A recent post on Instagram had me chuckling and sighing at the same time. Someone had shared about the expatriate experience and said it was a cycle of unpacking, attempting to settle in, and packing up again. Then repeat. This resonated powerfully with me because it hits the bulls-eye when it comes to describing expatriate life accurately.
Once again, I’m at the beginning of this cycle. I’m currently sitting in my new dining room in Brunei, contemplating how we’ve been affected by our latest move from Singapore two months ago. I’m trying to think of some deeper insight to share. But I’m mostly wondering about the location of our container of belongings and crossing my fingers that it has arrived at port after weeks of being held up.
Physical Transitions From the Move
Delays in shipment should come as no surprise to me. After all, this is our third overseas posting in 14 years and our sixth international move. It’s discernible that the difficulty of transitioning increases with each move. It is in some part superficially related to the physical belongings that we have amassed over time, with furniture and keepsakes from different countries.
It is just physically tedious. But it has also gotten more challenging as our family has grown and our daughter has gotten older. (She is currently eight and already behaving like a pre-teen.) And this time around, there are many more added considerations and issues from moving during a pandemic. Besides the actual physical move, the mental and emotional upheaval can take a long time to accept and deal with.
There are several restrictions to entering Brunei. Firstly, it is currently not open to tourists and visitors, and one can only enter for essential travel. As with many other countries, there is also a quarantine period at a hotel facility along with several PCR tests at different points. Upon arriving in December, we quickly adapted to the local rules and restrictions. The first time we were invited out to dinner, we were excited to make new acquaintances.
I was having a lovely conversation with an Australian lady who had also just arrived, and we were happily exchanging notes when someone suddenly exclaimed, “It’s 9.15 pm!” and a bustle ensued to thank our hosts, make an elegant but hasty exit, and drive home quickly. You see, there was a nightly curfew set between 10 pm and 4 am, and no one in the country is allowed out of their homes during this period. Since then, the curfew has been relaxed to a later time of midnight, but like Cinderella, one has to always watch the clock on evenings out.
While my husband jumped straight into the job after our isolation period was over, my daughter and I have been at home for most of these two months. The junior kids at her school are currently waiting for their vaccinations. Until then, they are required to have online lessons from home. We’re five weeks into home-based learning (more than we had ever done in Singapore!), and we do not know when the supplies will arrive and the kids can get their jabs.
So, we are being patient and will get that done as soon as the vaccination drive begins. In the meantime, she’s getting to know her teacher and classmates over Google Meet. And also attempting to fall in sync with her different subjects and pace of lessons. The reality of this is that it has been tough, particularly in the past week. I sit next to her and try to guide her, and she generally gets on easily.
But there are days when it is all too much; we get on each other’s nerves and we need a time-out from work and each other. While we try to do fun things like play badminton together, the lack of daily interaction with children her own age is hard. There is probably a lot of physical and emotional energy being built up. We are still in the process of finding a balance and coping with being with each other 24/7.
But there are days when it is all too much; we get on each other’s nerves and we need a time-out from work and each other.
I’ll be honest and tell you that I know my patience needs a lot of work. Often, I drive her with the demands of a teacher rather than encourage her as a supportive parent. I need to know when to take a step back and acknowledge how overwhelming it can be for an 8-year-old. I just let her know that it’s alright. With online schooling possibly lasting for another few months, I foresee that there will be some days when I will be telling her teacher that she will not be completing the work. She needs a break for her physical and mental well-being (or for mine!). And we all need to be ok with it.
In these two months, I have realised that I am at an important stage of transitioning in my own roles. Since the pandemic began, I met its challenges by dealing with work and adjusted to a blended mode of teaching my students in school. After years of being a stay-at-home mum, I had gradually re-established my role and identity outside of my family and home. Presently, however, my full-on and most immediate roles have circled back to focusing solely on my daughter and husband. The term trailing spouse is often used in expatriate life, though I prefer seeing myself as the supportive spouse.
Still, there is no denying that my role as a spouse has brought me here right now, and it is where I start again as we rebuild our family life together. As a mother, I am a guide, encouraging cheer-leader, cajoler of spirits, and master-briber. I am one of my daughter’s constants as she finds her way in this place and time with new friends, interests, and future plans.
I don’t see this as losing a part of my identity just because I have to give more of myself right now as a mother or wife. Rather, I want to see this as a pursuit of establishing myself in other meaningful ways and thriving with my many different identities. It will take time and I may struggle with some parts of it, but I’d say I’m always up for a challenge!
Karen is a Singaporean with an 8 year-old daughter who’s a little fire-cracker version of herself. She’s spent the last 15 years in her various roles of supportive trailing spouse, mother, home-maker and educator. Having experienced six international moves alternating between overseas postings and her home country of Singapore, Karen considers herself a lover of diverse foods and culture, and reckons she qualifies as a semi-professional packer. She is deeply interested in intercultural and third-culture issues, and has grown immensely from her interactions with other World Mums.
Karen is currently living in Brunei with her family.
Last month, my county had its 32nd Annual AIDS Walk to pay tribute to those who we have lost, and to support those who are living with HIV/AIDS. Whenever I receive an invitation to this event, I remember a news story I did a decade ago about how child marriage and HIV have common drivers, and what UNICEF was doing to combat child marriage and HIV/AIDS.
Some of the factors that put girls at risk of child marriage also place them at higher risk of HIV infection. These include poverty, low education attainment, and gender inequalities, especially those that limit girls’ ability to make decisions about their own health.
And this year, there is one more factor—COVID-19.
With 25 million child marriages averted in the last decade, UNICEF issued a warning earlier this year that these gains are now under serious threat: 10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19.
According to the UNICEF analysis, school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years. In the last ten years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15 per cent, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. This is the equivalent of some 25 million marriages averted, a gain that is now under threat.
“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in a statement.
And the AIDS Walk just reminded me of what these girls have to lose if we do not act urgently – their education, their health, and their futures.
Here is the situation on our hands. When a girl turns 12 and lives in poverty, her future is out of her control. In the eyes of many, she’s a woman now. She faces the reality of being married by the age of 14 and pregnant by the time she’s 15. If she survives childbirth, she might have to sell her body to support her family, which puts her at risk of contracting and spreading HIV. Definitely not the life we would imagine for a 12-year-old.
There is a solution. Imagine rewinding her to age 12. Have her visit a doctor regularly, and help her stay in school where she’s safe. Then she can use her education to earn a living, avoid HIV, marry and have children when she’s ready, and raise happy and healthy children like herself. Now imagine this solution continuing for generation after generation.
COVID-19 is profoundly affecting the solution and the lives of girls in poverty. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the health care, social services and community supports that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancy and gender-based violence. As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return. Job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters off to ease financial burdens.
Worldwide, an estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood, with about half of those marriages occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. To off-set the impacts of COVID-19 and end the practice by 2030—the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals—progress must be significantly accelerated.
“One year into the pandemic, immediate action is needed to mitigate the toll on girls and their families,” added Fore in the same statement. “By reopening schools, implementing effective laws and polices, ensuring access to health and social services—including sexual and reproductive health services—and providing comprehensive social protection measures for families, we can significantly reduce a girl’s risk of having her childhood stolen through child marriage.”
Is child marriage a common problem in your part of the world? What can those of us who live elsewhere do to help?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-wen Tseng. Photo credit: Raphael Pouget/UNICEF.
At long last, my state of Missouri feels some relief as all immunization tiers are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and more local vaccination appointments become available. No one thought vaccine rollout would be easy. Nor did Americans think it would be this hard. We watched Texans struggle when a February storm disrupted food, water, heat, and shipments of vials. I became an online vaccine hunter for friends and family, navigating a system that had city-dwellers traveling for hours, desperate to find the vaccine.
Such hardships reminded me of families in low-income countries who regularly lack healthy food, clean water, and access to health resources. I’ve visited rural Ugandan communities where mothers walk for miles carrying infants for vaccines. At least when St. Louisans drove to Potosi, they went in cars.
We’re now entering a new pandemic phase with greater freedom and less worry. Yet we should remember the desperation we felt when we scrambled for shots. It’s likely that vulnerable people in low-income countries will feel it for years to come.
Portia Nartey, a Washington University student from Ghana, says her family is aware Ghana doesn’t have the means to create a vaccine. They are resigned to waiting. Yet they have faith that the U.S. will help. Portia shared, “Some think that rich countries will not care about developing countries until they have vaccinated all their citizens. As a result, we are praying for them to quickly vaccinate their people and once that is done, we know they will send some vaccines to developing countries like Ghana.”
My cousin Rachel Stampfli lives in the Caribbean where my father grew up, Trinidad & Tobago. Rachel admitted there is a general feeling of having lower status. But Trinidadians worry that larger countries with uncontained spread, like the U.S., could easily reinfect the world through international travel, so they will wait their turn. In other words, she’s eager for me to come visit, but not until she knows I won’t bring COVID-19 to her island.
COVAX Can Help
There is a way to combat global vaccine inequity. COVAX, formally known as the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, is an initiative dedicated to equitable vaccine access. It accelerates the development, manufacture, and fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines for every country in the world with a goal to deliver at least two billion doses by the end of 2021. Without donor nation participation in COVAX, the virus will continue to mutate in unprotected communities and extend the life of the pandemic.
The very first COVAX vaccines shipped out on February 24 happened to go to Portia’s home country of Ghana to protect health workers and high-risk individuals. So far, COVAX has delivered over 38 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to over 100 countries.
Unfortunately, Rachel found out on March 18 that Trinidad & Tobago’s COVAX delivery was delayed. Her reaction looked exactly like Facebook posts from my fellow local moms when she wrote, “We have no idea when we will get it. It sucks. We need to get back to some semblance of normal and the kids need to be back in school.” The good news is that by March 30 they received a small shipment of 33,600 of vaccines for the 1.2 million citizens and over 18,000 refugees on the islands. It’s a start.
Action from Citizens
Even when it’s safe for those of us living in wealthy nations to gather again, let’s not forget how frustrated we felt. Remember what life was like when travel, school, hugs, and all sorts of activities were risky. We can turn negative memories into positive action in solidarity with people still waiting.
Americans can contact President Biden with this petition from the ONE Campaign to urge him to support donating excess American COVID-19 doses to COVAX. Canadians can do the same for their country. Our leaders should also do all they can to simplify intellectual property rights and remove measures that restrict or slow vaccine exports.
Meanwhile, Cousin Rachel is settled in for what she calls the Great Wait. She told me, “Until then Trinidad & Tobago’s borders remain closed, only receiving nationals locked out since March . We’ll just continue to mask-up and absorb more alcohol through our hands than from our glasses.”
Cynthia Changyit Levin is a mother, advocate, speaker, and author of the upcoming book “From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started.” A rare breed of non-partisan activist who works across a variety of issues, she coaches volunteers of all ages to build productive relationships with members of Congress. She advocated side-by-side with her two children from their toddler to teen years and crafted a new approach to advocacy based upon her strengths as a mother. Cynthia’s writing and work have appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, the Washington Post, and many other national and regional publications. She received the 2021 Cameron Duncan Media Award from RESULTS Educational Fund for her citizen journalism on poverty issues. When she’s not changing the world, Cynthia is usually curled up reading sci-fi/fantasy novels or comic books in which someone else is saving the world.