A POSITIVE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
“WHAT DO YOU DO?”
So, I covered in several posts the identity struggle than can come along when you are moving abroad for the partner’s job. It’s a new beginning on several levels and a change also in areas that you have been happy with such as the job situation. In this blog post, I want to present you an interview with a very experienced Expat who moved abroad for her husband’s job and managed to re-invent herself and be happy with the new lifestyle. She contacted me after reading one of my blog posts where I covered the topic of why the question “What do you do?” can be a tough one. She expressed her disbelief that modern women are still struggling with this and showed me her perspective. I loved it and wanted to present to you her point of view so I asked her for an interview. And here it is: A conversation about the modern challenges of being an Expat Partner and what to learn from more experienced Expat Partners – with the amazing Antje Döhring.
Antje Döhring -
An experienced expat shares her view on expatriation
Born 1969 in Dresden, East Germany. She got a diploma in Journalism / PR from Leipzig University and worked as a Press Spokeswoman for a theater before she got married and started her expat experience together with her husband, a project engineer. The initial task of “being abroad for nine months” became a journey of twenty years through four countries, raising a family, various jobs and new personal skills.
In Saudi-Arabia, she worked as a freelance correspondent for German newspapers and magazines, as a part-time librarian in an expat library, founded her own bilingual Compound-newspaper and got her first daughter. Of course, she also read and traveled a lot and learned about her new environment and culture.
In India, she took up a job as a Business Development Manager for a local food importing company with only 2 hours daily, as she had to pick up her daughter at the Kindergarten at 11 a.m. Her second daughter was born there.
In Libya, she worked part-time for the Austrian Chamber of Commerce organizing business delegations and creating a file of all major construction projects in Libya. She held extracurricular classes about creating a school newspaper at the German school. With the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, she and her family had to leave suddenly without previous notice.
In the United Arab Emirates, she began a very personal project: She started to write novels. The German Young Adult story was published there, the English translation just recently. In U.A.E. she resumed postgraduate studies to get a degree in teaching German and English as a foreign language, took up piano and oriental dancing lessons for a few years and was a member in a book club.
In 2017 Antje Döhring and her family have been relocated to Germany. While writing books, giving German conversation lessons and occasionally working as a tour guide she takes care of her family and engages in local expat groups to help new expat wives to adapt and connect.
1. What are the biggest challenges for the current generation of new expats/expat partners compared to when you started your own journey abroad?
First of all I would praise how much easier it is to keep in touch with your home country as well as all over the world with the development of the digital era! Imagine, when me and my husband started our expat time twenty years ago, there were no Skype or WhatsApp and the like. In Saudi-Arabia phone calls to Europe costed a fortune, but the Internet was introduced there only two years after our arrival. This meant for us: A letter by post took approximately three weeks to Germany, and the answer three weeks again, so we got a return letter only six weeks after we sent one! Today we can call ourselves lucky in this regard to have so many instant channels to communicate!
However, in a global world now, being flexible and also moving abroad for a job is increasingly demanded by companies. It is a bit more “normal” today. So, perhaps also the expectations towards expats and their families have risen in the sense of “(Wo)man, you just changed the place. So please, just go on with your business, as usual, you are really not the first to take this step”.
This leads to a quite dangerous misconception (which I, by the way, was a victim, too): You just going on with your life, only in front of a different background picture. But adapting to a foreign place eats power – even then when you aren’t realizing and feeling particularly drained! Same is true for your partner and kids. Imagine, both partners (plus kids), additionally to a new full-time job, also have this emotional load of adapting to the environment and both come home every night entirely exhausted from office. For the sake of a healthy relationship, one of them should be able to keep a few resources to catch the other one when necessary! Permanent mutual aggression or disinterest out of pure job exhaustion doesn’t create a strong couple (or family) base.
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2. We discussed the problem of younger Expat Partners to answer the question of "What do you do" with confidence when they are not employed in traditional job roles. What would you recommend a fresh Expat Partner who is feeling uncomfortable with this question?
Relax! First of all, a fresh expat partner should see everything coming across as an opportunity, perhaps even as a gift – though I know very well that coping with chaotic, congested streets, very different climate, language problems, cockroaches and threatening monkeys or different customs can feel like nothing but a “gift” at all in the beginning – but you will grow to tackle them!
When you don’t work full-time or not at all in a regular job as you did before: Ask yourself, what is a valuable “work” for you, apart from the obvious office treadmill? Could you learn new skills? A new or extended hobby, a language, a passion for something you never had enough time for as long as you were in a traditional job?
Or can you give anything to your new community as a volunteer? Starting a blog? Helping in a school or hospital? Perhaps a hobby could even lead you to entrepreneurship later on! I have seen so many great women who started their own businesses abroad in fields they had never thought about before.
Last but not least: Personal growing. As new places, people and (side) jobs or hobbies will expand your mind, also the finally regularly done Yoga session or reading all the many books you always wanted to will add to your facettes and your personality.
Contrary to the common myth of “Being a housewife only makes stupid and boring” I experienced quite the opposite! Of course, we should define the word “housewife” as a person who in fact isn’t really her whole life confined to her house cooking and cleaning ONLY, but a woman who currently doesn’t have a regular paid 9- to 5-job, but using her abilities otherwise.
While living abroad for many years in several countries, I was glad to meet so many “housewives” who were often such inspiring, open-minded, talented, multiple-interested personalities that you could only learn from! Compared to them, I must confess that rather normal, “working women” in Europe sometimes seem to be less inspiring but a bit boring. When you ask them who they are and what they do, they … only talk about their job: the task, the strange boss and the naughty colleagues. Period.
3. Many women define themselves by their career/profession. Why could that be critical in your mind and what would you recommend women who are struggling with this loss of identity after the move abroad?
First of all: Be aware of the fact that you ARE NOT your job label. A human is so much more than a job description. Who are you really, what are your strong and weak sides? Who do you want to become? Don’t let this opportunity slip away.
Imagine a scene. A social occasion in a new place where an expat’s wife is being asked this regular, for many irritating questions: “And, what are you doing here?”
Lady A answers: “I am a Key-Accountant manager. It is very challenging since I am here I cannot leave the office before eight.”
Lady B answers: “Ooooh, where to start from? Since we are here only half a year, so don’t expect too much. Ok, first of all, I try to make my dear husband’s and my kids valuable and lovable members of our society; when you have kids yourself, you know how exhausting it can be. Second, I just finished my advanced Spanish course and got an offer to volunteer in a neighborhood school teaching a bit of English, too. Since I am here, I am an enthusiastic driver – in case you need a few insider hints just let me know. And yes … only when we moved I finally came to read all the many books, I always wanted to. I found a few nice similar souls – we founded a theater company; you are invited to the premiere of our latest stage play; I will be the “Eliza Doolittle,” by the way. During this evening we will serve a traditional buffet. Since I am in the XY cooking class for regional dishes, we thought it would be a great idea to offer these flavors to our performance guests. Isn’t your wife arriving here soon? Why don’t you bring her over then; I am responsible for planning monthly activities in our expat wive club, we start a knitting school, perhaps she would like to join?”
What do you guess – which lady would you choose to relate to in the first place, which one would you prefer to talk to or ask advice for – of course only when you aren’t by chance a key-accountant yourself? For many decades of the 20th century, it was important to fight for equal rights in many fields of our society, keyword: emancipation.
However, since the 90ies a different tenor became more and more evident and soon a leading role model of young woman: You are ONLY an acceptable woman when you got an important fulltime job, having a family with kids who you raise organic and of high highest pedagogical levels, but also being an politically informed member of this society with a few great hobbies and volunteer’s activities, an all-time available good friend, devoted daughter plus a sportive, witty and of course sexy wife.
From my experience: Yes, all these and even more roles a woman should or at least could incorporate into one person. But … not all at the same time!
A day got only 24 hours. When you don’t want to be superficial and someone who finishes everything “multi-tasking” (in fact: multi-lacking) … it is better to choose your current “roles” depending on necessities. Sure, raising young children comes first; when they are more independent, you can concentrate on a professional career without feeling torn. When in the new place the EXACT job you were used to doing isn’t on the plate – look for another one similar (or perhaps very different?) from it. I’ve learned that combining motherhood and professional career would be often easier abroad than in Europe when you don’t stick to a minimal field only!
Perhaps, living abroad for a few years, is for you anyway the time to seek development apart from patriarchal job-roles but in more personal ways?
Even when it feels uncomfortable first, especially when you are maybe an introvert, shy person: Throw yourself into this life outside your safe four walls at home! Explore the new place, learn the language, make the site “home” to you and also your partner who has because of his/her job hardly any chance to fit in the same way – by new routines, you create for you within the narrow or wide limits the new place offers to you.
In case you brought children with you to a new place, you will be occupied first anyway to help them settle in, you won’t feel bored for sure! Also, when you become parents only after your move … running a family is always demanding, and in certain parts of this world, under challenging circumstances (lacking supply or transport system, power cuts and so on), it could be a full-time job! Sailing a family safe through everyday’s life in a foreign land, mainly when the partner is more or less at home only to sleep due to his job, is an essential and significant achievement!
Therefore: Please don’t underestimate the value of non-profit work for family and community, especially abroad in expat networks! Without such people (most often they are still female) such a society hardly would work. Or at least would be dull, dry and boring as anything.
on social media!
Thank you, Antje for all the fantastic insights. For me, they perfectly mirror what I am observing within the expat community: The definition over work, the “we want to have it all AND at the same time” thinking, the stressing out about being enough. I hope reading this personal story of a woman who is looking back at her expat adventure with joy is inspiring you in your own journey. If you want to read more from Antje check out the book she has published: “Featherlight. Hope rekindled”.
About her book
»Less is more!« Paolo had declared. Following which the school heartthrob had dumped her. Since then, Jasmine had wanted only one thing: to become thinner and to be more attractive. When her family sat down for lunch, Jasmine only pretended to eat. She secretly threw most of her food away. She hoped to lose weight with the help of an Internet forum called the “PorcelainGirls”. Soon after, becomes close friends with the administrator of the site. Jasmine was besieged with health problems. And the situation soon became critical. Yet, she was still torn. On the one hand she felt compelled to become even thinner – just like the rest of the girls in the forum. On the other hand, as she got to know other people, her perceptions would gradually be changed. And then there was Philipp. Could he win her trust during this trying time? And in the end: which side would gain the upper hand? A story about a teenage girl overcoming her struggle with an eating disorder and self esteem. A story about friendship, family and love.