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5 questions to Tanya Arler - the expat spouse

Edited on

09 February 2021
Read time: 4 minutes

Tanya Arler is the author of the book UNPACK - a guide to life as an expat spouse and she is founder of A Happy Expat. Tanya is an experienced traveling spouse and the Welcoming International Talent project had the opportunity to learn from her journey. 

Tanya Arler

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My background is a bit of a mixed bag. Having an American father and Belgian mother I was raised bi-culturally. I went to school in the US but spent 10 weeks each summer in a small town in Flanders with grandparents and friends that spoke only Flemish, so I grew up with 2 distinct places in the world to call home.  

When I was 19 I came to Belgium on vacation and ended up building my career here. I met my husband in my late 20s and that’s where the real adventures began.  

Over the course of the past 20  years I’ve lived in Italy, Japan and Sweden, Singapore twice, and Belgium 3 times. Sweden was the longest assignment (6 years) and the first trip to Singapore was the shortest (18 months). Although we had a 3 year contract for each move, we knew that change could happen at any time, so it was all about settling as quick as possible and making it our home while it lasted.  

2. They often say: happy wife, happy life. In the context of a travelling spouse, do you agree?

ABSOLUTELY! Without a shadow of a doubt. Study upon study show that the most common reason for an international assignment to fail is because the trailing spouse can’t find their footing in their new home.

It’s important to understand that the challenges faced by the accompanying spouse are both greater and more difficult than that of the working partner. While the partner goes to work, has structure, social opportunities, objectives, routines and purpose readily available to them, the spouse is left to their own devices and needs to build a life from scratch. It requires an enormous amount of energy to put yourself out there, particularly as you’ve been stripped of your identity and in many cases feel very vulnerable.

If the spouse isn’t happy, it also deeply affects the assignee. Guilt about the move creeps in, the working partner starts to question their motivations for the move and feel responsible for the family’s unhappiness. I can safely say that if the trailing spouse can settle quickly, the chances of success and happiness rise exponentially.

3. You have managed moving to different countries and raising kids along the way. What would be your first tip for newcomers in order to make them feel at home in their new city?

Patience. If I have learned anything it’s that each child, with each move, will find their place in their own, unique way. Some kids will dive straight in while others will sit back and observe to see where they fit best. In both cases, it won’t be until they find their ‘new best friend’ that the feel settled. In an international environment kids come and go, so if they don’t connect with someone right away, fret not, a new friend will arrive soon.

A special note for parenting kids, particularly teenagers. Don’t let your ‘moving guilt’ overshadow your parenting skills. Kids will go through ups and downs no matter where they are in the world. Even if they were very happy right before they left ‘home’, had they stayed, the next months could have offered struggles there too. What they need is for you to be their parent, the parent you were before you set off on this adventure, not one trying to compensate for your inner struggle with guilt.

4.   Based on your experience, are (local) governments concerned/involved enough with the situation of a traveling spouse?

Unpack bookEveryone wants to feel they belong somewhere and for the expat spouse, finding that sense of belonging is essential.

The places I’ve lived were already established as International hubs, so the need for government to offer welcoming services was less of an objective. Clubs, Associations and social opportunities were already in place to support expat spouses.

What I would suggest for ‘younger International cities’ other than a basic language course is something that addresses everyday life. To settle in, what spouses really need is a course on how to navigate the practicalities of living in your city. A few of the cites I lived in offered this ranging from a 4-day conference in Tokyo to a half day workshop plus 2-hour walking tour in Stockholm.

It was a combination of short-hand cultural training and every day practicalities. How to call emergency services, what are the names of the local grocery stores, where can I find children shoes, how does garbage sorting work in your city, can I buy a monthly ticket for your public transport system, do I need to register with a local doctor, maybe some particular customs and habits… etc.  

A walking tour could go into a local grocery store, walk to the city recycling bins, go past a post office and metro entrance to point out what the sign looks like, explain some parking and street signs, demonstrate how to read the bus information and other essentials to navigate the city.

Practicalities you take for granted as a local can be daunting for the new expat. The history can wait… teach me how to live in the city first. I have also seen handbooks and web pages which are very helpful, but the opportunity to ask someone questions is invaluable.

Beyond addressing their initial needs, offering a limited amount of activities at local community centres in English will help establish routines and get the expat into your community; A weekly exercise class, an art classes, or even a weekly walking group.

By offering English activities at a local centre, you’re not only giving the expat spouse an opportunity to find an interest and routine, but you encourage interaction between expats and locals. Expats will regularly go to a local center getting more exposure to the community, and locals might surprise you by choosing  to take some of the classes in English for their own reasons.

5.  And what about the locals themselves? What can locals do to become more Welcoming to International Talents?

A cup of coffee, a 1-1 conversation or a simple hello gives such a welcoming feeling and can make all the difference. Until the expat is better at the language, large gatherings are tricky, but small groups and individual contact is a lovely way to welcome new people.

Unfortunately not all expats will have the same level of language acuity, so when you do come across and expat that has minimal language skills, don’t be too hasty to judge. I know many expats who have made great attempts to learn the local language but simply weren’t gifted in that way. 

Overall I find this question a bit tricky to answer, but the easiest things to do is simply say ‘Hi’ and be curious. Being noticed and acknowledged in a way that doesn’t make the expat feel isolated further is wonderful.

Tanya Arler

About Tanya

Tanya Arler is the author of the book UNPACK - a guide to life as an expat spouse and founder of A Happy Expat. A Happy Expat offers expat spouses practical tools, Mindset Coaching, and advice on how to navigate the staggering change they are going through, all the while remaining the rock their family so desperately needs.
So they too can become... A HAPPY EXPAT 

More information about Tanya

You can find more information on the website, Facebook, newsletter or order the book UNPACK.

More information about UNPACK

Unpack bookExpat spouses face many questions and this book is designed to address them with straightforward answers. As a seasoned expat and Mindset coach, Tanya Arler set out to offer an easy-to-reference guide offering inspiration and wisdom to handle your expat dilemmas
Get reading to discover time-tested advice that will transform your expat experience into a truly amazing adventure.  It's all right here for you to enjoy, so start Unpacking!