Ex-Pat Living: What’s Your Label? It’s How We Live

A veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) at the Rolling Hills zoo.

Are You A Career Chameleon? (Source: NatGeo)

Sometimes I think we have gone label crazy. Like someone gave us a label maker and told us to put stickers on everything we own to learn the foreign names for home items. Have you every used that language technique? It works for things… but for ourselves, not so much.

In a recent ‘Expat_WeeklyTelegraph” blog post by Annabel Kantaria entitled, Trailing Spouse- or Career Chameleon, the issue again comes up about expats, wives and lives.

First, let me say that this article was written with a particular issue in mind- life in Dubai.  I understand the focus, but I’d like to look at this in a little bit wider context. Annabel writes,

“So there comes a point when most expat mums have to decide: if they’re not going to be a happy stay-at-home mum or a full-time employee, will they be just another jellyfish tendril dangling in the current, or will they use their time in the UAE to reinvent themselves to fit their new circumstances?

It’s why you see so many talented women here setting up their own companies and websites, becoming freelance writers, artisans, yoga teachers, fitness instructors, seamstresses, teaching assistants, birthday-cake suppliers, and getting involved with charity work. These may not have been their primary careers, but surely they’re better than “trailing”.

These women have remodelled the concept of “trailing spouse” to suit themselves; they’ve become talented career chameleons.”

Ex=Pat Skills: Like A veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) at the Rolling Hills zoo.Annabel certainly has the “What” right. There are many talented women; and there are many more opportunities to connect in unique ways since the internet has grown up.   However, these concepts also apply beyond distant locations, beyond situations defined by “Where”.

I see the difference as being between “How” and “Where” you become an Expat.

Being an expat is all about where you are, of course, but it is also about how you survive, thrive and grow as a person and family when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings and situations, whether those are international or across the state.

Let’s look at it like this… By definition, all non-passport holders would be labeled alien or ex-pats in New York City, but using this how + where concept, it makes sense that even some passport holders (citizens) who have moved or been transferred without transition skills or a support structure could have the same issues as “traditional” expats. It’s not as cut and dried as the labels make it seem. It’s a matter of how they view themselves, their resources, and their circumstances.

For me, I have long operated under the outsider label, growing up in a Navy family that moved every two years. Moving from Washington DC to California as a 5-year-old was the same as moving to the moon to me- different culture, different ways of doing things, confusing language (remember hangin’ ten in the California surf culture? And when “wax” was something you did to your board, not your bod?)

Years later as a new bride of a young sailor, I was already familiar with the routine- we were stationed on a remote base with no possibility to fly home to see family, and he was shipped out for the entire first year we were married. I celebrated all our “first (holiday)’s alone, except Halloween. Being ‘familiar with’ and being ‘ok with’ are two different things. I don’t know if that was a trick or treat, but it was a cruel year for an 18-year-old.

Even though I was technically still in my passport country, I was very definitely “not from here” and expat techniques would have been a blessing if I had been able to connect with anyone. We had no internet in those days. I had gone from a city of over a million to a naval air station in the middle of dairy farms and less than 25,000 people, many of whom only spoke Portuguese.

Expat Skills: How Can I Change With Each Situation?   (A veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus).)

How Can I Change With Each Situation?

We continued to move every year or two, racking up 18 moves in 25 years. What the experience taught me was how to pack and unpack household goods and how to pack (and keep packed) any life or career aspirations, or goals that I had personally. I became a career chameleon, reinventing myself with every move, capitalizing on bits and pieces in my background that could suit a new employer.

My daughter rolled with the moves as most TCKs learn to do, getting along with kids in school but never being in one place long enough to have a BFF (Best Friend Forever) or even a BFFT, a Best Friend for Today. That’s another reason for the birthday party plan– inviting every girl classmate in hopes that maybe someone might click. The special time put into cakes and fun games at our home was a coping strategy.

Once our daughter was graduating and planning her college escape, I was left at loose ends. Changes were looming for my husband’s employer, consolidation and mergers, so my life seemed to have run aground. I no longer had a direction- I was no longer needed as a mother (in the traditional sense); I was no longer needed as a career cheerleader; I was no longer young enough to start-up a new career ladder. Or so I thought at the time! I just needed a little chameleon vision to see a new path developing.

Just as Annabel Kantaria describes in her article, “These women have remodelled the concept of “trailing spouse” to suit themselves; they’ve become talented career chameleons. They land in a new country with eyes wide open, looking around for the next opportunity. Moving to a new country is, after all, the perfect time to reinvent yourself …” I took a moment to see what was out there. How could I reinvent my life?

Expat living has always equated to a mindset, no matter where you are. Resources, on the other hand, are like tax help- if you fit a category, you can avail yourself of certain support.

I feel like the labels cause us to parcel out help and support to one category and tell another, you’re not one of these so buck up and get over yourself.

It happens when we have to fit support into a group model. The pre-school mom who needs support but is on the waiting list for the school; the single gal who wants to join a sports team (or a book club) but they already have enough.

In Baku, where we had the International Women’s Club (IWC), they had a couple of primary membership rules on equality quotas and sponsorship- i.e., for every expat, there must be a local member accepted at the same time, and a current member had to invite you and sponsor you in as a new member.

They were trying to do the right thing for everyone, but there were some unintended consequences. As a new person in town, unless you knew a member, you couldn’t join to meet members. And even if you did find a member, you also must find a willing local lady to also apply. Not so easy to do if you’re new in town and don’t speak the language! The best resource for expat women in Baku at that time was initially unavailable because there was already a surfeit of expat women and they had run out of local women to join.

Perhaps the Women’s Club wasn’t designed to be that kind of resource, but a year or so later when I finally joined, I saw that it often did serve as a lifeline for many women. A friend and fellow writer, Suzi Cornnell put it like this:”I find myself more dependent here than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I simply need people to help me get things done because the channels I’m used to don’t exist.” The IWC allowed us to be dependent on each other, whether we were local or foreign.

If we could see each other’s “how” instead of, or in addition to, “where”, we might recognize that someone who is a few hours from home might be just as or even more disoriented than one who is half a world away. Or that some people who are halfway around the world do fine, until they come back home. As one of our expats put it, maybe it’s because they have become “triangles” and are living in “circle” city. (For a fine explanation of this, see NaomiHattaway.com (Box 53b)‘s post  http://naomihattaway.com/2013/09/i-am-a-triangle-and-other-thoughts-on-repatriation/) .

The Life Lesson for me, is not that I have to quit thinking of my friends and myself as expats  and repats based on where they live, but rather to think of anyone I meet as potentially adrift or in need of support if their situation has changed, deteriorated (if they feel left behind as friends and family move away or pass on), or has stagnated.

I want to look at people and think of how they are rather than simply where they are.  I need to think of expats and repats with a “How” mindset, not just a geographical “Where” mindset.

Expat Skills: Compassionate Chameleon

Compassionate Chameleon? That’s A Label I Can Live With!

I want to search out resources for anyone to use- here, there and in between; to find resources to enable women to become career chameleons at home in America or abroad if economic changes are forcing them to re-invent themselves, for example.

My challenge is to expand my thinking of expat and repat to include people who need our survival skills and Life Lessons, people who can benefit from our experience and networking.

Maybe those are the kinds of chameleons the world needs most! Compassionate Chameleon?  Now that’s a label I can live with!

6 thoughts on “Ex-Pat Living: What’s Your Label? It’s How We Live

  1. I love this concept the “how” instead of the “where” .We are all ex-pat, when we leave our father’s house (literal translation for ex-pat) even if we live in the city where we were born, Each life transition makes us vulnerable: when we get married or divorced, change jobs, have children, fight illness, face aging, lose a love one etc. We all need compassionate chameleons who understand and support us.Thank you for this great post.


    • Anne- I’m so glad it resonated with you. Sometimes we understand these concepts inside our own minds, but aren’t sure if it translates to words that readers will relate to as well. But you have it spot on- and I like the reminder of the literal translation, ex-patria. I know that has been very true for me. Thanks for sharing, and for the encouragement!


  2. And with the growth in short-term and commuter assignments, particularly in the corporate sector, this will become increasingly important. As you point out, many don’t reach out to the expat community because they don’t see themselves as being part of it, and yet we share many of the same challenges. Great post!


    • Well said! I think you’re spot on about this being an under-served group.

      It will be interesting to see how to reach out, or become visible, to families and individuals who could really use these great resources.


  3. I’ve never liked ‘labels’, putting people / creativity in boxes. I’d like to think I’m open to seeing the positive changes in others, and I hope others are as open with me.


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