Expat Lessons Learned: Seven Things I Learned During my Two Years Overseas

photo

The first year is the hardest. I knew this—in theory—before I left the States, but reality was a lot harder than I imagined. I had planned everything to make the transition easier but it turned out that most of my plans didn’t work out. Part-time graduate school? Didn’t work out. Part-time job? Not when I was ready for it. Homesickness, discomfort, exhaustion – I experienced these on entirely new levels. I’d lived abroad before moving to Hanoi and thought it would be no big deal, even though I was leaving my career, bringing my 2.5 year and 2 month olds along for the ride, and didn’t speak the language. Truth? I was so naïve, and the first year nearly did me in.

The second year is so much better. Throughout the lows of my first year, several seasoned expat friends assured me the second year would be better. They were right. After the first year, I had friends, a routine, could communicate in basic Vietnamese, and things (cultural differences, directions, etc.) felt more normal and comfortable.

Forget the “old me.” Abandoning the “old me” was hard, and I held on to it for a long time. I didn’t even realize how strongly ingrained my identity—full-time working mom who “did it all” despite the stress—was until I left it behind in D.C. All of a sudden I found myself in a new country, with two kids, no friends, and no job. And I was miserable for a while. I mourned “the old me” and obsessed about how to get her back. I realize now that I was grieving my old life, and it was a painful process. But after 1+ years of feeling sorry for myself, I took action and started making things happen. I embraced the new me. And when I did, it felt like someone had ripped off blinders I didn’t even know I was wearing!

All of a sudden, opportunities started presenting themselves because I was open to them. The new me is still evolving, but I like her.Also, the more I talked with friends, the more I realized that the changes and challenges at this point in my career and family life were common and normal. It’s just that being abroad made them more emphatic. There was no old routine to fall back on and get lost in—just the hard cold facts staring me in the face. And it was up to me to address them.

Communication is critical (and HARD). Communicating is entirely different with a 12-hour time difference. It requires thought, planning, and even some sacrifice (getting up early, staying up late). I thought it would be so easy with FaceTime, Skype, iMessage, etc. but the truth is, everyone is busy and unless you make communicating a priority, it doesn’t happen. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the people who made efforts to communicate (not necessarily those I expected) and it reminded me to be a better communicator. I’m a work in progress, but I have a new appreciation for family and friends that went the extra mile to keep in touch.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Cliché for a reason: it’s true. I love my country but have never appreciated it as much as I do now, after two years living so far away from it. I loved getting to know Vietnam, its people, and its culture, but I also found myself missing aspects of the U.S. I usually take for granted—its diversity of people, cultures, religions, foods, the clean air, city parks, sidewalks unobstructed by motorbikes, and affordable, accessible consumer goods from all over the world

Kids are more adaptable than I thought. In the “helicopter parent” world of American parenting (especially in the D.C. area of hyper-competitive everything), I succumbed to planning everything for my kids. I’m still a planner, but I’ve learned the lesson—the hard way—that the best laid plans can be disrupted (or chucked entirely). Like all kids, mine love their routines, but they also love experiencing new things and, after an adjustment period, can really thrive in new environments. They adapted faster to living overseas than I did!

Amid the challenges, traveling with kids also brings an entirely new perspective. In no way was it always easy (turns out they don’t sell Children’s Benadryl at the Luang Prabang night market) and there were frustrations, scratches, mosquito bites, and tears (theirs and mine!). But I found that encountering new places, cultures, sounds, and tastes becomes more multi-dimensional with your kids in tow, because you experience things through their eyes. My former college backpacker self still independently revels in the walk over the swinging bamboo bridge or finding a quiet nook on a bend in the Mekong. But doing this with my daughters conveyed a whole new level of fulfillment and sense of discovery. This lesson isn’t unique to being an expat, but for me, it took moving halfway around the world to learn it.

The expat life is liberating and FUN. I met so many incredible people in the past two years. People I never would have met in my “old” life. While I was learning to appreciate close family and friends back home, I was also learning to value the new friendships and experiences overseas. I met women from all over the world, of all different ages, with myriad experiences, and—regardless of these often considerable differences—we could connect and relate based on shared experiences as Hanoi expats. Becoming active in the Hanoi International Women’s Club was a pivotal point in my happiness, because I realized I wasn’t alone. There were tons of other women going through the same thing, and we could have fun. Exploring a new city, reminiscing about the places we’d been, venting about Hanoi’s challenges, and reveling in its charms. (Also enjoying the occasional glass of wine.)

Advertisements

Fare You Well, Fitbit

Those of you who follow my blog might recall that I’ve become something of a Fitbit Fanatic. (As addictions go, it’s a positive one, but an addiction nevertheless.) So you can imagine my despair when — gasp! — I lost my beloved Fitbit last weekend.

I had traveled south to lovely Hoi An, Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage site full of ancient pagodas, lanterns, rice paddies, and beautiful river and ocean views, to enjoy a few days of R& R with my brother. It was one of my favorite kind of vacations – family, fitness, food, and frolicking – and the Fitbit was seeing lots of action.

IMG_2553

Our last hurrah. On Cua Dai beach in Hoi An, Vietnam (Fitbit attached to my shoe)

After a long day that included running, walking (11,000 steps by 9:00 am!), and biking (16,000 steps at lunch!), I decided to relax with a massage. I “forgot” to remove my Fitbit (can’t miss that extra step or two!) so halfway through, the masseuse removed it from my arm and left in on the table. I thought nothing of it, until I returned to my room and realized I had the bracelet, but no Fitbit. After a rather unpleasant ten minutes searching through used towels and sheets in the therapy room, I realized the Fitbit was gone. I nearly started crying – how could I lose my Fitbit? And on a banner steps day?!

But after a few days of reflection I’ve realized it’s merely a thing and it doesn’t matter if I can’t track my steps, I still know I’m active. Plus, I just ordered the new Fitbit Charge (an upgrade from my previous Fitbit Flex)…

As Jerry might have said, Fare You Well, Fitbit!

Shine on!

Taking Hanoi Fashion by Storm

Pret-a-porteaSweets, coffee, champagne, and fashion? Sounds like my kind of Saturday afternoon! Last week, I went to Pret-a-Portea at the Intercontinental Hotel Westlake. Each month, Chula – the whimsy fashion house preferred by Hanoi expats – partners with the Intercon to host an afternoon tea and fashion show featuring an up-and-coming Hanoi designer.

Last week, the event featured Wephobia Studio, a cool new line designed by two young and adorable Vietnamese women. It was the first time I’d heard of Wephobia and I loved it. Their clothes are chic, simple, menswear-inspired, with an Asian vibe. I loved everything. I especially loved the classic black and white, interchangeable pieces. When I spoke to the designers after the show, I was surprised to learn that their flagship store was in my neighborhood – conveniently located on my walk home from work. Needless to stay, I popped in after work last week and picked up a few items!

Wephobia    Photo credit: Wephobia

IMG_2430

After Wephobia, Chula displayed some of their latest creations. Chula is created by a Spanish couple, Laura and Diego, who make fun, eye-catching silk dresses that are more art than fashion. Each dress is unique and made to order. If you’re an expat in Hanoi, you’re sure to see Chula dresses galore throughout the city. I have two – one black dress with a skull and cross bone theme, and one turquoise dress with a wave. I absolutely love them – fun, completely unique, and comfortable to wear.

IMG_2439             IMG_2436

In between the fashion shows, we enjoyed delicious, fashion-themed nibbles. From red chocolate lipstick, to a pink chocolate pump, the Intercon went above and beyond. The highlight? Midway through the event, the Hanoi sky erupted into a massive storm – thunder, high winds, palm trees blowing every which way. I was happy to be stuck inside the lovely Intercon with friends observing beautiful Hanoi fashion.

IMG_2432     The Spread

Shine on!