to her in 2016: she found a part-time job in a community based charity, caring for the elderly. That enabled her to get her mind off her dilemma and somewhat ease her sense of guilt for being far away from her parents.

Gradually she earned the trust of the residents and some of them opened up. Gloria in particular told her the story of her life. At 85, she went through quite a lot. She lived in a refugee camp for 7 years after WWII before emigrating in this country. She met her husband in a local shop and they got married. At first, he was quite nice but soon he changed and took advantage of Gloria’s poor knowledge of the language. Although she worked hard, he kept mocking her abilities. It took years for Gloria to understand this emotional abuse. But when she realized what she was up against, she fought back and made him stop. They had 3 children together and all went to university. Gloria is very proud of them but she feels lonely since they all live far from her. Now she has time. Time to think. Memories of the war come back to haunt her.

Susan spends hours to care for Gloria and to listen to her. She feels worthwhile when she catches a smile on Gloria’s face.

Next year, Susan will be 50 and her husband is a bit older than her. They need to think about their future. Are they going to retire abroad or to go back home?

If they wait for too long, they may be stuck abroad. On the other hand, they have two teenagers at home. Handling them is already a challenge. Telling them that they’ll leave their friends and their activities would be a drama! They’re so passionate. They even woke up in the middle of the night to follow the Olympic Games and their favourite teams!

Tonight, Susan is celebrating New Year’s Eve at home. But where is home for an expat soul?

Stay tuned for more in 2017! And don’t forget to send comments, inspirations and suggestions when you feel like it!

3 Things Your Teenager Can’t Tell You When Moving Abroad

It’s no secret: handling a teenager as a parent is tricky. To say the least.

But moving abroad adds another layer of complexity.

Understanding what’s going on in your teenager’s head helps you be more supportive of them.

You can lend a listening ear knowing that it’s not all your fault if they’re struggling. You can be less defensive and avoid taking bitter remarks too personally. You can be more empathetic and engage on a deeper level.

Josh still can’t believe it. His dad got a new job overseas and the whole family is following.
Josh is in grade 9. The move is in a couple of weeks.

Teenager moving abroadHe has to change high schools and leave his friends behind. He has to say goodbye to his soccer mates and give up his cosy bedroom. He has to brace for a foreign country and another school where he doesn’t know a soul.

What for?

‘For your own good, even if you don’t know it yet’, said his dad, underlining the amazing opportunity for growth that it’ll bring to him and the whole family.
Josh doesn’t care about any extra growth opportunity. He’s 15. He’s growing enough already.

He doesn’t want to go.

He tried everything: shouting, blackmailing, moping, reasoning, arguing. . . nothing helped.
His parents have made a decision. It’s final.

Josh is shattered. He can’t fathom why his parents won’t listen to him. They’re usually pretty open: he is used to voicing his own opinions and being heard.

Not this time. Not for this move.

Josh feels powerless. His whole world is falling apart.

Let’s have a closer look at some of the elements playing a key role in this double transition: going through adolescence and moving abroad. These insights come from the book ‘Paroles pour adolescents’ whose author Francoise Dolto (French paediatrician) has more than 50 years of experience with children.

These facts are present in your child’s life without them – or maybe you! – knowing it. That’s why there’s no way they can tell you!

#1 – Adolescence is like a second birth happening gradually.

Françoise Dolto

Adolescence is not a crisis (as usually believed). Adolescence is a birthing process.
When the baby is born, it leaves its mother’s womb to come to the world.
As a young adult blossoms, they gradually leave their parents to fend for themselves in the wider society.

Adolescence is the transition period between childhood and adulthood. It’s a mutation phase during which the adolescent is extremely vulnerable.

To help us understand what it looks like, Dolto uses a metaphor: the ‘lobster complex’.
During the course of their natural growth, lobsters lose their shells. They become totally naked, easy prey for any hostile predator. Eventually, their body builds a new carapace but the transition period is extremely dangerous. Even if the lobster survives an attack, he’ll keep scars under his shell forever. That’s the same for teenagers.

Josh is embarrassed.

He used to have such soft skin. Now he gets pimples on his forehead and his cheeks. There’s stubble on his chin. His feet grew ridiculously long and his hands doubled in size in the last few months. His mum complains that she can’t keep up with his growth in clothes or shoes.

Josh is one of the tallest in his class and he doesn’t like it.

He wants to blend in, not stand out!

What’s the layer of complexity brought by the move abroad?

Moving to another country is similar to a new birth.
You leave one world to enter another. You transition from a familiar place to a foreign environment. Climate, food, language, and culture change.

On a symbolic plane, you get to be born a second time because you get a new name.

Indeed, one of the most striking features that changes instantaneously when you move abroad is . . . your first name. People struggle to pronounce it, misplace the tonic accent, or misspell it because they can’t figure out the tilde, the umlaut or the trema.
Worse, if your language uses another alphabet or displays characters and signs that your new country can’t decipher, you may have to choose a new name altogether!

In short, moving abroad is another birthing process in itself.

And Josh will have to deal with both!

#2 – During adolescence, usual words take on another meaning.

‘I’m hot’ doesn’t mean the same at 6 as at 16!
‘Going out on a date’ has nothing to do with getting outside on a particular day of the month!

‘As they’re moulting, adolescents become tongue-tied when they have to speak of their feelings because words totally change meaning’, asserts Dolto.

Josh is confused. In the last few months, his voice has broken. It has become deeper. It sounds weird. One of the girls at school commented on it the other day. She found it funny.

Josh was not sure how to take it. Was it a compliment or a joke?

He became quieter.

What if her teasing him leads others to make fun of him?

At home, Josh doesn’t say much and it has a direct effect on his parents. Seeing their son withdrawing, they’re puzzled and more anxious. His mum complains they can’t have a proper conversation. He’s always on his laptop with headphones in his ears, only mumbling when asked a question.

‘How can you communicate with someone like that for God’s sake!’ exclaims his mum, throwing her hands in the air.

What’s the layer of complexity brought by the move abroad?

Moving to another country – even if they speak the same language as you – will change the meaning of some words.
Some connotations will be different, some idioms will sound inappropriate, your accent will betray your country of origin.

When you move to a place where you have to learn a new language, this is even more obvious.

How do you then reconcile your mother tongue where words change meaning during adolescence with another new language or – maybe more challenging but in a different way – with the same official language but expressed in another culture?

Add to this that each generation of adolescents has their own slang with their particular codes. Nowadays in Australia for example, you’d better be on Instagram, post selfies on a regular basis and use Snapchat to be part of the popular group.

Having to manage several layers of language and meaning, Josh faces a huge challenge to make sense of it all.

#3 –Friends are so important for a teenager because of the image they cast back to him or her

Adolescence is the time when parents stop being the primary influencers. Teenagers are looking for a place among their peers to explore connection outside of their family.

Many parents think that making friends is important to develop social skills. It is but there’s another reason that makes friends so essential.

‘Teenagers are building up an ideal image of themselves based on the criteria issued by their circle of friends, their fashions, their values,’ says Dolto.

It’s the reflection of this image of themselves that they look for in the eyes of their mates.

With all his bodily changes, Josh is doubting himself.

There’s one thing that helps him though: he’s popular with his friends because he is unbeatable on Dead by Daylight and Call of Duty. Hanging out with his mates feels good when they’re playing together. All the others are baffled by his speed and agility on the computer screen.

He’s not interested in girls yet even if some of his classmates are already dating. Sometimes, he worries. Is this really normal?

What’s the layer of complexity brought by the move abroad?

Can you imagine for a moment what kind of image that same teenager will get reflected back to him when arriving at a foreign school in the middle of the year, struggling to utter a word, standing out with a terrible accent, awkward and clumsy as you are when unaware of the local habits?

Remember the lobster complex, this vulnerability of the teenager, especially to comments from other adults or peers.

It’s so hard for parents to figure out what to do.
If you do too much, you rob them of initiative and you deprive them of improving their self-esteem. Worse, you increase the odds for them to be laughed at.
If you do too little, they may feel that you don’t care about them.

It is a challenge to find the fine balance between the two.

Now I’m curious: what did you find most helpful to do for / with your teenager when moving abroad?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

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