Thinking about relocating abroad as a “trailing spouse”? Some things you should know

expat-cap-small

I may use it in the title but I dislike the term “trailing spouse”. To me it describes someone who lets her or himself be carried abroad like a another piece of luggage and from there lives trapped in a semi-stigmatised existence, confined in the role of the housekeeper and the emotional supporter. It might be true that once (you know in the olden days) when couples relocated, the wife was not expected to do much other than support the husband’s career, volunteer in the local community with women in similar situation, and attend weekly get togethers with expat women so she can vent about her expat life.

Nowadays, however, with globalisation having transformed completely the international work dynamics, a spouse should be able to do better than that. First of all, finding work abroad is much easier and much more common. People can work remotely with a laptop and a good internet connection. There is much more mobility, diversity and flexibility. So theoretically the life of the “trailing spouse” has become much easier and uncomplicated.. Right?

In my experience I have met some pretty amazing people living abroad, trying to support their partner’s career while they work hard to find their own decent place in the new society. It usually takes a lot of courage, strength, and dedication to make things happens. Often it is a huge blow to the pride. But you have to work with your self and the personal issues that every one has and find your way.

I know because I am one. Having lived abroad several times for my own sake and ambitions this was the first time I let my partner’s career goals decide where I will be.

Here is the list of things that in my opinion you should consider before deciding to take the leap:

Your motto: good research.

The Country: The country where you relocate can make or break your success story. Being “abroad” in one part of the globe will not be the same as being “abroad” in another. In short, don’t just jump with excitement in the prospect before researching the place. If you move for example in Paris, France you will have a completely different life from if you move in Oslo, Norway. Which means that if Paris is what you have fantasies for and you move in Oslo to have a similar “european” experience you will be disappointed. (the opposite is true as well, desiring to live in the woods and find yourself in the middle of a big chaotic city). Of course in this example i use extremes, Parisean lifestyle is lightyears away from Scandinavian. I know that it does not depend on the “trailing spouse” where the relocation will be but I am only highlighting patterns you should avoid. At the end of the day the connection you personally have with the country and its people will determine your willingness to work hard to integrate.

The Country: Romantic Ideas vs Real facts. You may have already visited the place and find it charming, romanic, refreshing… Only because you have seen it as a tourist. You have done all the cool stuff and somehow that makes you feel that your life there will be like that, a constant amazement. Almost every place in the world can look charming when you are a tourist. But think that once you move there you might not live in the cool city centre because the rents will be just out of reach. You might find yourself in a suburb away from amenities and attractions. When the initial newcomer’s excitement fades, would you like to live in THAT place permanently? Will the transport be convenient to use on a daily basis? What do the people do for entertainment and does that match your expectations? Are you attracted to the culture, people and society?Remember you will be a newcomer there, you need all the conveniences you can get. Is this place what you think it is or a beautiful holiday memory?

The Language: This one is a HUGE HUGE factor. Do you speak the language of the country you are going? If not ,are you willing to learn it? I mean really learn it, beyond ordering “a big cappuccino please”. Your partner will probably be fine speaking in English at work but the same unfortunately will not be true for you. In certain parts of the world many people will look at you in shock,bewilderment and even contempt if you don’t address them in their language. Think that learning the language is not optional when you relocate and especially when you have not already secured a job.

The job: Getting a job in the new country might be easy or difficult. it depends on the place you are, the language, your own field and skills, and in many cases nationality, ethnicity, race etc. (Sad but true. ) If you plan to work asap try to find out what people in your shoes generally say about their experience. Don’t take things for granted. You might be hot stuff in one country and in another get constant rejections. Be prepared, disappointment might come. While volunteering at a swedish shelter I met a girl , a rather fierce go getter from Spain who had moved to Stockholm because of her Swedish boyfriend. She wanted to get a job the next day. You could see she was like a lion in a cage, she was not ready to take the blow to her pride and surrender to the new hard reality where her CV did not get her any interviews. Even the simple task of handing food to the homeless had become for her a competitive task where she had to prove herself. Only a few months later she moved to Germany to work in her field. Having said that there are many well educated professionals who endure much longer than that in order to be with their partners. The reason why I think this example is important is because many people today, especially if they have invested a lot in education and personal growth, lose their sense of identity and self worth once they are removed from their jobs and careers and thus feel lost and disorientated.

Money. This is something you will probably need to sort out with your partner. His or her salary might sound alluring in dollars or yuan but once you calculate your expenses according to the cost of life in the new place you realise that your lifestyle might actually worsen. Plus his salary, if you have no job will be used to support the whole family. Will you be happy to live in a smaller apartment, have no car and depend on your partner for pocket money?

I don’t mean to sound too discouraging. At the end of the day each of us is different and will take the decision considering what they have to give up and what is important to them on a personal level. But you have to be well informed-know what you are in for.

Living abroad can be a very rewarding and unique experience. Plan your “escape” wisely.

And if you try and fail don’t beat your self up. Always kudos to you for having tried.

Living Abroad: Are you an Immigrant or an Expat? Cultural Talk

sexy-beast-movie-poolscene

A thing that has puzzled me for a long time since I left my native country is stereotypes regarding the identity of foreigners and the popular terms Immigrant and Expatriate. In London this was not completely an issue. Every other person I met was a foreigner with a different story and circumstances. You could not describe lots of people with just one term: the human mosaic was too intricate and the relationships too complex. At the same time, like everywhere else, people often valued others based on individual judgments related to nationality and popular stereotypes related to nationalities, career and earnings, looks, religion etc.

In Sweden I find things are more straightforward. There is a well defined line between what is Swedish and what is not, and officially foreigners are perceived as belonging mainly in one group: they are Immigrants. There are of course cultural reasons why the average Swede could warm up to an expat more than he/she would to an immigrant. Also there are subconscious classifications of different immigrants that make some more desirable than others.

Let me explain.

An immigrant is described as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”.
The Immigrant is different from the migrant; the latter defined as “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find better living conditions”.

Even though these two terms have a different definition they are usually used as having the same meaning. Culturally the word migrant often brings in mind images of desperate people escaping war and conflict and trying to reach a safe first world country. The word immigrants evokes more peaceful images, but still is closely linked to poverty, low paid jobs and life in ghettos.

An expatriate is a “person who lives outside their native country”. Another definition that I found online is “an employee who is sent to live abroad for a defined time period”. An expatriate therefore is not perceived as someone who is planning to spend his whole life abroad or get a pension abroad. It is rather someone whose identity abroad is somehow linked to his role in his native country.

An expatriate is usually culturally perceived as someone whose financial potential abroad could well exceed the financial potential of many locals of the country he visits. The word expat brings in mind popular images of white people socializing while sipping gin tonic in membership clubs. Expats don’t really need to learn the language of the country they live in as they work in another formal language and can leave the country whenever they wish. They are very mobile too. Another stereotype about expats is that in majority hold strong passports from financially and culturally “important” countries: the locals can indeed benefit from their presence. (As opposed to the presence of immigrants, whose “foreign cultures” could be seen as a nuisance rather than a benefit).

These silent classifications no matter how inaccurate, superficial and stereotypical underlie the relationships of people. As a foreigner in Stockholm I have been surprised by the various classifications of immigrants and clichés that I have encountered. For example, when I first got here, I was talking to a friendly Swedish woman who was once married to a Portuguese man. When I identified with her experience being married to a foreigner myself (and one that comes from another continent too) she retorted: “But it is not the same! You two are both Latin!” (I am Greek, he is Mexican).

“Latin” therefore is perhaps another definition for the “darker colored Christian immigrant coming from a poor country/hit by crisis with nice beaches to visit on holidays”.

Or maybe it’s much more complicated than that. I never take offense in these observations as I believe we all have our subconscious classifications of people whether they have to do with wealth, career and prestige, gender, beauty and looks, nationality, religion etc. I have seen people in China stop the traffic to let the Scandinavian looking boy pass, staring in awe.

It is a very real and sad aspect of human existence.

The time that it does bother me however is when it messes with my right to compete on equal terms. When I had the job coaching with Arbetsförmedlingen I was promised to be treated like a professional and in the end the person doing the coaching saw no harm done suggesting I became a cleaner. I have the utmost respect for people who clean to make a living a have friends who have done it. But I am not going to enroll myself in a four month job coaching program just to be told in the end that my options are reduced to that. If I need this type of job I can very well get it without fancy ipad coaching.

So even though I absolutely abhor stereotyping I asked myself one day:

“Am I an expat or an immigrant?”

The job coach who read my arbetsförmedlingen post replied in an angry message that I am the latter and came here to steal Swedish jobs. (Ironically she was not Swedish!)

But I, just like so many other people I have met here, I am a number of conflicting things. I am this and that. I am a traveler, a visitor. But I don’t live in a ghetto. I don’t socialize only with people from my country. I am married to a foreigner. Am I here to stay forever? No. Do I have a cleaner and a nanny? No. I live in a one bed 55 square meter apartment.

Living in Sweden as a foreigner you may ask yourself who you are and where you belong. I tell myself I am a hybrid, and other hybrids can feel my identity.