Why following your spouse abroad is an opportunity to reinvent yourself
Christina Adamidou | Apr 18, 2018 | Photograph by: Vladimir Kudinov
At the time, I was excited about the idea.
Having lived in several countries during my single life, I was happy to explore another country and a new culture. My then fiancé’s exciting job offer in the Philippines presented a brand new opportunity for both of us. I didn’t hesitate to quit my job in Shanghai and move with him to Manila.
I expected getting hired within the next six months, if not sooner. English is an official language in the Philippines after all, and everyone told me I should have no problem finding a new job there. I imagined eating exotic foods and travelling to beautiful islands on the weekends. We’d entertain Filipino friends and mingle with other expats. We’d have new experiences to tell our children someday.
What I didn’t see coming was my new role as the “trailing spouse” – a phrase used to describe the person who follows his or her partner to another place, often a foreign country. The term made me shudder, conjuring up images of human shadows mindlessly following their other half without aim or purpose. It was a label I wanted never to be associated with, yet it was one I found myself attached with.
Nevertheless, I remained optimistic about retaining my identity as a career-minded, young woman. I sent numerous job applications and carefully written cover letters, some of which led to interviews, but were then politely declined after the realisation that I’m a “foreigner.”
Most local companies do not want to have to take the time-consuming, expensive route of obtaining working visas for expats. Bosses also tend to see expat spouses as temporary or lacking commitment, and are thus wary of hiring them.
And I was not alone; in fact, out of 79% of partners who had previous jobs before their spouse’s overseas posting, only 36% were able to continue their career once relocated, according to a report by Yvonne McNulty, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, who specialises in issues of global mobility.
Networking or social events didn’t help either, where topics of conversation often revolved around my husband’s career, while questions like “have you been to XYZ shopping mall?” and “are you planning on starting a family soon?” were directed at me. It seemed like the tag “expat wife” made me almost invisible.
Watching my now husband climb the ladder, make new connections, and gain incredible experience made me proud of him, yet left me wondering, What about me? What could I achieve given the opportunity?
For those of you who have moved abroad for a partner’s job, family, or nationality, the expatriate life presents complex challenges and sacrifices.
People tend to associate international living with glamorous travel and interesting social circles, yet the reality can be very different, and much less rosy. Aside from basic things like homesickness and culture shock, the accidental expat or “trailing spouse” deals with less obvious issues, such as a loss of identity and depression. Especially if you’re an independent, ambitious woman, inheriting rather than choosing a life abroad – and for a man no less – can be a hard pill to swallow.
Despite the many stresses, I have now come to realise that there are plenty of positive aspects of being an expat spouse and the greatest one is the ability to do things differently.
Being uprooted from your comfort zone and placed somewhere new gives you the chance to start fresh. From my experience, the happiest expat spouses are the ones who view their relocation as a chance to do something meaningful, an opportunity for self-development and reinvention.
If you have ever considered accompanying your partner abroad, or if you’re already an expat spouse but want to rebuild your identity and lead a more fulfilling life, this post is for you.
Below are top insider tips and ideas to help you move with purpose:
1. Take a language course
Learning the local language can be a fun and interesting way to immerse yourself in your new home. Plus, it makes living abroad much easier: you can make new friends with locals, learn new things about the culture, and generally deal with every day details that your spouse may not be able to.
Learning a language takes time and dedication but is a worthy investment that will look impressive on your resume and makes you more employable in the local job market. Plus, going to regular classes means having a routine of your own that doesn’t revolve around your spouse or family.
2. Be willing to accept lower paying jobs
This takes letting go of your pride – but knowing your self-worth. Finding employment in a new country is tough, but it makes the transition smoother if you adopt a flexible mind-set about the types of jobs you seek. Instead of desperately trying to match your pay with your previous salary, keep in mind that getting employed in a foreign country is already a win. Focus on what the job actually entails and the future prospects of working for that company.
If you’re like most expat spouses who have suffered a loss of income after the relocation and are worrying about their future finances, having a job and earning money – no matter the sum – may be just what you need to grow and feel a sense of accomplishment.
3. Start a business
You know that amazing business idea you once had? Now is your time to pursue it. I remember thinking how much I would love to work in the wedding industry in my previous job, and after planning two weddings of my own, I decided to take the plunge and setup an online wedding stationery business shortly after moving to the Philippines. It has been an incredibly rewarding, yet challenging experience that I don’t regret.
Of course, being a business owner is no easy feat. You will make mistakes and there will be times where you’ll question what am I doing? However, making your first sale or seeing a client happy with something you created can give you immense joy, satisfaction, and new meaning to a confusing situation.
Don’t be afraid of failure either – even if your business turns out unsuccessful, you’ve learned something. You’ve enriched yourself with new knowledge and you’ve still moved forward.
4. Pursue your passions
Find out what really makes you happy and follow it relentlessly. Is it music, surfing, creating things, or helping people? Go out and find the activities in your local area that develop and deepen those interests. Do a quick search online and you’ll be surprised by the amount of audio books, online courses, and podcasts you can learn from.
Some expat spouses I know are pursuing a second degree online or even taking a Master’s course at a local academic institution. Depending on the country you’re relocated to, the lower cost of living allows you to take advantage of those passion projects, which might have been too expensive in your hometown. Time is precious so choose the things you want to invest in wisely.
5. Connect with others
The most important thing to remember in difficult situations is that you’re not alone. There are plenty of expat spouses who are facing the same challenges you are. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google are all valuable resources to find like-minded individuals – but you have to be mentally open to meeting them.
I remember the first six months living in the Philippines were especially difficult for me, as I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was so overwhelmed with everything that I lacked the courage and energy to approach new people. This changed shortly after moving to a new neighbourhood with a large expat community. I’ve since befriended a number of intelligent, friendly, and ambitious women who I can relate to. Many work part-time, some manage businesses, and all are happy to share advice and experiences. Seeing and being around these women is inspiring, uplifting, and has made me want to make the most of my experience too.
6. Make the city your own
It’s OK to miss your old world, but don’t forget to look at the one around you. Are you living in a city with a big foodie culture? Is it a town that’s popular for its art scene? Perhaps it’s a bustling metropolis that encourages entrepreneurship.
Discover what makes your new home special and turn to these places the next time you’re looking for a sanctuary or a space to feel inspired. Create your favourite spots and build your world again.
7. Find a place to volunteer
I remember the first time I took part in a local feeding program for impoverished children in the Philippines. It was an extremely eye-opening experience that helped me reinvent my state of mind. Seeing those less fortunate than yourself helps you re-evaluate the things you thought would make you happy. It provides you the platform to make a real difference in people’s lives, helps you gain clarity, and not lose sight of what’s important.
8. Try freelancing
If you’re looking for a flexible working schedule without having to worry about visa issues, freelancing may be for you. Thanks to the Internet, there are a number of global freelancing websites that make it easier than ever to find employers who are looking to commission part-time, remote professionals.
Since joining these platforms, I’ve received a number of requests from editors wanting to receive articles about life in Asia, as they value working with someone who can provide a new perspective both as an insider and as an expat. Use your unique situation and the web to your advantage to continue honing your craft, build your portfolio, and restart your career.
You may be so far away from your old normal. But that just gives you a whole new you to discover. Since everyone around you is a stranger starting out from scratch, this gives you the freedom to be whoever you want to be. You are a blank slate on which you can write your own story. If you want to better yourself or become someone new – this is your perfect opportunity.
This year marks my one-year anniversary in the Philippines and I plan on living more intentionally and purposefully. I’m learning to chart my own path and my need for self-enrichment has inspired me to think differently about the series of titles attached to me to consign me to a “plus one.” I may be an expatriate wife; I have chosen to follow my husband but I will not give up my identity.
Don’t call me a trailing spouse – call me a trailblazer.
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Natalie Hughes founded Miss Independent in 2017, to educate and mentor women and help them make their best career and business decisions. Natalie is an experienced business woman and non-executive company director focused on organisational design, strategy, growth and innovation. Her goal is to help you think differently, work differently and feel in control of your own destiny.
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