Going through the phases of expat life

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So I’ve been in my new home, Sydney, for coming up to two months now. I’ve been preparing for this move for so long that I arrived already with a clear idea of people I wanted to meet (even some meetings already in place), organisations and projects I wanted to look in to, places in the city I wanted to visit. I knew about suburbs that even people living in Sydney didn’t have a clue existed, and I even had an ‘Arrival Action Plan’ to guide me through my transition.

Two months have shot by in a blur of faces, places and awesome opportunities, and I’ve spent much of it sporting a stupid smile reminiscent of a cheshire cat (the cute pink one, not this more distburbing one), marvelling at how brilliant it all seems. Of course, it’s had it’s really tough moments; times when you miss friends and family and aware of the fact that you hardly know anyone yet, which can get pretty lonely. But I expected that and have accepted those dips when they’ve happened – I’m a lot more ok these days with the lows of life when they happen and realise their important place in life’s unpredictable ride (blog on this coming soon…). The overall feeling I’m left with is that these two months have been even better than I had imagined, and all that planning for this stage has paid off in a big way. I’ve been riding the crest of a big, salty, Bondi wave – something I’m not yet capable of doing literally, but I’ve got quite a good handle on those more metaphorical waves.

And then last weekend something unexpected happened; I had a real dip in energy and enthusiasm, and didn’t know what to do next. As you might imagine, this felt… more than mildly confusing and disorientating. After two months of having really clear direction, I suddenly couldn’t tell left from right. It was confusing. And disorientating. Is this painting a clear picture of how confused and disorientated I was?  I do hope so, because that’s the real take-home message here I don’t want to repeat those words anymore.

Once I accepted these feelings, I then began to gain an insight in to what was causing them. Firstly, I had gone pretty full-on at the whole getting-settled-in-to-my-new-life thing, and actually it had been pretty exhausting. Secondly, for all my planning and ‘arrival action plan’ master schemes, I hadn’t looked beyond the landing phase. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounded whether we could get the project rolling, and about what my life here would look like, so I hadn’t dared look too far ahead. Now that’s been taken care of, I enter a very different phase. I’m looking at 6 or 12 months down the line, and putting together an image of how I want that to look. The first two months have been characterised by novelty and adventure, but the next six won’t be to the same extent.

What really interested me, was a conversation with a friend and colleague of mine here in Sydney, who upon hearing my experience explained that she went through almost identical phases when she first moved to China as an expat. There’s so much to take in when you first arrive, but once it calms down you’re faced with the challenge of figuring out where to invest your energy in the long-term with regards to projects, people, hobbies… I’m fortunate that Sydney has a plethora of awesome projects, people and activities. But now I need to consider where to focus and what’s most important to me over the next year. The decisions I make at this stage will have strong consequences for me over the next twelve months. So I’m not rushing them…

Whatever decisions I make one thing is clear.

I have to learn to surf.

An expastry-what!?

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Two weeks before I was due to touch down in Sydney, a friend of mine referred to me as an ‘expatriate’. I did a sudden double-take and my eyes hovered on the word for a moment, trying to understand the implications. She was right, of course, and despite this having been truth for a few months by this point (I left the UK back in February), it still shocked me. Perhaps it was the in-limbo feel of travelling that had prevented this simple fact from dawning on me, but nonetheless here I am expatriating (in its simplest definition) my way around Australia – or a very tiny, miniscule part of it at least. I can’t quite get over how vast – and largely barren – this piece of land is.

To all those who question the value of TV and cinema as a means of educating the youth, I’m on your side in that it definitely doesn’t provide an accurate image of Australia. Not every Australian greets you with g’day, I’ve not seen a kangaroo, it does rain and the seagulls don’t all shout “MATE!” Although I wouldn’t hold that against Finding Nemo, it’s still a magnificent film.

I find myself reflecting back to my work in Cardiff on student mental health. A lot of our conversations would come round to trying to answer the question, ‘why is mental health so shockingly poor amongst students?’ A popular answer – and with good reason – was that students aren’t prepared for the shock of going to university. The living away from home, looking after your own money, not knowing anybody, not knowing the city, academic pressures…  Well, nothing quite prepares you for expatriatism either.

Like the beginning of university, it’s a period in your life packed with excitement, apprehension and unknowns. Unlike university, you’re not thrown in to an environment that is full of other people experiencing exactly the same. And of course no university is as damned expensive as Australia (except, I would have thought, those in Australia). $12 for a pack of peppers? Really? In Cardiff I could go to the cinema for that price. Twice.

For me, there’s another crucial difference to the transition in to university life. University was always the next stage of my life, and to be honest I’m not sure I even gave any thought to the possibility that there were other options at the time, never mind what they might be. But moving to Sydney was very much my decision, and the decision to move to another country to live, particularly for the reasons I had, is hardly a natural or expected next stage of life. I really, really, wanted to move here, and I am absolutely thrilled to b here.

A few other questions that have surfaced a few times during the last month. What makes a place home? How does one go about building up a life from scratch? Not straightforward questions to answer. And becoming an expat is tough. Google ‘expat mental health’, look at the first few results. It’s hardly surprising either.

It wasn’t my motive, but many people take this route so that they can begin a new life from scratch, and leave certain things behind. Your identity and way of life gets largely reset. Within that is the most awesome opportunity – who do you want to be and what do you want your life to look like? I was pretty happy with the sense of identity I had in Cardiff, but it doesn’t entirely carry over to here. I wasn’t an expat in Cardiff (moving from England to Wales really doesn’t count).

An area of my life I have realized I had taken for granted somewhat, was being so close to an amazing family and a group of friends that I find to be incredible people. Building these relationships takes a lot of time – many months, years… I’m learning that I have to be very patient to allow those kinds of friendships to grow here. It helps that I’ve been warmly received by those I have met, and that I’ve come across many fascinating individuals here in Sydney already.

Much of what I’ve written has given focus to the challenges of expat life – but there’s another side, of course. The weekend I wrote this I spent one day ‘bushwalking’ in the Blue Mountains, and another at the beach. In winter. I marvel at a city that has great energy and buzz to its centre, but whose culture is also shaped by its beautiful coastline and sandy beaches, and that on every other side of the city is stunning parkland.

In amongst all of that, there’s another half to this great challenge I’ve taken on, and that is the co-creation of a not for profit. Again, not something I’ve done before. The vision is highly exciting because of the scope of its ambition. However, it has led more than a couple of people to remark that I must be a little crazy – and they’re probably right. It’s hardly a stable, settled route through life, although the current picture of graduate employment shows no sign of offering that anytime soon. So what have I got to lose?

An increasing proportion of young people are taking a similar path, for good reason. This is in part due to the reason I’ve stated above, and in part because there’s a growing recognition that simply ‘having a job’ is perhaps not the most thrilling, or fulfilling way to live your life – and there are other options. The thought of working for a big company, helping it to make money, sitting in an office, working 9-5 and always having to answer to someone turns me off more than a great huge bowl of couscous (I don’t like couscous, by the way).

I had an awesome opportunity to work with a developing student-led mental health organisation when I graduated (Mental Wealth UK), and learned a lot through that. It was exactly the sort of opportunity I was looking for, and so is this. The approach itself is nothing revolutionary – it’s been done before and in fact, when you step back and look at it, it’s very obvious. But it works, and we know this from four years of positive results from Mental Wealth UK, and over a decade of impact from Active Minds in the USA.

Mental illness and psychological distress is a huge problem amongst university students. Huge. If you took 5 average students in a university in Australia, you would be able to diagnose one as having a mental illness, and another 3 that are experiencing serious raised psychological distress of some kind. So you have just one lucky person who you might describe as being ‘mentally healthy’. A lot of research has come out over the past few years, and it’s forcing people to sit up and take note. The issue is there. We’re confident (and we’ll find out over the next six months) that our strategy to tackle this works. The information and knowledge of how to stay mentally healthy, how to recognize the signs if you’re struggling, where to go if you need help…it’s all already out there. We’re just flipping the form of communication from staff-to-student to student-to-student. Peer to peer. Who do students talk to most of the time if something’s bothering them? Their mates. As with any good idea, you know it’s good because it seems so obvious that someone would have done it before. As yet though, this hasn’t happened in Australia, but there are signs to suggest that the student enthusiasm is there and it just needs a spark to set it off.

But this blog isn’t specifically about that, and that’s all the attention I’m willing to give to it for now. I’ve developed a real (healthy, I hope) fascination with entrepreneurship, and social entrepreneurship particularly. The people are always lively, engaging and a little bit (sometimes very) eccentric, and they create these seemingly impossible initiatives. After a while, you find yourself questioning what really is impossible, and challenging yourself to prove that it’s not. It’s thrilling, it’s challenging, it’s full of uncertainty, full of disappointment, of extreme highs and lows, opportunity and ultimately the chance to create something that is bigger than yourself. You live and breathe the work you do, and your whole life becomes an adventure – not just when the clock hits 5pm and on weekends. I had absolutely no idea that it would be the path for me, yet here we are.

I’m also curious to find out if there are any other individuals around here doing similarly. Packing up their roots back home because of an opportunity to build a company elsewhere in the world. Given the title of this blog, I’m wondering though if there’s a likelihood of attracting pastry chefs in exile. If there’s a niche out there for that, I might just wing the blog that way for a bit…

The whole blog won’t be just about expat life and entrepreneurship. As you’ll see from the blog description, my interests diverge greatly and this could go anywhere. Although I probably won’t give much attention to arthouse cinema, the cockroaches I share my kitchen with, or classical music in the 18th century. Pretty much anything else is fair game though. But told from the point of view of someone living the expat life and trying very, very hard (perspiration will, inevitably and unfortunately, occur) to set up a potentially wonderful organisation.

Splendid!