So I’m going to start a new mini-series here. I could call it “Things I Wish I Knew About Being a Trailing Foreign Service Spouse Before We Went Overseas” but that’s kind of long and ungainly, so lets just call it “Life Lessons from Overseas.” It’s catchier that way.
Once a week for the next few weeks I’m going to be talking about things I learned during my first tour living overseas as a diplomat’s wife and a foreign service spouse. Some of these things are heavy, important stuff, some are pretty trivial. Some are good life lessons in general and some are pretty specific to the expat spouse experience. I’ll be writing about everything from making friends, to getting out of the house, to why travel will save your sanity, to finding work to why culture shock is the crappiest and most annoyingly accurate psychological cliche on the planet.
After only one tour under my belt, I’m no expert-far from it. I can still remember though what I thought living overseas as a diplomat’s wife might be like, what it turned out to be like, and what it felt like when all of my warm fuzzy dreams collided with reality.
On the movie reel playing in my head before we left the States, I practically skipped through picturesque cobblestone alleyways, finding secret Sichuan delicacies, I spoke and read fluent Mandarin. There may as well have been a choreographed song and dance number starring me, my favorite vegetable vendors, for how realistic my visions were. I pictured myself meeting new best friends to have giggly girl’s nights with. I assumed I would be a fearless explorer roaming the countryside. That ban on working on the local economy? That would somehow magically not apply to me and I would find fulfilling and important work to do with great non-profits on the ground in China. I would never sit at home, hitting refresh on the New York Times website and counting down the minutes until my husband came home. Never.
The reality is that I did eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants–but I also ate at home–a lot. Sure, I chatted a lot with the grandmothers and vendors in our neighborhood, but I never felt like anyone was just one “ni chi fan le ma?” away from inviting me home to dinner. On the contrary, the one time an elderly woman put her arm on my shoulder to draw me close and confess her hatred for her native land 3 weeks before we left China, I was so shocked by her intimacy that I wondered for a split second whether it was some sort of elaborate setup.
I was able to make friends both within and outside the Consulate community, but too many times I waited for others to ask me to hang out instead of being the one to make the first phone call. Too many times I didn’t join a club or a group because it seemed like it wouldn’t “be my thing” and it was always my loss.
Working for a non-profit as a diplomatic spouse in China? Forget it! On the other hand, I didn’t take advantage of the small opportunities I did have, believing I could always find something better elsewhere. Bad move.
China was not my first time living overseas and so I assumed, quite wrongly, that I’d somehow have a leg up on the culture shock and the expat life. Maybe I did in some ways, but it was still a total shock to find out how different life can be when you’re living in a place to be with the person you love rather than a job or a city you love. I made some really good decisions in China and I made some really not-so-good ones and I learned a lot.
I’m going to be writing about my experience, but I’m only one person with one set of opinions, so for this set of posts especially, I’d really love your input and to hear your thoughts. Write comments, send me links to your blog posts, shoot me emails. I’ll include and attribute and link to it all throughout this series wherever I can. I can’t wait to hear from you.
Next week we’ll start by talking culture shock, or why everyone looooves Post at 3 months, hates Post with a fiery passion at 6 months, before gradually adjusting and falling ridiculously head over heels in love again…6 months before pack out. Send me your thoughts!
Will and I…looking very diplomatic, right? (By the way, how great is that fountain in that “new” (read: 2 years old) park on the Potomac in Georgetown? Will thought it was amazing, can’t wait to take him back to play when the weather is warmer)