When is the Best Time to be an Expat?

If you’ve ever thought of taking an assignment in a different country, this question will have crossed your mind. When we moved from Kansas to Johannesburg over a year ago, many friends commented on how hard it must be for a thirteen-year-old to go through all this. Being thirteen is not easy to begin with, so the consensus went, and leaving all your friends behind and being plunged into a new world on top of that must be especially tough.

There is no doubt that our previous expat stint in Singapore over ten years ago was much easier in many ways. We only had a one-year old child (though when I now see parents travelling with their first baby and all the fuss they make over that one child, it seems to me they are more stressed than I am with my four, as I probably was as well during that stage), and school research and enrollment was not even a blimp on our radar. Much less any arguments over why we were having to move and how unfair it all was. Then again, when I conjure memories from this seemingly ancient period in our lives, I think of carrying stroller and child up and down endless parking garage staircases in places that lacked elevators, and being left on the roadside time and again by cab drivers who didn’t want to transport that same stroller. All of this in 100-degree heat and being pregnant (and later, no longer pregnant but now with a double stroller). Not to mention having to give birth in a foreign country, which turned out to be a very pleasant experience. Excuse me while I go looking for the stroller picture I have in mind.

Our life in Singapore took place either sitting in or pushing and carrying this very stroller, until it fell apart after one plane trip and gate check too many

[I’m back… Finding the right picture took several hours of getting the hard drive plugged in and then searching through a thousand folders, while reminiscing about our life in Singapore. I told you I tend to get sidetracked, so forgive me if I I’m now including more than one picture from so long ago.]

My point is, life has its challenges at all the different stages you are in, whether you’re an expat or not. When I look back now at the stretches where we did stay in one place for quite some time, I am amazed how much energy I spent on trying to preserve a certain status quo, enrolling the kids in the same sports year after year, for instance, so that they would get better and they (or, more importantly, me?) would feel the rewards of success. It seems to me now, from my new vantage point, that staying made life difficult in some ways, and only by moving did I actually become more liberated and able to enjoy the moment. It’s all a matter of perspective, as I’ve described in one of my Expat Joys series posts, “Variety and Life Skills.”

In the driveway of our house on Holland Grove View

The fact is, moving to a new country can even make things easier, whether it is fulfilling your dream of full-time domestic help or gaining new company benefits or tax advantages only available to expats. In our case, once we got past the groaning and sadness about having to leave everything behind, all of us found new things to like and embrace here in South Africa. And instead of being the worst time to move, thirteen might even be the very best age to leave everything you know behind, when adolescence and peer pressure can make returning to yet another year in the same middle school especially difficult, and starting over in a new place might wipe away a lot of teenage anxiety. Of course it’s impossible to go back and do it over so we won’t ever know for sure, but I think that especially for the thirteen-year old mentioned above, who likes structure and routine so much, it has been good to move and be forced to engage in new activities and make new friends.

Noisette and the boys in Singapore, together with Ampy, our beloved maid, in 1999

Of course, as parents you never stop worrying, so now, as our oldest is entering 10th grade, we are beginning to feel the specter of college looming over us. A recent visitor from the U.S. was asking us if our son was already looking at any universities, and I had to admit that the thought hadn’t even crossed anybody’s mind. The biggest event in a South African kid’s life is the prospect of boarding school, where many children go to follow in the footsteps of their parents starting in the 8th grade. The selection of a university is almost a non-event in comparison, and no one puts much thought into it before perhaps the middle of 12th grade. Another American friend mentioned her son’s summer job, something that the South African kids we’re surrounded with do not go and look for. Neither can they be working on their driver’s license, yet another topic most of our friends back home are very immersed in, since the legal age for driving here is eighteen.

So now I feel slightly guilty. Are we depriving our kid of the things he’d normally be doing back home? Is he somehow losing out on a much-needed head start to build up his resume so that he can get into a good American university? I made a half-hearted effort to at least somehow stay connected to the college application game by signing up for daily SAT-Question emails which, as is typical in our house, our 7th grader who is still years away from college has made a habit of completing regularly, whereas they just clutter the inbox of his older brother who did a few, got most of them perfect, and promptly stopped to focus his attention once again on that great educational tool, the xBox.

But even here, using my own arguments from above, I probably worry too much. We are living in Africa now, the kids are having a great experience, and somehow we will brave the next big stage of higher education, regardless of where we are at the time. I’m greatly comforted by an excellent book I read shortly before moving here, called “The New Global Student” by Maya Frost, which I’ll be reviewing for you in another post.
Getting back to the title of this post and the question of when to best be an expat – who am I kidding? Let’s face it, you’re not going to be given a preview of the next twenty years of your life, sort of like a buffet, where you can pick and choose what you want. “Let’s see – we’ll take the posting to Sydney when the kids are ten and twelve, that should be a good age… and perhaps the 1-year stint in Egypt before kids so we can have leisure for all those museums and pyramids… oh,oh, and I’ve always wanted to live in Thailand… what, Sweden after the kids have left home? No, perhaps we’ll skip that one.”

12 years and 2 additional kids later in Cape Town

Of course you always have the option of just packing and leaving, like the aforementioned Maya Frost did, but for the rest of us reality will look more like your spouse coming home one day and telling you there is an opportunity for a 2-3 year assignment in, say, Johannesburg, South Africa, at which you will gape with an open mouth and think that’s the craziest idea you’ve ever heard, but a tiny morsel of imagination will have lodged in your brain and before you know it you’ll fire up the computer and google schools in Johannesburg, instead coming across a ton of horror stories about crime, at which point you might shelve the entire idea, but the job opportunity is really good so maybe you will give it another try and plow on through loads and loads of information, and hopefully at this point you will have found Joburg Expat full of hope and good advice about moving to and living in South Africa… (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). You won’t know if there will ever be another opportunity like this, wherever it might be in your case, and your choice is to take it or leave it.

My advice is to take it.

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