It felt reminiscent of the Facebook Martyrs who post 'Oh, some people!" as an invitation for support from their 'friends'. They then wait for the sychopantic dopamine hit that comes with the replies.
But on this day it felt right. It was right.
I wrote it in 20 mins - far shorter than the usual 2 hours I allow.
Essentially, I just closed my eyes and wrote from my heart. My thoughts seemed to flow in a way that hadn't been present before.
I was being authentic. I was being real. I wasn't hiding.
I was honoring him and digging deep. In visiting that place that hurts, I'd also opened up the vessel to healing.
Navigating Hurting and Healing
When we run away from the difficult stuff, we can never run fast enough.
Actually, I think it's a way better athlete than us. It's exceptionally good at running - always a few paces ahead, ready to anticipate our thoughts and block us from smashing through the ribbon on the finish line.
Writing my blog that day gave me rest.
It's why I draw the illustrations I do. They too give me rest from those pesky shapeshifters.
Why We Need to Create Emotional Rest?
Loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss...... (Get the picture?)
Whether your sense of loss comes from a death, a serious injury in which you need time off work, or as a rotational expat saying goodbye to friends every two years, it has an impact.
Furthermore, the trauma stays in the body until it is dealt with.
Even before we have words, trauma leaves its imprint on our physical body. It lies there, not particularly dormant until it is processed - and can lead to complex illness and health problems. For example, we know Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) causes visible changes to the brain, demonstrated too by Ariana Grande after the terrorist attack on her Manchester concert.
10 Ways To Help Navigate the 'Difficult Stuff'
Firstly, let me say, I am no doctor. I am not trained in mental health, nor am I trauma specialist. I am also NOT offering these 10 tips as medical advice or in anyway suggesting that they replace seeking proper medical help.
This list is purely based on my own experience and the things that have helped me in the past.
It's okay. I've still got the ubiqutious 'junk drawer'; it just now resembles a drawer belonging to the Ordered Drawer Brigade. I cleaned it up. I had to.
It resembled my cartoon below.
I'm guessing that if you're an expat, you'll also recognise the drawer of travel adaptors, plugs, cables.
When I'm unable to travel, they're my lifeline to the outside world - a comfort blanket with the following words sewn in: Travel is always possible if you have the adptors, plugs and cables.
I'm reminded of a massive safety pin/nappy pin. The cheeky side of me wants to say, 'It all goes to shit if you don't use one', but I'm not that rude.
But the adaptor and plugs ARE like the safety pin that I use to store my other safety pins.
Stillness and Order
I think the travel adaptor/plug/cable drawer allows us to create order in our life.
In the chaos of the mess, a stillness arrives.
Each travel adaptor releases a memory of a holiday to another country or the 2 years you lived elsewhere. I even remember hotel rooms in which they featured or cafes I've worked in and had to rush back to to collect the plug I accidentally left in the wall.
Each of these plugs and adaptors act as a key to unlock my memories. Memories that connect me to my soul food: Travel and Connection.
Soul Food: Travel and Connection
It may sound unusual to read so much into the travel adaptor drawer, but I find objects especially powerful for deciphering the intangible - That stuff we know in our gut but can't quite verbalise. It's hidden, it's within us and it's where we make meaning.
So it seems that the humble travel adaptor is quite powerful after all. Even when it's been used within an inch of its life and we think it's not connecting to the power source, it works mighty fine. Have you considered connecting it to its other power source?
Yes, by all means buy another adaptor to operate your iPad, but use the other one as a key. Turn the lock and revisit your memories. You might find that the crappy adaptor that barely ever worked, now makes you envious of the time you shared.
Now, if it would just f*****g plug into the wall.
They reply: Fantastic Thank you. I can't wait! Me neither, I'm so pleased to be here.
Sound familiar? Expatriate postings are like those extreme sport team-building days. There's tension in the air, but you're not quite sure if the adrenalin is exciting or terrifying.
My good friend Sundae Bean, says that as globally mobile people, we live 'Olympic Level Lives'. Believe me, she knows her stuff. She's an intercultural strategist and solution-oriented coach who also lives this life.
She right. This life kind of takes you apart, then puts you all back together again, many times over. And that's now in 2020 when we are at a all time high for ease of instant communication. What about 10 years ago? 20 years ago? Or even more than 50 years ago?
It's almost unfathomable to me. Imagine setting off in the 1920s unsure of where you'd end up and when - or if - you'd ever see your family again.
So what's it been like through the Years?
There's nothing better than words from the people themselves. For this, I have turned to my trusty resource, 'The Source Book', which I bought from the Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague in 2018. This wonderful centre describes itself as a home for expat life stories.
So with my copy of The Source Book at hand, let me introduce you to our community of life-builders, the heroes, the brave, the determined, the emotionally resilient, the fiesty, the inventive, the survivors, the thrivers, the problem solvers and the inordinately adaptive people we call expats.
As you read on, I invite you to think about the skills developed, the lessons learned and the life review that these remarkable experiences trigger.
Take a moment too to reflect on each 'PAUSE FOR THOUGHT'.
On our arrival at the Lutong wharf we were met by the company men, Chinese coolies[sic], with four wheeled trolleys. Sitting back to back we were pushed through the jungle along a rentus (track) for two miles... our luggage on a following trolley, and so we arrived at the bungalow that was to be our home for six years.
- JG about EM, Malaysia, 1926
[The Source Book, page 035, EAC Ref 0500/479]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
How would a long journey like this help alleviate arrival culture shock and subsequent transition?
Husband in Prison
My husband was one of the many rounded up and put in Seria Police station. The rebels took possession of all the cars. One night...some of the hostages were taken in a truck to part of the road near Panaga Police station. They were lined across it and used as a shield and were caught in the crossfire between Police and the Rebels. One man was killed and several others were badly injured. Lachie had been a POW for five years during the war and there was no way he was going to be locked up again. He escaped across a bit of jungle.
- EM, Seria, Brunei, 1960s
[The Source Book, page 75, EAC Ref oacl/33/4/1]
As the gun began to drop slightly lower and away from his face, I realised he was looking as frightened and unsure as I felt. Throwing caution to the winds, I asked him in what Province he had been at school... The gun lowered, he relaxed and we leafed together through one of the standard English texts in use in most primary schools. He had wanted to continue his education, but the army provided a surer living....
He finally confessed that what he had come for was to ask me to provide...some space for use as a polling station. Together, we toured the compound and decided that one classroom nearest the entrance would be quite sufficient.... As we parted he almost shoook my hand - but his gun got in the way.
- AR, Nigeria, 1960
[The Source Book, page 119-120, EAC Ref 0401/54]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
Have you and/or your spouse worked out what are your non-negotiables? What scenarios have to happen for you to leave the country? Natural disasters? Civil unrest? Threat and experience of violence? The currency become vastly inflated?
Tanker Hit by a Missile
I was taken to the Graille Hospital in Saigon and eventually operated on to take the shrapnel, glass shards and burnt wire strands from my many wounds I had to my side, shoulders, head and neck, and then was stitched up well vaccinated with a syringe the size of a stirrup pump.
The French surgeon wore shorts, a flowery shirt and flip-flops on this feet, with a Gauloise cigarette haning from the lips, 'picture the scene'.... and asked Carol to come and watch while he operated, no anaesthetic, of course.... just like out of war movie, only this was for real.
- CM, Vietnam, 1972
[The Source Book, page 98, EAC Ref 0905/763]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
What has using local medical services made you grateful for?
How do you actively apply that gratitude in your life?
First Week in Bangkok
In our first week I was browsing through an antique shop and asked the owner to recommend a good rug dealer. He stared blankly, so I squatted to show him the floor. "Ah Toilet!" he said delightedly and ushered me to the back of the shop.
- CC, Bangkok, Thailand 1984
[The Source Book, page 41, EAC Ref 0600/166]
Women may not drive, cycle or employ female domestic help. Some feel they are living in 'gilded cages'.... Homesickness can be a real problem especially as extended family members may not visit and living in such a restrictive atmosphere can lead to paranoia and depression in various degrees.
Officially we're not allowed to gather in groups and certainly not mixed (male and female). We are extremely fortunate however, in having a great GM's wife who pointed out that we all have talents which we should use...I have just set up a small mixed choir (no previous experience in conducting!) and we plan to have a house concert very soon: prohibited of course and we have to leave out potentially provocative words.
- PH, Saudi, 1984
[The Source Book, page 57, EAC Ref 0007/732]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
In what ways can you 'get creative' and use your talents to create great connections and purpose in your life?
When our seafreight arrived in Nigeria, we were informed that the agent had been thrown into prison because customs had found consignment of military uniforms in our possession. What?! In fact my husband had an old pair of camouflage trousers he used to wear when photographing in the Gabonese jungle.... He was summonsed before the General at the military base to apologise. [Shell paid a large sum and the agent was freed]
... A similar thing happened to friends of ours a couple of years later. They were accused of importing 'espionage equipment'. This was in fact a small canoe acquired for their children.
- KM, Nigeria, 1997
[The Source Book, page 70, EAC Ref oac5/1/1/12]
A Guide to Etiquette in Delhi
The plumber - sadly everything leaks but he will persist in his repairs and come immediately. Sadly he fails to understand why we want the luxury of water out of both taps.
- SP, India, 1995
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
The best cultural interactions occur when both parties feel 'met'. How do you deal with challenges within another culture? Do you only see it your way, or are you able to stop and meet them in the middle? If your way is not working, perhaps try another option and open yourself to their cultural approach. What have you got to lose?
Relocating with Special Needs Children
When a family of a child with special needs learns of a possible international relocation, the rug literally is pulled out from under them. Even when research and treatment may be more advanced in the new country, parents need to learn an entirely different system, understahd the cultural context of special needs, and rethink best practice when considerable time, energy, thought and effort already have gone into the project. There may be insurance issues to be explored or mastered.
- LP, London, UK, 2004
[The Source Book, page 103, EAC Ref 0100/4/3/2]
I don't know anyone who sent their children to boarding school because they wanted to.
- AM, Den Haag, 2005
[The Source Book, page 123, EAC Ref oac5/6/2/22]
My husband never drank alcohol until we went to Nigeria.
- KM, The Hague, Netherlands, 2006
[The Source Book, page 101, EAC Ref oac5/6/5/7]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
How we behave off the situations that present themselves to us can dramatically influence our mental and physcial health This includes what we're like to live with and work with too. How can you transform your choices that you choose through gritted teeth into ones taht you welcome openly, warmly and with purpose?
I hope that you can grace me a minute to remind you of the words I used at the beginning to describe expats:
Life-builders, the heroes, the brave, the determined, the emotionally resilient, the fiesty, the inventive, the survivors, the thrivers, the problem solvers and inordinately adaptive.
I don't see how we can see them as anything else. Do you?
They've worn their shoes well.
So well, they might need to retire them, but that's another blog for another day.
"No matter what the situation, remind yourself, I have a choice"
- Deepak Chopra
A bag of oranges here. A packet of dates there. A box of biscuits.
Different food groups, but all the same within their collective packet.
It's the reason that supermarkets, haven't offered (until recently) imperfect fruit and vegetables. We like symmetry and we like to lump together.
We like to lump together when it comes to people too.
We do it with nationalities. We do it with gender. We do it with religion. We do it with..... well, everything.
It's easy isn't?
But have you noticed that we only do it when our words have derogatory intent?
When was the last time you heard someone say,
Oh that's so typical of women to be amazing at juggling family life and work?
Typical men, they're so good at raising their kids.
We lump together and generalise when we want to slag off or have our misguided judgements confirmed.
Oh yeah, but that's not always the case I hear you say.
I wouldn't say that because some guys aren't great at raising their kids.
You're right, They're not, but I challenge you.
Do you afford the same positive variations and distinctions when generalising in a derogatory way? Do you say, Ah, typical men! or do you pause and say, that's so typical of a certain type of man?
Generalising Isolates and Incites Hate
I've seen it. It's not pretty. In fact it's horrid.
Social media is not kind. Faceless 'warriors' influencing and creating fear against certain people. Massive generalisations.
Transphobia. Xenaphobia. Islamaphobia...to name a few.
Inclusion and Being a Friendly Face is Not Hard
It's not till you see someone else's every day, that you realise the reality of why we need to reach out.
On one of my last trips to the USA I was standing in a slow security queue at an airport. People were starting to get irritated at the delay. The security team were being extra thorough on one person. A muslim woman and her 3 year old child.
People smiled as he played behind her, leaping onto anything he could climb, but at the front of the queue you could have cut the air with a knife. The security guys were doing their best to be polite, but there was a massive elephant in the room, stomping down the conveyor belt.
I swear I heard it blow its trumpet, at least twice. Once when they insisted on putting the woman's bags through the scanner for a third time and again when they offered to repack her now completely jumbled bags. She fought back tears as she grabbed her bags; all her belongings falling out. No, I'm okay. I'll pack them myself, she said, clearly desperate to get away from the public spectacle.
It was awful to watch. We all knew why she'd been stopped, but no one said those words.... Muslim woman.
A few minutes later I was in the toilets and realised she was there too.
By now she was crying too. She leant forward to hug me. There we stood in the bathroom, two strangers in tears, hugging each other.
And the incredible thing...?
I spoke to her to give her comfort, but in reality she gave me comfort. That experience of 'other' was new to me. THAT reality check of someone else's life.
How is it that we've got to the point where the victim is the one who reassures the privileged? And because they are so used to being treated as 'the other', it's become their normal.
That frightens me.
I do not want to live in that world.
WHAT ARE YOUR MOST PRECIOUS OBJECTS?
It's the house-on-fire question isn't it?
'What would you grab if you only had a few minutes to get out of your house?
There's the obvious ones like family photos and your beloved pets. I'm also likely to grab practical things like my computer drive, passports, credit cards, clothes etc. They are all the obvious items that I think we'd all choose if we had to make a quick decision.
But what about the other objects around your home?
I'm talking about the ones that tell a more detailed and multilayered story of your life - their meanings not fully tangible to other people, but are imbued with a rich personal depth that reveal the story of your life.
For me that meaning comes with a personal experience.
The object triggers so much more than what appears on the surface.
There's also certainly something wonderful about finding an object in the ground and piecing together its story.
EXPERIENCES THAT SHAPE YOU
From an early age my parents took us travelling. Where possible, time wise and financially, we spent holidays camping in the outback, learning to 4WD, learning to like our own company, learning to appreciate and respect the ancient Aboriginal culture that forms the foundation of Australia. And when more money and more time permitted, we backpacked overseas. I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to grow up learning about the world through the eyes of the people we met on our travels.
But these experiences were not always ones I’d like to repeat. In India our train was held up for several hours by bandits in the middle of the night, other passengers telling us to hide as we would be easy targets.
In Egypt I remember our taxi being stopped by the police. As foreigners we were viewed as potential drug traffickers. The doors were forced open and the police started to pull the panelling off the doors as they searched for narcotics. As a 10 year old sitting in the back seat, I started to giggle – mainly through fear, but very quickly stopped when mum’s face showed me the seriousness of the situation. On not finding any drugs our taxi was allowed to continue.
There’s something about taxis actually; they seem to feature quite heavily in my experiences of other countries. It was 2am and we’d just settled back into the taxi after stopping for tea. We were travelling to Kipling Camp in northern India, where we were hoping to see tigers.
The thick jungle-like vegetation made for a fairly monotonous journey that was, until a man walked out into the middle of the road. Our driver slowed down and rather than waiting for the window to be wound down, the man opened the front passenger door.
Something wasn’t right.
Our driver’s face told us all we needed to know.
He was scared.
Dad managed to pull the door shut again and quickly reached around to us in the back and told us to lock the doors. The driver was frozen with fear, but managed to move off again with Dad repeatedly telling him to drive, getting slightly more frantic each time he didn’t move.
As we drove off and looked behind us, we saw about another 10 men walk into the middle of the road from the bushes all carrying machetes.
Who knows what might have happened, but I don’t think they were expecting foreigners. The split second look of shock of the man’s face when he opened the door was enough of a delay to save us.
LISTEN TO OTHERS with KINDNESS AND ACTION
It is these situations that have made me look at the world differently. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is their own. We are all human. Our diversity is what makes us unique, but it’s also what makes a whole.
In 2005 I spoke to a man in Syria, who said:
How do you reply to that kind of comment?
How do you answer the woman also in Syria, who during the Iraq war walks straight up to you out of the blue and asks, ‘do you like Iraqi people?’
...or the woman in Vietnam that says ‘we are sick of people coming to look at us after the war’.
How do you cope with the racist attitude of a couple in the northern territory who are happy to give the man next to us a lift down the road, until they realise he’s Aboriginal?
You respond in the way you know how...
For me it’s about sharing people’s stories, whether it’s a man on the other side of the world or the local artist who crafts items from driftwood she finds on the beach.
People’s stories like this are replicated all over the world. Our social history gives us a place and a soul; otherwise what else are we other than just creatures with no connection to each other?
Our stories need to be shared, witnessed and honoured.
We make communities this way and as we start to understand each other's lives, we can support one another through the tougher times.
A FEW OF MY OBJECTS
On my window ledge, there's a polystyrene figure that I carved when I was going through a tough time. It reminds me of my strength and the growth that comes from these challenges. I have dried Eucalyptus and Wattle leaves which remind me of home in Australia. Then there's the cute soft toy duck I bought when I travelled overseas on my own for the first time. I just liked it at the time, but now it feels like one of my first acts of adulthood and of branching out on my own.
So, which are your favourite objects?
Which ones tell the tale of your life?