First-Post Tips for a Trailing Spouse: Part Two


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ICYMI: Yesterday I posted Part One of “First Post Tips for A Trailing Spouse” with Dani at Hot Pot, who is preparing for Post No. 2 in New Delhi, India. She recently launched a new blog series, “Life Lessons from Overseas: Things I Learned as a ‘Diplomat’s’ Wife,” based on her first post in Chengdu, China. Part two of our interview is below.expat life, foreign service, learning spanish, learning a new language, moving abroad, moving overseasNatasha: I’m trying to learn Spanish. Did you have any knowledge of Mandarin (or other foreign language) prior to living in China? What are your tips for adapting, and what resources do you recommend?Dani: Before we arrived in China, my only Chinese came from three quick weeks at FSI and listening to my mother-in-law speak to my husband in Mandarin whenever she visited. Then, for the first three months we lived in Chengdu, I took advantage of the Post Language Program (great resource!) and received about three hours of tutoring a week.Truthfully? I’m a horrible language student. I find learning languages interesting, but once I have the basics down, I have no patience for sitting down with a book and mastering grammar patterns. I’d much rather just get out around town and learn by fumbling through my everyday errands in the markets and on the streets.I think the most important thing I learned in China is that you really don’t need much vocabulary to understand and be understood. Context is everything.  As long as you know how to say “I’m sorry,” “please,” “excuse me,” and “thank you” and if you smile a lot and show humility, people will forgive just about any linguistic error.  I think in some ways my lack of training served me better in Chengdu than all of my husband’s months and months of classes at FSI. I picked up the local accent more easily and, rather than constantly racking my brain to remember the perfect word for each situation, I just used the basics and was able to speak much more naturally and fluidly that way.Our housekeeper and I used to have in-depth two-hour-long conversations about men and marriage and household relationships with me using no more descriptive adjectives than “good” and “not good.”  It’s not how many words you know, it’s how you use them.N: You’ve written about culture shock, but outside of adapting to Chengdu/Chinese culture, what surprised you the most about your first post?foreign service, expat life, cooking overseas, moving overseas, moving abroadD: I think just how much my identity was previously tied up in my job and feeling like I had a career path. In many ways, I’m really grateful for my experience in Chengdu because I learned just how much more there is to life and to who I am than work.  I learned how to find fulfillment and enjoyment and how to feel challenged anywhere – job or no job.Also, I thought I knew how to cook before we went to Chengdu. Now I REALLY know how to cook, especially with limited ingredients, no seafood and no shortcuts. For two years we made our own bagels, our own yogurt, our own bread, our own tahini, our own ice cream, chicken stock, crackers, tortillas, and sometimes even our own cheese. It was actually a lot of fun, though I find I’ve gotten much, much lazier in the kitchen since we’ve been back in the States!N: Making friends is something I’ve worried about, and I now know not to expect to meet five new BFFs with whom I’ll get regular mani/pedis and sip cosmos into the wee hours of the night. I don’t like cosmos. How can I manage my expectations but still make an effort to “get out there”?D: The best way to make girlfriends in the Foreign Service? Have kids. I’m only half-joking. Perhaps our community was atypical, but it seems most of the social events at Posts are geared towards families with kids. Kids just make things easy, there are birthday parties and holidays and field trips and sporting events and weekend trips to the pool that make socializing for their parents sort of a by-gone conclusion.Singles and people without kids? Well, you sort of have to get out there and work a bit harder to find your niche.Whether you have kids or no kids though, I think the best thing a girl can do to make friends at a new Post is to try everything at least once and to try things both within and outside the diplomatic community. For one, it shows you are friendly and willing to make and effort and for two, it’s really the quickest way to meet as many people as possible. When time is of the essence, (you’ve usually got two years or less in the same place as your new best friend) that is helpful.Pretty much anywhere you will be posted, there will be some sort of expat women’s social network. It’s worth it to try as many of the activities they offer as possible. In Chengdu, I didn’t do this. I assumed that I had nothing in common with “the ladies who lunch” and the bridge players and the book clubbers (because apparently I’m a little snobby about books). In doing so, it took me nearly two years to at least get on a “peck on the cheek” and “how’s the baby??” basis with some of the nicest and most wonderful women in Chengdu. Why? It turns out that while I was sitting at home crawling up the walls, bemoaning my solitary existence, they were out and about … playing bridge.  So I screwed up when it came to the ladies groups but I will say the one thing Chris and I did right was to run with the Hash House Harriers for our first few months in town. We aren’t big drinkers and Chris tends to only run when chased but it was a wonderful way to see the countryside and meet people who had nothing to do with the U.S. Consulate. We made some of our best friends that way. Even if you don’t drink or don’t run, it’s always worth it to check out the Hash in your city.More on this topic coming up in an upcoming Hot Pot post …N: Now that you’re stateside again, what is the one thing you regret NOT doing while at post?D: There were just a few tourist-sites I really wanted to see in Chengdu, San Xing Dui being the one I most regret not seeing. I also wish we could have gone to Dunhuang to see the caves but other than that, as far as sight-seeing, I actually don’t have too many regrets. To be totally honest, China is not the most beautiful, tourist-friendly place in the world. Lots of concrete, lots of crowds, lots of “ancient towns” in which you can still smell the new paint fumes. Between running with the Hash for a few months and getting out around town almost every weekend, I feel like we did a pretty good job of exploring our part of China.N: Tweet this: Your best advice for FS newbies, in 140 characters or less:D: Pack ur sheets, learn 2 cook, try anything 1x, dont freak out if u feel resentful of spouse-just talk it out-ur marriage wil b stronger 4 itThank you, Dani, for taking the time to answer my questions and offer some great advice for adapting to life overseas! Be sure to check out Dani’s blog, Hot Pot, for more Life Lessons from Overseas.[Pullquote font courtesy Kayla Aimee at Only Slightly Neurotic.]

Published by La Vie Overseas

I'm Natasha -- writer, runner and wife to a Foreign Service Officer with USAID. Current location: Frankfurt, Germany.

10 thoughts on “First-Post Tips for a Trailing Spouse: Part Two

    1. Merci! Sadly I have retained very little French from what I studied in high school and college. I think there’s only enough room for so much language in my brain, and Spanish is taking up most of it!

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  1. I know transfering law schools is nothing like moving to a hardship post, but one of my rules when I started 2nd year and everyone already had their clicks was to always say yes, to everything. I think I ended up meeting a lot more people than other transfers did that way. Of course if it is illegal you can say no…

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  2. This is so so helpful – thank you and Dani for doing this. I’m a new FSO EFM – we’re on our first post in London (hardship, I know..). It’s only been a little over a week, but a lot of the questions you asked are things that are really relevant and/or that I’m already struggling with during this crazy time. Good luck to you guys!

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