Unlocked: Expat-partner stories beyond clichés and thinking across cultures

Unlocked: Expat-partner stories beyond clichés and thinking across cultures

What does it mean to be an expat? What does it imply to be an expat partner in the Netherlands today? After meeting at one of the workshops of the "Coming to Delft" services held at TU Delft, the three of us began talking with each other about these questions (and much more). Sharing our stories, we found each of our narratives very unique and different—but at the same time very familiar, with similar feelings and perceptions of our new home country.

We are three expat partners who moved from Iran, Italy, and the USA to the Netherlands. We find the Netherlands an open and welcoming country with lots of opportunities. Still, we have experienced (and are still experiencing) multiple integration barriers and difficulties, especially entering the job market. While sharing our feelings and doubts about integration barriers, we also started to explore the topic of cross-cultural relations. We concluded that some clichés deserve to be overcome.

Expats' stories constitute human paths that can be useful for other expats, trainers, and recruiters too. These stories testify skills that encompass the concise structure of a CV, as well as mainstream criteria to access a competitive job market like Europe. Stories rich in humanity are especially needed at this moment in time when risks, fears, and uncertainties all over the globe are putting everyone under pressure.

What does it mean to be an expat?

As an overall idea, here we want to contrast the big cliché that any expat is part of a "privileged group" that arrives in the new country with high guarantees of life conditions. Therefore, who are expats?

Often, expats are defined as immigrants that move for job reasons. The expat's partner is considered an expat as well, even though they are unemployed. According to this definition, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) reported that, in 2015, in the Netherlands, there were about 500.000 expat people (roughly 3 percent of the population). So, it is important to share what it implies to be an expat in the Netherlands.

One of the most attractive privileges the Dutch government offers to expats is the 30% tax discount, although there are specific conditions to receive this benefit and some are frustrating. Moreover, the government provides some reimbursement for children's daycare, for instance, but this does not apply for the family where one of the two parents does not work. These specific rules make the condition of the highly qualified expat's partner who has interrupted their career to move to the country especially frustrating.

"Expats represent a privileged class within society". This idea is a widespread cliché that diminishes the risks and costs that a family takes on when choosing to change countries, especially if one of the two partners has not yet guaranteed job security in their new country. Scholars report that "spousal maladjustment" is one of the main reasons for premature endings of overseas assignments.

Early hopes and late reality

Apart from this general situation, sharing experiences of mismatches in our journeys as expats, we all agree that we came to the Netherlands with hope for better opportunities for ourselves and also our kids. However, while sharing our stories, we found that after years of searching for a job, barriers, cultural mismatch, and contradictions between expectations and reality became bolder.

Gradually, we have found the language represented a barrier. Statistics told us we are not isolated cases. A survey by IN Amsterdam verifies that 7 in 10 partners who gave up their career to relocate said that not speaking Dutch was a problem when trying to find a job. Experiencing relevant signs of progress in Dutch, some of us reflected that language is not the only issue.

Networking not working: The chicken and egg scenario

The general perception is that specific operational skills that can be reasonably acquired in less than one year are often valued more than a long experience in the field and, often (but not always), more than motivation. Additionally, we found how difficult it is to get possible practical feedback and build a network in a new country without a job and connections. The challenge of having to be able to use work in order to build your network is a tricky chicken and egg scenario.

Cross-cultural contamination: What we found and what we brought

Any change that is the result of a free choice, rather than of a constrained decision, is a conquest bringing something new. We decided to move with the awareness of this idea. That we as expats are actually bringing knowledge, intelligence, and financial resources. At the same time, we acknowledge several valuable cultural characteristics of Dutch society that make the expat journey worthy. Dutch people are pragmatic problem solvers. Several municipalities provide initiatives to assure valuable cheap Dutch courses, in addition to services such as TaalCafé, TaalVisit, and TaalHuis.

The Netherlands is an inspiring place for those who are attracted by the idea of a circular economy. Second-hand stores and restaurant-concept-stores aimed at food waste reduction, are good examples. The Netherlands has offered us the opportunity of consistently using more sustainable transport options other than a car, and the truly international environment in the Netherlands is amazing.

In general, what unites us as expats is our curiosity and the desire to not only discover but also share our stories and enlighten ourselves with new cultures.

Telling your story

Telling your story is cathartic and helps to provide a resolution that helps to recharge your energy and release essential creativity. Generally speaking, sharing is a powerful tool because it's the foundation of the community and it's the first step to be part of it. We are therefore open and happy to collect, listen, and help other expats telling their own stories. ~ Nasibeh Charbgoo, Antonella Maiello and Donny Hodge (and thanks to Tamara Eskue for the English proof check)

Nasibeh Charbgoo


Nasibeh Charbgoo

Nasibeh Charbgoo has Ph.D. in Urban Planning from Iran University of Science and Technology. She is a professional urban planner and designer in the international context with several years of...

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