What It’s Like to be an Expat Wife

Woman reflecting on the beach

I like to call myself a “third culture wife,” which is my short way of saying that I married into an expat family. Unlike the rest of the Johnsons, I was born and raised in the same state. I never moved international borders, and I certainly never had to speak anything other than English to get around. After throwing myself from this comfortable middle-class life into the world of expat living, I realized that as hard as it can be, I would never want to change it. Here’s what it’s like to be a third culture wife.

  1. MuslimaYou have to deal with different definitions of womanhood. As long as we’re talking about expat life from a woman’s perspective, let’s start with the unique challenge of cultural femininity. The United States is pretty progressive when it comes to women’s rights, but the whole world is not like that. You can’t live in resentment toward a culture that expects you to cover up and keep quiet. You have to reconcile yourself to it and remind yourself that it doesn’t change your worth or who you are as a person. On the other end of the spectrum, you also can’t live in resentment toward a culture that treats you like a sex object and encourages its men to speak to you accordingly. You have to ignore the catcalls and move on with your life.  
  2. Feel what you feel, not what you think other people think you should feel. Maybe you spent months hoping and planning and saving to move overseas, and then you get there and you feel sad. Maybe you’re disappointed. Maybe you’re really happy, and you feel guilty that you don’t miss people as much as you should. The journey to a new culture is full of emotional ups and downs, and it’s okay to ride those waves until you settle into a new rhythm.
  3. Every day is not an adventure. I do laundry. A lot of laundry. And dishes. And I have to pay bills, fill out paperwork, and get gas. In fact, more of my life is spent doing stuff like that than doing the stuff that I post to my Facebook feed. While my friends back home probably think I spend every day surfing or sunbathing, I really spend only a couple days a month doing those things. It’s just normal life, but in a new place.
  4. The adventures are really, really cool. While hiking tropical mountains isn’t my whole life, it is still the best part of it. Living overseas gives me the opportunity to do all the crazy stuff that I saw in travel brochures—and to do it over and over again until it’s just another day watching wild monkeys. You have to take the time to get out and do stuff and appreciate the incredible opportunities.
  5. Being a minority is a valuable experience. As a middle-class white female, I was pretty invisible and mainstream in Phoenix. Now, I’m one of the white 15% that lives on this island—and most of them are Dutch. Being a minority for the first time in my life has given me a new perspective. It’s helped me to understand more people and some of the things that minorities deal with. It’s taught me how to represent the United States in a positive way and be a good unofficial ambassador. It’s also taught me how to overlook and offense and let some things roll off my back for the sake of my sanity.

Despite all the crazy and the learning and the change of pace, expat life is a hundred percent worth it. It’s become a close part of who I am, and it’s also taught me more about the person I can become. Expat women face a unique set of challenges, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It’s the best kind of life I can imagine.

About the Author

Breana Johnson photo

Breana Johnson is an American expat living on the Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten. She surfs, snorkels, and spearfishes when she’s not tutoring local kids or writing. If she could have any job title in the world, it would be Professional Hummus Taste Tester. For now, she’s settling for freelance travel writer. You can catch up on Breana’s adventures at her blog, www.3rdCultureWife.com.

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