There are many reasons why women expats face a different set of challenges than men do. While expat situations for women vary greatly, there are some common issues with which all can identify. Being aware of these known issues is a source of power for women, because in the end, it is up to each individual to discover the inner strength to find ways to create a positive and satisfying life abroad.
This is an issue for all women everywhere, but of course it plays a more prominent role in the lives of single women, and more so for single women in a foreign country. The challenge is to find a balance between exuding self-confidence and taking sensible precautions.
One major factor that leaves a person vulnerable in any situation is unfamiliarity, so being as perceptive to one’s surroundings as well as to the general cultural atmosphere as possible is one of the best precautions that a woman can take. Learning such details as which streets and which neighborhoods are safest is one aspect of safety, while taking a wider view of a place’s history, culture, and current social issues is important for putting things into proper perspective. Learning the language is another very important key to knowing what is going on around oneself. And networking with other expats as well as locals in the community – especially with women – will be invaluable to feeling safe and secure in a foreign country, as this is the best way to get a grasp of what the crime situation is really like on the ground and find out how best to avoid being victimized.
Women should prepare themselves for being perceived and treated differently than they may be used to when they enter into other cultures. Cultural attitudes are complex and often contradictory creatures, and it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of realizing how different these cultural attitudes are.
Do not assume, for example, that the fact that Argentina’s president is a woman means that women in general have achieved equality or are given the same kind of respect that men are given. The objectification of women’s bodies is prolific in this country, from the bountiful images of topless women at every magazine stand to the way women appear on television to the constant barrage of perfect, youthful bodies in advertising. Many men see a woman who is unaccompanied by a man as fair game for catcalls and sexual advances, and the notion of chivalry is alive and well, at least in their minds. Learning to ignore the unwanted attention as well as asserting strength and capability would be among the coping skills that women new to this kind of machismo culture might need to attain. Again, networking with other women can be an invaluable aid in this regard.
It should be stressed that understanding the unspoken rules of dress and conduct is the responsibility of the woman in these kinds of societies, and failing to learn the boundaries and follow the rules could be dangerous for any woman, particularly a foreigner. Pushing the boundaries or trying to make a point about how wrong it is that women are held responsible for the urges and actions of men should be left to people who come from within these societies, not attempted by foreigners unless they have become immersed in the society. Such cultural attitudes have persisted for a thousand years and will have to evolve from within.
With considerations such as the above, it is no wonder that women find expatriation to be more stressful than men do. Several other factors also play into this reality, having to do with the woman’s fundamental role in the family.
Women are the nurturers, whose concern is the health and well-being of her family. Therefore, much of the stress and difficulty that the children in the family go through when they are moved abroad falls into the lap of the mother, who must help them adjust to their new surroundings (especially if her spouse is busy at the job assignment that was the reason for the expatriation – a situation that will be covered in more detail in the next installment of this two-part series). Meanwhile, of course, she is going through the adjustment process, herself.
According to reporting from the US-based Interchange Institute, it is mothers with teenagers who have the most difficult time adjusting, which, considering the nature of teenagers, is not surprising. What is more interesting is that mothers of younger and adult children reported doing better than women with no children at all. This punctuates what many parents have discovered for themselves, the fact that children, as long as they are not in the throes of all the crazy hormonal changes that drive teenage angst, often serve as an engaging factor, forcing their parents to interact with the community through school and other social activities that children need in their lives.
The study also highlighted the other fundamental role that women play in their families, and that is as a connecting force. Women in general need to feel connected to a much greater degree than men do, which was one of the biggest reported sources of stress for women expatriates. Being away from family and friends is difficult for most women. The internet technology of today has made this issue much more bearable, yet staying in contact cannot possibly replace being together at holidays and other special family occasions, and when women who are very closely connected with loved ones who are far away have to contend with unreliable or intermittent internet access, they can become distraught, feeling lost and alone.
Women generally need not only connection with their own families, but they also tend to be more in need of feeling that they are connected with a community. Therefore, overcoming all of the urges that might cause someone to perpetuate their isolation – fear of the unknown and insecurities about being different and not fitting in – can be a major challenge for many expat women. This is yet another reason why language learning is such a big help to women in particular, and this fact is born out in the report. One of the most common pieces of advice given by participants was to study the local language. This, of course, will facilitate engagement in the community, make taking care of tasks less frustrating, and help to alleviate those feelings of isolation.
A great tool for expats to find connection, in several different respects, is blogging. This is for anyone who wants to share their experiences, photos, recipes, etc, but the more I explore the internet in search of expat blogs, which are an excellent way for potential expats to gain some valuable insight into the expat experience, the more I find that the expat women bloggers outnumber the men by quite a bit. Many bloggers say that they began their expat blogs in order to continue sharing their lives with friends and loved ones back home, letting them know how they are doing and showing off what this foreign country is like – staying connected. A secondary effect that often results is becoming connected with others – expat bloggers, expats, potential expats, people who are interested in this interesting lifestyle choice, and many other pleasant surprises.
Another kind of connection will occur via the act of recording one’s experiences, impressions, and thoughts about a place. Keeping alert for things that will be of interest to write about or take photos of; learning about the history and culture of a place; exploring – all of these are ways of heightening one’s awareness, which in turn, leads to feeling more comfortable in surroundings that are more closely examined. Blogging, keeping a diary, or writing about one’s experiences in any way is always connective and can also be therapeutic, helping one to sort out their feelings and find their way through the fog of the unfamiliar.
And then there is networking, which keeps coming up when considering expat women’s issues. Women, because of this need to connect, feel secure, and for moral support, need to network with friends, family, other expats, people with similar interests, and especially with other women. One excellent resource for doing this is ExpatWomen.com, and one excellent piece of advice given there for women who are having difficulty adjusting to expat life is to choose associates with care.
Networking is not just about adding friends to a list or finding fellow English speakers to talk to. Rather, it is about finding helpful and positive connections. Feeling lost, disconnected, and out of control of one’s life is a very common expat experience that will not get any better if other people are feeding into it with negative or cynical attitudes. While seeking the company of people who are going through the same struggles is only natural, gaining some sense of control in a foreign culture is far more difficult if the reaction is withdrawal to an insular clique rather than engagement. Like the homesick child at summer camp, dwelling on what one misses about home causes them to miss out on all the positive aspects of the place they are in. And just as there are councilors to help kids at summer camp, there are many great expat sites to facilitate networking, several of which focus on women expats, which offer positive input, advice, and connection. Here are just a few:
Watch for the next article in this series, which will focus more on the women’s issues surrounding expatriating as a family.
About the author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she writes for and edits Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.