I have been an expatriate for nearly five months now. Sometimes I feel like I have lived in Saigon for years, other times I feel like we flew in a few days ago. I have friends here who have been expats for several years already, and compared to them, I feel like I have little to no authority to write a post about what life as an expat is all about. I also think that sometimes my new friends forget what it was like to transition from their "home" country to working abroad, so as a new member to the expat scene, I want to shed some light on first timer insights. Here's the list of things I wish I would have known:
1. It's important to live close to your fellow expat community.
I had no idea how isolated I would feel living a mere 10 minute cab ride away from school. Nearly every other family with young children chose to live at a newer apartment complex within walking distance from the school. They see each other on the way to work, at the pool, at the market, and get to have those impromptu conversations that build relationships. Back home, you are not as reliant on your colleagues to be your friends. Here, they are all you have. And I've learned it's better to be close to the action--especially when going out into the sometimes daunting streets of Saigon does not sound inviting. It's okay though, because we will be moving closer to work soon.
2. Traveling is addicting.
I didn't realize how much I would love being able to pack up and go on a dream vacation about once a month. I love researching a new location, finding a hotel that meets our little family's wishes, and figuring our plans to fill our days. It's a little overwhelming because there are a plethora of places that I would like to see. I've learned that there is nothing that gets me through a stressful week at work better than knowing a beach vacation or some ancient temple is in my near future. Though, I think we'll have to stay abroad for about a decade to see all the places I want to see.
And our kids love it too. Oliver asks at least once a week if we can go on an airplane today. Very cute.
3. Simple tasks become exhausting.
I need a new pair of shorts. Not for work or anything, just quality, tan shorts that fit me and are not ridiculously short--I am a mom after all. I know dozens of places I could go back home to fulfill this need. Here? Uhm. Well. Yeah. I got nothing. There is no Target, no Old Navy, no mid-range department stores at all, and I'm not really down with spending 100USD on a pair or shorts at Diamond Plaza or Vincom. I could go to a tailor--I have a lady who makes my dresses for me, but I would kill for an REI or GoLite right about now. Also, I kind of need new glasses. I have no idea how to find an optometrist. Not to mention a dentist. Thankfully we have a pediatrician picked out here in D2. Oh, and what about craft supplies for the kids? I'm clueless. This is all very frustrating, and we have spent entire weekends trying to track down one item that back home would have taken us 20 minutes total. Oh, and I can't read most labels at the market, and there have been many times where I have no idea what I am ordering off menus. Most of the time I enjoy these challenges as it is part of the adventure, but it would be nice to swing past Target or Costco. And hit up a Chipotle.
4. I didn't need to ship so much.
Clothing we've never worn, cloth diapers that we can't wash properly here, a ridiculous number of towels, and more. Let's face it: I did not need to ship four pairs of jeans. I have wore jeans one time since we arrived on July 2nd. One. Time. Only. It was for a dress up day at school, and I was hot and uncomfortable all day. I probably didn't need to ship all those sweaters either--never going to wear those. And my boots. Ha.
I am bummed about the cloth diapers though. The trouble is that the washing machine does not have hot water---only mildly warm. This would be okay if I could count on the sun, but it's cloudy a lot here. And humid. This leads to funny smelling diapers because they never dry completely. Poor Oliver is wearing disposables here---but it's okay because he's getting pretty good at using the potty.
5. We should have shipped more.
I wish I would have taken the time to sort through our Christmas boxes and put together a box of holiday decorations. I'm pretty big into traditions, so I am having a rough time right now. Next summer, I will be sorting through some boxes to find some cookie cutters, our Christmas stockings, a few key ornaments, the train that goes around the base of the tree, and the photo album of all the Christmas cards we've ever made as a family. I'm really sad we do not have those things this year.
I also wish I would have shipped birthday and Christmas gifts for the boys. Toys here are ridiculously expensive. A Lego set that would go for $15 to $20 back home costs over $60 here. Seriously. It's not like the boys need a ton of stuff, but Christmas is going to be a lot smaller this year.
Other things I am wishing I shipped: my crochet hooks, art supplies for the kids, lesson planning notebooks, more summer clothing (shorts), and more work shoes (sandals). I guess we will be able to fill eight suitcases again next summer...
6. I still can't believe we are here.
I can't believe we did this. I can not believe we were brave enough (and crazy enough) to pack up our family and move to the other side of the planet. Not a day goes by where Derek and I don't make some sort of comment that would have sounded outlandish a year ago. "Hey, the boys want to go to Vung Tau this weekend." "I can't decide if we should do Christmas in Thailand or Malaysia." "The nanny is cooking breakfast." "Do you want to go to Bali for Spring Break?" "I'm going out for a massage." "Do you think the taxi will take the long way today?" "Where is Eyebrow Dog this morning?"
Seriously. I'm proud of us. I know the novelty will wear off eventually, but right now we constantly amuse ourselves with these comments. These comments make sense in our world now, but they would have been absurd in our former world.
7. It'll break your heart every single time your kid says he misses someone from home.
This has been hard for me. Owen is nearly five, and occasionally he has a rough day and will fixate on a person he misses from home: family, friends from his old preschool, pets, ect. The fact that he is sad (even briefly) makes me feel awful for bringing him here--if only for a few seconds. But then I remember that he is having some incredible experiences here. And that family will be there when we get back. And that his class would have changed this year anyway. And that learning to deal with change is healthy. Five minute later, Owen is fine and acting like nothing happened, but it hurts to see your kid sad.
8. Our lifestyle has changed.
We have a nanny who also cooks and cleans for us. I haven't folded clothes in months. We can afford to go out to eat regularly. We can afford to go on vacations. We can afford to stay at five-star resorts when we go on vacations. Our son is going to an incredible international school. We spend our weekends focused on our children rather than errands and chores. We are more financially comfortable than we have ever been. This is an amazing lifestyle, and it completely makes up for all of the stresses I have experienced as an expat.
9. We miss the food... and drinks.
While food here is very fresh, the selection just isn't as good. I have yet to find kale, Swiss chard, arugula, flax seeds, or blueberries. The selection of grains is minimal. You can buy white rice, sticky white rice, or "fancy" black rice. That's it. Legumes are very expensive and only sold in small amounts. Thankfully, our nanny is an incredible cook. She has figured out substitutions and managed to replicate some of our favorite dishes. And we love all the different curries she can make.
Then there's the beer. Derek and I are from Colorado: a state that is home to over 150 micro-breweries. There is even a small micro-brewery within walking distance of our house there. Needless to say, we enjoy good beer. We know how to appreciate beer the way a sommelier appreciates wine. The beer here is not so good. The choices are very limited, and it all kind of tastes like Bud Lite. Ich. It's so bad, I've started drinking wine. (Note: An import beer store just opened in Thao Dien. They have a great selection of Belgian beers!)
10. Summer never ends.
We knew we were moving to the tropics. We read about it. But it just does not prepare you for the fact that you will be wearing shorts year round. That you will be having school wide water balloon fights, outside, in November. That having an outdoor pool party for your son born in December is a sane idea. It is really nice to know that I will not have to scrape my windshield in the mornings. (We actually do not even have windshields here...)