Being an expat can be the most amazing experience in a lifetime but it can also be the hardest. These past 15 months I have experienced both. From amazing new friendships to feelings of isolation, being an expat is both difficult and awesome at the same time. I am about to tell you, in my experience, how the best things about being an expat can simultaneously be the worst.
The best things about being an Expat
Getting to travel and see the world
Being an expat offers the opportunity to see the world and visit amazing places. For Swedes living in Sweden, most amazing places in the world are around 10.000km and a giant hole in the wallet away. Had we not moved to Brazil we might never have seen South America at all. It is only one destination of many to choose from for Swedes seeking the sun to escape the cold and dark that personifies Sweden and even is a subject in daily conversation.
Since moving here we have tried to see as much as our time and wallet allows. Big and small. Some destinations are but an hours drive away while others require using the domestic airlines Azul or Gol. Brazil is a huge country and I am desperate to make sure we see the best parts. Our bucket list is very long and if we add our list for South America it is longer still. The best part about living here is experiencing the genuine parts of Brazil. As a tourist, you plan your trip from 10.000km away and rely on various travel sites and consequently end up with relatively touristy places and experiences nicely packaged. Most of our travelling is done upon recommendation from Brazilians. I love being in places that are customised for the local population where breakfast isn’t continental but rather fruit, pão de queijo (cheese bread) and cake. Not the breakfast of my choice but it is how it is done here. And that is exactly what I want to take home with me when we move back; the knowledge and experience of how it is done the Brazilian way, in all aspects of Brazilian life. I also want to take a lifetime supply of pineapples, lime and nail polish. But that will be another blogpost.
I’d like to urge friends of expats to take the opportunity when you have a friend who lives abroad to go visit. It is the perfect way to experience another country. You have a personal guide who knows what you like AND has local knowledge and will shoe you the best there is to see. We have had a few visitors and have really enjoyed it. But there are still many friends who haven’t said when they are coming…. 😉
Giving our children the opportunity of a lifetime
Many hesitate to take an assignment abroad because of their children. It might not be the right age, the right time or the kids will miss their friends or whatever other reason. I can say this; there is no right age. Kids will miss their friends and home country just as we grownups do. One can argue that kids too small will hinder integration for the mother as I have seen here with some of our expat friends. Our company does not provide daycare for toddlers and it is very expensive so children under 5 stay at home with their mom. Neither mom nor child is then integrated into the new society unless they have older kids in school. So check your contract!
We decided school was a crucial part of integration so we paid for both Olivia and James their first term in daycare. I won’t say it was easy, but starting a new school never is no matter where it is. So, dropping them off at school the first few months was tough but pretty soon they started speaking Portuguese, planned play dates and couldn’t get to school fast enough. School also lets them experience, learn, understand and appreciate the local culture.
The kids are also our way into the Brazilian living room. Nobody is as good as making friends as kids (or maybe Brazilians) and so through the kids we have gotten to know so many wonderful people who have made our living here easy and fun.
Because expats tend to travel a lot, the kids grow up seeing such diversity in places, peoples and cultures and so grow out of any narrow mindedness regarding what the world looks like and learn to respect differences. The kids also become very good travellers knowing when to sleep, hustle or busy themselves with something to fight boredom. Because we are constantly surrounded by strangers they learn to be secure in themselves and gain a worldly confidence only international kids get. Their safe haven is no longer connected to the country, town or house they live in but rather to where ever the family is.
Expatriating to a location that doesn’t have english as an official language forces children to learn a second or third language. It forces us all to learn the language but children are so quick to soak it up and it gives them an advantage growing up understanding the rules on which languages are built. Our kids are bilingual from the start since I speak english with them and Peter speaks swedish. Both are germanic languages which will help them in German and all Scandinavian languages. Adding Portuguese to their language skills adds an Indo-European Romance language just like french, spanish and italian; all these languages where the verb is conjugated a thousand different ways!
Meeting new friends
I have met wonderful people here in Araraquara and Brazil and made amazing new friends. Like I wrote in a previous post about Brazilian behaviours for export to Sweden the people I have met here have big hearts and have made our transition into society very easy. With family and friends 10.000km away, new friends become a lifeline. They are the ones I call when my Portuguese is insufficient and I am standing in the emergency room with a sick kid. They are the ones I call when I need help booking movie tickets online when international credit cards are not accepted. They are the ones who invite us to celebrate christmas with their family just because we have none; not here anyway.
Swedish friendships are famous for taking time to grow; finding common denominators, making careful choices. Here even swedish friendships happen overnight. The common ground is already established by being here. They know what it is like to be far away from home and everything that is familiar to us. We share the same doubts, concerns, thrills and new experiences. We are a fantastic support group for each other. Those of us who have been here a while know what the newcomers are going through. We feel an obligation to help each other settle in as smoothly as possible. We talk about the different ways of doing things here in Brazil, the things we miss from Sweden. We celebrate midsummer together, help each other through things nobody wants to do alone. And the comfort of speaking a language that I know is such a relief from the sometimes strenuous search for the right Portuguese phrasing and conjugating always unsure if I made myself understood or insulted someone or made a fool of my self. (Just the other day I wrote “Moms and breads” instead of “Moms and dads”.)
I have made wonderful friends since moving here, Brazilian and Swedish. Friendships that I can only hope will last a lifetime.
Expanding my worldview
I can’t even count the number of times during our 15 months in Brazil that Peter and I have looked at each other and said “can you believe this is our life?!”. Whether its gazing at the beautiful sunset from our window or waking up in the Brazilian country side to the sound of monkeys and parrots in the trees outside or hearing the kids play and converse in fluent portuguese with their friends or every time at the supermarket when I see the giant pile of avocados each one the size of James’ head. My point is that living abroad and experiencing life in a foreign setting keeps you aware of your surroundings and opens your eyes to the world around you. I am constantly aware of how lucky I am by the small things around me in a way that I didn’t back home in Sweden where everything is taken for granted. Similarly seeing the way of the world on the other side makes me appreciate all the things I left behind.
Living in a foreign country also lets you understand how different cultures think. I learned that compared to Brazilians Swedes are very rigid in everything from timekeeping to following rules and instructions. On the other hand Swedes are perfectionists compared to Brazilians who are satisfied with a “good enough” kind of result. Inevitably this changes your view of the world and changes maybe how you see things. Once a perfectionist I am now leaning more towards being a perfectionist when it really matters like when dealing with the kids while being satisfied with a “good enough” one course dinner when inviting friends for dinner on Tuesday because the important thing is spending time together and not what is served.
In the warm corporate embrace
The process of moving abroad and starting to work and live in a foreign country is complicated and sometimes very confusing. When an expat signs up for an assignment abroad the company provides the instructions and planning of the expatriation process. The day after we signed the contract a “to-do-list” was sent to us instructing us to report to government organisations, get medical exams, what deployment readiness courses we were enrolled in etc. We got instructions on how to ship our belongings. We got instructions for our recce trip during which we looked for houses and school for the kids. It is a veritable jungle to navigate through to understand and do all the right things before you can move abroad. It is very nice and comfortable to be guided through said jungle by experts who have done the research and have all the right contacts.
The worst things about being an Expat
Getting to travel and see the world
Before moving to Brazil my bucket list had South America on it. You know the classic take 10 days vacation and se the main sights and then you can say that you’ve done South America. The problem with living abroad is that you are made aware of how big the world is and that there is so much to see. Seems like the more you see the more you want. We’ve spent 15 months in Brazil already and I am desperately trying to make sure we see everything before our time is up. And that is only Brazil. Then there is the rest of South America! I’m growing a headache just thinking about all the things we won’t be able to see before we move back to Sweden.
Then of course there is the difficulty in choosing to go home and see your family or travel to see the world. We have one trip to Sweden every year. How do you choose between the opportunity to explore the world and seeing your loved ones? Being so far from family and for so long is like holding your breath for the duration of your assignment thinking its only 2 years, and then its only one more year, suddenly its the year you are moving home and you start relaxing a little. I think that once the assignment is over you will realise that a year goes so quickly that you will regret not spending every moment travelling and exploring. But I can’t help wishing I could hug my sister once in a while or have tea with mom and dad in Falsterbo like we always do. Or play with my godson Arvid who is growing up way too fast without me and I haven’t even met my little nephew Fritz yet since he was born in august last year!
And what do you do then if you are offered an extension? You are given the opportunity to stay and explore even more of the world. How do you tell your family who have started counting down the months that you might not be coming home yet after all? Take another deep breath and hold it?
Giving our children the opportunity of a lifetime
Both Olivia and James had their little posse of friends in Åkarp before we left. They grew up together in daycare. Before we left we had a “Going Away” party with all their friends. It was clear that they were going to miss each other. In the following months there was a lot of FaceTime and writing letters to their friends telling about their new home. As the months passed their friends got used to not having Olivia and James in their midst. And Olivia and James made new friends here (once they had the language skills) and found new posses. When the kids move back to Sweden their friends will have moved on without them. They may become friends again but they will have missed growing up with them. At the same time they will leave the posse they belonged to in Brazil. Expat kids may loose their sense of belonging. Especially if they keep going on new assignments.
Kids who live abroad also develop and change their view of the world in stark contrast to the children back home who naturally haven’t had time to see so much of the world yet. I remember expat kids who moved back to Sweden and started in my class. They always seemed different from the rest of us. Like they knew the secrets of the world and in a way they did. They also acted differently because they had grown up in another culture and adapted to that way of thinking.
Living in Brazil has forced us to learn portuguese. For me that is fine, my english and swedish don’t suffer because of it. The kids however are at an age where they are learning to read and write and speak correctly. Normally this is done in one language before eventually english is added. Olivia and James have to do this in Swedish, English AND Portuguese. I let the school take care of the portuguese and then I have to homeschool them in english and swedish. I will never be able to replace the education they get in Swedish schools but it will have to be good enough (the brazilian way 😉 ). This means they may struggle with swedish when we move back home. Usually expat kids are put in a lower class to make up for lost time which also means they won’t be with their friends.
Meeting new friends
Just as wonderful as it is to meet new people and make new friends it is equally sad when you have to say good bye to them. The Swedish friends I have made here all move back to Sweden eventually. And every time one of them goes home it changes the dynamic of the group of besties we have created here. When I first got here there were 13 other housewives. Now most of them have gone home and not been replaced so our group is, at the moment, considerably smaller which also changes the dynamics. I find some comfort in knowing that I will probably see them when we ourselves go back to Sweden but it doesn’t change our situation right here while on our assignment.
Repatriating sadly also means saying good bye to all my new Brazilian friends. For most probably for ever. That will be really hard. I couldn’t ask for better friends and I would have liked to have them close for the rest of my life.
Expanding my worldview
Living abroad inevitably changes you. You experience things that make you look upon the world in a different light. I have been through this before. I lived in Kosovo for 9 months when I served with the peacekeeping force KFOR. When I rotated back home I had a new reference point and it was difficult to explain it to friends and family who hadn’t shared the experiences. Anybody who has served will know this.
Sweden is one of the most climate friendly countries in the world. Swedes have changed just about everything in daily life so as to prolong the life of mother earth. And then here I live in the land also known as Plastic Fantastic where the current government decides that climate change is a secondary issue and a president with the power and a priority to increase deforestation of the Amazon forest which alone has an immense influence on world climate and ocean currents. Swedes believe they can turn the pending climate disaster around by biking and walking everywhere, recycling, reusing plastic bags etc. And we feel good about ourselves; we are saving our planet. Brazil is 19 times bigger than Sweden and doesn’t do a fraction of what Swedes do to save our planet. We aren’t saving anything. I have become a non-believer. This is only one example of how my living here has changed my worldview.
My views on people and their behaviour have changed. I am mentally preparing to stop myself from beginning every other sentence when we move back with “In Brazil….” or “When we lived in Brazil…”. If or when I do it is only because I am wishing we had shared that experience but since we didn’t I can brief you in on it 🙂 Two years is a long time to be away from home where life continues without you while you take a giant detour and when you meet again nothing is the same.
In the transitions it is difficult to really decide where home is. When we left Sweden we left “home”. When we are in Sweden Brazil is “home”. When we move back to Sweden for good, Brazil will probably feel more like home in the beginning until we get settled. The definition of home for us as a family has changed; home is truly where the family is. As long as we are together, we are home.
In the “warm” corporate embrace
I am the type of person who enjoys organising and planning big projects especially if there is packing and transportation in it. I am a logistician, this is what I do for a living in the army or did before I became a temporary trophy wife (yes, I know that is not a positive description but my husband thinks it is). So, for expat assignments everything is taken care of by the company or a relocation company hired by the company. You have to just put yourself in their hands and go with the flow and follow the instructions. BUT, if the relocation company doesn’t do its job you can find yourself in a very difficult and inconvenient situation that has an impact on your whole assignment period. We were instructed to get an international drivers licence valid for 3 years so we can drive in Brazil. We did as instructed. Then a year into our assignment we we are “notified” that the law requires foreigners to get a Brazilian drivers licence after 180 days. Brilliant, so we immediately stop driving and start the process of getting a licence. In Brazil. The capital of bureaucracy. So now more than 3 months later I am still taking 11 übers a day and planning weekly taxi transportation. In Brazil you don’t walk anywhere because of the heat, security issues and the simple fact that there are no sidewalks. And it doesn’t look like we will be getting our licences any time soon. So a little human error in the relocation organisation has deprived us of our freedom of movement, made daily life inconvenient for all families on site. When you move abroad on your own you check things thrice and make sure NOTHING is missed because you will suffer for your mistakes. The relocation company doesn’t suffer the inconvenience personally and doesn’t have the incentive to check things thrice. I will not make that mistake again of trusting anyone else to do my relocation.
“If you want something done right you do it yourself.”
I am very grateful for the opportunities we have been given as an expats and I will never regret our decision to move a broad. Our families and friends were very supportive and helped make the decision easy even if it meant moving 10 000km away.
So anyone who is given the chance to move abroad as expats with family in tow I strongly urge you to take the opportunity and have the adventure of a lifetime.