We were out for lunch with a group of friends and some other people we didn’t know very well, and the conversation turned, as it often does, to our next move.
“How long have you been back in SA now?”
“Three years and a bit”
“Do you think you’ll stay put now?”
“No, we definitely want to keep moving”
“Where were you before again?”
“Oh, ja that’s right, and your kids were born there hey?”
“One was, the other one was born here”
“Ok wow, and before Istanbul, UK?”
“Before Istanbul was Bangkok, before that Saigon, before that UK!”
“Oh hectic, so you really have lived all over.”
So, you know, general conversation, people genuinely curious about our situation. There was a lady across the table from us who I had met a few times but didn’t know very well, she was leaning forward, listening intently to us. After my self-conscious history of the past decade she breathed in sharply, leaned back in her chair and said,
“Gee-whiz, I don’t know how you manage to travel all over like that. I could never do what you do, I care far too much about my career.”
I felt the panicked confusion you feel when you think you’ve just been insulted, but aren’t quite sure, and replied,
“Why would you assume I gave up my career? In Vietnam I worked with an organization that raised money for children to have life saving heart operations, in Bangkok I began studying my second masters degree in Classical Studies majoring in ancient religions, in Istanbul I had a baby and chose to stay home with him, in South Africa I started a successful online business, creating the entire site from scratch, I renovated three properties, became a freelance writer, and still managed to have a second baby and be a mother”.
I’m just kidding. I didn’t say any of that. I just did what I always do in the face of passive aggression, or any aggression for that matter: I smiled and let it slide. But inside, oh inside! I was raging, and here’s why:
She was absolutely bloody spot on. She could have left the passive aggressive tone out, but in essence what she said was correct, I have put my career on hold to live the life I do. The problem I have is that people seem to judge me for it. And by ‘people’ I mean strangers mostly, people I encounter who are not from my tribe, not part of my inner circle, people who see a fabulous life but not much substance. And man alive does that make me mad!
I was twenty-four years old when Papa B got his first international assignment. I was working in London as a photographer and adored my job, but I felt The Twinge, you know, the ‘there’s a world out there, go and explore’ twinge. The curse of wanderlust. And so when he was offered a role in Vietnam I was like ‘hell yeah!’
I had no idea that it would be the start of twelve years of living like nomads (no end in sight yet). I thought Vietnam would be an experience, not a life choice. I didn’t realize that our expat journey would grow from a single backpack into a 40 foot container, two kids and a cat. But most importantly, I do not remember signing on the dotted line declaring my career dead.
I have ambitions, goals, enormous dreams, insatiable curiosity, but every now and then I am confronted with ‘aah, that’s so great, but what do you actually do?’ And for some reason there seems to be a misconception that because we travel a lot, I am permanently at leisure to do so. But here’s the thing, it all looks jolly from the outside, but anyone who lives a nomadic lifestyle will tell you that it comes at a great compromise. You get to see the world, but you don’t get to put down roots. And that weighs heavily. I call it the expat-wife conundrum (and I say ‘wife’ because eight times out of ten it’s the wives who follow the husbands). And the expat-wife conundrum is simply this:
Are you willing to choose life experience over work experience?
It’s a toughie, and you are never quite sure of your decision because we are programmed to compute success in terms of visible achievements, and self worth in terms of our job description. Success is measured in accolades not experiences. Over the past twelve years as an expat I’ve met some incredible women. Women who have graduated from Oxford, Yale, Berkley, Duke, and Edinburgh universities, women who have worked at the World Bank, the United Nations, women who speak six languages. Ask these ladies about anything from religion to history to politics to economics to how to make a pot roast and they’ll be lucid, engaging, opinionated and passionate. Some of these women choose not to work; others work way below their level of expertise so that they can still be mothers with flexible office hours. These women faced the expat-wife conundrum and chose life experience over work experience, and that choice should in no way detract from what they have achieved, or what they may still achieve.
But. But. There is always a lingering ‘what if’. What if I had stayed in London, would I be really successful? Would I have climbed the corporate ladder? Would I be an expert in my chosen field? Would I have built something to be proud of? My closest childhood friends have done this. They are in the upper echelons of their companies. One constantly wins awards for her role in the hospitality industry; one is so high up in a bank that I’m beginning to suspect she’s part of the Swedish mafia, one’s a pharmacist, another an Ofsted Inspector (she assesses and ranks government schools in the UK). Their success is validated as they rise through the ranks. But I don’t have any ranks. I don’t have an external corporate entity against which to measure my success. What I have created must speak for itself, and I must constantly reconcile my desire to be nomadic with my desire to put down roots and build something. But what I am building has no roots, it goes where I go, it lives and breathes with me, and so from the outside appears intangible. But look again because it is there.
And so when someone implies that I put my career on hold to be an expat wife, I bristle, even though on the face of it that’s exactly what I have done. My success may not be measurable in terms of promotions and job titles, but the success I have enjoyed has come off the back of hard work, risk-taking and persevering in the face of language barriers and cultural differences. At the end of the day I am proud of the fact that with two kids in tow I can pick up, move on, create a life from scratch, and continue to grow my business wherever we may land, and that I have no fear of doing so. My career isn’t dead, it’s just living outside the box.
And anyway, I wouldn’t trade trekking along the Great Wall or sleeping under the stars on a lumpy mattress in the desert for anything in the world. I choose life every time.