The world is a jigsaw – learning how the expat pieces fit together

Date Created: 02.06.2014

I sit by the pool sipping mojitos, taking a dip when it takes my fancy, waving indulgently at my two children as they splash each other and giggle uncontrollably.

This is what my friends think my expat life is like. This is what it’s actually like:

I land in a country with two over-tired children, dragging two suitcases and a buggy, looking for my husband who has been working abroad for a couple of weeks. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’m going to live, I don’t know how to speak the language. I’m not even sure what I’m doing here.

The life of an expat is about experience. New sights, sounds, smells, cultures, religions. The first six months are overwhelming and exciting in equal measure. One minute I’m so relieved I can step outside without an umbrella. The next I’m stressed and in a sweat and wishing there was a cloud in the sky.

We moved from the UK with a baby and a toddler and headed to Chicago, then Dubai, and now we’re in Singapore. We’ve lived in one of the coldest places on the planet, one of the hottest and now one of the must humid. And I love it.

The first six months are always the most challenging. I remember my first trip to the supermarket in the US. First I had to discover what the supermarket was called because I didn’t know the brands. Then I had to work out where it was. Then I had to work out how to get there. The challenges didn’t end when I arrived. I’m a native English speaker but that didn’t help me. I asked a gentleman for a trolley and he looked at me blankly.

“She means a shopping cart,” the cashier chipped in.

Then I pushed the cart to the fresh produce section, dragging a bored toddler behind me and tucking the baby in the trolley’s child seat. I couldn’t see what I needed so asked a shop assistant to point me in the direction of the aubergines and courgettes. More blank stares. Finally, I got a grip of myself, and rifled through the storage bins in my head, full of Americanisms picked up from Hollywood films.

“Do you have any eggplants or zucchinis?” I asked.

“We sure do. Over this way, Ma’am,” the shop assistant replied, equally relieved that I spoke American instead of English. Who knew American films could help you through the veg section?

It may be daunting, but the top tip I received from an expat friend is that you need to see your expat life as an adventure, then it appears exciting rather than scary. I’m going to leave you with a few more tips; I have a mojito to get back to besides the pool.

Take time to travel. Wherever you end up living will become a springboard for new adventures.

Stay in touch. In our busy lives it’s so easy to live in the moment, but keep the lines of communication to home open. You’re the one who has moved away so the onus is on you to keep in touch.

Prepare your children. Children are flexible travellers. They can be very accepting of change, or they can worry and fret. Try to make them feel excited about the move.

Helen McClure is the journalist behind Expat Explorers, a travel and expat website offering free independent insights, ideas and inspiration.

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Helen McClure is the journalist behid Expat Explorers, a travel and expat website offering free independent insights, ideas and inspiration.

Her travelling experiences have included backpacking in South America and the Far East, touring Europe in a camper van, working in villages in Africa, travelling with the British Army in Kenya, Oman and Northern Ireland, working in Saudi Arabia, living in Kuwait, Chicago and the United Arab Emirates. She is known for being sport mad (all sports), running long distances (just mad) and being competitive (in everything).