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The Brown Girl’s Guide to Moving Abroad: Things I wish I had known

May 8, 2022 6 Comments

Did you parents disown you when you left home to live abroad?

This is the number one question I get asked the most by people via my blog or Instagram. 

I can understand why. You see me living independently, travelling all over the globe and for those of us who grew up in conservative households, that’s just crazy. Because most brown women have to either sacrifice their happiness to fit in their family’s ideals of what’s right or they have to sacrifice their families to pursue their own happiness and live on their own terms.

It’s rare that the two are mutually exclusive. But to answer the above question- my family and I are just fine. I will share snippets about that journey as we delve deeper into this post complete with images of a young me.

22 year old me in Beijing, China

If you're new here, I suggest reading this post first where I talk more about my culture, ancestry and what it was like growing up as a South African Indian and how that impacted on me moving abroad.  For those unfamiliar  with the term "Desi", it is used as an identifying term for a person who traces their heritage to the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan & Bangladesh).  This post can also be relatable for people who are of South Asian descent or with roots in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

For as long I can remember, I had dreamt of moving abroad and living in unfamiliar places by myself. This wasn’t borne out of a need to leave; thankfully I had a privileged childhood with committed parents; but rather, a desire to see the places I had only read about in books. (My addiction to travelling through books started in childhood and is still ongoing). Many young people want to leave their countries to go elsewhere for a variety of reasons ranging from educational to exploratory. And in their cultures it’s considered normal- for many leaving home as a young adult is a rite of passage- but unfortunately this is where my privilege failed me.

I am very much from a culture that inhibited women leaving their parents’ home to live elsewhere  for any reason other than marriage. In a traditional South Asian family, the normal flow of life for a woman follows the pattern of leaving a father’s home for a husband’s one where you go from being daughter to wife. The acceptable circumstances for moving abroad, would be because because your father moved his family or you moved to be with a husband.

Women did not make such big monumental life decisions for themselves. If they did, they were harshly judged and criticized by elders to the point that would deter any young woman from following their example.

I never even thought for once that I would ever share my goal with people my age because I subconsciously knew that I would be discouraged or even worse, ridiculed.  While my friends were all married and popping out children at age 21, I took a leap of faith and did it; I packed my bags and moved across the world for the first time; at the the time I thought it would just be for a year but last year I published a post with my 10 year review about what I’ve learnt about life as an expat– which just goes to show that you never know what direction life is going to take you in. 

And while yes I did it, it was an emotionally challenging journey that caused me to reject, unlearn and re-learn my culture many times. Here are 6 things I wish I could’ve read/heard before I moved abroad:

You are not abnormal for wanting to do things differently 

When the other young women around you are looking forward to marriage and being a mother, it can often feel isolating when neither of those things are your primary (and maybe not even secondary) life goals. Many comments dismissively thrown towards us insidiously prepare us for the eventuality that marriage and motherhood are inevitable. Reminders about not staying in the sun for too long (because who would want to marry a dark girl?), having to learn to cook (because who will cook for your future family if you can’t?) and making sure you dress & behave ‘proper’ because you never know who is watching (and who will marry you if you don’t dress conservatively and behave submissively?). Thankfully my parents weren’t the ones making these toxic comments but I still heard them from people around me and it made me feel like I was odd not to hanker after a husband or children.

When I told people that I was moving abroad to South Korea, people looked at me like I had sprouted a third arm arm and made me feel incredibly alone by simply asking, “But why would you do this?” or “Why don’t you get married first?”. 

I moved to South Korea in 2011 to teach high school girls conversational English.

It’s ok not to want what society tells you to want. You’re not abnormal; you just have different life goals.

Despite what the culture advocates- being different is absolutely ok and can actually become a beautiful shift for those that follow you. You can choose a different path, incorporate what resonates with you and align yourself with whatever makes you happy.

You actually don’t need anyone’s approval or support to move

I was lucky in the sense that I never had to ask anyone permission when I was moving abroad; the liberal country of my birth (South Africa) had instilled in me the realisation that I had a right to a passport. So once I turned 20 I drove myself to The Department of Home Affairs armed with my ID book, a pen and a small photo and applied for my first adult passport- the one my ancestors had fought to have access to

Even if my parents forbade me to go, with me earning my own money and having my own passport, there would’ve been nothing they could do to stop me anyway. After all, they too grew up in the same liberal country and understood their limits as parents of an adult.

Of course, not everyone has such reasonable parents, and I knew of people whose parents kept their documents locked away (so they didn’t get any funny ideas) and families who wouldn’t hesitate to lock away a girl whose behaviour was out of line. 

I am forever grateful to not have been in such a position and can’t imagine what it’s like for those who are. While I have no words of advice to offer in those contexts, I can say that even though my parents didn’t actively stop me, they weren’t particularly supportive of me moving abroad. And even then, I did not blame them for that. I understood that it was hard to see your children do things you hadn’t done, not knowing what would happen to them being so far away. I understood that they would be the ones left behind, left to be the subject of gossip and they would be asked why they weren’t strict enough to stop me even though they knew they were too rational to do that. My mother wrote about it all in this earlier post for my blog.

But I did wonder if I was doing the right thing… If most people around me didn’t give me their support and approval then surely I was doing the wrong thing? I doubted myself up until the moment I went through passport control.

There was really only one person who actively supported my decision of moving abroad. One evening she took me out and told me that she was happy for me and that I was doing the right thing by pursuing my dream. Six months later, she upended her life and moved to South Korea where we went on many adventures together. We are still best friends 15 years later, living in neighbouring countries. 

Expat Butterfly and I in South Africa in August 2016.

In a culture where we only do things if others support us, it’s a struggle to find the courage to do things differently without approval. But if I had waited for the approval and support from people around me before I moved, I would’ve gone nowhere and would still be waiting. Ironically, these days my parents are busy telling their friends to send their children abroad and to go read Expat Panda’s blog. Life has a funny way of coming full circle. 

You can be a dutiful daughter and also pursue your own goals

From the DM’s I get on Instagram, to the emails I receive via my blog, many South Asian women are hesitant to consider moving abroad because they feel guilty.

  • Guilty about pursuing their own goals when their parents have different goals for them.
  • Guilty about bringing shame on their families by leaving their family homes.
  • Guilty because they feel that by leaving their families to live independently, they are going to ruin familial ties. 

All of those feelings are valid and deserve a space to be felt. But, at the end of the day you are BOUND to feel guilt as an expat. You will miss so many moments of growth, events of significance and the chance to see loved ones grow older. We are all plagued by Expat Guilt everyday no matter what culture we come from. So we have to accept guilt as a part of living abroad. 

In my personal experience, it’s healthier and easier to be a dutiful daughter when there’s space between you and your parents. Moving away can actually strengthen family bonds as there is a space to miss and appreciate each other which can deepen any relationship. My parents were not at all thrilled that I moved 7000kms away when I was so young (and so alone) but after some time, when they saw that I was doing well by myself, they understood that by moving abroad I was building a future that- while different- could be beneficial to us all. 

My conservative father- who was particularly un-ethused about my initial decision to move abroad- told me 2 years ago, “Don’t even think about moving back to South Africa. You will be miserable. Keep having adventures overseas.” 10 years ago I would not have imagined those words coming from him.

Remember that you haven’t disappointed your parents. Your parents have rigid expectations and are not adjusting them when it’s clear that it doesn’t fit you. Children grow in all directions and it’s not your fault if your parents aren’t prepared to grow with you.

I am thankful my parents chose to grow with me. The way I see it, either you accept that you are going to feel guilty but try to pursue your own path anyway; or stay put and spend the rest of your life wondering, “What if?”. Whichever you decide, you are the only person who has to live with that decision and the consequences of it. 

Everyone can have an opinion on your life; that doesn’t mean you need to let it define you

When I was young, I couldn’t understand why my community was so nosy and why everything rested on “Log Kya Kahenge?” which translates to “What will people think?” Why were people so invested in Aunty Faiza’s divorce and how Uncle Vijay was earning his money? I wished we could leave people alone. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still wish we could leave people alone. But in my adulthood I started to research and learn about intergenerational trauma and the concept of the colonial hangover. I began to understand that throughout history, our communities have been fighting to keep their culture alive in the presence of what was marketed as ‘superior’ Western ways of life. The trauma our communities went through meant they banded together even closer, choosing to strengthen the bonds that historical events threatened to take away from them.

From Partition to Indenture to Apartheid, South Asian people live with intergenerational trauma and chronic oppression. Chronic oppression can have serious consequences on a person’s mental health, exhibiting behaviours like inferiority complex, submissiveness, loss of identity, people-pleasing behaviors or overachieving tendencies. Holding on to traditions in a world constantly changing seemed to be the only way some sense of normality was achieved. Caring about others- to the point of unhealthiness- was one of the ways people showed concern for one another. When I started to understand these complex and nuanced issues, it hit me that for some brown people, they would always care a little too much and would always offer an unsolicited opinion or judgment about your actions. 

Instead of giving myself a headache worrying about their thoughts about my actions, I had to let them be and focus on myself. Even if they thought I was walking straight to hell with my liberal views and carefree actions, if I agonized about their judgements, I would only hurt myself.

The biggest mindset shift came the day I realised that their opinions were essentially useless because how could they understand my life and my goals if they had never ventured to do what I have done?

The aunty telling me that I was causing my parents unnecessary worry about my safety didn’t realise that the country I now lived in was 50 times safer than the one I grew up in. She just didn’t have a clue. 

South Korea is infinitely safer than South Africa.

People hold on to their culture, deal with traumas and express jealousy in different ways. We can either choose to accept that and carry on living our lives, or let their opinions define our lives, causing no one but ourselves anguish. 

You are more capable than you think

Before I moved abroad, I had never even cooked a pot of rice, used a washing machine or gone grocery shopping by myself. With my parents wanting me to focus on my education, I had been shielded away from most household tasks. When I started living by myself, it was a huge shock to me on how to manage a household, complete domestic chores and feed myself. While at the time I was annoyed that my parents had not adequately prepared me for an independent life, in hindsight I am grateful that I was taken care of for as long as I was (and when I return to visit, I still am). 

I learnt quickly and in the era before Whatsapp, I watched pixelated Youtube videos and wrote down recipes over Skype from my mother. Of course now, social media has taken over our lives and you can learn just about anything from the internet. But beyond that, I was surprised at how capable I was when dealing with immigration officers, asking strangers for help, filling out paperwork, navigating transportation and learning new languages. South Asian culture has us thinking that we need fathers, brothers and husbands to take care of us; and in exchange we give them our identities and devote our lives to them. When I moved abroad, I realized how inaccurate and flawed that was.

Many early days of my moving abroad journey were a struggle and I cried a lot; but eventually I started to appreciate the resilience I was building through this life I was creating.

I became strong in a way I could never have imagined and the more I accomplished, the more I pushed myself. These days I don’t believe that I am invincible but I do have faith that I will try my best to handle any and all situations that challenge me.

You  will change- that’s not a bad thing despite what people may say

In the company of others, we curb our personalities and preferences to an extent, for the sake of collective convenience. Growing up as a Desi woman, in many situations I had to ‘know my place’ and ask no questions, accept the things I was told and be polite even when I was uncomfortable. 

Change and growth are marketed to us as scary and unnecessary. As long as we follow the path we are supposed to, there’s no reason for any big surprises or challenges.

Exploring, experimenting and figuring things out is not a part of South Asian upbringing. We don’t take gap years to ‘figure out’ what we want to do with our lives. We follow the paths of those before us, conforming to what seems like the only logical choices.

After all, we aren’t like the goras (white people)- they do things their way and we have ours. And their reckless ways of living are why they’re all divorced and are drunk in public!

But when I moved abroad, I realised that there was no ‘white’ way of doing things. My mindset exploded when I met people of all ethnicities, nationalities and orientations living their lives in ways that were best for them.  And with that came growth, self awareness and yes, I changed. 

The only friends I had at one point- pictured beside me.

This was a struggle when I visited old friends or family members, realising that their limited worldviews had not changed but mine had completely shifted. I often felt alone and unable to relate to people I had once felt close to. I drifted apart from friends and I cut out family members I had nothing in common with. People said, “You’re not the same!” and while they meant it in a negative way, I embraced the fact my rich experiences from moving abroad had allowed me to grow and motivated me to keep learning.

Lastly,

As  I grow older in my nomadic existence, I am learning more and more about how I benefit and suffer from ugly institutions of oppression both from my culture and from society at large. As I lean into my ancestral history, I am beginning to understand how revolutionary and precarious my very existence is, as an independent woman of my colour and my upbringing. Women like me were never supposed to survive never mind go on to thrive.

I am thrilled with the way social media has provided a platform for women of colour to share our experiences and created space where we can critique cultural norms. It brings me joy to see other South Asian women challenging the traditions and inspiring others to break barriers.

The way I see it, you may not be the perfect woman but you are still the dream of someone down your lineage. Your grandmother, your great grandmother or someone in your family tree dreamt of a freedom like yours. So use it wisely to make the choices that bring you happiness and meaning.

For similar reading on culture and identity, please enjoy some of my earlier posts:

Comment, Criticism and Courage: What it’s like being a Desi Parent (written by my mother)

Dating a Desi Woman: A non-brown guy spills the chai (written by my husband)

Dear Desi Woman getting Married: Here are all the things no one is telling you

‘You should do something about your hair’: The Struggle of being Desi and having Curly Hair

 If you enjoyed this post about moving abroad, please pin it using the pin below:

Have you ever thought about moving abroad but felt that culture was holding you back? Or maybe you’ve moved abroad despite cultural pressures to stay put? Let me know your experience in the comments below!

expatpanda

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6 Comments

  • Kay May 8, 2022 at 11:24 am

    Absolutely loved this post – as usual. Beautifully written!! I enjoyed reading about how you navigated the experience of moving abroad in relation to your culture and upbringing – I saw so many parallels, especially the bit about communities holding onto each other, even the toxic bits, as a method to survive colonialism. I read a quote once along those lines (though it was in relation to Judaism), I’ll have to share it as soon as I find it! In any case, you have a knack at making these connections!

    • expatpanda May 15, 2022 at 8:07 am

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment Kay. I find that when we share our life experiences, others are able to draw parallels with their own cultures and communities which always helps us to feel less alone. Yes do share the quote when you find it 😎

  • Tasnim May 8, 2022 at 11:56 am

    Enjoyable informative read. Thank you!

    • expatpanda May 15, 2022 at 8:05 am

      Thank you for reading Tasnim!

  • Simi Automatic May 14, 2022 at 3:15 pm

    Took the words from right out of my mouth! Such a fabulous post. This resonated with me so much – it’s like you’re talking about some aspects of my life too. I still find it unbelievable the shared experiences diaspora “desi” women have. I used to think I was the only one and it gives me comfort and support/validation that others have gone through the same emotions as me (and this is me at over 40 years old as a Singaporean-Punjabi woman). Thank you for writing the way you do. You’re amazing!

    • expatpanda May 15, 2022 at 8:02 am

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and how you’re able to relate. I find that when we share our personal experiences- which we largely believe we are going through alone- hordes of people actually identify with the struggle and have been through something similar. Finding that solidarity is my favorite part of blogging!

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