Zanzibari children playing soccer at sunset. Photo by AB Mambo ©
Every home is a foreign place at first — even our mothers’ wombs.
My life as an expat began when I landed in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport. It was a frigid September morning in 2016. My son who’d been asleep most of the 15-hour flight from Atlanta rose right before landing, stretched and asked: “Are we there, Mommy?” Life’s been a veritable adventure since. Four birthday candles and another relocation later (this time to Singapore), expat life has brought me many gifts and lessons. Below are just five of them:
As a professional, having worked on three continents has exposed me to the corporate world in developed and emerging markets. As multinationals expand their footprints and employers seek to bring diverse global perspectives to the workplace, this kind of exposure is valuable for the broadened perspective it brings. The chance to lead diverse teams also gave me the opportunity to see the world through my teams’ eyes. There is no better way to understand a foreign culture than living in it and engaging with people who live it day to day. These experiences have grown me as a leader and a person.
But more than professional growth, I have grown personally by leaps and bounds. I’m definitely tougher (thanks to driving regularly in Joburg rush hour traffic alongside combi taxis, driving in New York City looks like child’s play to me now); more broadminded (owing to having people from different nationalities and cultures in my neighbourhood, workplace and son’s school); flexible (this was not a choice as I shuttled from fast-moving London and Tokyo to slower-paced Kenya and Montreal, getting uncomfortably comfortable with working across multiple times zones); and assertive (being an outsider often meant I had to ask basic questions, push things through, and take risks as I settled into our new world). In a nutshell, being an expat has grown me in ways I never dreamed of, professionally and personally.
My WhatsApp status has this quote by Ann Radmacher: “I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” I’ve always loved travel and culture, so having a career and job that allowed me to travel and experience different cultures is such a gift. Living in hub cities like Joburg and Singapore meant easy access to much of Africa and Asia respectively and boy, did I put that to use! Watching my son feed centenarian turtles in the Seychelles and playing football (okay, soccer) with Zanzibari school children on a sandy beach near the dhow-dotted Indian Ocean aren’t things that I planned as a teenager growing up in Cameroon. Those experiences are all the sweeter for that reason.
Darting through Changi airport (easily my favorite airport in the world by miles), staring at rows upon rows of stunning cherry blossom trees on a river bank in Tokyo, sitting on a wooden bench on the pier in Auckland during my lunch break, and eating poissons braisés in the sweltering Douala heat… these memories have left an imprint on my heart. Not to speak of the vastness of the Namibian skyline or discovering Gaborone’s №1 Ladies Coffee House where I downed a glass of Mma Ramotswe’s Tea (I’m still convinced it’s a Long Island iced tea), and browsed through shelves of Alexander McCall Smith’s series. But more than my son and me, being able to extend the gift of travel to my family, especially my mom who visited me in both countries and got to explore the Victoria Falls with us in Zimbabwe, is the kind of thing that makes me feel proud as a daughter. Life as an expat emboldened me to step out of my comfort zone in a big way. Since I made that giant leap, passport in hand and six-year-old in tow, everything else feels… well, conquerable.
But as fun and glamorous as this might sound (and a lot of it is), the vast majority of my trips are business trips. That means a ton of travel, which is hard on the body, disruptive to sleep patterns given changing timezones, and requires delicate balancing and discipline to ensure I stay connected to home and my son from the road. I still set two alarms on my phone to ensure I call home before the school bus arrives for pickup, and before bed to catch up on his day. Doing this regardless of where I am in the world sometimes means staying up past 11 pm or waking up at 2 am to call home. Like I said, it’s tough, but it’s also a choice I made. I’ve learned to take the sweets with the sours. You should too if you want to work abroad, especially in a role requiring travel.
3. Loneliness No matter how introverted you are, living in a foreign country will very likely test the extremes of your inner hermit. If you’re an extrovert, you might find yourself having to reengage your introvert side in the first few weeks or months in a foreign country. Building community in a foreign country is not easy. It takes effort, commitment and really importantly — willingness. In both countries, I spent more time in the first few months talking to friends and family on the phone than actually going out to make new friends. This was partly because I was too tired from competing priorities, and partly because I was sometimes so overwhelmed by adjusting to life in a new country that I didn’t know where to start. How do you call emergency services? Where to find a good GP and pediatrician? Do neighbors prefer for you to stop by with a hello and cake or to be left alone? Do I need a sim card or does my foreign phone work here? What’s the quickest way to get to work? Where to purchase my toiletries? (I stopped using the brands I’d used for eighteen years when I didn’t find them on the local scene and it got too tiring and expensive to import.)
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be just fine running around settling in until you turn around and wonder: “Where is everybody?” For me, that question accompanied a sinking feeling that came after the euphoria of having checked “work abroad” off my wishlist in September 2016. Sitting in that rest house while our home was prepared, I balked at the enormity of what I’d done and how I’d done it — as a single mom. When the dust settled and clouds cleared in South Africa, I rapidly built community probably by reconnecting with extended family in Joburg and nearby Pretoria. Not so in Singapore, not so. As the humidity persisted, home seemed farther and farther away. My inner hermit was being stretched every which way. I have supportive colleagues but as you settle in a foreign country, going out to socialize can seem daunting in the face of work, leading a team, business trips, running a home, attending school functions, and raising a child alone. In the first 18 months, visits from family and friends helped ease the loneliness and isolation. It was Christmas every time a loved one came to visit. They will never know how much of a difference their visits made to us. The other b-i-g difference? Having a fantastic helper-nanny without whom this whole single-parent working mama thing would be near impossible. (Thank you, Miss Daisy!)
By the time I left South Africa, loneliness was a thing of the past. However, two years in, I’m still building my community in Singapore. Between moms at my son’s school, women in my public speaker circle, and a wonderful woman I met on holiday in Bali, I’m slowly but surely building my #girlsquad Singapore edition. And my son? He misses family back home but between school, beyblades, sushi and soccer, he’s having the time of his life. When the option to return home came up last year and I discussed it with him, he looked at me all crazy like “Going where? For what?” (in that tone and accent West Africans will recognize). So we stayed.
4. Curiosity or Bias?
Life as an expat has taught me to decipher curiosity from bias, and to react or respond accordingly. As much as I would prefer that it not be this way, #TravelingWhileBlack is very real. In roles that required so much travel, I quickly grew tired of being redirected from the business class check-in and boarding lines to the economy line with nary a question asked, and when other non-black travellers were not asked the same. Same goes for the times when I was asked to show my frequent flyer card to access the lounge despite “Lounge Access” stamped on my boarding pass. First World problems, sure. Still irritating? Absolutely. Tiring? Yup! And it isn’t just race.
When meeting new people socially, I am often asked variations of “What do you do when your husband is at work?”, or outright “So it’s nice that your husband’s job sent you guys here.” I find the presumptuousness surprising especially since “What brings you to Singapore?” is a simpler question and would elicit a direct response. I have heard these questions from both locals and expats. On some level, it is understandable considering the fact that most trailing spouses are women. But still… just ask me.
One thing that has generated a lot curiosity, conversation and fun is my hair. Yep, my hair. More so in Asia than in Africa. But let me provide context. In 2015, before I went on my first expat assignment, I took a solo trip to Northern India for two weeks. On a day trip to the Red Fort, I’d combed out my thick, natural hair into an afro. I had no idea how much interest it would generate, especially at a tourist site. Many people asked if they could touch it, others just reached out and did, eyes widening, and a few asked what my hair care routine was, and was my hair easy to wash and comb. I understood it to be simply curiosity (although, to be clear, please don’t randomly touch my hair any more than you would anyone else’s). It prepared me for hair conversations I would have when I moved to Asia. The questions (“why does your hair grow up like that?”), the confused looks when it’s four inches long on Friday morning, two inches shorter same Friday afternoon and two feet long on Monday (yep, I see that look right now), the dearth or absence of stylists and products (I’ve become a DIY hair product queen as a result), and the challenges of maintaining it myself. I didn’t know I cared so much about my hair until I realized how hard it is to find anyone to style it for me. Maybe I’ll write a separate article on what I’ve learned about hair and skin care as an expat.
One could debate whether the things I just described were said or done out of curiosity, bias, ignorance or just because… you know, we’re people and people say stuff. Debate aside, my larger point is that living abroad will expose you to biases, curiosities or a mix, and you sometimes won’t know the difference. Decide which way you’re going to lean. I choose to lean towards curiosity (except with that whole ‘you’re in the wrong lane’ thing. Nah.). It’s really important to assume positive intent and pick your battles especially in this context where cultures, languages and lifestyles crisscross at a pace faster than anything you can learn and implement from a cultural immersion course.
5. Distance and Context
To this day, most news settings on my phone are US-focused. Because I’m not there, I want news from home to be at the top of my newsfeed every morning — makes me feel current on life that side of the world and connected to loved ones. Interestingly though, being away from home has created a healthy distance for me to engage the top issues of the day. I listened to the 2016 presidential elections results in JoBurg and it was riveting to hear South Africans’ take on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the American electorate. I have missed every Super Bowl since 2016 because the urgency and fanfare have just not been the same without a community of fellow Purple People to share it with. I find that I’m playing catch-up on the “woke” movement and I caught “Old Town Road” long after it had become a global phenomenon and kid anthem. I am not always in step with what my family and friends are feeling or experiencing as the socio-political and economic landscape at home changes. And I miss that.
In exchange however, I have come to understand Sino-American relations better than I ever did before. Case in point — the trade war. Because I live in Singapore and travel to Shanghai, I had the opportunity to understand the issues from both sides. Living abroad also means I now try to understand rugby the way I tried to understand American football until 2009 when I finally learned what an interception, 15-yard penalty and intentional grounding meant. Then, I celebrated the Vikings’ record-breaking season with Brett Favre and Adrian Petersen. Last year by contrast, I celebrated the Springboks’ win over England in the rugby world cup finals, and continue to pick up lessons on teamwork from the All Blacks. In addition to Christmas, I celebrated Lunar New Year complete with sharing red packets; I donned white and gold and sat cross-legged on a mat with a dozen other guests to eat a scrumptious meal on banana leaves in celebration of Onam; and, I walked into a Korean skincare shop playing a song called “Butterfly,” and instantly caught the BTS bug (don’t judge). I promptly introduced the 7-boy K-pop band to my son.
Floral arrangement in celebration of Onam. © AB Mambo
Growing up in Cameroon, I had an eclectic musical roster to pull from — Makossa, Soukous, pop and R&B (Toni Braxton’s “Breathe Again” and Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” still get me every time). Then there were the maestros— Michael Jackson, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Kassav, Whitney Houston and Zangalewa, whose “Waka Waka” had people cry-laughing across much of Africa and Latin America decades before Shakira brought her rendition to FIFA 2010. (To share those laughs, watch the original dance version here.) That was my world as a kid and teenager. Our expat life is broadening my son’s musical palette, adding K-pop’s BTS, Twice and Black Pink to his favorites — Afropop’s Davido, Fuse ODG and Wizkid, and EDM’s Alan Walker and Marshmellow. Now, we both choreograph and dance blissfully to songs in Korean, a language neither of us understands or speaks.
Expat life has given me the space and context to explore and embrace alternatives. In so doing, it is expanding the confines of who and what I am, much to my amusement, surprise and occasional frustration. But it’s wonderful and I truly am transformed having seen the moon shine on the other side.