The Campground Manager(‘s Wife)

After too long in Expat Limbo, The Engineer’s Family finally has our next move locked down. We’re very excited. But it’s probably not the move anyone expected. (Heck, it wasn’t a move WE expected until a short time ago!)

We will leave Brunei in about a month, and head back to New Zealand. Then, a couple of weeks later, we will start as managers at a small but very busy campground. 

So, in less than two months, I will no longer be The Engineer’s Wife. I will no longer be an expat. I will no longer be a stay at home parent. I will no longer be in Brunei. 

But I will be with my favourite dude and my favourite kid in my favourite country, and I’m very excited to see what life as The Campground Managers’ Family brings.

The Engineer’s Campground Managers’ Family

The lessons I’ve learned 

We’re not leaving yet. We still don’t know when. (This is, at least partly, why I haven’t written!) But with a good friend leaving today (sob sob sob), I’ve been thinking and reflecting. I’ve thought about just how much we have to do before we go. I’ve thought about saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances, some of whom I will most likely never see again. I’ve thought about how our life has changed, and I’ve thought about what I’ve learned. 

Living in a new country is a real teacher. You learn from being displaced. You learn from the people you meet and the different cultures you encounter. You learn from doing hard stuff away from your support network. If you travel with a partner or family, you learn from how they react. As with any huge and uprooting life change, you just keep on learning.

And so I present, in no particular order, ten things our Brunei adventure has taught me:

  1. That I need to be outdoors, and I need to walk. And if I don’t find a way to do it, I won’t be a happy camper.
  2. That South Indian breakfast foods are amazing, and that we are really limiting ourselves if we stick to cereal and toast and fruit and eggs for the first meal of the day.
  3. That The Engineer and I make a great team, but that even great teams get stretched when they try to do everything themselves.
  4. That productivity isn’t always the best goal, and that “unproductive” time can provide great lessons.
  5. That mangoes can be delicious, but papaya is still not for me.
  6. That the internet is a truly amazing tool and can provide greater support than I ever imagined in so many different ways. 
  7. That geckos chirp.
  8. That fancy resorts/hotels are not entirely boring, especially with a toddler. I’m even warming to the idea of a cruise.
  9. That I really enjoy and miss my work.
  10. That sweetened condensed milk in coffee is pretty much the greatest. 

Coffee condensed milk

Coffee with condensed milk/Galaxy computer sleeve/Photo by me

Expat Limbo

There’s nothing like having an old interview published, and directing people to your blog, to make you realise that it’s been FOREVER since you updated. I mean, we all know it’s always been forever, but this has been a particularly long absence.

And the main reason for this absence (apart from the one and a half year old I have running around my feet most of the day) is that we are in total Expat Limbo at the moment. Expat Limbo, for those unfamiliar, is that time where you plan to move home or move on in the nearish future, but where you don’t have a confirmed plan of action/contract/moving date. Expat Limbo can last a few months, or in some cases much longer, and from talking to people around here, I gather that it’s a fairly common experience. So rather than not write my expat blog because of it, I thought I’d trying writing my expat blog about it.

For us, the plan is to move back to New Zealand, back to our house, and back to our old life, but with a toddler (that’s totally how it works, right?!)  We hope to make this smooth and seamless* transition before said toddler turns two, which is only 5 months away!! The biggest piece of the puzzle missing is a job for The Engineer. We are hopeful that something will change on that front soon (and we have good reason to be so – this is not a vague misplaced hope). But until then, here we are. Waiting. Hoping. Keeping it in the back of our minds, but not quite counting on anything.

And that’s where the Limbo comes in. That uncertainty of having a plan, but not being able to do much about it; of being half in your current life, half dreaming of a new life, and not totally present anywhere; of avoiding doing and buying things because of something that may not happen. It’s an exciting time, and a move we’re excited about the possibility of, but it’s sure not always easy.

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Facebook memories are not making this Expat Limbo thing any easier, with stunners like this (from New Zealand’s Bay of Islands) popping up to make me totally homesick.

One of the ways this Limbo is starting to get to me has been with buying things. We don’t want to have too much to ship home when the time comes, so we don’t want to buy too much. Also, buying new things in Brunei is not as simple as it is in some places. We often order online, but items may take up to a couple of months to arrive. And since we’re vaguely hoping that we may leave in a couple of months, so that we can travel before moving home, we don’t want to risk never receiving our orders.  At the moment I have a wardrobe full of clothes that don’t fit well, and The Engineer’s Toddler has a room full of baby toys (with just enough toddler things to keep her interest up), and it would be so nice just to be able to buy some things to rectify these “problems”. But in Limbo, that’s not an easy decision. The flip side is that it really makes us consider purchasing decisions more carefully, which is definitely a good thing. So I shouldn’t complain. And yet, here I am…

I know, I really do know, that the answer to reducing frustration while in Expat Limbo is to try and focus on and enjoy the present moment. The more I focus on what’s not happening or what’s going to happen or how frustrating waiting is, the harder Limbo becomes. Whereas the more I enjoy spending time with our friends here, watching The Engineer’s Toddler and her friends run riot at the playground, and planning in the “we have to do this before we go” experiences, the more I can see that however this works out, it will almost certainly work out. It’s not always easy to remember that, but I’m trying. (It turns out that focussing on the present moment is a pretty good strategy against many of life’s woes, but I’m still rubbish at it!)

And deep down I know that with The Engineer on my team, even if we end up with three weeks to pack and move across the world, we’ll figure it out and things will be okay. (But I really really hope we don’t end up with three weeks to pack and move across the world!)

* In case it’s not abundantly clear, I do not anticipate this move away from the only home The Engineer’s Toddler has ever known being anything close to smooth and seamless.

Homesick

“Well you only need the light when it’s burning low; only miss the sun when it starts to snow.
Only know you love her when you let her go.

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low; only hate the road when you’re missing home.

Only know you love her when you let her go; and you let her go.”

Passenger, Let Her Go.

I’m sure all expats are familiar with homesickness. The longing for the familiar, the comfortable. The wish to see family and friends. The feeling that this new place is too weird, too boring, too hard, or just not home. And let me tell you, I am really in the thick of it at the moment.

I miss home. I miss walking and just generally being outside. I miss not being sweaty. I miss tramping (hiking) and mountain biking and picnics and nature. I miss having a garden. I miss my favourite cafés and walkways. I miss gourmet burgers and nice beer. I miss my favourite op shop and my crazy wardrobe. I miss my friends and family. I miss feeling like I’m in the place where my soul sings.

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It doesn't look like much, but it's home.

Basically, I miss being home, and I am ready to go back. More than ready. Plans aren’t confirmed, but we’re working on it (and hoping to be back in 2016). I am trying not to get my hopes too high, but really I can’t wait.

But at the same time, I know that going back would/will be strange. We haven’t lived at home with our kid. The life we left is not the life we will go back to. We will need to relearn how to live there, recreate our routines, readjust our spending habits. Our experience in Brunei has changed us and our life in ways unexpected and unknown. We really don’t know what it will be like to be home, or if it will feel like home. It will definitely not feel like home to The Engineer’s Baby, who has only ever known Brunei.

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Although Brunei isn't so bad either.

And we will have to face the fact that for all the things we miss, there are downsides too. We will have to figure out seasonal dressing for a toddler. We will get cold, and will have to wear shoes other than jandals and Birkenstocks. We will get a shock every time we fill the car with petrol for quite some time. We will not be able to buy delicious Indian breads for breakfast every weekend (or ever, probably) and there won’t be a stall selling $2 noodles just down the street. We will miss our friends here and the life we have built.

But such is the life of an expat. Life abroad is full of good stuff and not so good stuff.  Repatriation is full of good stuff and not so good stuff. In fact, life anywhere is full of good stuff and not so good stuff. So at the end of the day, it’s not “expat life” that holds these challenges, it’s just life. And as long as we go into it with open eyes, an open mind, and an open heart, we’ll make it through.

Plus, we’ll hopefully be here, and who can be miserable with that view practically on your doorstep.

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Mount Taranaki, Stratford, New Zealand.

(Actually, me. I can be miserable anywhere. But that view definitely helps.)

The Brunei Best: Travel

It’s telling that when I sit down and think about the best things about being in Brunei, the first thing that comes to mind is getting out of Brunei. This isn’t because Brunei is a bad place to live, not at all. It’s just that Asia is such a huge and varied area, and being able to get to all (well, most) of it in not too long a flight is pretty darn amazing.

To be honest, we haven’t done as much travelling as we planned when we moved here. Out of the two and a half years we’ve been here, we’ve committed one year to growing a baby, and one year to raising a baby. These things don’t mean we can’t travel at all, but they certainly make it more difficult and less appealing. Add on a few months of settling in and getting visas sorted, a one month trip home, and The Engineer’s limited leave allowance, and our available travel time has actually not been all that high.

We have been on a few fun trips: to Chiang Mai for two weeks of chilling out with family; to Singapore and KL for long weekends and shopping; to the Philippines for snorkelling; to Kerala, South India (without The Engineer, but with my sister) for yoga and delicious food; to nearby Miri and Labuan for a change of scene. But the highlight so far has been our recent trip to Penang, Malaysia.

Penang is on the west coast of Malaysia, up near the Thai border, and is a 2.5 hour flight from Miri (which is a 1 hour drive from our house). We spent ten days there, which everyone said was too much, but which we thought was just perfect.

The first four nights we stayed in Georgetown, which is my favourite Asian city so far. There was street art and markets and hawker food and hipster cafés serving cold brew coffee and churros.

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We stayed in the heritage district and could just wander around seeing what was interesting, or jump on the free city loop bus or a trishaw to explore.

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We took photos and ate and chilled out and it was lovely.

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Then we spent five nights in a resort by the sea. We hired a car and headed to the National Park and the Spice Gardens and Penang Hill.

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We ate seafood by the sea, and up in the trees.

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We relaxed at our resort.

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We celebrated The Engineer’s Baby’s first birthday by the sea and at the mall.

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Overall, it was kinda perfect (despite the many moments of not at all perfect, like the non-sleeping too hot baby, the taxi driver objecting to our car seat, and the rat in our room).

When you have all of Asia to see, and a limited time to see it, it can be tempting to cram a lot into every holiday. But we were so glad to have the time to take it slow and go at a pace that worked for the whole family.

We feel so lucky to have all this on our back door step, and this holiday was a great representation of what we love most about being in Brunei.

We would love to go back. But, if we’re honest, we have so much left on the list, so there’s a pretty good chance that this was it. And if that’s the case, that’s okay, because it was amazing.

Having a Baby in Brunei

Over the time I’ve been here and blogging, I have had several people tell me how great it was to read about what life is really like here. I love to hear that people are reading. And of course I love compliments. But this one always throws me a little, because I feel like I do such a terrible job of saying what life is really like. I blog so sporadically, and it’s just about the random things going on usually.

As one of very few expat bloggers here, I do feel like I have a duty to do better.  But I also have a baby, and pretty poor organisational skills. This blog is never going to be a comprehensive view of what life is like in Brunei, but today I thought I’d blog on a topic that I would have really appreciated to read about before coming here: having a baby as an expat in Brunei.

To set the scene, a brief summary of my experiences. In May 2013 we started treatment with the Reproductive Medicine Unit at Jerudong Park Medical Centre (JPMC). I underwent four cycles of IUI, and got pregnant in October 2013. I had appointments at the RMU in early pregnancy and moved to Obstetrics and Gynaecology at JPMC in January 2014.  I continued there throughout my pregnancy and The Engineer’s Baby was born there in July 2014. After one check up at JPMC, we have used the Panaga Health Centre for all subsequent health needs (vaccinations and appointments). It may also be worth noting that we are from New Zealand, and know many people there who have babies, so my view of what is “normal” is strongly influenced by the New Zealand health system.

With The Engineer’s Baby getting so close to one (eek!), I am pretty much done with having a baby in Brunei. Before I know it, I’m going to have a toddler in Brunei! This doesn’t really make me an expert though, because I’ve only had this one experience. Other mums might have quite different opinions on the whole thing!  But here are mine.

Overall, my experience was positive: I have a beautiful and healthy baby. But looking back at the specifics, my “ideal” would involve changing almost everything except for that wonderful outcome.

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It’s very medical
In New Zealand the norm is to be seen by a midwife, rather than a doctor, for a low risk pregnancy. I love that idea, and feel it would suit me better.

I was grateful that I am self-educated
I don’t want to put anyone down, and I certainly don’t think my (mostly internet based) research beats years of medical school. But there was a general lack of advice in some areas. And honestly, from everything I can find, some of the advice I received was very questionable (I won’t go into specifics, but if you do want to know more, feel free to contact me).

I was grateful that nothing went wrong
We had a fine experience, but I didn’t feel that real sense of trust in my care providers before, during, or after birth. We are so lucky that I had a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

The rooms were lovely
We were so grateful to have a private room where we could all stay together. We paid for it, of course, but it was worth every penny.

It was time consuming
This is obviously partly my choice. But driving an hour and a half each way for so many appointments was tiring. Fortunately, we were able to get quite a few Friday afternoon/Saturday morning appointments, so that The Engineer could come and share the driving.
On top of the driving, I often had to wait a LOONG time for my appointments. Sometimes it felt like I lived at the hospital and in the car.

The nursing staff were lovely
Particularly in the RMU, we had some absolutely lovely nurses to support us.

The postnatal care was basically non-existent
There were several times that I wished for a bit more care for me and The Engineer’s Baby. Someone to bounce questions off, rather than having to visit a doctor for every little thing.

The support from the expat community was great
I soon realised that the health professionals weren’t going to provide that support network that I needed. So I was so glad when someone told me about a prenatal yoga course that included a mini antenatal course.  This gave me some information on the healthcare here and connections with other mums that have proven invaluable through the whole experience.

Activities saved my sanity
It can be very isolating to have a baby with no family around.  But through various activities I have made some great friends that have helped the last year positively speed past!

Outside time and crawling spaces are difficult
Despite the fact that we get summer all year around, we have spent most of the last year inside. It is hot, and there are bugs, so apart from the pool, it’s hard to spend much time outside. We love the pool, but having a baby has made me miss my garden more than I could imagine! There are playgrounds for bigger kids, but not much for crawlers. And our active wee button needs somewhere to wriggle!

Apparently I have quite a lot to say about this. But my little Brunei baby has just woken up from her nap way too early, so I’ll leave it there for now. Who knows though, I might be back with more later.

Yep, still a New Zealander.

I think New Zealanders tend to have a fairly global outlook and a reasonable understanding of the world. We get media from Australia, the US and the UK (and a little bit from elsewhere), so we know a bit about their respective cultures. We are a country of immigrants, so we understand the accents and vocabulary of many different Englishes (although on the whole our foreign language skills are distinctly lacking). We are a tiny country, miles away from anywhere, and are fully aware of the fact.

But despite our small size, we have a pretty reasonable reputation around the world. People know of our rugby and cricket teams, or Lord of the Rings, or they know pretty much nothing but want to visit anyway. They may not quite know if we’re part of Australia or not, but in my experience people have usually at least heard of New Zealand. And considering there are at least fifty cities in the world with a greater population than the whole of New Zealand, I think that’s pretty good going.

In many ways, this has made it fairly easy to expatriate. We are used to different international brands, we can understand most English speakers pretty well, we are used to online shopping taking practically forever to arrive.

But every so often, expat life throws up a reminder that we are New Zealanders at heart, and always will be.  The most recent example is the discovery that not everyone knows what a kiwi is (it’s a bird, not a fruit), or why New Zealanders are called Kiwis. This is our slightly ridiculous national bird.

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But there have been many other reminders too.

No one understands me when I say my name.
The short e sound in my strong accent is a constant source of confusion. When I introduce myself as Jenn, most people hear Gin (or maybe Jan, Jean, or Jane). When I ask about my check in luggage, the poor airport security staff get very confused, thinking I am transporting poultry.

People don’t know what togs, jandals, or utes are.
And I just can’t get used to swimsuits, flip flops, and pick ups.

Lots of our slang misses the mark.
But it’s sweet as, bro. There are heaps of Kiwis around to get it, so I’m chuffed. And with two NZ parents, the sprog will understand when we’re yacking away.

People don’t know of some of the greatest foods.
I can’t eat dairy at the moment (boohoo), so I’m among those who are missing out on kiwi dip. But I can still understand the joys of New Zealand fish and chips (vastly superior to the British version), kumara, salt and vinegar chips, mince pies, Vogel’s bread, feijoas, and all that great Kiwi tucker.

Some of our normal brands are considered weird.
We are stoked to see Colgate, Anchor, Mainland, Weetbix etc. But to many they’re just the foreign stuff.

Sometimes these realisations come across a little negative, but that’s really not how I see them at all. I love getting reminders of our amazing little country and its crazy culture. I’m proud to be a New Zealander. I’m proud to be showing New Zealand off to the world a little, and I will be proud to return home when we do.