Becoming an “expat” causes great changes in everyone’s lives, whether your job is the reason for your relocation or you are the spouse or partner who’s along “for the ride.”
I, myself, have been a “trailing spouse” twice now, and although the term feels derogatory, I choose not to see in my mind a dawdling person, dragging their overstuffed suitcase reluctantly behind them through an airport … although I will admit to the reluctant part!
I prefer to interpret “trailing” as vine-like, climbing and growing and making something basic into something interesting, rather like the Morning Glory on my brick wall.
Relocation and the opportunity for reinvention
Being an expat can eat away at your confidence and self-belief and simple every day tasks can make you a quivering mess. But experience has shown me there is an upside to this unsettling life and that relocation is an opportunity for re-invention! It’s a prospect that many non-expats yearn for but don’t always have the means to facilitate a change in their lives.
Before we moved to the United States, I was working as a registered nurse. In the U.S. I chose not to continue in the world of nursing, as I wanted to be around for my kids but had no idea what to do when my work visa cleared.
I needed to be available after school and during vacations, so I approached the local elementary school and was offered a job as a teacher’s assistant for an individual student with special needs.
Yikes! Me, work in school! Terrifying idea! All those scary kids! I thought.
So, picture me on the first day of school, never having been through the American school system, walking into the classroom … heart in mouth, sweaty palms, the urge to vomit and run crying all the way to the safety of home. All very reminiscent of first days at school as a child, with horrific flashbacks to walking into a new high school, alone and friendless!
However, the teacher and students welcomed me warmly and before long I began to feel at home … I even began spelling the American way!
Making a contribution
Nine years later and that elementary school had become amazingly important to me. I had worked as a “one-to-one” teacher’s assistant, and as a peripatetic teacher’s assistant in classrooms throughout fourth, fifth and sixth grades, made wonderful friends, evolved into the school’s only “Redcoat” during the American Revolution section of the syllabus and became, I hope, a valuable member of the teaching community.
But, most importantly, I discovered parts of me that, until that time, I hadn’t realized existed. I loved working with children; I had endless patience, could confidently stand in front of 20 plus students without curling up in embarrassment and could finally understand how to convert fractions!
After 12 years in the USA we were off again to the Netherlands where my re-invention resumed.
This time my love of writing has played a part in my transition. There weren’t any teacher’s assistant jobs available in the international school and my Dutch isn’t good enough to work in a local school. So I was cajoled/encouraged by a friend to start writing the newsletter for the expat non-profit community in Eindhoven, the Hub.
Again, my first instinct was, I can’t do that, I’m not a writer! But almost four years later I’m still editor/writer, and through the newsletter I met the editor of the English on-line newspaper, Eindhoven News, who encouraged me to write a blog for them. Now my re-invented self has landed a writing position with Dispatches Europe and yes, I still thought, Me? Write for Dispatches Europe? I can’t do that!
The adrenaline rush of leaving your comfort zone
If I could tell my younger, timid self the changes she would experience in her life, I’m pretty sure she would have laughed nervously and possibly locked herself in her bedroom! My re-invention hasn’t always been easy, but it’s opened so many doors for me that I wouldn’t have even knocked on before. I once applied for a job as a guide at the Harry Potter exhibition, touring the US in 2009, which involved, to my horror an audition!
If you knew me you would be laughing uncontrollably by now! There I stood in front of a panel being asked to act out a scene with the Sorting Hat … how on earth did I get I here? I thought, as I fought the “fight or flight” instinct rampaging through my body.
I didn’t get the job, which went to one of the young experienced actors who surrounded me prior to the audition. But I can still remember the adrenalin rush that accompanied me as I left the museum. I knew that role wasn’t for me, but I was so proud of myself for even pursuing it, an attribute I hope I’ve imparted to my children.
To start your re-invention you need three things:
• The first being simply the motivation of income, loneliness and boredom!
• Secondly, it takes trust in friends, family, or your partner when they say you can walk through that imaginary hoop of fire.
• Finally – and this is the most difficult – the belief that you can do or be anything you want to be! Here is this chance to try something you’ve always wanted to try, a clean slate, a new page. It takes resolve and courage, which is hard to find sometimes, but the rewards can be pretty darn great.
My re-invention into teacher’s assistant was life-changing for me and continues to have a ripple effect on my expat experiences.
I’m not a brave person at all but here I am, a more confident, life explorer with the shy girl inside sometimes begging me to be realistic! One of the classroom posters in my previous life as teacher’s assistant quoted something Wayne Gretzky, Canadian ice hockey player, once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
I used to see that on the wall every day, not realizing how it related to my life as an expat, but here I am writing a piece for Dispatches Europe, so whatever shaped “puck” life wings at me I’m ready to take the shot!
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at re-inventing herself! Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News. She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.