Tag Archives: Expat life

Long Distance Mourning

How do you mourn someone from half a world away?

In the U.S., mourning rituals tend to center around being with your family, or the family of the bereaved. In my experience, there’s often some generic cold cut trays and veggie platters. People are somber and sad, or feel like they should be, even though in very big families it might be the first time you’ve seen your cousins in months, if not longer, and it’s hard to resist the joy of just being together. People share memories of their loved one, or maybe look at old pictures together.  But what do you do when you can’t be there?

Before we moved here, Micah and I talked about what situations would justify a flight back to the States.  We are unfortunately missing some big events while we are here- a graduation, a wedding, and a new nephew’s birth- but a funeral felt different.  We had agreed that a funeral would be important enough to make the 30-hour trip back.  At least for one of us.  The cost would make it difficult for us both to go. But one of us would go. Probably. I imagine every expat has thought about these questions and made decisions in advance about what circumstances would require a trip home. It’s not easy. And it’s difficult when they are merely hypothetical questions and you don’t have the context to make the decision properly.

And then, it was suddenly a real question rather than a hypothetical for me. My grandmother passed away on 25 November, in Massachusetts.  She had lived in a nursing home the last several years, and the several years before that she was living with one of my aunts.  She had dementia and I think she thought was a teenager staying in a hotel, on vacation with her parents.  (Though I wouldn’t choose living with dementia for anyone’s grandmother, reliving happy years might not be a bad way to spend your last months.) She had been in declining health, and I knew it was likely she would pass away while we were here, but it still somehow snuck up on me.

We visited her last summer before moving to Malaysia.  She was holding a small nun doll, it looked like the nun from the Madeline children’s books.  She held it up to Micah and I and said, “How do you like my lady?”  Of course we recognized it as a nun, but since she introduced it to us as “her lady” we felt we should continue calling it that.  Micah said, “I like your lady.  Tell me about her, where did you get her?”  And, in typical Grandma fashion, she said, “Well, she’s a nun!  But of course you wouldn’t recognize that because you aren’t Catholic.”

Grandma grew up in Boston. She firmly believed that Irish Catholics (Boston Irish Catholics in particular) are morally superior to everyone else, and didn’t have a problem making her opinion known. Even with her devout faith, none of her children or grandchildren shared her religious fervor. (Perhaps that should read because of her devout faith…?) My family decided on a small, graveside memorial service, with no mass. As difficult as it has been to figure out how to mourn Grandma from half a world away, I am truly thankful to not have to rush back for a week’s worth of formal mourning.  This really helped make my decision about whether to return or not.

Thanks to the horrendous winter the Northeast experienced, my family wasn’t able to hold a memorial service until this week. In November, I was set to fly back. I even had a list of what clothes I needed to pack and what clothes I would need to borrow or acquire once I got to Massachusetts. But now that I’ve had some time to process and mourn on my own, I decided not to go. For one reason, it doesn’t feel quite so urgent to go back as it did several months ago. For another, our circumstances have changed quite dramatically and it’s much more complicated for me to fly back now.

I will admit that I feel a little guilty about not being there, but I know it’s the best choice for me, personally. So while my family gets together this week and no doubt shares their favorite Grandma memories, here is one of mine.

She loved the Celtics and the Red Sox, though I remember her following the Red Sox more.  She told me about going to the ballpark when she was little to see Ted Williams- the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.  (And his teammates, of course, but she always only talked about Ted.) I inherited my own love of the Red Sox through my grandmothers on both sides of my family.  She had retired to Florida while I was still a kid, and as an adult I had thought about taking her to Spring Training at some point.  In 2003, at my college graduation, I told her the outline of my plan:

Me:  Grandma, I’m thinking about going to Spring Training next year to see the Sox.
Grandma: And I suppose you want to stay at MY house?  (Typical Grandma!)
Me: No, I thought you and I could go together.  We’ll stay at a hotel close to where their games are and go to a couple of them.
Grandma: Oh, I would like that!
My mother: I want to go, too!

We both turned to look at her and said simultaneously, “But you don’t even like baseball.”  My mom said, “I’ll pay for the hotel and buy the tickets!”  So my mom, who didn’t even like baseball, was invited on the trip with us.  And she did pay for the hotel and buy the tickets!  (To my mom’s credit, she did follow the team that year, the year they won the 2004 World Series, reversing The Curse of the Bambino.)

That trip was the first time I had ever had true “adult” time with my grandmother, and it was really nice.  My mom was battling cancer and her energy levels ebbed and flowed.  We were having dinner at some generic chain restaurant after an afternoon at the ballpark, I think it was a Bennigan’s, and my mom’s energy hit the floor.  We had already ordered, and she didn’t want us to have to skip dinner, so she went out to the car to nap.  I had ordered a beer, and their happy hour promotion was “buy one get one free.”  I assumed my second beer would come after I finished the first one, but the waitress brought both of them at once!  So here I am with two beers, eating dinner with my grandmother, who, as far as I could remember, didn’t drink.  I don’t even remember her having wine with dinner. Ever. I felt really sheepish.

Then Grandma told me about a trip she and my grandfather had taken to the Jack Daniel’s distillery and how she really enjoyed their Lynchburg Lemonade!  And she had two of them while my grandfather was chatting with someone, and he didn’t know why she liked them so much!  I couldn’t believe it!  This was a side of Grandma I had never seen.  After we had paid the check, I asked if she was ready to go.  She said, “Did you finish both of those beers already?”  Again I felt sheepish and mumbled, “Yes.”  “That’s my girl!  OK, let’s go then.”  I remember thinking What just happened??

So there you have it.  A “typical Grandma” memory, about her jab for my inability to insist on a Catholic upbringing as a small child, and my favorite memory, about going to Spring Training with her and my mom.

SpringTrainingWM

A traditional Irish prayer for “times of sorrow”:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
When the shadows fall—
You do not walk alone.

Advertisements

Travel like the Tex-Pats

Recently, I was scrolling through my social media posts from our first month in KL to revisit the things we felt were worth “writing home” about at the time. It was a nice reminder of how far we have come, in terms of cultural adjustments and what no longer seems strange anymore. (Of course I grocery shop in the mall! … OK, that one is still a little odd.) In response to one of my sarcastic comments about some first time achievement, a friend said, “You should write travel guides!” I replied, “They would be sarcastic and full of semi-helpful information.” Now that we are coming to the end of our expat year and we have more experience with international travel, I thought I would write about what we have learned. I’ve tried my best to tone down my sarcasm, so here is my semi-helpful travel guide: How to Travel like the Tex-Pats.

Disclaimer 1: We’ve done all of our traveling childless, so far. I reserve the right to update this guide once we start traveling with The Kid.

Disclaimer 2: This style of travel works for us, obviously, but we’re not saying that it’s the only way to travel or that it will work for everyone. If you follow my advice to the letter and hate your trip, you’ve been warned.

Always take time to enjoy the flowers.

Always take time to enjoy the flowers.

The first thing you should do when you are thinking about traveling to a new place is get a travel book and make a plan. If you’ve read this blog before, you might know that we are faithful followers of Lonely Planet.  This really suits our style of living and traveling. So browse your library or bookstore and figure out which series works for you. Lonely Planet has a lot of walking, a lot of self-guided stuff, and a lot of tips for you to maximize your local experience. If you are a “stay at a 5 star resort and be pampered” type of traveler, this series will not be for you.

Sidebar: I’ve shifted to mostly reading books on my Kindle, mainly for convenience. But I would never get an e-version of a travel guide. You’ll want to highlight it, fold the pages, maybe tear out a map, put in some sticky tabs, write some notes about things you wanted to do… Definitely go hard copy for travel guides.

IMG_4852WM-1

Now that you are armed with your trusty travel guide, you can start to make your plan. What do you want to do while you’re there? And how long will you stay? The answers to Question 1 are likely dictated by the answers to Question 2. And that’s fine. Both are important questions to answer, no matter which order you tackle them. We’ve gone in both directions. Most recently, I wanted to go to Melaka. I read the section in the book on Melaka and decided there was probably about a day’s worth of stuff we would like. So we’re taking a day trip. In this case, the decision on how long to stay was made by the amount of activities available. However when we went to Penang, we went for a holiday weekend and the decision on how long to stay was made based on amount of time off Micah had from work, without using vacation days. Then the decisions on what to do were made around our flight schedule.

While you are making your plan, stay flexible. You might read about something that sounds really fun in the book, and then you get there and decide that there are other things you’d rather do instead. In Sydney, we thought we wanted to see the Aquarium and the Sydney Eye. Once we got there, we realized we were really enjoying the various hikes and outdoorsy things we did and would rather spend more time doing that. Decide what parts of your itinerary are negotiable and what parts are not. (Seeing the Opera House in Sydney, not negotiable!)

Related to the idea of flexibility is to utilize the local sources. Your hotel probably has great suggestions for things to do and places to eat. In Thailand, we only had a very vague idea of what we wanted to do. We knew there were lots of options available to us, and thought we’d see what the hotel recommended as far as what company to book a boat tour with, etc. As it turns out, arriving in Thailand with very little plan was great because the suggestions from the hotel were wonderful. If we had decided all of our activities in advance, we would have missed out on some great stuff. So finding out what is worth doing from a local perspective will give you a much different picture of where you are than if you stick to the big, touristy stuff. We also had some really excellent food in Thailand based on the front desk guy’s recommendation. Smaller, local restaurants are often much better and cheaper than the big popular ones.

Choose your own seafood!

Choose your own seafood!

Speaking of utilizing your local sources: Go local as much as possible. What kind of experience are you only going to get in that place? What kind of food should you try? What museums or other activities will help you learn about where you are? In our non-expat lives, we make a lot of decisions based on the Go Local mentality. We would much rather support a small business than a chain in most cases. When you buy local, eat local, stay local, your tourism dollars might have a better impact on the local economy. (I’m not an economics scholar, so I don’t know the specifics. But it makes intuitive sense to me!) Not only that, but having a unique experience that is specific to where ever you are is very rewarding and makes great vacation memories. Lonely Planet also believes in this philosophy, which is one reason we like the books so much.

Figure out public transportation options. Many places have tourist passes, some kind of unlimited pass that you can buy. This might be really worth it! It’s definitely good to have some idea of what bus options and subway options you have. My original sarcastic comment that spurred the idea for a travel guide was, “All public transportation is basically the same. You will need a ticket, and you will need to know what stop to get off at. Acquire a map and figure out how to get a ticket and you will be unstoppable!” I intended it to be snarky at the time, but it’s true at its heart. Familiarize yourself with the map and figure out how to get a ticket. Now you can go anywhere!

One thing we don’t use Lonely Planet for is hotel recommendations. I’m sure their recommendations are great. But the hospitality business changes more rapidly than they publish new editions. There are always new hotels and changes at old hotels. Trip Advisor is a much better current source for hotels. You can search by price range, area where you want to stay, rating, or a combination of all of them plus more. You can read customer reviews and decide which “3 star” things you are willing to put up with and which ones you are not. We like to look for smaller, boutique-type hotels. I think the service is a little more personal and they often have a good network of local businesses to recommend. Plus, our theory of life is to support a small business over a chain.

This might sound silly, but in choosing a hotel, consider your location. Even if you think you’ll only be at your hotel to shower and sleep, this is very important. You can usually save some money by staying outside of the city center or town, but then you might spend that on cab fare or waste a lot of time getting to where you want to go. To me, it’s worth it to leave my hotel in the morning and be walking distance to the things I want to do. This is especially true when you are somewhere for a long weekend. If you only have 2 days to see the sights, you don’t want to spend an hour or more getting to them! Your criteria probably will change depending on where you are. In Cambodia, we stayed in the middle of nowhere for a cheaper price rather than in the heart of downtown Siem Reap. But we knew they had free transportation to town and also would arrange our tours with no booking fee. As it turns out, the hotel in Cambodia was our favorite place we’ve stayed.

Most of all, be flexible. (If you are a careful reader, you might notice that this is the second time I’ve said this. That’s not an accident. It’s that important.) There will be things that go wrong, things you don’t get to do, or other potential disappointments. Don’t stress over them and certainly don’t dwell on them! Enjoy the trip you are having, rather than spend time upset about the trip you didn’t have. For example, in Penang we were really enjoying the national park and spending time on the beach. We stayed longer than we had planned and didn’t end up having time for several other activities we wanted to do. We decided staying on the beach was worth skipping some things and if we could only do one more thing in Penang, it was going to be to find a hawker center. We would really regret not having some amazing street food, but we wouldn’t miss seeing some of the other sights. Dinner at the hawker center more than lived up to our expectations. And we were in the right place at the right time to see a Wesak Day parade after dinner, too! Dwelling on the things we didn’t get to do had the potential to ruin the rest of the trip, but it just wasn’t worth it. The trip to Penang was really fun. In the end, that’s what we will remember and look back on, not the stuff we didn’t do.

So, let’s recap. How to Travel Like a Tex Pat in 4 Easy Steps (patent pending): Be prepared. Do local things. Be flexible. Enjoy your trip!

Happy Travels from the Tex-Pats!

Happy Travels from the Tex-Pats!

The Beginning of The End

When I started blogging last summer, my only goal was to chronicle our year as expats in Kuala Lumpur. We were still in Dallas and had only a vague idea of what was ahead. We were technically homeless for two months and staying with a family member. Most of our stuff was already in storage, some of our stuff was still in limbo as we decided what we would want to take, and we definitely had a lot of anxiety about this new adventure. (Not the least reason, we didn’t even have plane tickets until about 3 weeks before we left!) Thinking an entire year into the future about the end of our expat adventure was simply beyond my comprehension at the time. I didn’t really give much thought to what would happen when we moved back to Texas; I guess I assumed the blog would reach a natural conclusion and cease to have a purpose.

Nevertheless, we are coming to the beginning of the end. We have been here for 8 months- three quarters of a year. It’s been an amazing experience and I have enjoyed living it and writing about it. I think it will be great to have a record of what we did, what we saw, what we were thinking and feeling so that 10 years from now we can look back at this adventure and see our perspective at the time. Keeping the blog has also been a really nice way to keep in touch with friends and family at home, which was our intended purpose all along.

The original plan was to be in KL until about the middle of August of this year. But, as they say, “The best laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry.” Or, in our case, something we had been trying to plan for some time happened when we quit trying to plan it. (I’m told this is often the case!) After a year and a half of trying to get pregnant, I finally did. I’m due in August, currently about 6 months in*. I’ve chosen not to share this news before now simply because that isn’t the point of this blog. What has changed is that some of the stories I have “on deck” require knowing about the pregnancy to appreciate, or for me to tell with the details they deserve.

Another reason for the timing of this announcement is that my life as an expat has changed considerably since getting pregnant. My interactions with people in public are different, there are new things for me to consider and new adventures to be discussed. Plus, the whole “moving half way across the world” thing is always good fodder for blogging. (Things I am not looking forward to: packing. Again.) So it is time to share.

I go back to Texas in June; Micah goes back in July. In the 5 weeks between when I get back and when he gets back, I will have to buy a car and find a place to live, plus get our stuff out of storage. Micah also wants to be involved in the physical set up of The Kid’s room, so that will have to wait as well. All of that seems really daunting. (Micah actually wrote about just how daunting HERE.) It’s going to be tough, but I think it will be easier while The Kid is still on the inside and is more or less subject to my schedule, instead of me being ruled by a tiny dictator who requires feeding and clean diapers every few hours.

Shameless plug for my husband: While I’ve been blogging about being an expat, Micah took up web design and has recently started blogging himself. He blogs primarily about his experience as an expectant father, and has been very open about his journey so far. If you’re interested in this part of our story, you can follow along on his site!

As for what’s on the horizon blog-wise, I’m not sure ending the blog when I leave KL is the right choice for me; I’ve enjoyed having a venue for my thoughts and ideas. And quite frankly, I like writing. Writing was a big part of my life for a long time, and it felt strange not to spend so much time writing pre-blog. I still have a lot of thoughts and ideas, some related to pregnancy (it isn’t always sunshine and unicorns, by the way) and some related to lots of other things. And even when I’m back in Texas, my family still lives far away. I can imagine Aunts and Uncles and Grandparents and Great Aunts and Great Uncles might still like to see what we’re up to on this new adventure of ours. But should I start a new blog? Should I just change the focus of this one? I have no idea yet. Also, I’m led to believe that things like “blogging” and “sitting quietly by myself to think and write for extended periods” won’t be part of my daily routine for a while after The Kid arrives! So I will almost certainly take a blogging hiatus in August, potentially for many months. “The Kid” is the nickname Micah and I have settled on, by the way, it suits our sarcastic personalities. (Here is my first public edict about The Kid: The Kid deserves his own chance to make his own digital fingerprint when he is older, so whatever form of blogging I do take up, he will remain anonymous.  After all, I choose what to write about my life and Micah gets to vet everything about him.  It’s only fair.)

But, until my “maternity leave” arrives and I decide what kind of blogger I will evolve into, I have more expat stories to share and a few more weeks of adventures to chronicle!

Coming soon: We took an amazing trip to Cambodia, and I’m finally getting around to writing about it!  Part 1 is actually doing sneaky double duty as last week’s photo challenge: we caught an amazing sunrise at Angkor Wat.

25 weeks, healthy and happy!

Happy and healthy, x3!

*For anyone interested, here are the specific details. I’m due in August and I will be leaving KL in June, right about 31 weeks pregnant. Not ideal, but my doctor isn’t concerned at all so I am choosing to not be concerned either. The medical care here is great and I would have no qualms about staying here to deliver. This often comes up when Malaysians ask us this question and we both feel really guilty about saying we’re going back to the US for the birth. The reason is really the timing. Micah was scheduled to end his rotation in mid-late August. The doctor advised us that we would probably want to wait a month or two before traveling internationally with The Kid. So Micah would start his next rotation a month or two late, which may have been possible but wasn’t ideal. It’s also about 30 hours of travel between KL and Dallas. Being first time parents, this seemed really, REALLY intimidating. There’s also the fact that we live in a hotel. It would definitely be possible for a newborn to live here with us, but it doesn’t seem like the most ideal situation, especially considering that we wouldn’t have any friends or family around to help us. This seemed daunting to me, too; especially since Micah would get 2 days off after the birth here, where as in Dallas he gets 10 days. So I would have been left on my own with a newborn almost immediately. It was an issue of timing and proximity to family that made the decision for us in the end, nothing to do with not wanting The Kid born here or the quality of the medical care.