After our family moved to Hong Kong, I got a lot of comments from friends in the US and France that go something like : “Have you visited any of the monasteries yet?” or “Have you discovered any new restaurants?” or “Wow, it must be exciting being in a new culture?”. I didn’t respond to these questions because I didn’t want to sound rude, but the answer was emphatically “No” to all of them. Why? Because of where our family was in the ”expat life cycle”…..that being “Maslow level 1″.
For those who have purposely blocked out the information on Maslow that you learned in high school, I will now torture you with a reminder. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who developed a “hierarchy of needs“. His general idea was that you can’t even think about fulfilling “higher” needs until you have fulfilled “lower” ones. For example, “fighting world hunger” will not likely get much attention in your brain when you, yourself, are poor and hungry. Some people have scoffed at this chart but any serious move, particularly an international one, will make you a believer. Particularly as you watch yourself go up and down this chart. And during the first 3 to 6 months, your direction is usually “down” …to Maslow level 2 or 1.
Level 1 needs are those that, when you are deprived of them, translate into visceral discomfort. You are in level 1 if you are asking things like “where do I find a bloody grocery store where I can read the labels?” or “how do I get my son’s school supplies when said school has given me a list of supplies written in French that I must now purchase from a store owner who speaks Cantonese?”
During the course of this “adjustment” period, one also encounters questions from uninitiated others that, however nicely phrased, boil down to “If the kids are in school, what do you do all day?”. And, to be honest, this question makes me want to claw people’s eyes out. So, in the interest of education and a less violent tomorrow, I thought it would be useful to type up a typical day for one expat spouse (that being me) during the first 1 to 6 months of an assignment. Stay with me on this one, because at the end of this I will need your help with the “carrot” part of this article. So, here we go…
3:30 am– Awakened by youngest child who is still a bit jet lagged and unsure of where he is. Spend 30 minutes or so getting him back to sleep.
6:30 am– Re-awakened by either a) perky children whose idea of “good morning” is a headbutt or b) whining children who had that bad dream about clowns again ( what is it with clowns?!?!).
7:00 am– Pull lazy self out of bed, head to kitchen where unnaturally happy morning person husband and / or somewhat bleary nanny are putting a cornucopia of cereal boxes on the table….as there are never too many ways to consume large quantities of high fructose corn syrup first thing in the morning.
7:15 am– Make mental vow NOT to let offspring watch the Ipad before going to school. Said device turns normally cheerful 6 year old into a sulky 13 year old in less than 5 minutes. Said device also turns normally cheerful husband into a snarling bear in same amount of time. Make mental note to analyze the pattern here.
7:30 am– Break mental vow after 3 year old begins to adamantly insist that he will NOT go to school...never…never…never. Mentally anaesthetise him with “Team Umizoomi”, so he can be clothed with minimal resistance. Watch 6 year old slip into a glazed stupor and spill milk all over table while being sucked into the whirling mental vortex that is the Ipad. Swear to self to make a greater effort to hold out on Ipad for 15 extra minutes tomorrow.
8:00 am– Manage to wrangle both children into clothes. Unfortunately, clothes not completely weather appropriate clothes, as we are still living out of suitcases.
8:15 am– Decide to take older son to school first, as it is easier for Dad to get younger son out the door to school across town if Mom is already gone.
8:20 am– Wait for taxi near bus stop. All taxis with “light on” seem to be going other direction.
8:22 am– Change sides of road after 4 taxis go by in other direction. There must be some sort of taxi conspiracy going on because taxis now appearing only on side of road that was just departed.
8:35 am– Finally get taxi. Get oldest son to school a bit late. Perky teacher is all smiles but issues reminder of still needed school supplies. Hands over list, which is written in French. Steel self to go again to the Cantonese speaking stationary store where they have previously just looked at me blankly when I showed up with the aforementioned list.
8:45 am: Cannot find taxi back from school, so walk. People stare as if I have grown additional appendages. Must be doing something wrong culturally, but no idea what it is.
10:00 am– Sit down at computer. Swear will finish piece on Cosmetic Surgery in France. Write a couple paragraphs.
10:15 am: Phone rings. Call from wrong number. Takes 5 minutes to get the message across that “You have the wrong number. No, I am NOT Dora. No, she does not live here. Yes, I am sure. Honestly, I have not kidnapped her. No, I don’t want a ransom. “.
10:17 am: Second call from same wrong number. Identical conversation ensues. Person on other end sounds extremely suspicious.
10:25 am: Phone rings. Refuse to pick up.
11:00 am: Get Diet Cream Soda from the fridge. As I accidentally ordered 144 cans rather than 1 on our last Park n Shop order, I feel a need to consume as many as possible during the course of the day…just to make more space in the kitchen.
11:30 am: Grand total of 3 paragraphs written. Someone rings at door. It is someone from the apartment complex who has come to look at the dishwasher that isn’t working. He looks for a few minutes and then states that the problem is that it was over filled with dishwashing detergent. This is said with an attitude of condescending indulgence. I respond, as pleasantly as I am able to muster, that I don’t think that this is the problem. I ask him to try to run it. He tries. It doesn’t work. He grumbles and messes around with it for 30 more minutes. He then tells me that someone will come to take it away tomorrow morning. When asked when a new one will be brought in, he suddenly looses the ability to speak English.
11:45 am: Swear to self that I will consume a healthy lunch today and not another can of Heinz Macaroni and Cheese.
12:00 pm: Eat can of Heinz Macaroni and Cheese. Feel momentarily guilty, so get another can of Diet Cream soda to generate some sense of accomplishment.
1:00 pm: Call agencies for a helper. (In Hong Kong, this is the equivalent of domestic helper in the U.S. or Femme de Menage in Paris. The difference is that they are paid roughly 1/10th of what you pay them in Paris, or less.) After some effort, discovered that husband had actually already registered. But all agencies claim to be still “looking”.
1:30 pm: Register on a few additional agency sites. Helper needed as husband is getting tired of fighting his way through empty Diet Cream Soda cans. Consider sending SMS’s but, as cell phone is still not working, this is not possible.
2:00 pm: Begin Sisyphean challenge of getting mobile phone to work. The attempt the night before consisted of calling Orange in France, who insisted that SIM card was NOT blocked and that Apple should be contacted. This was followed by contacting Apple who INSISTED that the phone was blocked and that I should call Orange. Call patient hubby at work to make a phone call BACK to Orange to discuss this in French. Orange agent once again swears of life of mother that phone is NOT blocked. During this time, get email from PCCW agent tasked with helping us with our mobile phone service, and who is already charging us for a service that doesn’t work. She suggests (with lightning acuity) that I should try turning the phone off and back on ( twitch, twitch, twitch). This morning, actually manage to talk to Australian guy at Apple who is merciful and finds a way to over ride the “regional” block that Orange had put on the phone. Guess someone’s mother is forfeit here. But mobile phone working! At last!
2:15 pm: Celebrated too soon. Discover that while phone works, there are still no data connections on phone. As major need of phone (outside of calls) is GPS, this presents a problem.
2:30 pm: Nanny heads out to pick up youngest from school. Use time alone in apartment to get bath…with accompanying Diet Cream Soda.
4:15 pm: Have bathed and written roughly 1 page of article on Cosmetic Surgery in France. Feel grand sense of accomplishment. Get another Diet Cream Soda.
4:30 pm: Go pick up eldest son from school. We walk home and once again people stare. When asking about his day, get answers regarding the relative values of particular Pokémon characters. This assessment continues for the entire 20 minute walk from school. Guess we all have our way of coping.
5:00 pm: After dropping off books, go with oldest son to take and pick up husband’s dry cleaning. Of course, forget ticket for said dry cleaning. Dry cleaning lady remembers me and allows me to pick up dry cleaning….. but only after I can tell her my home phone number. As my Iphone is now out of batteries, remembering this becomes an exercise in mental gymnastics. Leave shop with clothes and a mild sheen of perspiration from mental exertion.
5:20 pm: While shopping with son at Park and Shop, must refrain self from manslaughter. Get in line at grocery store standing next to two women with carts who are, for all the world, just standing there gossiping…and blocking the isle. Maneuver so that I can get in line with son. Just as we are about to get to register, one of aforementioned women pokes me and says “Uh, we were waiting in line you know”. To which my mouth responds before I can stop it “No, actually I didn’t know. It looked like you were just gossiping and blocking the isle to me”. In truth, I wouldn’t have been this snarky if she hadn’t poked me. Anyway, she shut up and we left without further incident…mercifully. Must make note to self to contain urge to kill hapless strangers.
5:45 pm: Back home. Try to order Microwave from Wing On, using gift card given upon move in. Gift card does not work. Get annoyed and try to pay with bankcard. Bankcard does not work. Call phone number on Card from Wing On. Am informed by male Wing On associate that MR. will need to call to authorize cards, as it comes from MR.’s work. Mentally lecture self for jumping to misogynist conclusions. Resolve to collect more data before a future phone evisceration of Wing On associate.
6:00 pm: Email very nice relationship manager at bank, who is also part of an “international program”, to help resolve bankcard issue. She responds immediately and sets up meeting for us for the following morning. Feel urge to kill fading.
7:00 pm: Have phone call with project manager for Disney Paris App I am creating. Project should be completed today. After looking at beta, and coming up with 8 pages of corrections, decide that it is not. Project manager asks if I am OK if they go ahead and send source code to Apple. Surprisingly, she acts offended when I say “no”. Normally, I like this woman, so make mental effort to try to stay polite and grind teeth instead. Resolve severely tested when she states “the developers have already put in a lot of hours on this”. Blood pressure is not helped by the fact that 3 year old has become bored with what he is doing and pounded on door for last 5 minutes of meeting.
7:30 pm: Make dinner consisting of ginger beef and chicken with rice. Boys and nanny blissfully play with cardboard packing box still in living room. Consider if we should send these back or keep them as toys.
7:45 pm: While eating dinner, get email from PCCW woman who suggests I resolve mobile phone problems by calling Orange or going by the Apple store. Twitch twitch twitch. Get additional Cream Soda to calm down.
8:30 pm: Put children to bed. Get lots of hugs and kisses from both boys. And lots of “I love you, Mom’s”. When boys are asleep, feel regenerated enough by this to email PCCW woman about lack of data connectivity.
8:45 pm: PCCW woman actually sends USEFUL email that allows me to data connect.
9:00 pm: Husband returns from work and asks how day was. Respond “fine”.
So, I will now get to the “carrot” part of this article. After having multiple days that were some variation on the above, I began to feel myself getting despondent. It wasn’t really the menial tasks that were bothering me. It wasn’t the fighting to get things done. I actually like a bit of a fight every now and then. It allows me to vent pent up aggression that I have toward people at whom I can’t actually vent. It’s not the writing part. I like writing, even if I procrastinate on it. After a little thought, I realized that what I was missing was a reward system. With day after day of this kind of thing, one needs something to look forward to.
In Paris, I had a whole list of ways to reward myself. I could go buy a cheap scarf. I could take a walk to Invalides. I could take the 80 bus to Rue du Commerce and window shop. Or take it the other way to Montmartre. If I felt extravagant, I could buy lingerie. Or I could just get a coffee and a pastry somewhere. I even came up with a list of the 10 things you must purchase while in Paris. So, worst case scenario, when I felt down, I could just buy a small something from that list. But it took a while to learn all these things…at least a year. Which is ironic because by the time I learned them, I didn’t need them as badly.
And so, when you first move somewhere and desperately need a reward system, you can’t find one. You don’t know the “carrots”. So, this is where I ask for advice. For those of you who move, what are your “carrots”? How do you reward yourself in your particular country? What can you get here, that you can get no where else in the world? What makes you feel special here? What lifts you up and what calms you down?
All comments and ideas are graciously accepted. So, Diet Cream Soda anyone?