By Jan De Burgh
What does an expat spouse do in Honiara? This is a question I get a lot from friends and family back home. It’s also a question that I’ve taken a long time to answer for myself.
When I tell people in Australia that I’m living in Honiara while my partner works, many assume that I sit around a pool all day, read magazines and get pedicures. They often think that life on a tropical island is as romantic as the movies or travel agent brochures. While there are certainly elements of truth to this stereotype (I do get a pedicure every so often as it feels totally awesome), this life of pure indulgence is mostly a misnomer.
Settling into life as an expat spouse has taken time. No manual comes with the position, no foolproof method to making it work for you and your partner. Everyone’s experience is a little different. Those with kids generally have an instant community of school and play dates and so their networks are a little firmer at first. Additionally, those who also work in the development world have kept themselves busy with networking and picking up short term contracts. So my thoughts below are exactly just that, my own thoughts and nothing more.
Much of my time is spent running the house. I visit markets and butchers to buy our food (no Woolworths here) and adapt recipes to match what I can find. I keep the house in order and the animals healthy. I fetch our drinking water from the other side of town and get our guards their meals.
In this day and age of mortgage repayments and rising living costs, it feels like a rare opportunity to experience life as an old school housewife, although thankfully with the addition of a great washing machine. Being female, I’m grateful for the strong women (and men) who have fought hard for me to enter the workforce with choice and good conditions, but I now also see the value in having one partner at home. Life as a couple/family is easier when someone is home to prepare meals, keep the house, and eventually kids clean without worrying about working 9 to 5 (or 8 to 8!) as well.
While I don’t want to be a housewife when I return to Australia, the chance to appreciate a different version of life for a short period has felt like a privilege and provided me with an insight that I never would have got at home. It’s also given me a wider understanding of the world that my grandparents would have grown up in.
But when all the chores are said and done, there is still a lot of time left and I’ve learnt the valuable lesson that the freedom to do exactly what you want each day does not necessary equate to a high level of life satisfaction. Having come from a busy job in Australia, adapting to being a supporting spouse (the label I much prefer rather than the insulting trailing spouse) has been a slow and a sometimes emotional journey. Maybe my experience would have been different in a larger city, especially one with unlimited internet, but in Honiara entertainment and personal development options are limited, so finding meaning has been a challenge.
In my first year in Honiara, many questions plagued my thinking. Should I worry about taking this break from my career? How do I get a sense of achievement without my job? What can I do here to put on my CV? Will I fit back in to the workplace when I go home? All scary questions, with the biggest one of all being: What do I say to people when they ask me ‘So, what do you do?’
Drawing on the experiences of many other expat spouses, I’ve concluded that the most important thing to keep sane and happy is to give yourself a ‘job’. You need to find something to focus on, something that is yours and that you can drive. For some people, this has been online study (despite struggling internet), being a stay at home parent, or finding paid work. For many others, including myself, it has been finding a volunteer role. Getting involved with a local school, running health talks, volunteering at a clinic, establishing a theatre group and organising food donations are just a few of the projects of spouses that I know of. Some spouses support the projects of other people and sometimes they start their own.
While being enthusiastic is great, try not to jump into the first thing you hear about. Take your time to try things out and meet people as you don’t want to over commit yourself or worse, commit yourself to the wrong project for the next two years. On a selfish note, it needs to be a project that works for you as well as the people you are assisting, otherwise you will fizzle out too quickly. For me, it was about finding something that I could put on my CV, something that got me excited and something that let me try out new skills.
Keep persisting until you find the right thing. I remember feeling a deep sense of disappointment during my first couple of months in Honiara each time I thought I had found my passion, my activity that would keep me going, only to find out after a few days that no, I wasn’t as interested as I had hoped. That’s probably the most annoying thing about passion, you just can’t fake it – it’s either there or it’s not.
Just like at home, I think it’s helpful to be goal orientated. I love lists, being able to tick the boxes and know I’m heading somewhere. So to keep myself active and happy, I have continued this approach to my projects in Honiara. As embarrassing as it may sound, I wrote myself a ‘performance development plan’ outlining what I hoped to achieve in my two Solomon years. For each project, I wrote out what I wanted to achieve in six month blocks, why I wanted to achieve these things (what they contributed to in mine and others lives) and what success would look like. Now at any time when I am feeling a little off course, a little confused about why I’m here, I can simply check my plan and be reminded that I’m heading towards something.
What it comes down to is that everyone needs to know what they are doing is important is someway, that it matters to someone – whether that is to your family, your country, the economy or complete strangers. Us humans are happier when we are valued and making a contribution to the world. While my performance development plan may seem a little silly, it has helped me considerably when answering the scary ‘So, what do you do?’ dinner party question.
Leading on from finding a project, I’ve found it critical to create a routine and weekly structure. When I first arrived, I would wake up at any time, get chores done without a timeframe and float from activity to activity with no real routine. Being able to wake up whenever you like is a delicious luxury that we should all experience at some point, but long term it’s not that great for your head space. While flexibility is needed for my volunteer work, each week I do have regular times for writing, playing cards, and exercise. I do the food shop at the same time each week and cook our dinner around the same time each day.
I have my activities listed in the diary and these appointments keep me peddling along in my week. I’ve talked to friends who’ve taken maternity leave in Australia and many have commented that creating such a structure helped them stay on track with their mental health. I firmly believe that even just having two or three solid commitments per week is critical to my happiness here.
One of the best parts about giving yourself a job and getting some structure is that you’re forced to get out and about and meet people. One of the highlights during my time in Honiara has been the vast array of people that I’ve got to meet, both expats and locals. My friends are from all different age groups, all different walks of life, with different life experiences to share.
Back in Australia, my social circle was generally all female, around the same age as me, but in Honiara everyone is thrown together in a fantastic friend fruit salad. These people have widened my understanding of the possibilities out there for my own life and have provided a great support network when I’ve been homesick or frustrated by things. Try out all the clubs and groups that you can to find out where you fit in the social scene. There are actually more activities to do in Honiara than you may expect. Have a ‘yes please’ attitude and you will get included in heaps of things.
While my career may have taken a slight hit from being here, I’ve learnt a huge amount about what I really want from life and where I should be getting my sense of achievement from. For so long, my sense of achievement was purely driven by work. But now I find it in cooking a beautiful meal, in writing, in laughing with friends, knitting, reading, in walking and smelling the (sometimes) fresh air. I’ve always known that this is where meaning should come from, but this is the first time I can honestly say I’ve understood and experienced it. Having the time and space in Honiara away from the rat race of an Australian city has given me this.
Now, if you’re reading my musings and trying to decide whether or not to follow your partner to Honiara, you’re probably not going to find the answer here. It really is something that no one can decide for you. In our case, a long distance relationship for a few years was not an option. We wanted to be together at this time in our lives and so made the decision to come here as a couple. And I’m glad we did. It’s been challenging at times (often many times) but the personal rewards have been high and I wouldn’t swap this time for anything.