And Then We Moved To ….+Add.Feed Info1000FOLLOWERS
This is a blog about expat life, raising multilingual and multicultural children, and travel. I write about life as an expat, the feeling of having several different “homes” scattered around the world, trying to raise multilingual children in my cross-cultural, East-meets-West marriage, and of course traveling the world. Blog by Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore.
As an expat blogger and writer, the number one question I get asked is “why do you call yourself an expat and not an immigrant?”
Now, I know that the word ‘expat’ turns people off. When they see ‘expat’, they read ‘privilege’ and imagine me walking with a sign on my head that says, ‘WILL NOT INTEGRATE.’ They imagine a lady of leisure, with business class tickets in her hand, jetting off from one country to another. It’s true; I am privileged, but not in the way that you might think.
So, let’s just rewind here. First, let me explain exactly what kind of an expat I am.
I’m a brown expat.
I’m a Muslim expat.
I’m a ‘I come from a third world, developing country in Asia’ kind of expat.
So first why do I still call myself an expat and not an immigrant?
16 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, I know I am not immigrating to any particular country – I will just be an expat there for three to four years before our contract is up and we move again. Intention is a key factor in why I call myself an expat – if my intention was to settle down in one country for the long term, I would call myself an immigrant.
Now if the word ‘expat’ bothers you, just remember that according to Wikipedia, “an expatriate is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ‘ex’ (out of) and ‘patria’ (country or fatherland).
Sounds pretty accurate to describe my situation, doesn’t it? I currently reside in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where I have no rights to citizenship – just temporary residence based on my “expat” status.
Here is where the definitions get interesting and shows how fluid our global identities can be.
Expats can be migrant workers too and migrant workers can be expats. After all, both are working in a foreign country on a time-bound contract. Interestingly, an expat can become an immigrant just as a migrant worker can become an immigrant if they both choose to settle down for the long-term in the country of employment. My German husband and the Pakistani gardener who comes to tend to our garden, for example are both in Dubai sponsored by an employer to work on a time bound contract. So, what’s the difference? In my book, they are both expats. Let’s test out this definition a bit further:
Is a Filipino nanny working in Singapore for a few years to earn some money, an expat?
Is an Indian laborer working for a construction company in Dubai and sending money back home, an expat?
Is a German corporate executive working in Vietnam an expat?
The Ugly Connotations of the Word ‘Expat’:
Definitions aside, l think the reason why most people have a problem with the label ‘expat’ is due to its connotations – the word expat is seen to be tied to privilege, race, nationality and status. It reeks of a colonial legacy and imperialism. The word ‘expat’ has suddenly developed an image problem.
Let’s explore some of these connotations one by one before addressing what I think we should really do to fix the image problem, that the word ‘expat’ suffers from.
Privilege: Until three years ago, I traveled the world solely on a Pakistani passport, as a Pakistani expat. Contrary to any privileges received, I had to work doubly hard to source paperwork and submit extra documentation at times to the relevant authorities at government offices, embassies and consulates. My applications were always viewed with suspicion, and subjected to extra scrutiny. I took it all in my stride. But please don’t tell me I am privileged simply because I am an expat.
And if you have been an expat for as long as I have, you will know that not all expat assignments are created equal. In Denmark, even though I was an expat, I still had to pay the local rate of tax applicable on my income (52% in case you were wondering). There was no privilege involved. In Singapore, our “expat package” did not cover a housing allowance or maternity allowance while I was pregnant. In many ways, I was even worse off than the locals there. I paid for my Singaporean birth through my own pocket and was not eligible for any local subsidies. Not to forget there are so many expats who are working abroad but on ‘local contracts’ and are far from living the luxurious lives that their friends and family back home might imagine them to be.
Race: I am not white, I am brown. As a brown expat, I have never received any favorable treatment in any of the countries I have lived in. I represent the new type of expats that have arisen since patterns have shifted in our global world from purely North-South moves to an increasing number of South-South moves. India is a notable example; there are tons of highly educated and skilled professionals working as expats in several African countries in finance related or corporate roles.
Status: It does not matter if you are a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker – you are still an expat. What if you are a well site engineer at an oil refinery (a very highly skilled and highly paid mechanical job?) It does not mean that you have a lesser status than an expat working a desk job.
In no other country, has the correlation between race, nationality and status been more evident to me than here in the UAE. I could see the clear confusion on the face of the government official processing my paperwork upon our arrival in Dubai. My Pakistani self, did not correspond to my American driver’s license or the residence visa in my Italian passport sponsored under my German husband’s name. A global life on the move has added increasing complexities to our identities, as we acquire new citizenships, or foreign qualifications along the way.
Redefining the Word Expat:
Many writers, thinkers and expats in the international circles have started arguing “let’s stop using the word expat” in our globally mobile vocabulary. I agree that finding our language on the move is important, but my solution is completely different:
Instead of not using the word ‘expat’, let’s expand its use. Let’s expand its definition so it stops sounding hierarchical, colonial or imperialistic. Let’s expand it to include Asians, Arabs, Africans and basically ALL the people around the world who are working away from their passport country on a temporary or time bound contract. In Dubai for instance, I started calling everybody expats – this includes the Pakistani gardeners, Filipino maids, the Indian construction workers and the Bangladeshi taxi driver who picked me up yesterday. To read more on the lives of ‘The Other Expat’, head to Global Living Magazine, where I show you the voices, challenges and struggles of these expats, which never make it to mainstream expat channels or forums.
Fair is not to stop using the word expat. Fair is to include in its definition, all the people who rightly belong in it. This is the way to the take the colonial sting out of the word. This is the way to turn it upside down. This is the way to show that our understanding of globally mobile people has evolved and is ever evolving. And to show that expatriation is not defined by or limited to race, color, ethnicity or nationality.
And this is where my privilege comes in – as a writer and as an expat – to fight for the change that I hope to see and to speak up for those who can’t.
About the Author: Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat and writer. As an expat child, she grew up in Bahrain, New York City and Pakistan. She has been an expat for the past 16 years and has lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. She is the writer and founder of the blog “And Then We Moved To’, in which she explores expat life, raising multicultural and multilingual children and world travel.
She gave the globe a spin, and as the continents, oceans and countries whizzed by, she looked up and asked “Mama, where is Australia?” Her five-year-old mind was interested in this country far away, because one of her friends from Dubai had just moved there, with her family. As I pointed to Australia on the globe, she looked up and sighed “wow, that’s really far away.”
I shared her grief. As an expat child raised in Singapore and Dubai, she had said enough goodbyes to friends in her short five years. Once because we moved, but other times because in expat heavy cities, the summer expat exodus meant she and I lost several friends each summer, around this time. Some expatriate to another country, while others repatriate to their home country. And some are still left in the expat country. It’s hard to be the leaver, but it is almost harder to be the one left behind.
Until we had kids, our approach to our expat life can best be described as “winging it”. Seven countries in 15 years is my expat story but I wonder how many countries my kids will live in by the time they are 18. In expat circles, there is this notion that the older the kids, the harder it is to move, (think of sulking teenagers having to say goodbye to their friends), but the truth is expatriation and repatriation with young kids is not any easier. There are different challenges involved, but each remains just that – a challenge.
Most nights, my conversation with my husband starts with some form of “is this global life messing up our kids?” Each move, each new school, each transition, each new language, each goodbye, and each new experience sometimes prompts a whole re-evaluation of our expat lifestyle and the havoc it might wreak on our children’s ability to form meaningful friendships and connections through childhood.
Understanding the effects of expatriation on expat kids was one of several reasons, I was eager to listen to the research, findings and discussions at the recent Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) conference in The Hague, in March 2017. As an expat writer and an expat parent, I was particularly interested in hearing how expat life and the constant moving and saying goodbye and starting at a new school in a new country was affecting our expat kids and how I could handle future moves with them in a way that minimized their confusion or sadness. The FIGT conference gave me not only very clear insights of the effects of expat life on kids but also helped me to meet others writing on this topic and read and understand research, articles and books written by cross cultural educators and parents in the field.
When Your Expat Kid is the Stayer:
Jane Barron; a youth intercultural transition specialist who writes about the impact of mobility on children for Globally Grounded, explains in her article 6 Steps Towards Being a Successful Stayer in an International School that “in an international school, there are three types of students: leaver, arriver and stayer.” Quite often the leaver is preparing for the impending move by saying goodbye to friends, while the arriver is the new kid who has just arrived and eager to make friends and settle in. Jane points out that “most international school support the arriver and the leaver, but what about the stayer? He is thrown into transition, yet his suitcase is still in the closet.”
Even though we are not moving this summer, my daughter is still dealing with transition and with saying goodbye to several of her friends. Through reading Jane’s article, I now realize the important of talking through the changes with her, acknowledging her feelings of sadness or loss and making an active plan for her to stay in touch with her friends. Little things like showing her on a map or globe, where her friend is going, helps her to contextualize the new life her friend will lead.
When Your Expat Kid is the Leaver:
When we moved from Singapore to Dubai, our daughter was only two and a half. I thought she would not understand or be able to grasp the gravity of the move but come moving day, when she saw the packers pack up her favorite toys, she grew aggressive and territorial. Even at her young age, she needed help handling the transition. I know when it is time for our next move (a question of when, not if), I will have to clearly explain to both kids why we are moving, and what that entails.
This idea was reinforced by Kristin Louise Duncombe in her talk at FIGT on ‘Raising Global and Mobile Children: Challenges and Solutions for International Families.’ She explained that the key factors towards impacting a kid’s reaction to a move are age, development stage, personality, temperament and family dynamics. It was important to remember the difference in each child’s temperament in his/her ability to process a move. An introverted child may have a harder time dealing with an international move, than an extroverted one. What was also interesting was Kristin’s advice to parent to “be real with your kids” – to talk about your emotions, acknowledge the ups and downs and be healthy role models for them in navigating change. I usually try to shield my children from all my complicated emotions during a move, but now realize it is far healthier to show them my sadness at leaving a place along with my excitement of starting a new adventure.
I also enjoyed listening to Maria Lombart’s Ignite presentation on dealing with loss as a child. She helped me as an expat parent to see, that globally mobile children face tangible losses (pets, places, belongings and people) but also intangible losses (language, belonging, experiences and personality). It is equally important to acknowledge both during a transition.
In their book ‘Third Culture Kids. Growing Up Among Worlds’, Ruth van Reken and David Pollock outline the key for a healthy transition, imagine building a RAFT: of Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell and Think Destination. Reconciliation means to let go of unresolved issues and mend bridges. Affirmation of what you had in a certain place and what that meant for you. An expat kid who is leaving can say to friends ‘thank you for being part of my journey.’ Farewell to places as well as people is important. Sometimes a farewell memento can help kids in the process of leaving too. And lastly ‘think destination’ means to prepare your family for where you are going, and to have knowledge of the place.
In the past year, I have thought more about how to approach an international move with my young kids (currently five and two years old). My personal rules for giving them stability have been to make sure we are going to be at a location for at least a minimum of three years. Once we are in a new country, I like to keep as much as possible – schools, house, neighborhood – stable and the same to counteract all the new experiences they are dealing with -country, language, culture, weather, friends etc. I do not like to switch apartments or houses while living in the same city. I do not like to switch schools or kindergarten for my kids unless necessary. Because they will be dealing with an international move at some point, I like to keep our time in a particular city uncomplicated. Too many frequent small moves within a city, followed by a large international move would be difficult and stressful to handle – for all of us.
I feel a lot more confident thanks to conferences such as the Families in Global Transition, that we are slowly understanding and learning more about the impact of mobility in shaping our children’s experiences in the 21st century. On the question of whether this experience of growing up around the world will mess them up – I hope not. But I do know that each move we will make from now on, will be conducted under the framework of giving maximum support and understanding to our children. This international and global life has opened new doors for them and their experience of diversity, tolerance and learning new cultures and languages has made for such a rich childhood.
For further reading on how to handle international moves with expat kids, here is a list of useful websites, books and resources that ‘And Then We Moved To’ would like to recommend:
Globally Grounded (www.globallygrounded.com), a website dedicated to supporting students across cultures, domestic and international transitions.
Expat Child (www.expachild.com) for practical relocation advice for your whole family.
Families in Global Transition (www.figt.org) founded by Ruth van Reken is a forum for globally mobile families and those working with them.
Expat bookshop (www.expatbookshop.com) founded by author Jo Parfitt and Summertime Publishing for the latest in books for the expat community. It has a section devoted to books relating to Third Culture Kids.
B at Home: Emma Moves Again, by Valerie Besanceney. Emma is only ten years old, but has already moved twice. Now, her parents are telling her the family is moving again. She’s furious, sad, nervous, and a little excited, all at the same time. Unsure of how to tackle these conflicting emotions, she turns to B, her faithful teddy bear. While trying to come to terms with the challenges of another move, what Emma really wants is just to ‘be at home’. As the journeys of Emma and B unfold, home changes once again, but home also begins to take on a new meaning that Emma can take with her wherever she goes.
Slurping Soup and Other Confusions, by Maryam Afnan Ahmad, Cherie Emigh, Ulrike Gemmer, Bárbara Menezes, Kathryn Tonges and Lucinda Willshire. The book aims to help children cope with the challenges of living internationally. Each story is followed by a related activity. The activities are suitable for three to 12-year old’s and include brainstorming, problem solving, party planning, family tree, and quirky word creations. The stories explore adapting to new environments, home and family adjustment, cultural differences, friendship changes and feelings of belonging.
Misunderstood – The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, by Tanya Crossman. Misunderstood explores the impact international life can have on the children of globally mobile families – while they live overseas, when they return, and as they mature into adults. Similarities in their shared experiences (regardless of the different countries in which they have lived) create a safe space of comfort and understanding. Whether you grew up overseas, are raising children overseas, or know a family living abroad, Misunderstood will equip you with insights into the international experience, along with practical suggestions for how to offer meaningful care and support.
I confess – I have long had a rather complicated relationship with the idea of having help at home.
I suppose it can all be traced back to my childhood in Pakistan. Growing up amidst a plethora of house help was the norm, for upper middle-class families such as ours. In addition to having a cook to cook meals for us, a maid to clean, a gardener to tend to the garden and a driver to drive us around town, there was even a ‘dhobi’ – a professional laundry man who washed and ironed all major clothing and bedding and hand delivered our clean laundry to us every Sunday on a donkey cart. Each time the doorbell would ring on a Saturday, my father would go out and let one of the house help in. During particularly uncertain and troubled times in our home city of Karachi, we even employed a security guard at our house for additional security.
In many third world or developing countries with large numbers of unskilled labourers, hiring domestic help is not only affordable, but quite vital in creating jobs in the local economy and providing useful and gainful employment.
Growing up watching my parents trying to manage their household staff (on a smaller scale than Downton Abbey with no Mr. Carsen as a butler), made me realize how stressful the entire setup was. Domestic help, while readily available in Pakistan, is also notoriously unreliable. A strike in the city might mean that the maid could not board her bus from one of Karachi’s slums to our posh locale in the upper middle class neighborhood we lived in. The driver might not show up for work one day because his father’s cousin’s wife just gave birth to his nephew. The cook, who had to undergo immense scrutiny of his method of preparing all his dishes from my grandmother who lived with us, would often quit citing her “interference” and “high standards”. I can’t remember the number of different cooks we had growing up in Pakistan. As a family, we joked and placed bets on who would last the longest! Every month entailed a new saga and sometimes a new cook.
When the gardener refused to wash our cars, my father went and hired another person, whose sole responsibility was to wash and keep our cars cleaned in the dusty climate of Sindh. The driver didn’t appreciate the extra pair of hands demanding the car keys and one afternoon, it all went downhill pretty fast. I think we lost the gardener, the driver and the extra car washing guy in one fell swoop!
Watching from my bedroom window, I concluded that having domestic help was definitely more of a hindrance than a help. That and the lack of privacy, was difficult to deal with, with people constantly going in and out of the house, upstairs and downstairs.
I took these lofty ideals with me to the United States, when I arrived ready to start college, wholly unprepared for living on my own. It was embarrassing to admit to my American roommate that at the age of 19, I had never done laundry before – could she please show me how to operate a washing machine? Despite her help, my first few loads were a disaster – my white socks turned pink, thanks to the red T-shirt I had carelessly left in the pile and my clothes never dried fast enough in the harsh winters of Massachusetts, unlike the hot afternoons in Karachi.
Growing up with domestic help was suddenly a big disadvantage for me. I wanted to claim my independence and learn how to do everything myself. I vowed never ever to be dependent on household help again, and to learn to do all household chores myself. I started valuing my privacy and alone time and could finally appreciate the satisfaction that came from doing it all by myself.
Fast forward many years of living abroad in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Denmark. I thrived in such Western societies, where the notion of employing domestic household help was not the norm or the standard. It fit my new ideals of being self-reliant. My German mother-in-law who worked full time, did employ a cleaner who came once a week to thoroughly clean their house in Germany, but she was efficient, punctual and reliable as probably only a German cleaning lady could be! A far cry from the domestic help I was used to.
The societal pressure to hire help started when I left Copenhagen, 5 months pregnant and arrived in Singapore for our next expat assignment. It was my first time moving to a country where hiring a full-time live-in maid or a helper was the norm for many expat families such as ours. The first few months in Singapore, I went from one expat meetup to another, to chatting with my local landlady – a Malaysian Chinese woman – everyone insisted that I would need help once the baby arrived.
Shocked Pakistani expats told me over chai and samosas “But you won’t even have time to shower! Who will help you once the baby arrives if you don’t hire help, and your husband is at work?”
It was not so difficult to explain why I was so vehemently opposed to having a full-time helper. I had just quit my job and offered my resignation in Denmark at the oil trading company I was working with. I was now pregnant with our first child and had just moved continents to focus on being a stay at home mother. The thought terrified me, but since I was already grappling with an immense loss of identity stemming from giving up my career, how could I possibly give up my household duties and outsource them to someone else too? What would there be left for me to do then?
So while I understood that many expat families in Singapore made use of the local availability of help, while living far away from their friends and family back home, I knew it just wasn’t for me. For many expats, especially those from the West, having hired help at home was a novelty. A luxury to be enjoyed that came as a perk of being posted to South East Asia. For me it was something I had grown up with. A hindrance. A headache to be managed. And I just didn’t want any of that. Years of doing everything myself meant that I struggled to relinquish control over my house to anyone. Just the thought of giving control of my kitchen to a helper was too stressful for my type A, OCD personality to handle. My German-Italian husband also unused to help, agreed and so it was settled.
Of course, each time, I complained to my parents on the phone that I was sleep deprived (hardly surprising with a newborn), my father would insist the solution was to “hire help.” The more everyone told me I needed help, the more I made up my mind that I did not need help!
I thought admitting that I needed help would be admitting that I was failing in my new role as an expat mother. After all, so many mothers in different countries did it all themselves and I didn’t hear them complaining.
And as I watched my friend’s daughter run to her maid for comfort instead of her mother when she hurt herself at a playdate one afternoon, I thought “oh I’m not emotionally equipped to deal with this. If my daughter should choose my maid over me, I think I would never get over it.”
It took many years of motherhood since then to make me realize that as a mother raising your kids abroad, without “your village”, any help you can get is vital. I slowly stopped judging kids who would arrive at a playground with their maid and tried to imagine what the mother was doing at home. Maybe she was helping an older child with her homework? Maybe she was cooking dinner and had asked the maid to take her child for some outdoor play in the meantime?
Over time I grew less judgemental and more accepting of the notion of having household help as far as others were concerned. But I was still hesitant to try it out myself.
When I arrived in Dubai with a 2-year-old toddler and pregnant with my second baby in a high-risk pregnancy, in the scorching Arabian summer – I took one look at our villa and decided that yes it would be helpful to have some help cleaning this house, especially given the dust blowing in from the desert every day.
I knew I was still not ready to have a full-time live-in maid as was also the norm in Dubai, but I dallied with the notion of hiring part time help. I agreed with my husband to try one of the agencies a friend had recommended for hiring a maid to come to your place for four hours and clean and then go back.
The first two maids the agency sent were a disaster.
I was just about to give up when they sent Maryann over to our villa one afternoon.
Hailing from the Philippines, there was something about her right away. She was fast, efficient, organized, superb at cleaning and was excellent at taking the initiative herself.
At the end of her first week, my husband and I came down for breakfast one morning and he said:
“Honey, did you see how Maryann re-organized the closet with the towels?”
Me: “Yes, I know, its genius! Why didn’t we ever think of rolling the towels as opposed to folding them? There is so much more space this way!”
It was official. My part time helper/maid Maryann was excellent. Thanks to her my household was cleaner and more organized than ever before. Soon, she was the one giving me cleaning tips on how to get rough stains out.
I happily surrendered. Not my whole household but a part of it – the cleaning, organizing and ironing part. I still cook, look after the kids and do everything else, but having Maryann around has made my life a whole lot easier as a working mother of two. The best part is that she doesn’t live with us and is not always in my space – so I have some help without sacrificing my privacy or my sanity.
In the past two years, Maryanne has become almost like family. As soon as the doorbell rings in the afternoon, my kids run screaming to the door “Maryann is here!” She has babysat for us a number of times and done a great job each time and the kids love her.
But as most expat stories go – this one too ends with a repatriation. Except it is Maryann who is repatriating back to the Philippines, not us. Her husband and two sons await her arrival back home. Expat life in Dubai has been tough; to be away from her kids has not been easy. While she has attended all of my children’s birthdays, she has missed her own children’s birthdays. After earning and saving some money, Maryann will return home at the end of the summer.
When she told me last month, I started to cry. Not because I was losing the most valuable help I have had in my motherhood journey abroad, but because she ended up teaching me my most important lesson yet –someone who may come to clean your house twice a week, could end up becoming part of your support network away from home. And that’s a good thing. We don’t need to do it alone. We need all the help and support we can get, when we raise our families away from home. We expat mama’s have to stick together. May we all be lucky enough to have a Maryann in our lives.
Author’s Note: My family and I are planning a little farewell surprise for Maryann next month. She will be greatly missed and hard to replace. Through the years she has worked for us, we have tried to help her financially and offer support for her family when she’s needed it. We will keep in touch and hope our paths may cross again someday.
I looked up at the government officer and could clearly see the confusion on his face. My Pakistani self, didn’t correspond to my American driver’s license or the residence visa in my Italian passport sponsored under my German husband’s name.
In Dubai, when your race, nationality and driver’s license don’t correspond, you may have a slight problem.
But things were about to get worse.
“Wait a minute. This driver’s license is expired. It says it expired in 2012!” he exclaimed, turning it around.
“Yes. I haven’t lived in the US for a while, so I haven’t been able to renew it online, even though I tried. Also in my present condition, I can’t exactly fly to Texas right now to get a new one issued.” I explained, pointing down at my 7 months’ pregnant belly. “But, I do know how to drive! You can test me right now if you like” I offered, in what I hoped was a convincing way.
He wasn’t fooled. “Ma’am, do you have a valid license from Pakistan?”
Me: “No, I haven’t lived there in over 15 years.”
“Do you have a valid license from Italy?”
“No.” I decided not to confuse him further by mentioning that I have actually never lived in Italy for even one day, let alone having driven there.
“Then how have you been driving all this time?”
“Oh, I was living in Singapore, where I didn’t need to have a car or drive, since the public transportation is so good. And before that, I lived in Copenhagen and I could just walk to work you know. And before that…”
“Okay, okay” He muttered something in Arabic underneath his breath, before going to check with a colleague.
When he came back, he looked serious.
“This is what we can do for you, given your circumstances and special condition” he said sheepishly referring to my rather pregnant self. “Instead of completing 40 hours of theory and driving lessons, you must complete 25 hours only and then you can be eligible for the driving test. If you pass, you can have a UAE driver’s license by the end of the month. Think of it like a refresher course.”
Knowing he was making a big exception and that I was being let off easily, I thanked him profusely and walked out feeling relieved. If expat life had taught me anything, it was how to try to get myself out of tricky situations abroad. It didn’t always work, but it was always worth a try.
I was reminded of this incident when I recently attended the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in The Hague. I listened to Doreen Cumberford give a talk on ‘Tribe Building: Secrets of Moving from Struggle to Success When Building Your Tribe’. In her insightful and inspirational presentation, she talked about dumping our old attitudes, outlining a clear vision for our values and moving from struggle to success “using our intuition” and our “perception skills” as key superpowers in negotiating our lives abroad and building our international tribe. She encouraged all of us to identify our “expat superpowers”.
This immediately made me sit up. Many times, as a child I had secretly desired to have some super powers, that could make me extraordinary. 15 years as an expat, but no one had told me about any superpowers! Surely all the international moves, and learning how to start over and over again, building a life from scratch and learning new languages had taught me some skills?
Turns out I do have many superpowers, but I just never thought of them or acknowledged them openly before. As a long-term expat, I had unconsciously developed lots of tricks of the trade. Some of these might sound familiar to you. Getting out of tricky situations abroad is my forte, along with:
Keeping a conversation going in a foreign language, when you are only understanding maybe 65% of what’s being said? (check) The trick here is to learn a few key words and phrases roughly corresponding to “oh is that so?” “oh really?” “I can imagine” in the foreign language you are trying to hold the conversation in and just keep repeating them in solid intervals, along with the appropriate facial expressions.
Sweet talking your way out of not knowing the local rules? (check) Like the time, I visited a bakery in Copenhagen for the first time and didn’t realize I needed to take a number and queue up for my turn! I was used to taking a number and queuing up at government offices, at an embassy or at a pharmacy perhaps, but not at the local neighborhood bakery. Still, once I realized my mistake, people were quite friendly and laughed at my rookie mistake, when they realized I was not “Dansk”.
Picking a place to live in a city you have just arrived in? (check) House hunting is never an easy or straightforward process, but house hunting in a new city where you have no idea about the different neighborhoods or where you would like to live, can be outright daunting. But as expats, we do this all the time and we get good at it. It requires focus, research and networking – three things that seasoned expats can rock in their sleep! The phrase I hear many expats repeatedly say during a house-hunt is, “I’ll know it, when I see it.” In other words, intuition is often key in our decision-making process.
Dealing with mountain loads of paperwork and bureaucracy without going insane? (check) I always joke that you do not want to be stuck behind me in a queue at a government office or at an embassy. We are one of THOSE families, who take forever because our documentation is spread out over continents and usually the person behind the counter looks at us weary-eyed probably thinking “it’s too early in the morning to deal with this”. We show up, asking for birth certificates to be translated into different languages, to be attested by relevant authorities, for passports to be renewed, for visa extensions to be granted and while we may look calm, it’s all really an act! “Fake it, till you get it” is our family motto.
Settling in kids in a new school? (check) This is usually a big task to handle, and luckily so far, we’ve only had to do it twice and our kids are still young. Orientation tours, chats with the Principal, a lot of oohing and aahing and some bribery later, we are all willing ourselves to feel more optimistic about the move.
Then there are the superpowers that I wish I had. I wish I had the ability to not get lost in every new city that I call home. I wish I had finally learned some killer suitcase packing skills, but the truth is I still don’t know which is better; to fold or to roll? And I’m still incapable of packing light. I wish I had found a way to make my international bedding magically match, but the truth is, I’ve given up on this front and succumbed to mismatched pillow sizes and bed sheets. I wish I could conquer feelings of homesickness, but the more I move, the more homesick I feel. While I’m at it, I wish I could be as good at ‘apparition’ as Harry Potter and friends, it would make my expat life much easier.
Let’s cut straight to the chase. Almost everyone you ask or meet will tell you that an African safari requires two things: patience to see animals and silence when you do spot them in the wild. For this reason, many people think that taking young children (less than six years old) on a safari is like committing family travel suicide.
But think about it.
An African safari is probably one of the most magical experiences that you can expose your children to. That unbelievable excitement of being in the wild and the suspense of seeing something moving behind the bushes…is it a giraffe? Is it an elephant? Is it a wildebeest? Oh, it’s a magnificent leopard and it’s walking straight at us! This is the kind of stuff that children will remember forever. Young kids are especially entranced by animals and interested in wildlife, so is there a way to fuel their childhood curiosity and give them their very own Jungle Book experience?
Now, I’m a firm believer that when it comes to travelling with young kids, its best to do your research but then in the end, make a decision knowing your own family best. No one can predict how your 2 or 3-year-old will behave on a safari. So, if you think you won’t enjoy it, he is not ready and it will be too stressful – then don’t go.
But if you are like me – you know how much your children love animals and would do anything to see them, and you are able to manage their expectations and adjust your own while making the proper arrangements – then I can guarantee you, it is possible to have a fabulous time on your safari adventure!
Here are some tips and tricks of what you need to know and how to plan for such a trip:
The gorgeous landscape at Pilanesberg National Park.
1. Choose a child-friendly country and preferably a smaller game reserve: When you are doing your research, choose an African country that is child-friendly and easy to travel to with kids. Even though I initially had my heart set on doing a safari in Tanzania or Kenya, this did not seem feasible with young kids. The children would need yellow fever vaccines and there was the risk of malaria to contend with. In the end, we wanted a stress-free holiday and decided that South Africa was our safest bet. Most of the game reserves in South Africa are malaria free and we decided to go to one of our favorite game reserves known for its natural beauty and abundance of the big five: Pilanesberg National park. There was a reason we choose to take our kids to a smaller game park like Pilanesberg as opposed to the hugely popular Kruger National Park. A smaller game reserve means you spend less time waiting to spot animals and you have a higher chance of seeing many animals in the wild in just two game drives. We felt both factors would make for an easier safari experience with young children and we were right!
Don’t get complacent in your travel planning: We were denied boarding for our flight to South Africa, since we had not checked up on local rules and did not realise there was a new law in place. To clamp down on child trafficking, South African immigration requires attested originals of your children’s birth certificates (in addition to their passports) to be presented at the time of check-in. We had passports, but no birth certificates, but luckily had enough time to go back home and get them. It was a good lesson even for frequent travellers like us to always check the local requirements when travelling with children.
Hire a car:
My 2 year old was extremely excited to ride in the safari jeep!
Hiring a car gives you more flexibility to drive around and suit things according to your own schedule. Having a car helped us plan road trips according to nap times, so the almost 3 hour drive from Johannesburg to the Pilanesberg National Park was very smooth, and meant our kids were well-rested when we arrived. There’s also another benefit of hiring a car – if you want you can also do your own private tour in a game reserve, if that suits your own family needs better. We did not need to do this, but in case you are worried about joining a big safari group, this could be a good plan B. And as most parents know, when travelling with young children, it’s always nice to have a plan B!
Spotting animals early in the morning over breakfast at the 5 star Bakubung Lodge.
Choose a child friendly lodge: I cannot stress this enough. Do careful research and choose a lodge that is child-friendly and accepts young children. Many lodges do not accept children under six years of age, or allow them on game drives. Avoid these. There are plenty of facilities geared towards families with young children that will help you feel welcome and not anxious. We were so excited when we arrived at the five star Bakubung Bush Lodge in Pilanesberg National Park. It was super child-friendly, with a swimming pool and a playground for children to play in, in between game drives. The best part was its location; right next to a watering hole. This meant, that in the mornings we could spot many wildebeests, hyenas, and zebras drinking water, while having our breakfast! Our kids were fascinated to spot animals in the wild and it prepared them for going on their first official safari drive. Wide, open, free, green spaces for them to run around in the African bush was very important too, since children need time and space to explore. Dinner at night was a very casual and laid back affair, and very welcoming of young families. Where we stayed, played a huge part in helping to make our family safari a success!
5. Get disconnected and enjoy the nature and wildlife:
While we were on safari, we had a no internet, no Wi-Fi, no TV, no iPad rule. Sounds like torture? Well, I was skeptical too, but it turned out that as soon as my husband and I switched off from our busy, hectic lives, our children followed suit. For three days, we surrendered ourselves to our incredible surroundings, and focused on the nature and wildlife around us. There was plenty of time in between game drives to read stories together, talk about our day, for the children to draw the animals they had seen that day and to just unwind. Sometimes going off the grid can really enhance your travel experience, and what better time to do this than when you’re in the middle of the African bush!
6. Manage children’s expectations and your own: Before you set off on your safari game drives, its best to manage your children’s expectations. Explain some ground rules: it’s a bumpy ride so they need to be seated. If they are not quiet, then they will scare the animals and the animals might run away. Encourage them to look out for animals, and give them a pair of binoculars EACH (trust me, it’s better for each child to have their own binocular to avoid fights!). Pack some snacks to take with you so the kids can eat in between if you have a long period where you don’t spot any animals. Pack appropriate clothing for the kids (and yourself) including sweaters especially if you are doing an early morning 6 am safari drive. The safari jeep is usually open, so it could get chilly early in the morning or late at night. Manage your own expectations too: be prepared to answer a ton of questions and take a lot of pictures. If your children are comfortable with cameras, you can encourage them to take pictures too!
7. Make your game drives into a fun game: Children love new experiences and a safari game drive can be extremely fun for them. Encourage them to keep their eyes open, and report what they see. A safari is a great way to encourage their observation skills. A number of times my five year old daughter wondered out loud “is that a stone? Is it a bush? Oh, I can see something moving!” She was discovering the thrill and anticipation of being on a safari herself and this was not something I could have taught her at home. She had to experience it herself.
8. Let them draw their experiences:After each safari, my two kids would sit down and list excitedly all the animals they had seen and then tried to draw them. This was a valuable way for them to process their safari experiences and important for us as parents to encourage their storytelling skills, jog their memory, and help explore their artistic talents. We later compiled some of their best drawings in a book to show to their teachers and friends at school, after we returned from our Spring break.
9. Fuel their curiosity but introduce structure: My kids thrive on routine and we were able to introduce that during the safari, which really made the entire experience fun for them. We were structured when it came to our safari drives (getting up early, having a big breakfast etc.) but in between game drives we let the kids play at the playground, go swimming, take much needed naps and really do anything they wanted to do. It is important to strike the right balance and allow for some down time.
10. A two to three day safari is enough: Its best to keep your safari adventure short and sweet with your young kids. Going on a week-long safari will definitely get boring for them. I found that two to three days was the ideal length for a fantastic first safari experience – with enough time to see animals and equally important, enough time to unwind in between and enjoy your surroundings. When planning your safari trip with young kids, I’d recommend a two to three day trip, which is perfect for family bonding time.
About the Author: Mariam Ottimofiore is the founder and writer behind the blog ‘And Then We Moved To’. She is passionate about travelling with her young children and encouraging them to experience the world for themselves. Her travel writing has been published in Expat Living Singapore, Expat Living Hong Kong, Fuchsia Magazine and on the Huffington Post’s Parenting website.
“Is it possible for me to take the day off work next week? It’s for a religious holiday, it’s the Muslim equivalent of Christmas – we will be celebrating ‘Eid’. But the thing is, this holiday depends on the lunar calendar, so depending on when the moon is sighted, can I either take Tuesday or Wednesday off?”, I asked nervously in one continuous breath, as I walked into my Danish boss’s office in Copenhagen at work.
“Sure Mariam, that’s not a problem. But you mean you don’t know which day your holiday will be on?” he asked, looking a bit confused.
“That’s right – I will know for sure on Monday night. It all depends on the moon you see. And sometimes different Muslim countries will celebrate ‘Eid’ on different days, depending on when the moon is sighted” I explained rather sheepishly, not sure how to explain this properly and feeling bad for not being able to give sufficient notice of the day I would take off.
As a Pakistani expat working in a largely Danish office and a predominantly Danish team, this was just one of many occasions where I had to explain my culture, background or religion to an audience for whom it seemed extremely foreign – to not even know in advance which day my religious holiday would fall on!
I had faced similar challenges living in the United States as well. I remember remarking to a colleague once, “Sure, I’ll send you that email tomorrow inshallah!”. Now, if you have lived as an expat in the Muslim world, or in the Middle East, you will be familiar with this word, which is used extensively at the end of every sentence to show intent and means “God willing”. But if you are born and bred in Texas like my colleague, then chances are you will probably look back at me in confusion and ask “what did you just say?” Whoops. Occasion number #17658 when I had let an “inshallah” slip!
I started thinking about these and so many other experiences last month, when I attended the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in The Hague and listened to a talk on “The Muslim Expat Experience” given by Maryam Afnan Ahmad, co-author of the book “Slurping Soup, and Other Confusions.” The talk made me reflect on various aspects of my own Muslim and expat identity simultaneously and brought forth many questions and some answers.
But first a confession. I identify as a Muslim. And I identify as an expat. But until, I was sitting there listening to this presentation, I realized I had never joined the dots and identified myself as a ‘Muslim expat.’ Why was this so? Clearly there were examples from my expat life such as the ones mentioned above, which were distinctly the experiences of a Muslim expat. So why had I not ever once mentioned that I was a Muslim expat? Why had I not written even one word or even one article on this part of my identity until now?
It took a lot of reflection over the next two weeks for some thoughts to crystallise.
The Muslim Identity:
As Maryam explained in her talk at FIGT, “there is no one Muslim expat experience.” I found myself nodding to this. Muslims are not a cohesive, homogeneous group by any definition. We are extremely different, with diverse experiences and different attitudes to our faith and to our expat lives.
My own Muslim identity is complex. When someone asks me “are you a Muslim?”, I usually reply “yes, but not a very good one.” Having grown up and lived in different cultures, my Muslim identity has been shaped, stretched, reformed and reinvented many times. I don’t pray five times a day, but I do try to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. I don’t cover my head, or wear a headscarf, hijab, niqab or a burka, but I do refrain from eating pork or any bacon products. I don’t read the Quran regularly, but when I am stressed, I do start reciting several Quranic verses for comfort that I learnt in my childhood. My name Mariam (the Muslim name for the Virgin Mary in Arabic) sounds rather anglicised with its spelling, and doesn’t really mark me as a Muslim per se, like a name like Fatima or Aisha might. Sometimes my Muslim background comes as a complete surprise to those who visit my home. I still remember the movers in Singapore who helped offload all our boxes from our container into our apartment. Turns out they were men who were mostly Muslim Malays, so when they unwrapped my prized blue tile mosaics from the Blue Mosque in Turkey with Arabic calligraphy, they asked in surprise “Ma’am are you Muslim?” When I replied yes, they worked harder and more efficiently than before! I was one of them, although it had not been apparent before.
I suppose that’s the thing. I don’t wear my Muslim identity on my sleeve, or on my head for that matter. My faith is private. It’s not something I’ll discuss if I have just met you. Its multi-layered and comes out in different shapes and forms, and sometimes when I least expect it. It might present itself in a heated debate or discussion on Middle Eastern politics. It might be reflected when I speak of my experience as a Muslim living in the United States post 9/11. It might be apparent in the book you see me reading on an airplane, “The Three Daughters of Eve” by my favorite Turkish author Elif Shafak who is excellent at dissecting the modern Muslim psyche.
The Expat Identity:
In contrast, my expat identity is usually apparent very quickly. I will talk about raising our children in cultures different from our own, I will talk about learning German when I lived in Berlin and I will share the many expat issues I face such as keeping my career alive, making new homes, learning to start again etc. When I arrive in a new country, I don’t automatically look for a grocery store or a butcher who sells halaal meat. Many Muslim expats might, but I personally don’t. My father taught me that what matters is not halaal food, but a halaal income – if you earn an honest living, anything you buy with your hard-earned money is considered halaal = legal/lawful. Not your typical Muslim experience I guess, but that’s my point. Faith, and its interpretation is all supremely relative. Perhaps expat life has forced me to be more practical about these things. Keeping a fast in Massachusetts during winter when the New England days are short, is infinitely easier than fasting in Copenhagen with the long Scandinavian days in summer, when the sun doesn’t set until 10 pm sometimes!
Interestingly, I have never evaluated or assessed moving to a certain country or city based on how “Muslim-friendly” it was. When confronted with an international move, my focus was always on researching schools, security, jobs etc., but never on the availability of prayer rooms, reduced office timings for Ramadan or access to a neighborhood mosque. I have never needed to live in a Muslim country, to feel connected to my Muslim identity.
But my Muslim background is apparent in my love for travel, knowledge and education. Muslims have been great travelers throughout centuries as Maryam reminded me in her talk. From the great Muslim scholars like Ibn Batuta to the great Muslim Sufi poetry of Rumi, the adventures, love for knowledge and thirst for different cultures has shaped my expat identity.
Upon reflection and talks with some other Muslim expats, I start to understand that sometimes when confronted with the other; a foreign country, a foreign culture, a life abroad – some Muslims may cling to their old identities and start identifying more strongly as Muslims – maybe even more strongly than they would, had they remained in their passport countries. As one of my Muslim friends said: “if that’s how people are going to see you, you might as well own it.” Perhaps in an ever-changing expat world of living in different countries and the need for bridging cultures, it feels comfortable to identify with a part of you that will remain a constant in your life; no matter where you are living.
I had to mull on this perspective for some days. The reason it initially confused me, was because I realized the opposite had happened to me. Expat life, has made me reflect on what aspects of my religious and cultural identity were really important to me. It has made me pick and choose which aspects of my religious, cultural and national identity I keep and which I discard. Which rituals was I following simply because society expected that of me? And which holidays do I really identify with and want to keep and pass on to my children as part of their identities? Because, when you strip away society and societal expectations, only then can you understand what is truly important to you.
Expat life had helped me see which parts of my Muslim identity I cherished and valued and which customs I was only following, because that’s what everyone around me was doing. I realized that no matter where in the world I was, I would always celebrate ‘Eid’ and take a day off. I realized I wanted to teach my children how to read the Quran (but in Urdu or English) instead of forcing them to memorise it in Arabic, as I had been made to do in a language I didn’t understand or speak as a child. I realized that when it came time to decide whether to circumcise my son shortly after his birth (as expected in Islamic tradition), I felt very differently than how I had always assumed I would feel.
Expat life has constantly made me re-evaluate and re-assess how Muslim I felt. Was I upset at the Danish Cartoon controversy surrounding the Prophet Muhammad, as an expat living in Denmark? Did I want to join the protests happening in London against the Iraq War? How did I feel when my husband had to grant written permission to ‘allow’ me to obtain a drivers license and drive a car in Dubai?
Living in a Muslim Country as a Muslim Expat:
Which brings me to my current expat life. I currently live as a Muslim expat in a Muslim country. The United Arab Emirates has strict Shariah laws regarding many aspects of life here in Dubai. On the one hand, I identify with the local religious holidays, customs and practices. But on the other hand, Arab culture is as foreign to me as Greek culture would be to an Australian. So even though I live in a Muslim country, as a Muslim expat, there have been many new experiences, many learnings and many lessons on how the local culture impacts and shapes so much of our religious identities as well. And of course, the fact is that in Dubai (as elsewhere), you can meet all kinds of different Muslim expats. Some might tell you about their Muslim identities over a shisha smoking session, with every other word being a “mashallah” (praise be to God) or an “inshallah” (God willing). Others might invite you out to the local mosque and tell you how they feel they don’t belong here after you pray together.
So, if you are on the outside looking in, I must agree and conclude with Maryam’s advice in her talk at FIGT on the Muslim expat experience: “practice respectful curiosity.” Muslim expats come in all shapes and sizes; don’t make the mistake of stereotyping or judging one based on the other. And be ready to socialise, whether it’s at a shisha café or the local mosque. Sometimes, even as a Muslim, you never know which one it will be.
I remember the day like yesterday. I was sitting in our swanky hotel in Singapore, having breakfast. All around me, smartly attired men and women were eating breakfast before going to work. Their suits and ties and laptop bags reminded me of the life I had just said goodbye to. As if on cue, my husband got up, grabbed his briefcase and said “Goodbye honey, I’m off!” and left for work in his new job. Sitting on that table, alone, with no plans for the day and no one to meet, I felt a complete and utter sense of despair. Who was I, if I didn’t have a job or a career or an office to go to now? The identity loss was crippling. The small flutters and kicks to my stomach reminded me that I would soon have different responsibilities. But in the months to come, not even motherhood could replace my previous identity or help me deal with the dramatic shift in status, identity, financial dependence and loss of career.
Attending the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference last month in The Hague, I was reminded of that day again and that the loss I experienced was palpable. I had the chance to attend a fascinating talk by Alix Carnot; from Expat Communication, on What it Takes to Manage Dual Careers Abroad: Expat Value 2017 Global Survey. As Alix explained, many couples try to pursue three goals simultaneously: expatriation, love and career. But the impact of living an internationally mobile life can be challenging to maintaining and managing dual careers abroad. With the use of her own experiences and direct insights from her survey (more info at the end of the article), Alix highlighted the challenges that come when one partner is asked to leave their job, to move with their partner to a foreign country on an international assignment.
The Challenges of the “Expat Trailing Bees”:
As per the results of their survey, 91% of expat spouses are women. 48 % of expat spouses consider that they put their career between brackets for their partners. 20% of expat women don’t want to work and are happy to take a break. Another 20% of women give up hope on finding a job. The statistics were humbling.
It is no wonder that there are both professional and personal challenges towards maintaining dual careers abroad. Professionally speaking, as many of us know or have experienced, there are often many hurdles to overcome. Obtaining a work permit, lack of fluency in the local language, cultural barriers, absence of a professional network, possessing job qualifications or licenses that are not recognized in the host country, and the reluctance by many companies to hire an expat spouse who might soon be on the move again. I think I can safely say that I’ve faced almost all of these situations in one country or the other.
It was interesting to note that these challenges were not just difficult for the expat spouse, but for the expat family as a whole. The more adverse impact an international move had on limiting the spouse’s ability to work, the higher the chance that the couple would turn down an expat move, creating even more challenges for the expat employer and global mobility firms.
The Winning Strategies:
Faced with an increasing amount of challenges, Alix highlighted some of the key factors for success in finding a job and managing two careers abroad. The thing that stood out for me was: “network”. 81% of women surveyed, found jobs through their network. Creating our own support network; our own tribe is a crucial element to our international lives but it seems it is also beneficial for our career and professional aspirations. Standing alone would not do the trick, it was necessary to go out there, form connections and build up our professional network.
The second winning strategy that really spoke to me, was something I have personally learned the hard way. It involves doing your research and making your own assessment of your career needs before you move. Before you and your partner say ‘yes’ to that international move, actively seek out your employer and ask for career assistance for yourself as the expat spouse. In our recent move to Dubai, I did just this and asked my husband’s employer, what career assistance or help I would be offered in Dubai. After seven moves, I am no longer afraid to ask. Because I asked, I did get offered some extra help which was valuable in setting up my own portable career, which ties in to Alix’s last winning strategy: “think nomadic and dare reinvention.” Reinvention is often the name of the game for many expat spouses and an increasingly popular way to maintain dual careers abroad. Setting up your own business, choosing a different career path or exploring others interests and hobbies can lead to successful career changes and portable careers as well.
Have you and your partner struggled to manage dual careers abroad? What tips, strategies or resources have helped you in sustaining two careers abroad? Share your stories and experiences on ‘And Then We Moved To’. For more information regarding the Families in Global Transition conference, head to their website: www.figt.org.
It’s a strange feeling getting on a plane and not knowing what to expect when you land. As expats, this is something we do all the time. Land in a new country and then fumble with a new local currency in our hands. Walk nervously into a café for a coffee meeting to meet other expats we’ve never met before. Head into a grocery store and figure out what bread crumbs are called in a foreign language we don’t speak yet. This constant moving, reinvention, change and accumulation of new experiences helps to shape us and our global identities.
This week though I took an even bigger journey, and flew half way across the world to meet and learn from a group of people I had never met before. With sweaty palms, I boarded my flight from Dubai to Amsterdam, on my way to The Hague to to attend the Families in Global Transition’s (FIGT)annual conference. I was going to meet my international tribe: people and families living the globally mobile life, just like us. Thinkers, writers, authors, researchers and speakers who knew what it is like to grow up in the midst of different cultures, what it is like to land in a foreign country and not speak the local language, what it is like to grow up being different, what it is like to raise children in a cross-cultural environment and what it is like to look at a map of the world and feel your heart race with excitement as you look at all the places you call home.
I thought back to the day 15 years ago, when I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as a wide-eyed 19-year-old teenager, on my way from Pakistan to America. It was a journey that dramatically changed the course of my life. A journey that had started off with just me and one suitcase, had now turned into a full-blown adventure after 7 countries, a 40-foot container, an expat husband from the other corner of the world, two kids born in two different countries and an ever-changing sense of identity, home, passports, nationalities and languages.
This week, as Schiphol Airport greeted me like an old friend, I realized that I was on a similar life-altering journey. As I walked through the doors of FIGT’s annual conference, and was greeted by one person after another with incredible warmth and friendliness, I felt that familiar rush of excitement and adrenaline.
Here is why. Here is what FIGT taught me this week:
The themes that stood out:
Community building is essential: Community and its counterpart, a tribe – is the one thing we cannot afford to miss out. Naomi Hattaway, founder of the ‘I Am A Triangle’ group support group, helped to show that “not experiencing community, is not an option.” She herself realized the importance of community when she moved from the United States to India. She helped us define what a community is and why it is essential for all of us to have. She encouraged us to seek out the commonalities we have with others. Patience, a smile and an open mind are all that is needed to build a community. By turning “I” into ‘we’ we can help support each other and stand together like a “zazzle of zebras.” Like a zebra, we also have unique stripes, but when we they all stand together, predators can’t attack. Similarly, if we stand together as a community and a tribe it would be harder for depression and loneliness to find us. It was the perfect start to the conference – along with her advice to stay curious, ask questions and explore challenges, which set the tone for what was to come.
Finding your language on the move is complex but vital: Language helps us to identify and name our experiences. Whether we identify as a third culture kid (TCK) or an expat, finding our language on the move was instrumental. Together Ruth van Reken, Ute Limacher-Riebold and Rita Rosenback showed us how language for globally mobile families was ever evolving. I was pleased to learn that the term “third culture kids” was now being used increasingly in other languages too. Ute pointed out “drittkulturkinder” in German and “ragazzi di terza cultura” in Italian were terms that had seeped into these languages as well. The biggest theme that stood out for me from this talk was Rita’s statement: “Languages don’t divide; they bring families together.” As a parent raising my kids in a multilingual environment (with 4 native languages + the local language of each country we move to), I have often wondered about the impact this will have on them. Hearing this helped me reaffirm that by teaching our kids our native languages, we weren’t dividing our family unit into Urdu speaking/German speaking/English speaking/Italian speaking/Arabic speaking – we were using all these languages to bring our family together.
Fear is useless; it has no place in our lives: As someone who is from Karachi, Pakistan I (unfortunately) know fear first hand. I have lived through multiple bomb blasts, military coups, political strikes, nuclear proliferation blasts, the threat of war with our neighboring India, terrorist attacks, honor killings, car thefts and home burglaries. My childhood home has both burnt through flames after a nasty fire and seen armed robbers hold my mother at gunpoint in her bedroom. After that last incident, my heart filled with fear and I started to feel too scared to go back to the beloved city where I had grown up. Too scared to take my two young kids with me and put them in harm’s way. But Sebastien Bellin, in his captivating, inspiring and extremely emotional keynote address which had the audience in tears, reminded all of us that fear is a useless emotion and had no place in our lives. Sebastien, a Brazilian-Belgian professional basketball player faced life-threatening injuries when he was at the Brussels airport on March 22nd, 2016 when suicide bombs tore through the airport, a terrorist attack for which ISIS later claimed responsibility. Instead of focusing on fear or the dead woman who lay beside him as panic and confusion erupted all around, Sebastien focused all his energy on living, not dying. He focused on getting out of there alive. He encouraged us to remember the difference between fear and danger: “Danger is a reality. But fear is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. Our minds make it a reality.” He challenged us all to ask ourselves why we let fear become a part of our mindset and advised us to imagine a windshield wiper. When fear hits us, imagine a windshield wiper clearing it all away. It was a timely reminder that fear is never conducive to any situation. Sebastien’s story of survival, showed that he succeeded to recover from his injuries, because he rebuilt his recovery on positivity, instead of negativity. As an expat parent, I realize fear is not going to help me and in fact will limit any decisions I make. Fear is never a good emotion, to base any decision on.
It’s important to connect your multicultural past to your present in a meaningful way: I really enjoyed the theme of this panel discussion, led by Marilyn Gardner. Sometimes, those of us who move countries a lot, try to tuck away our past, or brush it under the rug thinking the person standing in front of us is probably not interested in hearing about our previous life, in a different country. The advice and discussion that emerged from this panel discussion could not have been more different. Let’s use our multicultural past to our advantage; let’s use it to figure out our careers, life, love, relationships, parenthood and ambitions. Let’s use the skills we have learnt from an international childhood and apply them to our adult lives today. For me, it also tied into the fascinating research that Anne Copeland had shared with us on day two of the conference. She helped to show how the experience of being different helps you to develop certain life skills. It helps you to build resilience, it encourages adaptability and it fosters empathy for others. Sebastien Bellin touched upon this too when he explained “Every place that you live, adds quality to your life.” Using our past is not important, but crucial to finding our way in the present.
The Moments That Stood Out:
I loved catching oranges and arm wrestling in Dana Bachar Grossman’s talk on effective conflict mediation! The energy, vitality, passion and knowledge that she brought to the table in her presentation was truly inspirational.
I personally loved meeting Marilyn Gardner and Monika Wal who had both grown up and lived in Pakistan. A true meeting of the hearts found us all together at the same time in the bookstore, each holding a copy of Marilyn’s new book ‘Passages Through Pakistan’ with a look of understanding and delight at the knowledge of what we held in common.
The ignite speeches were quick and fast and had us laughing one minute and crying the next. From the experience of Muslim expats, to growing up in Africa, to facing loss, to finding joy abroad, the audience experienced a whole roller coaster of emotions every 6 minutes!
The Lessons That Stood Out:
TCK experiences are changing: My experience of growing up as a TCK in the mid 80’s with my Pakistani parents in the U.S always made us different. To this day, its effects can be seen in little things such as the fact that in a very anglicised fashion I call my father “daddy” as opposed to the normal Pakistani terms for father (baba/papa/abbu). My TCK experience though is very different from the experience that my own two kids are going through currently in Dubai. When you live in a country like the UAE where the majority of the population are expats and the locals are in the minority (locals make up only around 10-11% of the UAE’s population), your TCK kids are surrounded by other TCK kids. So, they grow up thinking its normal that everyone is like them, with multiple nationalities, speaking two or more languages, and with multiple homes. When or if they finally return to their passport country (Germany for my kids) they will be shocked to realize that not everyone grew up like they did. TCK experiences are changing, our kids may feel very differently than us when they are older.
We all have “expat superpowers”: When Doreen Cumberford mentioned that we all have expat superpowers, I immediately sat up. 15 years as an expat, but no one had told me about any superpowers! Turns out I do have some superpowers too, but I just never thought of them or acknowledged them openly before. In a fresh, fun and new way, she helped each of us visualize our own unique vision and values. (My expat superpower must be getting out of tricky situations when abroad!)
Whose voice wasn’t being represented at the table: It was during the Millennials Forum, that Amanda Bate and Amy Clare Tasker encouraged us to ask the most important question: “Who is not at the table? Whose voice is not being heard?” The answers were many. Ranging from the single expat experience to the black expat, from the “other expats”: the migrant workers in the Gulf countries, to the refugees on the move, it seemed a lot more voices could be included to talk about families in global transition.
My Favorite Quotes:
“We welcome you a stranger, send you back home a friend.” – Wilhelm Post, Opening address.
“Life overseas is not always a warm hug and a kiss on both cheeks.” – Naomi Hattaway, Me Too! Lighting the Triangle Beacon -Why Finding Your Tribe Matters.
“Languages don’t divide; they bring families together.” – Rita Rosenback, Finding Your Language on the Move.
“Early Muslims used camels; but we use airplanes.” – Maryam Afnan Ahmad, The Muslim Expatriate Experience.
“It’s not a matter of ambition or being greedy. It’s a matter of saying I have talent and I want to contribute.” – Alex Carnot, Managing Dual Careers Abroad.
“You don’t have to move abroad to experience culture shock.” – Olga Mecking, Tribes: How and Where To Find Them?
“Who’s not at the table?” – Amanda Bate, The Millennials Forum.
“Fear is an illusion – it doesn’t exist. Our minds make it a reality. Why allow fear to be part of your mindset?” – SebastienBellin, Keynote address, I Should Fear, But I Don’t. Why Don’t You?
“Do you rebuild yourself on negativity or positivity?” – Sebastien Bellin, I Should Fear, But I Don’t. Why Don’t You?
“Once you lay out your needs, you can find options.” – Dana Bachar Grossman, Effective Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Globally Mobile Communities.
“Volunteering gives people a chance to create community. Volunteering is not just about giving; it is also about receiving.” – Deborah Valentine, The ABC and XYZ of Finding Your Tribe on Arrival.
“I recommend TCK’s to take a gap year.” – Cliff Gardner, Panel Discussion, Finding Your Niche: Connecting a Multicultural Past to a Meaningful Present.
“Try the thing that has the greatest risk, because it also has the most potential.” – Killian Kroll – Panel Discussion, Finding Your Niche.
What were the themes, moments, speeches or quotes that stood out for you? In the coming weeks, I will attempt to delve deeper into some of the emerging themes and topics from this year’s FIGT conference and try to focus on sharing practical information, resources and tools that can help other expats in navigating through their globally mobile lives. You can follow more on ‘And Then We Moved To’ on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The truth is, that I learned how to open myself up to the world at an early age.
My parent’s expats adventures in the Middle East and the United States meant that as a child, I was always dreaming of or remembering faraway places. Photo albums full of picnics in Central Park, family excursions to Niagara Falls, long drives to Disneyland and childhood memories in Bahrain were talked about routinely, as much as what we would be eating for dinner tonight. As a child growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, I continued these adventures in my head – through books where I would lose myself in other worlds through words.
The adventures of 10 year Gerald Durrell as he described his experience of moving from England to the magical Greek island of Corfu, spoke directly to my soul:
“Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off, and there would be a fresh day waiting for us – glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.”
― Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
My soul craved adventure, but I wasn’t sure if I could do it alone. With no one to catch me if I failed.
With just one suitcase and a bag, I left my home in Pakistan when I was 19 years old. I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to find the right gate to board at the airport or catch the right flight to Dubai to connect to Amsterdam. I felt nervous just looking at the one-way ticket in my hand, not knowing what to expect when I reached the other side of the world. When I landed in Boston, I was so excited that I forgot to call or email my parents in classic teenager fashion. The Dean of International Students on my college campus had to interrupt an orientation meeting and ask me to call my folks.
It was scary but exhilarating being on my own for the very first time.
There was a thrill in anonymity.
There was excitement at the possibilities ahead.
There was freedom in paying my own bills.
“I realized I had finally found my tribe, ironically in a sleepy, tiny town in Western Massachusetts. People who, like me, wanted to step out of their comfort zones, no matter how unnerving it felt. This was my first tribe; and it has remained my strongest since. Having found like-minded people on one continent, I slowly learned the way to do it over and over again, even through cultural barriers and language mix-ups.”
I had led a predictable and sheltered life until now, but this was the moment, the decision that changed everything. I took spontaneous road trips to New York City with my American roommate, made friends with Bulgarians and Ghanaians, learned how to swear in Swahili, and realized my mind was buzzing when I studied international economics and world politics. I realized I had finally found my tribe, ironically in a sleepy, tiny town in Western Massachusetts. People who, like me, wanted to step out of their comfort zones, no matter how unnerving it felt. This was my first tribe; and it has remained my strongest since. Having found like-minded people on one continent, I slowly learned the way to do it over and over again, even through cultural barriers and language mix-ups.
The winds changed, the tide beckoned and I decided to go to England for a year to study the EU economic model. Love intervened in the shape of a 6 foot German, who introduced himself as an Italian and turned my world upside down. Like most good love stories, this one started off with an Italian boy and ended with two weddings in Germany and Pakistan in front of our respective families, and a life shared over eight countries, three continents and two kids born in different corners of the world growing up with four languages.
Life together was scary and yet so, so good. I was worried about who I would become. Was I leaving my culture behind? Or was I just embracing a whole new culture and way of doing things? In spite of the odds, I decided to go into each adventure with my eyes wide shut and a heart wide open.
“But traveling the world over is very different from living the world over. Being an expat means different rules apply to you. You are no longer just a foreigner or a tourist passing through, you have to learn how to live in a new country, to belong there, to make friends there, to find a job there, to learn the local language, to build a life there and still be brave enough to be able to walk away from it all, when it’s time to go. And you have to ask yourself: who have I become?”
I traveled all over the world and spent weekends gazing at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, haggling in the bazaars of Cairo, escaping to Paris for some art, culture and romance, marveling at the fjords in Norway, learning the streets of Stockholm by heart, feeling the adrenaline as I climbed Table Mountain in Cape Town, and of course reveling in the magic and tranquility of Corfu. Something on this idyllic Greek island that had touched my soul so many years ago, made me feel I had finally come full circle, as I stood there realizing how my journey had brought me to Corfu; the place that had instilled this feeling of wanderlust in my soul to begin with.
But traveling the world over is very different from living the world over. Being an expat means different rules apply to you. You are no longer just a foreigner or a tourist passing through, you have to learn how to live in a new country, to belong there, to make friends there, to find a job there, to learn the local language, to build a life there and still be brave enough to be able to walk away from it all, when it’s time to go. And you have to ask yourself: who have I become?
As an expat, life was often difficult and I almost felt like quitting – many times. Just throwing in the towel and going back to a place where I was understood. I struggled to learn German on the streets of Berlin and often felt lonely. It was a challenge to adjust to bleak, winter days in Denmark and go months without seeing the Scandinavian sun. It was an even bigger challenge to be initially unemployed in every new country I arrived in and try to figure out if i had a chance in the local job market. I was nervous to move continents twice during both my pregnancies. After a difficult first childbirth in Singapore, I found myself re-hospitalized with a severe case of pre-eclampsia, away from friends and family, in a new country with a 3 day old new born to care for. Pretty soon I found myself trekking across continents again, pregnant for the second time and arriving in Dubai. I struggled to cope with the soaring 40 degree Celsius (113-120 degree F) summer time temperatures, when the sun beats down on the Arabian Desert mercilessly and life shifts indoors.
My mind would often tell me I was lost. My heart would tell me to relax. My soul would tell me, I would get there, because it would show me the map and give me the courage to follow it. My soul; which had been stretched, transformed and overhauled, is what has gotten me through every expat adventure. The beautiful memories, the incredible friendships, the amazing experiences are all etched onto my soul and help me on my journey almost every day.
I realize I am now the proud owner of a global soul – like Voldemort’s soul, mine often feels split into seven pieces as well. One for each of the seven countries I’ve lived in. The difference though? My split soul is actually good for me. It means I keep my ties and my memories attached to each of the beautiful countries I’ve called home. It means I have seven tribes to call my own. It means I’m no longer afraid. It means I view the world in an interconnected way now, and feel richer, satisfied, fulfilled and grateful for having the chance to experience so much of its beauty.
Mariam Ottimofiore is the expat writer behind the blog ‘And Then We Moved To’ (www.andthenwemovedto.com) where she talks about life on the expat trail, raising her two multicultural and multilingual children and traveling the world. You can connect with her at the upcoming Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) conference in the Hague (Netherlands) from March 23rd -25th, where she will be attending as as a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Resident and presenting an Early Bird Writers Forum on “Building Your Online Tribe Through Blogging When Abroad.”