An Expat Journey/ By Nikki Elliott
A special decision on an ordinary day
I remember clearly the day my husband told us that we might become expats. I was sitting at my desk, I had just started working as an independent contractor, I was about six months pregnant. He told me that he had just been offered a job, one where he would have to travel a lot, to begin with, but then would give us an opportunity to be expats and the first place was going to be Papua New Guinea.
I was excited, we had always known that there was an opportunity to become expats; we just didn’t know when it would happen. I had visions of G&T’s in the humid climate of PNG. Our daughter would be running around the Yacht Club and we would be basking in the warmth with other expat families. I would be able to enjoy being a mum as a stay at home mother, rather than rushing back to work. Life was going to be grand!
Imagination vs. Reality
A few things changed my idea of what being an expat was going to be for us.
My daughter was born in a rush, an emergency. My husband was in Italy and wouldn’t make it home to see the birth. Actually, no one was going to be able to make it to the birth it all happened so fast. Grace was born in 20 minutes, as fast as they could they had her out, all on my lunch break from work. I still had a week of work left to finish. She was rush off to the special care nursery. I had blind faith that she was going to be fine.
Technically Grace is fine, she just has cerebral palsy. Essentially she has brain damage, but only to her white matter, meaning she has a lot of trouble with physical movement. Her grey matter is fine, she understands everything, and is as smart as any kid her age.
But this changed how we were going to be expats. It meant that I wasn’t going to be able to stay in PNG with my husband 100%; it meant a lot of travelling back and forth to ensure Grace got the early intervention that she needed. It meant not really belonging anywhere. We had sold our car, rented out our apartment. I had to move in with my husband’s parents while I was at home, I was sort of homeless. It also meant that I had to become not only a mother but a nurse, a physiotherapist, a dietitian, a chemist, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist and a teacher.
I did still get to enjoy my time in PNG. Something happens when you are with a group of people who are far from home with no support networks. You somehow come together; this new mixed bag of people from all walks of nationalities is now your new family. We would still hang out at the Yacht Club, with kids running amok as we tried to drink our coffees while they were hot. We still had lots to drink when we got together in the evenings. But the people meant more to me than I had ever imagined.
Realization of our new lifestyle and making the most out of it
We have since moved a total of five times in six years. We went from PNG to Texas USA, to St John’s Canada, back to Texas, then now in The Netherlands. We have had another two children, one in America and one in The Netherlands. We have lived in the heat and the freezing cold. Grace has been in three different schools in three different countries and is only in grade 1. We have made it home once since leaving PNG (much to the disappointment of ourselves and our friends and family at home). Being an expat is not for the faint-hearted. Each time we move I have to set up schooling, medical appointments make a home and most of all, make friends.
Making those friends is the most important. I have come to terms with the fact now that those friends will most likely be other expats. Initially, I wanted local friends; I didn’t want to be one of those expats who only stuck with other expats. But the fact of the matter is that locals have a lot of pressures on them to not make new friends. They have family and a ton of friends already; they don’t have a lot of time for new people. That’s OK; the friends we have made while being expat have been from all over the world.
So while my initial idea of an easy expat life was somewhat shattered, some of it is still applicable. I am enjoying being a stay at home mum, even though I still have to manage the same day-to-day humdrumness of laundry, school runs and working out what is for dinner.
It is the friends that you make on the journey that I undervalued in my initial ideas of this expat life. We have a great resource of friends; we still have G&Ts in the warmth and red wines in the bitter cold.