Moving to Brunei as an Expat Spouse
Did you know what was awaiting you when you landed in Brunei? I thought I did. We had a pre-visit, looked at houses and met people. It would be my second family posting overseas, so I knew what it would be like to live far away from my home country.
I thought I knew anyway.
We have been living in Brunei for 3 years this week, time to look back at those early days and what I learnt from them.
I was so happy to arrive, leaving behind all the turmoil of the past months. Having a second baby, finishing my work, wrapping up studies, the Beijing smog and of course the move itself plus all the goodbyes that are part of that.
Do you know that graph about the expat life cycle? First you have a happy Honeymoon Phase and you love all about your new country. Then you get the Expat Blues (or Culture Shock), where you wonder why on earth you moved to this place and hate everything about it for a while. And then you move on to understanding and acclimatising to the place.
My happy honeymoon phase lasted 3 days.
Then reality kicked in. I was stuck in a tiny apartment with a small baby and a toddler. My husband was away at work all day and I was afraid to drive. I didn’t have a car anyway, we did not yet have the Identity Card to allow us to do that. My parents in law were there to help us with the move, which was great but also felt as another project to manage. A helper would only be able to start when we had our papers, and that would take another 2 months.
I felt stuck. I felt sad. I felt lonely.
I felt sad about the friends and the life I’d left behind in Beijing. I felt tired from the night feeds and baby and toddler needs, not even being able to go to the bathroom in peace. I felt lonely and isolated. I doubted our decision to move to Brunei.
Looking back, I was overwhelmed by all the changes.
It lasted for around 6 months. Some days were good, but to say I was really happy, no. I found myself speaking unenthusiastically about Brunei to friends. I saw the good things, the beautiful nature and the friendly people, but I couldn’t feel any excitement.
We were still in temporary housing when one day I went to buy some second hand goods from a lady that was leaving. When I asked her how she’d liked Brunei, she told me something that shocked me. She’d been here for 2.5 years and was glad to leave, she hadn’t liked it here at all.
And then it hit me. I would become like this woman if I wouldn’t change my thinking. I would be waiting until it was time to leave, not enjoying life in the tropics. I might even become the bitchy expat, hating my surroundings, complaining about the people, about my amah, dying to get out of here.
I didn’t want to become that person.
I decided to start loving Brunei.
Loving the beach, the jungle, the sun, the household help. And especially loving all the beautiful creatures, the fabulous hornbills, the cheeky monkeys, the mysterious monitor lizards. Loving the people too, both local and international, connecting to them via new hobbies.
And it worked.
Not overnight, but I started to feel different bit by bit. And now, 3 years on, I feel settled. The continuous moving of friends remains a challenge, but I am so happy to have the opportunity to live in this special country.
Because really, it doesn’t matter much where you live, it is up to you to make it work. I loved living in Beijing but I know many people that hated it. Many people love in Bangkok or Singapore, and there are people who are deeply unhappy there.
5 tips to Feel at Home in Brunei (or elsewhere)
Looking back at my experience, here are 5 tips that may support you in your own journey to make Brunei home.
1. Adopt a Positive Mindset
When I look back at my experiences to moving to Beijing (which I loved) and Brunei (where I struggled), the difference was not just in my family situation. Mindset was the biggest difference. In Beijing I knew it was up to me to make it work, whereas in Brunei I was so overwhelmed initially that getting through the day was my major aim.
If you think you’ll hate a place it is easy to find evidence for it. If you love it you will see the good things. Adopt a positive attitude, be grateful for being in Brunei. Stop comparing home and here and focus on what is there, rather than on what is missing. It sounds simplistic but it does work- if you put the work in too.
2. Get out there
As a non-working partner you will need to take matters in your own hands. You can’t afford to hang around the house all day and expect that your partner or his or her employer will deliver friends, jobs or entertainment on your doorstep.
Get out there and join activities, get to know as many people as you can, invite others for coffee or a trip (yes, that can be scary), explore Brunei, volunteer in the community, join a club like Toastmasters or if you can’t find a particular activity, start your own group. There are like- minded people out there.
Get out of Brunei regularly too, take a break from living abroad and take a holiday. It will give you the fresh perspective and energy you need to make it work here.
3. All that Glitters is not Gold
You may feel that you are the only one who struggles. That everyone else is satisfied with travel, coffee mornings and social tennis. That everyone has lots of friends and doesn’t need a new one.
But you’re not the only one, trust me on this one. Most people struggle, with the newness, the culture shock. They may have ill relatives back home, they miss their friends, their marriage may be going through a tough time. And many people struggle with life as a “trailing spouse,” with not having an office to go to, with isolation and loneliness. There are people out there that would love to have a friend like you. You will need to get to know them, not everyone will be your type of friend. Having the same nationality or being in the same life phase can help, but like in your home country, not everyone is a like-minded spirit. Building friendships takes time.
Have realistic expectations too, it usually takes at least 6 months to 1 year to start feeling settled during an overseas posting.
4. Appreciate each other and yourself
Sometimes we may feel like blaming our partners or ourselves for being unhappy, but that unfortunately does not solve anything. You made the choice to come to Brunei together (at least I hope). That doesn’t mean you will always be happy, or that you are not “allowed” to struggle with life here. Living abroad can be really hard sometimes.
Instead, appreciate each other for what you are contributing to the family. Living abroad is a team effort. One partner works outside of the house and one often works to make the house a home for the family (even though this may not be their dream). Work can be challenging, being at home can be challenging.
For working partners it may not be easy to see that being a stay at home mum (or dad) is a challenge, especially when you have a helper. But remember that the non-working partner has no boss to tell them what to do, he or she left a lot behind and needs to draw on their own strength every day, which can be really tiring. Not to mention how challenging caring for kids and babies can be.
Non-working partners may struggle to see why the working partner feels stressed at his/her job, at least they have a job, daily adult conversation, and no “hole in their CV.” And they make money, whereas Stay-at-Home partners are no longer financially independent.
Both partners need to take responsibility for their own happiness, give themselves credit for doing their best, recognise each other’s contribution to the team, and support each other.
5. Find something you truly enjoy
Whether it is cooking, surfing, studying, learning Malay, jungle walking, being the treasurer of the sports club or the coach of the soccer team, organising the most memorable party in the history of Brunei, writing a book or reading the best 100 books in the English language, find something to do in Brunei that you truly enjoy. Something that is just for you, that doesn’t (necessarily) involve other family members. It can be more than 1 thing too. It can be a job too, though that will require patience and perhaps creativity.
Don’t spend your time scrolling through Facebook, but spend it doing things you love.
–>What’s your tip for settling in?