When you live abroad, you encounter people at all different stages of life. This type of lifestyle lends itself to a more adventurous person, and many of people I meet are on their second, third, or even fifth ex-pat assignment. For those with multiple countries under their belt, the prior experiences can really shape what they do in their current location and their advice is helpful for newbies to the ex-pat lifestyle.
Today I chatted with Kelli, another American from the East Coast who spent 4 years in Spain before ex-patriating with her pilot husband to Shanghai almost 7 years ago. And as is true for many of the folks you meet abroad, Kelli and her family are at the tail end of their time in Shanghai.
Kelli, how did you go from Barcelona, Spain to Shanghai, China? Well, we were living back in Boston, evaluating our next move. My husband is a pilot and the job market for pilots in the US is not anywhere near as good as it is abroad, so when he found this position with a Chinese airline, it just made sense for us to leave the States again.
When your husband told you the best job for him was in China, what did you think? That didn’t really worry or phase me because I had already done four years in Spain, and oddly enough my reaction to moving to Barcelona was far more dramatic. It was my first time abroad, my husband and I didn’t even really know each other well, and I was loving life in Boston, I was doing well in my career, I lived around the corner from my best friend, I lived on my dream street in a great city, and I was devastated that he told me he needed to move to Spain to work.
So, when it came time to contemplate the Shanghai situation, I thought “well OK he must work,” and I did a little research on Shanghai and found that it was a very modern, livable city, especially because of the ex-pat community. That was something I had a little bit of a challenge with in Spain. In Spain, you have other Europeans living amongst each other, and that’s who you come across in Europe. For them, it’s a 2-hour train ride home. Here in Shanghai, you have people all in the same situation; hours and hours away from family and friends, often weeks of jetlag… I think that’s the nice part, everyone can relate to everyone here. People are all in the same boat.
And once you came here, did you find the initial thoughts to prove true? Yes. I mean, there’s so many pros and cons to this lifestyle, but I do specifically remember thinking there was such a large ex-pat community, and everyone will be in the same boat, so I was OK with that. I thought it was a very manageable city. There’s always something to do, you can reinvent yourself five times over if you choose, and you can meet people. There’s a pulse and an energy in this city where everyone wants to connect. And I found that really reassuring and it helped me follow endeavors here.
Once you settled in, what were some of the first things you did when you moved here? Probably the first thing I did was meet the other pilot wives because that was the easiest social connection for me. But I also hit the ground running with joining the social clubs here. I did a year of what I call “lady dating.” I joined various ex-pat groups here, and I would attend the coffee mornings, the lunches, the happy hours, and I would just go around meeting people, but I would always try to connect one-on-one outside of the organization events. That was my way of filtering who I thought was A) going to offer me something, B) like me on a real level where I can connect with someone (there’s a lot of surface connection here), and C) sniffing out who might be a good couple friend for me and Olaf.
And you liked Shanghai enough to stay longer than initially planned, right? Yes. Before you know it, the opportunity to re-sign is right in front of your face, and by then you’re comfortable here, you have a social network and you think, “ok, why not another three years? It’s ex-pat life…going back home, what would life be? The rat race, hour commutes, weekday grind, 50-hour weeks. And for us, my husband just can’t find a good job in the US. And now it’s been almost seven years and we will likely be gone by the end of the year. The goal is to get based back in the US by early 2018 but still work for an Asian airline.
Ok, so you’ve been doing this ex-pat thing for more than a decade at this point. Was living abroad always on your bucket list or was this an unwelcome change for you? It was always a goal; since I was a child I’ve wanted to live abroad. My best friend growing up was from Scotland, and every summer she would go visit relatives in Scotland. And I would be sitting on my swing set thinking, “this cannot be my whole world, this cannot be it.” I remember thinking I wanted to go someplace else.
Let’s get back to your work life here in Shanghai for a minute. Since you couldn’t work like you did in Barcelona, what was the next move for you? Before I came to Shanghai, I was working for an alternative research company doing data visualization. I turned the data into something visually interesting that readers would be able to understand. And that work guided me to what was my next adventure professionally/creatively. I always knew I wanted to do something more creative, so in the first year here in Shanghai I took classes. I learned InDesign, PhotoShop, and Dreamweaver. During my time lady dating, I heard bits and pieces of what people were doing, and that naturally led to me being friends with this woman on the board of an ex-pat group. I considered what they needed, and what they needed wasn’t what I wanted to do but I took it because it was a foot in the door. For about eight months I handled sales contracts for sponsorships and the magazine. But because of that work, when the magazine designer position came up I was a natural fit because I was a known quantity. And from there I ended up doing the graphic design of the magazine for two years. While I was doing the magazine, the work lent itself to learning to design and code websites. Just from knowing people who had these board positions, people would ask for other design help from me, from business cards to site redesigns.
The work I’ve done here has really expanded my abilities and gave me real credibility. The magazine was a small pamphlet when I started and it went from less than 20 pages to a six0-70 page magazine published nine times a year. That magazine was such a launching pad for me because it went from something small to something quite interesting. The next thing I knew I’m redesigning websites.
You did all this real, substantive work here just to continue building your resume, or was it for a different reason? In that moment in time I wanted and needed to do something beyond just going to lunch and drinking champagne. I wanted to do something creative. And it was key because I needed freelance work, I couldn’t commit to a full-time job here because my husband’s schedule is six weeks on, three weeks off. Every six weeks we were traveling, and what company is going to give me a job with that much time off? I had to make something fit my lifestyle.
Do you feel you would have been able to have any of those same opportunities had you stayed in Boston? No, I think when you are back home you stay on the same career trajectory. There wouldn’t be any room for side stepping to find new creative outlets.
Did you feel like, ‘OK I’m going to do a lot of this work here in Shanghai and then I would have a kid and pause all that?’ Or did you plan to do both? If I am being honest, there wasn’t a thought process. None of that even crossed my mind. I think also, if I am fair, it was because it wasn’t a financial pressure for me to work. Being here I do have the luxury of not needing to work. When I was pregnant it just wasn’t anything I was concerned about. It was very shortsighted but it didn’t phase me.
You didn’t think about work before your son was born, but now that you’re approaching two years post-partum, have you thought about returning to work? Yes, very much so. I did pursue a job and went through the whole interview process a few months ago. I got the job but decided to turn it down for two reasons. One, I realized that working fulltime was going to create more stress in the house, due in part to the fact that my son’s caretaker and I don’t speak the same language. So, if my husband and I are both gone then we were concerned both with day-to-day nurturing but also what to do in an emergency situation. And that became too stressful for me. And two, my husband’s schedule would get in the way. We wouldn’t be able to move around freely when he wasn’t working.
I think we all have this idea in our head of what being a mom will be like before we have kids, but how did you see things changing for you? You gave birth here; your whole pregnancy was here. How did that feel? I was already here 4+ years so I felt very comfortable here, very established. And I knew a boatload of women that had had their babies here. I felt quite at ease. What I did struggle with is the emotional aspect of not being around my family at a time when you want to be with family and friends. That’s a huge part of life to miss out on. That’s a major emotional loss for me, for sure. I remember my friends and family didn’t understand my reasoning. They all said, “come home, come home.” And I guess I could come home, but my husband can’t. And I can’t take that experience away from him. And then if he did come my husband has to return home in three weeks and I get back on a plane with a three-week old baby? No. it’s very hard for people back home to even fathom the logistics around living abroad.
How has being a mom changed you? It has changed me in ways I can’t even begin to understand. I don’t recognize myself anymore. I have always been a fighter, a go-getter, I am active, I’m headstrong, I go after what I want, I’m confident, and once I had my son I became a nervous wreck. I was filled with anxiety, with worry, I think I was in shock. I was so co-dependent on my husband for the first time in my life, it was almost like an illness to me.
Why do you think that was? I think it was the shock to my system, the emotional overload, all the hormonal changes. Psychologically, physiologically, it turned me inside out. It’s gotten better but what I still struggle with greatly is worry. I worry about my son all the time. I was nothing but ambitious before, and being a mom has turned me into someone who turned down a full-time job. I don’t know how to balance the full-time work with worrying about my son. That was not a side to me before. This is the new me, and this is the new me that I do not approve of, and I don’t know how to embrace it or make it work for me yet. But it is a huge difference. I’ve never had to say no to something that I wanted because of another human being ever before. And that is a huge slap in the face for me.
The changes the happen to us when we become a mom are too unpredictable to anticipate for sure. One part of life here that many women love is the help of an ayi. When you came home from the hospital, what was it like to have your ayi full-time with you and your son? Well, she was not my ayi prior to me being pregnant. Her first day was two days after I got home from the hospital. It was an intense, extremely stressful, emotional rollercoaster. Honestly, it was a terrible first year.
Do you feel like in retrospect it was worse having her? Yes. Because you have let a perfect stranger in your house that you cannot communicate to. And you are entrusting your tiny little baby to her. Was she highly recommended? Absolutely. And I met the previous family, I went to their home, I saw and met the ayi, but a three0-minute interaction in no way helps you understand who this person is. It was very stressful to have her around. But I suffered from postpartum so it didn’t help me. If you don’t suffer from that it might not be an issue for you.
You are planning to return to the US soon. Will you be looking for full-time work that requires a caretaker like an ayi? I think the next thing for me is I need my own business. I don’t know if the traditional job is going to be the next adventure for us. Living abroad changes you, and I do think it’ll be hard to go back home and settle back into the Monday through Friday hamster wheel with two weeks of vacation time and quarterly performance evaluations.
I can’t sit down and talk with you before your imminent departure and not talk about some of the things that you might regret or wish you had done more of while you were here. What should a new ex-pat keep in mind? Well, I wish I really studied Mandarin, I don’t speak enough of it. That might be the only “regret” per se.
Other than that, I wish we pursued more travel in Asia. It’s not a regret, but we went home a lot and I would have liked to explore more of Asia for sure.
What is your most important piece of advice for new mothers/trailing spouses arriving in Shanghai? I would say: Don’t get overwhelmed. The struggle is real. Your struggle here is very real, but you will always be able to find someone or something here to help support you through the struggle, and in time you will get your feet on the ground and things will get better an easier. Allow yourself the time to adjust and remember above all else that your time here is temporary. Your husband’s contract has an end date, but you’re here for a reason, and it’s most likely because it’s a great opportunity financially. Try to look at it as an adventure. It will change you in good ways (and sure there’s some bad) but it is an adventure and it is temporary. Before you know it, your contract is up and boom you might find yourself back in your regular life again. If you fast forward 20 years down the road you’ll look back on this time and share it with your children and grandchildren as a wonderful adventure. Try to make the best of it.