This Is What We Do

I’m smack in the middle of putting together a presentation on women and the effect of professional and social online networks. Except I’m not just writing about women, I’m writing about expat women. I write about expat women a lot. It’s possibly because I’m an expat woman, or maybe it’s that I feel we’re often a misunderstood bunch, but primarily I think it’s because I have an abundance of respect for expat women. For over 15 years, from day one, I have watched in awe while women from all walks of life have got on with the process of creating a new life overseas.

It was about two days after my arrival in Jakarta all those years ago that I met a woman called Karen with a crisp English accent and a welcoming smile in the foyer of the hotel I was staying in. She’d been assigned with the job of collecting me to take me for coffee. We sat together in the back seat of her car, while a driver navigated the Jakarta traffic. I was 5 months pregnant and greener than the grass at Wimbledon. She handed me a basket with some goodies; a directory of where to find almost anything from bed sheets to bbq’s, a list of names to call, a notepad, pens, a scarfe, and confectionary. It was a basket that had been compiled with the forethought of a thousand women who’d come before me. Women who knew my next few months were going to be all about survival. Women who had all had to find a home, get furniture, discover the local supermarket, make friends, buy a car or secure the number of a reliable taxi, find a doctor, and work out how to pay the telephone bill. The basics of life had just become daily missions. What did you do today honey? Oh, I spent the day looking for the post office.

When I thanked Karen for the basket she told me there was no need, it was part of her job. She was a “welcome co-ordinator”. And when I asked if she was paid to do the role she threw her head back and laughed. I gathered quickly the answer was no. I didn’t get it though. I’d come from a world where people were paid for services like this. I knew the company that G worked for at the time was making buckets of money, why didn’t they pay this welcoming organisation? And with the voice of the wisest owl in the expat woods she looked me in the eye and began with a little bit of expat 101.

“Expat women have been doing this for years, we don’t need an organisation. This is what we do.”

She wasn’t doing it for the organisation.

Yesterday I stumbled across a call for help from a woman who had driven with her family from Doha to Muscat for the Eid break. This is a drive which requires crossing the Saudi border, it’s a chance to don your favourite Abaya and hand the driving over to your husband or your brother (because not only are you not allowed to drive, travelling with an ‘outsider’ can be problematic). The holiday was going to plan until her husband broke his leg and now getting the car home was going to be slightly problematic if he couldn’t drive the Saudi leg (pardon the pun) of the journey. I put a call out on the Facebook page of the blog. Within minutes there was a smattering of replies, in hours there were phone numbers, ideas, condolences and possibilities.

This is what we do.

At the end of last week a friend from Amman tagged me in on something on Facebook. I met Alma here in Doha before she’d moved onto Jordan. “You made an appearance in Amman today…” she’d attached a picture of a group of women at an International Women’s Association meeting. They were all looking up at a screen with words, it looked like someone was giving some sort of presentation. It took me a few moments before I realised they were my words. It was the last paragraph from this post.

amman

My reaction was to burst into tears. Pathetic? Maybe. But here’s the thing. Someone reading this post will still be stuck up in the second paragraph where I mentioned Karen had a driver. And because of it they will have decided that she was spoilt, indulged and spent her days being chauffeured like a rock star. It’s the same person that is confounded by your woes of rats in the house, daily power shortages, flooded kitchens, lack of fresh vegetables, and complaints of homesickness, who replies with a “but don’t you have help?”

There are so many perks to this expat life: the travel, the new friends, and the adventure are at the top of the pro list. Along side it in the cons is the dislocation, the feeling of being stranded or somehow adrift while you search for your tribe, that one friend to call. The move is akin to a surgical procedure.  Without anaesthetic a piece of life removed, leaving a scar to feel and an ache for something that was and cannot be. Another time.

I burst into tears because you’re not stuck at paragraph two. You get it, and I can’t tell you how much it means to actually see someone reading my words, as I said to my mother and sister when I forwarded them the pic “My words! Up there on the screen! MY WORDS!!”

We gather, we talk, we help and we welcome. Some of us do it better than others, but we do it.

This is what we do.

  • Angela

    I had a Karen too at our first posting, never met another one in any country so I turnend into a Karen but so many who had never moved didn’t like that I sort of knew before them where you can find a good doctor, where to buy a car and where you get international groceries. Some women don’t want to be helped. Me? I have HELP written all over my face when we move to a new country because I know, if you meet a Karen, keep her close. I guess because your language is English you hardly ever have a language problem. I landed in Libya with only speaking German. There are so many who hide in their compounds because they can’t speak another language. With English I can get thru in most countries but without it is so so hard. They can’t even read your blog

    • Kirsty Rice

      The sooner they develop a language chip we can all insert behind our ears the better.

    • http://shamozal.blogspot.com Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      I remember feeling like the biggest dullard in Libya because it seemed as though I was the only person who only had one language. I agree with you, to move an only have Japanese, or only have Spanish makes the move that little more complicated. I think French is key, when I think of all the places we’ve lived, French would have been the most helpful (aside from English). Keep being a Karen, the world needs more Karens.

  • Liz Aka Tangiebu

    Fanbloodytastic girl! 🙂

  • Lars

    Kirsty, you’ve kept me sane since we took the plunge moving with 3 children from Sydney to Hong Kong. My husband winked at me last weekend when I led the way to the ‘secret’ lift straight up to Level 8 to our fav restaurant to bypass the morning yum cha crowds & then I knew what bus to catch to Central without checking! I’ve never had so many apps on my phone! Hong Kong Moms facebook is a godsend, a wealth of info just like you! I only jouned FB to navigate this cool but mysterious city! Thank you for sharing your rare gift of inspiring others x

    • http://shamozal.blogspot.com Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      Tears. Again! Thank you, way to kind, but thank you. xx

  • mary_j_j

    Oh my, no wonder you had tears at seeing your words up there, they’re welling up here too.

    • http://shamozal.blogspot.com Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      xx

  • Alison

    This is what we do. I had a couple of Karens when I moved to Santiago, and now that they have moved on, I’m Karen. Without the driver, admittedly.
    The paragraph they chose is one of my favourites of yours. I think I’ll add it to my “Welcome to Chile” PowerPoint.

    • http://shamozal.blogspot.com Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      You are more than welcome to add it Alison. xx

  • http://ms-havachat.blogspot.ie/ ms-havachat

    We read your words.
    We share them on fb and via email.
    They sometimes end up as quotes on blogs or links.

    Its what we do.

    Expats support and share like old fashioned communities used to.

    I’ve been fortunate to meet a few ‘Karens’ along the way and I’ve subconsciously become ‘Karen’ to others over the years.

    Being helped and doing the helping is a good feeling.

    More people should do it.

  • Mereltje

    (Y) tears flowing… Nothing more to add. It is what we do.

  • Fern_IWAA

    Guilty! I was introducing the speaker for the international women’s association of Amman monthly meeting, and I usually try to find a quote to illustrate our mindset. This month, being October, we have quite a few new members and the ‘trailing spouse’ thing is one of our pet hates. Your post pointing out who the trailing spouse really is was perfect, and certainly rang a bell with our members! We try to be the Karens of Amman and aim to ensure no woman is sat alone at home because she doesn’t know where to go, how to get there or who to go with. Thank you for those words of wisdom!

  • Debbie Newton Jeffrey

    I wasn’t in tears at the 2nd paragraph, but howling at the end. Thanks (I think ;-)). That feeling of dislocation is so weird. I have to explain to my husband that when I cry it doesn’t mean I’m not coping or even that I’m not happy, just that this process makes you a bit fragile. I’m at 3 months, too, & I’ve found your blog so validating. <3 <3

  • Jane C

    Yes, it is most definately what we do! I have been an expat wife and mother for 14 years and have loved (almost!) every moment. So many more rewards than negatives. It is not always easy to explain our lives without sounding smug and visitors think we are permanently on holiday. We are not! We are making the most of a privilege many would want but few will experience. It is not for everyone. I love my life as a ‘connector’, constantly putting friends and information together. As rewarding for me as it (hopefully) is for them.

  • Paola Fornari Hanna

    Having just completed (is it ever complete?) my eleventh move in my married life, this time from Bangladesh to Ghana (my family moved at least a dozen times when I was growing up), I can relate to everything in this article. Moving gets no easier with experience: but boy is it worth it. What is difficult about the first weeks is how it changes your personality: every time we move I transform from being a confident, easy to please, happy and optimistic person, to being alternately angry, frustrated and weepy, despite the fact that are several Karens around. But the most helpful thing is to keep right at the front of my mind the firm knowledge that this phase is temporary. I will become the me I like again, and give back, but for the moment, it’s survival! Congratulations on your fabulous work, and great article. Do come and have a look at the newly overhauled site we’re launching in a few days at http://www.expatclic.com

  • Kim

    Excellent post! I’m 5 weeks into a move to Italy (my first expat experience) and I’m grateful to read your emotions are what mine are.

  • Consuelo Windsor

    I’m a “paid for” Karen in the UK in London and Surrey but like to think I go the extra mile with my clients and am there for weeks and months – even years to answer questions and translate from English to American English! Because language isn’t the only issue when you are an expat – it’s the culture behind the country that can make you feel so isolated. You are a very very brave bunch and I always say that it’s the echo of an empty house when the children have gone to school and the husband has gone to the office and you stare at the boxes and think “what now?” Oh I know find that post office!!!

    • Karin Meere

      Dear Consuelo, I still remeber you taking us around househunting in Surrey and you were my Karen, stopping at a supermarjet and helping me get groceries…… Still thinking about you. Thank you Karin Meere

  • http://www.amandasettle.com/ amanda settle

    I still remember that first “karen” and I’ve been one myself at times too… Women really are amazing 🙂 thanks for the reminder

  • http://www.canadianexpatmom.com Canadian Expat Mom

    Your words. My tears.
    I love these expat posts because I don’t forget what it’s like to be the lonely new girl. Keep sending us your words!
    “with the voice of the wisest owl in the expat woods”…so, so good!

  • http://www.ladysadie.com/ Sarah Derrig

    Well now I’m bawling into my glass of red. After a horrendous week when all I wanted to do was run home to my Mum it was the kind words and my friends being here for me that got me through. I would be no where without my expat mates xxx

  • http://www.dazeofmylife.com Corinne

    I said these words to someone recently when I discovered they had postponed minor surgery because they didn’t have someone to pick up their kids from school. I was gobsmacked they hadn’t asked me to help out. “We need to help each other out, this is what we do when we don’t have family and old friends to help out and when our husbands are in the depths of Africa or wherever.”

    I love your posts Kirsty, so many times it’s like you’ve reached into my brain and read my thoughts or written the words that I needed to read that very day. x

  • DakotaGypsy

    Your words ring so true! Shortly after giving birth to my son in country number 4 of our careers, a group of women I hardly knew descended upon me nightly with fully cooked meals. “This is what your mother, aunts and close friends would do if you were back home. Since you are not ‘home’, we will be the aunties. Enjoy the help.” I am forever grateful that in a new country, with a new baby, a week of home meals made the memory of that first sleep deprived week so much more amazing. I now try to pass on the favor. Indeed, this is what we do.

  • Emma Allen

    I’m a Karen but with a Welsh accent rather than an English one. I’m a bit proud of what I’ve managed to juggle these 2.5 yrs in Jakarta. Also am terrified of what happens if we move somewhere more civilised/straightforward where Karens are not needed.

    • http://www.foodlustpeoplelove.com/ Stacy

      Karens are always needed, Emma! Some of my hardest moves were to big cities in so-called first world countries where the expat population is more spread out and harder to connect with. Trust me, you will be needed! And, hopefully you will find your Karen when you first arrive. I’ve been the newbie and the Karen in more places and for more women than I can count!