I write this as Chinese New Year dawns and I get the chance to enjoy a fish-topped yee sang once more. Fish are a symbol of prosperity and remind us that we dream not just of having enough, but of having a little left over too. As a serial expat, there is just one place I have lived that has not allowed me to consider myself to be a big fish in a small pond. More on that later. Being a big fish has much to do with the expat bubble, the third culture many of us tend to inhabit overseas. It’s an environment amongst other people like us and where we are considered normal; normal despite our Third Culture Kids, our love of durian and the way we always remove our shoes when entering a house.
There is something soothing about living and working in a small community. Like when we look back at old school photos and can still name everyone in our year thirty years later. Like living in a village where everyone knows everyone.
When we live away from immediate family, familiar faces from our home town and our support network are no longer a few minutes’ drive away. We expats need to create new support groups, albeit transient, short-term ones. And we do. We do it fast from necessity. Newcomers have questions to ask and get plugged into the community faster than ever, thanks to the internet.
Where would we be without the KL Expats Buy and Sell group on Facebook? Without magazines like Expatriate Lifestyle so we can find out what’s on, where to go and what matters? Where would we women be without clubs like the Association of British Women in Malaysia or Ibufamily, the resource for young families? It does not take long, in an expat community, to start bumping into people you know in the supermarket or in the parks. Soon you start to feel at home and to belong.
Being a big fish in a small pond has huge advantages for people like me who maintain a portable career. I was living in Dubai when I was a brand new journalist. With no experience I approached the local What’s On magazine with a piece based on a weekend in Hong Kong I’d just enjoyed. They accepted on the spot. Had I been back home in England, I’d have been one of hundreds of writing hopefuls chasing job opportunities.
Over the years I have taught word processing, writing and entrepreneurship from my home to other expatriate women. Filling places has been so much easier in the expat community because word of mouth is more powerful than it ever was in England.
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing. After ten years in the Middle East where, as a blonde with pale skin, I stood out from the locals and many people knew my name and recognised me, when we moved to Norway it was a different story. There, I looked the same as everyone else and people assumed I was Norwegian. Cashiers almost made me cry when they tried to talk to me in supermarkets and few people knew or noticed me. I felt invisible – just another lonesome pine in the forest.
I’d rather look different and get noticed, but then I am an extrovert with a freelance career and a need to lead. After more than 20 years abroad, being a big fish has become my normal. I am increasingly scared by the thought of going ‘home’ to the UK and blending into the background as I watch my identity slowly start to disappear.