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My Children Help Me Adjust to Expat Living

By Sarah Liebetrau - 4th October 2012

When you are new to a place, for that first little while you get to really see it, as if you are looking through the eyes of a child. Soon the sight of a squirrel pausing to nimbly pick up an acorn with its tiny squirrel paws will become something I have seen a hundred times before. But for now it is a novelty. “Squirrel!” the children squeal every time one makes a brave dash across the street or jumps from one tree branch to another. The Canadians seem bemused by our enthusiasm.

The children discuss what you would smell like if the skunk on the back lawn decided to give you a spray. We spot a raccoon the size of a very fat cat trying to feast off our garbage scraps. He eyeballs us and then ducks over the fence in search of a less secure garbage bin. I didn't realise raccoons were so big. It’s like seeing all these familiar cartoon animals made real.

The autumn leaves, everywhere, changing from bright green to burnt orange, brilliant yellow and deep red seemingly overnight. The children collect them and sort them. We knew about them, abstractly, falling seasonally every year on the other side of the world. But we weren’t prepared for the beauty, the abundance, for being surrounded by it.

We bought ice skates for the whole family this weekend. They’re as ubiquitous here as thongs and ugg boots in Australia. We’re attempting to immerse. I am following my children’s lead in this regard: although children like routine and familiarity, they are also surprisingly adaptable. Paradoxically, both of these clichés turn out to be true. So we create a new routine that is slowly becoming familiar. The walk to the yellow school bus where we see some neighbourhood faces and exchange farewell hugs.The afternoons at the local park, weekends at the ice rink or the Y.

We are learning to check the outside temperature in case a jacket is necessary to protect us from the sharp, surprising chill as we step out of our climate controlled indoor world. We have no use for our hot water bottles here.

More than the cultural or geographical differences, it has been the hole left in our lives by the family and friends we don’t see any more that causes familiar pangs of homesickness to wash over us every so often. Again, I try to follow the children’s lead as I watch them dive headlong into friendships with strangers at the playground, and I say hello to the parents watching from the sidelines.

I am very aware that our expat transition and expat living is easier now than at any other time in history. We not only have the phone, we have Skype, email, Facetime – there are myriad ways to stay in touch, both with the people and the things that we love. It’s not so hard for a care package of Vegemite and Real Confectionary snakes to make its way to us. I think about all the families that have relocated to other countries before us – especially those who made their voyage by ship, or who didn't know when they would see their homeland again, or didn't speak the language of the place they are going to. Or all three. I feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to do this, and to do it so easily. Children have a way of noticing things that we adults don’t, of being present. I am learning to take on these skills anew to help us adjust to this expat life. As much as I am helping my children adapt, they are helping me too.

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