I was that woman, I could have been a man in this situation, but I was that woman. You know the one, the Trailing Spouse as we are commonly known. The one that gets to say “Yes” to moving abroad with their partner, the one who leaves their job, moves the family, deals with the chaos and arrives in a foreign country to settle the brood into a new way of life.
After doing as much research as I possibly could, we still arrived in a country that was completely foreign. The airport was bustling with an array of people from all over the world – India, Pakistan, Japan, Malaysia, America, the UK, Philippines, just everywhere and then there was us. The company had organised our arrival and we were ushered into the VIP lounge area where our passports and visas were checked. Step 1 had been easy, now onto the company transport to our hotel where we would stay for two weeks. We walked out into a hot blustery Middle Eastern evening and stood waiting, not too sure where the car would collect us from and sweating buckets. At midnight and after a 10-hour flight, all you want is a quick exit from the airport, a bath and soft bed. The wait took longer than anticipated, the kids were excitedly tired and as we drove into the city it was buzzing with crazy drivers in Land Cruisers. I turned to my husband and said: “This is an alcohol free country right?” I could have sworn that the drivers were drunk with the speed and dangerous manner in which they were swerving in between cars. This I would learn was the norm.
We were told that we would be collected the following morning to do basic administrative procedures and to view our villa. We had to be ready by 8am (not an easy feat with two children aged 6 and 8 at the time) being exhausted from the flight, the prospect of an early start was daunting in 45 degree heat and humidity that could make you climb the walls.
9am the following morning we were still waiting for the “bus” to arrive. When it eventually sped up to the entrance of the hotel, there were a multitude of other “newbies” who had been collected at 7am and had been driving around picking people up along the way. The looked much worse off than us and stressed to the hilt. The manner in which the driver drove soon made me realise why. Two more families followed our pick up and then we were off for the days administrative duties. The first call to port was having our ID photos taken, now if someone had told me THAT, I would have taken more time to actually look good. My photo was a disaster, it looked like I was in a DUI police line-up, I would be lucky enough to have this as my ID photo for the next 5 years. This was the beginning of the non-communicative way in which we were all treated. We were ushered into hospitals, men and women in separate areas to have blood tests, x-rays and other medical tests performed on us. We were aliens and we were certainly treated like outsiders.
The local culture was another aspect that we were not enlightened about. We had read books and knew that covering shoulders and knees was a priority when dressing. However in the hotel with the temperatures rising and the kids wanting to swim, and with the “tourist booklet” emphasising the strict – appropriate requirements for dressing, I sat at the pool in my long dress with my arms covered, the bikini was packed away in the hopes that I would one day associate my body with it again. During the second week, I noticed another woman at the swimming pool in a very inappropriate costume. Throwing caution to the wind, my costume did get to see my body after a very short time and I was never approached to “cover up”. However, outside of the hotel and compound environment the strict dress code did apply.
Our villa allocation was similar in lack of information and communication by the company. We were shown one compound in which we could live. I asked if there were others, and with a shake of the head from the driver and a shrug of the shoulders from my husband, that was that. The villa we were allocated had no open grass area for the kids to play. The windows and doors were not sealed and the dust streamed in, with me permanently sweeping it out, the air-conditioners leaked continuously. The garden was a bricked courtyard where you could reach your arms from the back door and touch the wall (and I don’t have very long arms). It was not an ideal situation. 2 years later we found out about the most amazing compound and put our names down for a villa. Everything was sealed, there was a park for the kids to play in and each villa had its own little garden, which we took a lot of tender loving care to fix up and create a little oasis of our own to bask in.
The point of is that the company never communicated with their expat staff. People arrived in the country on a daily basis and were shunted around like cattle. There was no information about what government legalities were required, where we were being taken, what schools were associated to the company or were “good” international schools to apply to, where to find basic commodities from hardware through to spices and no help in supporting the expat spouse. As an expat you were left to your own devices in the hope that the surrounding expat community would seek you out and dispense the required information on to you.
Looking back and reassessing my own situation the company could have had a strategic plan for introducing expat employees into the country and culture.
I have put together my 5 “What the Company Should Have Assisted us with Points”:
- A Map of the city:
This should be a comprehensive map including distances from and to e.g. schools, company villa allocations, work, shopping centers and areas of interest. This would allow for informed decisions to be made on where to live and assist in finding the closest amenities. These should be given to the employee well before landing. I remember dropping my children off at school and realising that my petrol / gas was low, I didn’t have a clue where the nearest petrol / gas station was and almost landed up being stranded in a city I did not yet know. It was frightening and I felt completely overwhelmed.
2. A list of Schools:
The company should provide a list of schools: this should include nationality, education system taught, contact names, company/school relationship and whether they are approved by the local education body. Once appropriate schools have been pin-pointed, the hiring company should assist in the application process.
Our children went to three schools before they finally settled into the appropriate education system because of the lack of information that had been supplied by the school and no information by the company. There was a school that was associated to the company, but they failed to let any new expat know about this advantage and an expat only found out about the association via the school when applying to join that specific school.
Many companies rent or own a variety of houses, compounds / complexes in various areas of the city. The Employee after deciding on a school and area, which would suite the family live in, should then be allowed to choose a villa that is convenient for them. This choice is easier if an employee receives an allowance and can choose their own accommodation.
In our case employees were placed in villas that were empty without any consultation or knowledge of distance from schools, work, etc. This meant that an employee could be allocated to a villa anywhere in the city without prior consent or knowledge of time spent in traffic on a daily basis. The first school the children went to was an hour and a half round trip, twice a day. I spent my life in the car and I hated being an expat.
4. Settled spousal assistance:
This would entail the company hiring an expat / spouse of an employee to assist new expats in settling into their surroundings or allocating budget for a relocation assistance company. Assistance would include basic instructions on where to go to renew car licences or pay telephone accounts, set up satellite television or best places to shop or relax in. Explanations on the local culture, basic language phrases to help with day to day living or as in the Middle East the local driving and dressing habits. The expat assistant would aid in settling the new expat into their environment and give customer care assistance when the spouse is at a loss as to where to go for a service or product.
5. Company Employment Assistance:
Generally expat partners move with their partners and give up their jobs in the hope of finding something on the other side. Companies should provide expat employment assistance. This could be via networking with other expats, employment agency lists, help in setting up a resume / CV that is appropriate for the country, jobs available with larger companies, career counselling and services such as work visas, paying for professional registrations or requalification exams as well as language lessons.
Many companies fail to take into account that the happiness of the spouse will ensure that they keep the family structure functioning and create a happily moved expat family. Companies loose millions on a yearly basis because they have to repatriate expats back to their home countries because the spouse has not settled adequately. The Spouse that is kept happy will ensure a completed or renewed expat assignment or agree to a transfer to another expat location.
Companies that assist expats in their move will result in a happy Expatriate Trailing Spouse, and not an Ex-Trailing Spouse. What stories do you have to tell about your expat experience as the partner to an expat?
Denise is an Expat and Marketing Manager at http://www.xpatulator.com/ a website that provides cost of living index information and calculates what you need to earn in a different location to compensate for cost of living, hardship, and exchange rate differences.