Happy Day Off!

Canada Day 2013

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Today is Canada Day and so we have a long weekend here in Canada.  It’s another thing I enjoy about repatriating, knowing exactly when the holidays will be and that we will get time off from work (actually that’s 2 things).

We spent 8 years in the Middle East where many of the public holidays are religious ones.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year the holidays move forward about 11 or 12 days.  Many Muslim countries rely on their scientists to tell them when the holidays will fall and the dates are fixed well in advance, but the UAE still relies on a “Moon Sighting Committee” to go out into the desert (to get away from the bright city lights) and literally look for the new moon before these important events are proclaimed.  It’s a charming tradition, but not only does it mean the dates are often different in the UAE than elsewhere, it also means they’re unknown until the night before the holiday starts.

For expats this creates a bit of a problem if you’re planning a short getaway.  When you’re booking time off work you have to play Russian roulette with your vacation days, as they may or may not get used depending on when exactly the holiday falls.

To make things even more complicated there is no requirement for companies to give you a day off in lieu if the holiday falls on a weekend, and many choose not to do so, even western ones.  With Eid holidays lasting 2 or 3 days twice a year, it seemed you’d always ‘lose’ at least a day or two.

And on the topic of weekends, that too can cause problems.  When we first moved to Dubai the local weekend was Thursday and Friday.  All government offices were closed, and because the Ministry of Education was closed, all schools, even international ones, had to close too.  Many companies that did business outside of the Middle East chose to take a Friday-Saturday weekend, to avoid being out of touch for 4 days of the week.

As a result expat families with children ended up with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend-ish, which was really neither one thing nor the other.  It worked well for those who liked a day exclusively with the children and a day exclusively with their spouse (with Friday as the true family day sandwiched in between), but I found it a difficult adjustment to make.

Fortunately by the time we returned to Dubai for our second stint, they had switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, but it still took me many years to get my head around Sunday being a workday.

Here in Canada our holidays are either firm dates on the calendar (like July 1) or tied to a long weekend (like Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October).  In the years we were away they even added a new holiday – Family Day  – on the 3rd Monday in February.  In a country with a long cold winter it’s a welcome respite during the long slog between Christmas and Easter.  But enough words, it’s sunny and warm outside and the barbeque is calling . . .

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Expat support groups: Forums

(Sorry if you’re receiving this by email for a second time.  I goofed and hit the Publish button before I was ready and then for some reason the post disappeared altogether on the blog.  That’ll teach me to talk to my husband and blog at the same time *sigh*)

If a measure of success is longevity, then the ExpatWoman forum has to high on the list of online support groups for expats. When I moved to the Dubai for the second time, Jane Drury had just launched her website http://www.expatwoman.com (not to be confused with Andrea Martin’s successful website http://www.expatwomen.com).

Jane was a trailing spouse who following her arrival in Dubai had collated a huge amount of information, for fellow corporate spouses and then realized this information was too valuable not to share with the wider world. She launched the website in 2001 and soon found herself overwhelmed with emailed questions about life in the rapidly growing Gulf state. A forum was added to the website and I was one of the early participants, soon answering as many questions as I asked.

In time the website and forum covered the whole Gulf region and these days there are almost 10,000 active members usually with 150-200 people online at any one time and posting every few seconds. Topics vary from the mundane – where to buy grocery items – to the poignant – how to deal with a failing marriage – and everything in between. Although the language of the forum is English, many nationalities are represented and it’s THE source for information for those planning a move to the region as well as those already living there.

Unlike many expat support groups, ExpatWoman is a commercial business. However it has the feel of a volunteer organization and definitely takes its service role seriously. It makes its money from advertising on the website and limited sponsorship of its real world events. As the business has grown so has its staff, predominantly women, and many of them working part-time. I started working for EW just 2 hours a week in 2005 and gradually worked my way up to a full-time position as Events Manager, but as with all small businesses I turned my hand to many tasks, including moderation of the forum.

So what has made this online forum so successful?

1. It’s complemented by a comprehensive website. Anyone looking to learn about life in Dubai (as opposed to tourism) will find their way to this website. Over time it has become an authoritative source of practical information.
2. It’s also complemented by real world events, although it’s important to note that many forum participants never attend events and many who attend the events don’t participate on the forum.
3. The real key to its success, in my opinion, has been a moderation policy which ensures a friendly and helpful tone. As someone who has worked behind the scenes I am well aware of the time this involves. For EW it’s a team effort as the online world runs 24/7. Posters on the west coast of the USA are just starting to post their questions as would-be expat Aussies are hitting the sack.
Maintaining the right tone involves much more than deleting rude comments and spam. It involves creating a safe place where there are no “stupid” questions. Many forum users are not just first time expats, they are also new to the online world, and tart responses, text-speak and “in” jokes can easily intimidate.

What particular benefits does a forum offer over other online communication?

1. Anonymity. The number and regularity of sensitive topics discussed shows that anonymity has its advantages. Posting questions about marital abuse, troubled teens, job loss or even just the embarrassment of loneliness are all good reasons not to want to use your real name.
2. A large volume of posting doesn’t present a problem.
3. Forums usually have a search facility and separate boards can be set up for popular topics to further clarify and define discussions.
4. Moderation can be done easily and precisely. Conversation threads can be precisely edited rather than entire discussions removed and all information lost.
5. A lot of website platforms have a forum option or if you’re willing to tolerate advertising there are many free stand-alone forums out there which require no hosting at all.

In the online world ten years is a lifetime and these days forums are generally considered “old hat.” However the fact that this one continues not just to prosper but to grow demonstrates that they still have much to offer.

Can you recommend any other expat forums?  I’m very slowly working on a project to upgrade the Resources section of the Families in Global Transition website and would love to add your links.

The new expat reality

I’ve read quite a few articles over the past year about “alternative” expat assignments and other ways to do more with less when it comes to relocating international staff.  It’s not only about cutting costs but also a response to the increasing complications of expatriate life – dual career couples, children with special education needs, aging parents.  So I’m happy to see that several sessions at next month’s Families in Global Transition Conference will be addressing these new trends.

Diane Endo, who lives in both the US and Japan, will be talking about Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners.  Several of my friends have commuted while caring for elderly relatives in different countries, and I’ve also lived it, with my husband working away while I stayed home with my son who was finishing high school.  It’s not an easy, or cheap, option, but can be a solution for many families.

Expat Light Trend & Partner Support by Jacqueline Van Haaften will look at the trend toward less generous expat packages and how the need for partner support can still be met.  This will blend well with Doris Fuellgrabe’s talk on Choosing the right expat support services for every budget, which will be an opportunity to learn what kinds of support is available.  Participants will be encouraged to share their personal experiences.

Of course you can always start your own expat support service, just as Anne Copeland did with her International Writer’s Club and the Adjusting to Life in Brookline program run by Liliana Busconi, Andrew Miser and Mindy Paulo.  On a larger scale, Maaike Le Grand will explain how The World Bank Family Network provides support to over 500 families using volunteers to supplement minimal full-time staff.

In total there are over 70 (yes more than 70!) different sessions relevant to everyone from the senior corporate executive to the missionary kid, ranging from up-to-the minute academic research to the latest movie about Third Culture Kids.

It’s good to see that this year’s Conference will again be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the expat world, bringing together all the stakeholders to share what works best and pool their knowledge.  It’s a conference which is primarily educational and always inspirational to those who are, were or work with globally mobile families.  Why don’t you come and check it out?

Repatriation – One Year On

Most trailing spouses suffer from an identity crisis when they first move overseas.  But for me the crisis came when I repatriated.

At the time we left Canada to move to Azerbaijan 15 years ago, I was happy to toss away my old identity.  I had a career which occupied me 50 hours a week, my son was always last to be picked up from daycare and I had a house and large garden to look after.  With a husband who travelled 50% of the time I used to joke that I was a single mom without dating privileges.  Giving up all that stress and hard work to stay home and bake cookies was bliss.  I spent 10 years catching up on my sleep deficit alone!  Finally I had time to spend time with girlfriends – other trailing spouses – indulge in hobbies and see new and exciting places.  What wasn’t to like about my new identity as a trailing spouse?

But my lack of a career did eventually start to gnaw away at me.  It bothered me that I had no answer to the question on forms which asked for “occupation.”  When my son left for university I found some part-time work and then a full-time job supporting other expatriate women.  I was confident, happy and knew exactly, who I was.  And then came repatriation.

Suddenly I wasn’t an expat anymore.  I wasn’t even a trailing spouse.  I had no job.  I was invisible.  I didn’t know who I was anymore.  It was intensely frustrating, humiliating even that a 14 hour plane ride could erase my identity so completely.  I threw myself into job-hunting and  took a job I knew was wrong for me from the get-go, thinking it would help me find my feet.  But if anything it made things worse and took my self-esteem to a new low.  The urge to stay home and curl up in a corner with a blanket over my head was overwhelming.

Only now, more than a year after returning home, can I say I’m gradually putting my life back together again.  Through volunteering, finding a new job and finally, finally getting out and meeting people, I’m starting to discover a new “me.”

I’d like to offer some sage advice on how to get through it, but to be honest, despite having read a lot on the subject, for me it’s all been trial and error.  The main cure for re-entry shock, in my opinion, is TIME coupled with a lot of introspection. If you’re still struggling, hang in there, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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A Great Job for a Trailing Spouse

I took a hiatus from blogging due to several recent events, most of which are fodder for future blog posts.  The first one being that I’ve started a(nother) new job.

I’m working as a Relocation Specialist for a company which provides destination services.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term it relates to the receiving end of the relocation process.  My job is to help new arrivals in Toronto find a home, schools and daycare, acquire their government documents and generally show them around the city and their new neighbourhood.  It’s part-time, contract work which means I’m self-employed, work from home and get paid by the assignment.

I’m amazed I didn’t think of this job before but put it down to the fact that a) we’ve never been provided destination services by any of the companies who relocated us, so I only vaguely knew such a thing existed and b) my stupidity on not viewing my hometown as an “expat destination.”  I found this job through a referral at the FIGT conference (thank you, you know who you are!) so again would like to plug the importance of networking when job hunting.  In fact the woman who hired me says she ONLY hires via referral which I thought was rather interesting.

While I’m probably a perfect candidate for the job – my former life in real estate in Toronto means I know the city well and having been relocated myself so many times I have a good understanding of my clients’ situation – in reality I’ve found it quite a learning curve.  So at the moment I’m investing a huge amount of time researching everything from how to get a government health card for an infant who’s not a Canadian citizen, to night clubs and restaurants for young, single professionals.  Not only have many things changed in Toronto since I last lived here, but some things I never needed or experienced.  So far it’s fun, interesting but also a bit scary as I’m expected to be a seasoned Toronto expert and yet I still feel far from it.

A destination service specialist/consultant is a great job for any trailing spouse as they’re needed pretty much anyplace you find expats.

Pros

  • Flexible hours
  • Not stuck in an office
  • I’m learning lots about my city

Cons

  • Workload varies and therefore income varies
  • Dependent on someone else finding work for me
  • Tiring if driving around for a full day
  • Some weekend work (although I can decline it)
  • Business calls can be at any time
  • Working alone

Requirements

  • Knowledge of the city you live in
  • Willingness to learn and research
  • Strong people skills
  • A 4-door car
  • Computer, printer, cell phone

In my former, pre-expat life, I was self-employed as a real estate appraiser, so in many respects the job and lifestyle are similar.  However for anyone used to working regular hours in an office it could be quite an adjustment.  My biggest problem so far is missing the interaction with colleagues because I’m working from home.  I probably need to find some kind of local networking group, but if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

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How Travel Can Change Your Life

Do you ever stumble around the internet, finding one great site after another?  I just did this morning and want to share a couple of websites I’ve found which demonstrate how being an expat can dramatically change your outlook and your life.

The first one is quite lighthearted, Where The Hell Is Matt? (which I came at through the website of a fellow Canadian expat, Susan Macaulay, Amazing Women Rock).  I had seen Matt’s “Dancing” video before but never read the full story.  He was a video game designer, working in Los Angeles who got an opportunity to move to Australia for his job.  Living there inspired him to start travelling and he took videos of himself dancing in various far flung spots as gag souvenirs of the places he’d visited.  When he posted them on his blog, they went viral and since then he’s been travelling all over the globe making more videos.  He’s an accomplished public speaker and who knows what kind of a career he’ll make from it.

The second, more serious one, is Greg Mortenson’s website, which I came across through reading his book Three Cups of  Tea.  He’s an Adult MK (Missionary Kid) who spent months living in a small village in Pakistan after a failed attempt to climb K2. In order to repay the help and friendship offered him he vowed to return and build a school.  Since then he’s built 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute.  His book is a combination of adventure story, travelogue and inspiration, I couldn’t put it down, and his second one, Stones Into Schools, is on my wish list.

These are very different stories but in both the experience of living in another country fundamentally changed not only the lives of these two people and but no doubt the lives of many others they have touched.

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Thank Goodness It’s Thursday

It’s Thursday but it feels like a Friday, or rather what I mean to say is, it feels like the start of the weekend.  That’s because in Dubai, Thursday IS the start of their Friday/Saturday weekend.  It took a long time, many years, to adjust to Sunday being the start of the working week and I never did figure out whether mid-week was Tuesday or Wednesday.

To make matters worse, when we first moved to Dubai in 2000, the official, government weekend was Thursday/ Friday, which meant the schools were closed on those days.  However many companies, including the one where my husband worked, took a Friday/Saturday weekend so as not to be out of touch with the rest of the world for too long.  Confused yet?  I sure was.  It was tough for families because it meant the weekend really lasted three days, but yet we only had one day all together.

Fortunately the government eventually changed their weekend so everyone was on the same schedule, but it still took me a long time to adjust.  Even now in the Middle East there are many people who work a 6 day week, or even a 6 ½ day week, taking only Friday morning as time off for religious obligations.  The idea of a weekend is still a relatively new concept.    

I did finally felt comfortable with the Islamic week but now I’m back in Canada it’s taking me a long time to adjust back.  So, for now, TGIT !  🙂

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