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What It’s Like to Be an Expat Family

expat family at the tropic of capricorn

Today’s guest post comes from Emma Morrell, a British travel enthusiast and long-time expat living in Singapore (her tenth city) with her family of four. She’s passionate about sustainable travel, responsible tourism, family travel, and empowering expat women, and is the mastermind behind Wanderlust and Wet Wipes. She’s highly involved in the events put on by The Nomadic Network and, despite the time differences, makes it to a lot of our travel events.

When The Nomadic Network asked me to write a post about living abroad, I figured it would be easy. Although I’m British, I’ve lived over one-third of my life outside of the UK. I’m currently living in Singapore, my tenth city — and fifth continent — with my husband and two kids.

It’s what I know, so I was confident the words would flow. And yet I found myself staring at a wall for days with not so much of a case of writers’ block as writers’ overload.

When you move as much as I have, where do you start? How do you explain, in one blog post, what it’s like to live abroad? How do you convey, in a few hundred words the complexities of emotions and logistics that come with moving a family and a dog around the world at regular intervals, not knowing when or where the next move will be?

couple at the top of a mountain overlooking the ocean

Where do you start when someone asks where you’re from, knowing that the real answer is so convoluted and goes so deep that you could talk for hours? How do you tell the reader why living abroad makes you feel complete, and how getting to know a country instead of getting a stamp in your passport is what really lights you up?

Hiraeth. I found this word through a writer called Jenny Holgan. It’s Welsh and means “homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was, the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” If that doesn’t sum up expat life, then I don’t know what does.

I was 18 when I realized that I wasn’t going to live in the UK forever. I also realized that long-term travel was not enough for me. At this point, I was in my fourth country and continent, but it was the first time I’d set off on an adventure on my own.

bridge over the river at sunset

The adventure was a life-changing six-month stay in Ecuador followed by three months of backpacking. I thrived in the former, throwing myself into local life, traveling the length of the country, and really getting to know the community. The latter gave me experiences I could never have dreamed of, showed me sights I still long to take my kids back to, and taught me lessons I’ve never forgotten.

But I was left wanting more.

How could I say I had been to a country when I had only spent a month traveling there? I didn’t know where the best local bars were or what the inside of someone’s house looked like.

kids on swings next on the beach

I had no clue about the politics and never got used to the dialects. I didn’t know it at the time, but that trip would have a lasting impact on how the rest of my life would be shaped. It’s also why I’m developing a keen interest in FLYTE, Nomadic Matt’s charity to expose underprivileged kids to the life-altering wonders of travel.

It’s also why, despite the icy hand of parental uncertainty and guilt challenging our decisions, we continue to move our kids around the globe when a job beckons.

We were in Namibia when we got the most recent call telling us we were moving again. Specifically, I was on a game drive on my own while my husband was with the kids. I returned, giddy from watching the sunset over a tower of giraffes in Etosha National Park and completely disconnected after two weeks on the road with practically no Wi-Fi. I got back, took one look at his face, and I knew.

mother and her children traveling

The next day, we sat in Joe’s Beerhaus in Windhoek and told our kids that we were leaving our home in Qatar. A month later we were on a plane, heading off for a look-see and after another month, we packed up our house and moved. It was the longest notice period we’ve ever been given. Ten days was the shortest.

We’d been in Singapore for a week when we went to a house party. There were some younger people there, many on their first assignment. They asked about schools, housing, jobs, dogs and, cars and were shocked when we confessed that was all sorted already.

It made me realize how accustomed we are to moving and how we instinctively know what needs to be done. We immediately go into (borderline obsessive!) research mode to find out as much as we can before we arrive. We’ve learned things like knowing how the house should get packed up because of how it will need to be unpacked at the other end.

sand dunes in the desert

Sometimes I think back to that girl in Ecuador and wonder how spontaneity and a small backpack turned into logistical planning and a forty-foot container?! The older I get, the more I place importance on hitting the ground running. Before we arrived, I was already in touch with 15 people in country. Being the new expat woman can be really daunting, so finding our people as quickly as possible is my first priority. It also means our spare time can be dedicated to traveling and planning travel, which is our #1 passion. 

So when people ask us what it’s like living abroad, I’m always super careful about how I reply.

I mean, of course, there’s the upside. The part where you tell them about all the amazing people that you’ve met. People who have changed your life through friendship and travel.

You tell stories about dancing in the rain with friends in the Andean mountains, eating s’mores around campfires on Qatari sand dunes, getting your first taste of Texas BBQ (in Austin, of course!), shopping in the souq in Doha, eating late-night sushi in San Francisco, or sipping a drink looking over the Padang in Singapore.

mother and kids standing on top of a truck

If they’re really interested (which they generally won’t be, unless they’re fellow travelers or expats), you’ll tell them how your kids can sing happy birthday in Arabic, have taught you to count to ten in Mandarin and are as happy sitting shoulder to shoulder with locals in a hawker market as they are munching on authentic Tex-Mex.

You might tell them about all that you hope for, for this generation of third-culture kids. You hope they are growing up to embrace differences rather than fear them and that you are opening their eyes to all that is possible in the world and in their futures, including a “normal” 9-to-5 job (with incessant, abnormal levels of travel) and a nomadic writing job to fit around the rest.

You tell them about the community. All the people you know (and many that you only know online) who understand about asking someone you’ve just met to be your emergency contact on a form you fill out. People who can chuckle along with you about how everyone has had a half-empty trash can packed into their shipping container at some point (true story!). Those people will respond in hundreds when you post about being reunited with your dog after he spent a month in quarantine. They’ll celebrate with you when you report that your kids had a great first day in their new school.

And then there’s the other side.

The side where you confess that it’s not the glamorous life many people think it is. Those people who asked what it’s like can’t imagine showing up in a new country, sight unseen, and just flying by the seat of your pants, hoping, trusting, that it will be OK.

a group of people riding camels

They don’t know what it’s like to have a whole vocabulary with phrases such as third-culture kid, hidden immigrant, and cultural iceberg and yet know that racism surrounds us, even in this life. Most can’t possibly understand how it feels not to belong here or at home, to feel not quite enough for either.

They have no idea how hard we work to foster strong relationships between our children and their extended family or how heartbroken we are when we have to miss a wedding or, worse still, a funeral. I’ve done both more than once, and it never gets easier. They’ve never had the chilling thought that you might be deported if something happened to your husband or wonder where the authorities would take your kids if something happened to you both. 

I’m pretty sure some people still think that an expat spouse (appallingly often called the “trailing spouse”) is a tennis-playing, gin-drinking white woman who lunches. They don’t realize that the majority are highly qualified, underfulfilled women (and men, although sadly, they’re still very much the minority) who have given up their jobs for this life and, in the process, lost their sense of identity and purpose. There’s a reason why expats are more prone to mental health issues.

boat in the harbor looking at the city

Those same people “tut” at us and say they could never live so far away from their families because they love them too much. The inference being, of course, that we can’t possibly love our families much or miss them at all or we just wouldn’t have left. They ask the question you ask yourself in the middle of the night: Aren’t you worried you’re messing your kids up? That your life is just a bit too unstable?

They have no idea about how your heart is now a patchwork made up of all the places you’ve lived, all the people you’ve loved, all the things you’ve seen. Or how it’s constantly just a little bit broken from always saying goodbyes and missing those places and people you may never see again. 

What you could never tell them is how you already think of this new place as home. Partly because, out of necessity, you put down roots wherever you are. The second you arrived, you did what you had to do to settle down, find your tribe, to make it home.

a couple with their child next to a lake

A long, long time ago I realized that “home” isn’t bricks and mortar. That stability doesn’t have to be geographical, and where you’re from isn’t necessarily a single place in the world.

Home, for us, is where we’re happiest, where we’re doing the things that make us feel whole. It’s where we’re together. This hiraeth is inside us and is a wonderful, colorful mix of all the places we’ve been and the people we’ve known.

You can connect with Emma on her blog, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members. If you’d like to be interviewed or write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at [email protected] com with the subject line “TNN Blog.”

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