Expat Interview: China Scratched

Today we meet Christine Surlien an expat from Norway who has had some truly unique experiences living in China and the USA. In this fascinating interview she shares details of how she transformed her life as a trailing spouse from a downward spiral of depression to a fulfilling life in which she thrives doing what she does best. Christine’s inspiring advice and insights would make a great read for people who are struggling to find a role for themselves abroad.


Please tell me a little bit about your life in Oslo before all the expat adventures began. Where were you living and what did you do for a living?

My husband Tommy and I met in Oslo during the summer of 2001, right before I was off to a year in Hong Kong to finish my master’s degree. Luckily, his studies allowed him to join me in Hong Kong, so after 6 months apart we moved in together in a small apartment on Lamma Island. Happy student days! Back in Oslo I started working for a travel agency that specialize in China travels. I studied in Beijing from 1995-97 and had a degree in Chinese studies from University of Oslo, so getting paid to talk about China every day was a dream job. We had a daughter in 2004 and a boy in 2007, and life was busy and good.


What took you abroad for the first time?

When Tommy was admitted as a trainee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway in 2006, we knew already then we would move somewhere during summer of 2008. We didn’t know where until December 2007. In September that year he had to apply for 8 different positions at embassies all over the world, not an easy task when moving with two kids. Turned out there were plenty of places we didn’t want to live. Can’t remember the rest of the list now, but we were excited when we got Beijing. It felt good to start our expat lives somewhere familiar.

We had to go through the same process in 2011, when our time in China was up. Same limited list of good destinations, same nerve-wracking wait, until we finally knew that Washington DC was waiting for us. The two greatest capitals in the world, what luck!


Was your decision to move overseas for the first time difficult? Or were you excited at the prospect? Please share some of the thought processes you underwent.

No, it was not very difficult. I love to travel, and having lived abroad before, I was happy to have the opportunity again. Without too much thinking, we agreed we wanted to do this. Had we thought long and hard about the impact the decision would have on my personal economy (no income, career or pension savings for 6 years) or the kids (taking them away from a safe and loving environment), maybe we would have chosen not to go, and thus missed a fantastic experience that has changed all our lives. On the other hand, I wish I was better prepared and had a plan for myself before we moved. I guess I thought everything would just work out, one way or the other. Not that it didn’t, but the road had more twist and hills than I had anticipated.


Tell me about the first time you moved overseas as a “trailing spouse?” How did you feel when you found yourself living in a new country for the first time?

Since I had lived in China before, and traveled back many times for work, I thought it would be an easy transition. Living in Beijing with a family turned out to be very different than when I was there as a young student or for a week taking tourists around. My daughter, who was 4, had a lousy first 6 months not being able to communicate with her classmates. Because I wanted her to learn Chinese right away we put her in a bilingual school with half day English and half day Chinese. Although she did learn both languages fluently, it’s a myth that children just “pick up the language.” It’s a lot of hard work and frustration in the beginning. Beijing pollution and traffic also really got on our nerves and was a constant source of irritation and despair. And even with pretty good Chinese it was hard to communicate and get the answers I needed and wanted. There were many days I wondered why I had looked forward to this. A lot of the joy of living in another culture was drowned by the difficulties and hardship, and everyday life didn’t get more exotic only because we lived in China. At the same time, I was very happy to live in Beijing again, so there were a mix of emotions.


Many people experience various emotions when they move to a different country for the purposes of their partner’s jobs. What emotions did you experience, both negative and positive, and how did you deal with any negative feelings you encountered?

During the first six months I experienced the whole specter lot of feelings. First excitement, getting to know our new neighborhood and fixing the house and doing all the practical stuff. Days went fast and there was always something to do, and the feelings of accomplishment were great. Then I took some time to enjoy the freedom of not having to work. Long mornings, long lunches, time to read and work out. But when everything was fixed and the need for long mornings was over, I often felt bored, restless and useless. I didn’t know what to do with my self or my professional life. There were so many things I could do, with all the time in the world, but the number of options became overwhelming and I didn’t start anything. I was jealous of my husband, having an interesting job, with interesting colleagues, meeting interesting people. A lot of ugly feelings, leading nowhere.

My wake-up call came when the doctor wanted to give me antidepressants. Enough self-pity and self-destructing thoughts! I hadn’t studied Chinese language for years only to end up as the depressed trailing spouse. China was, after all my choice. I hired a personal trainer so that I would get some endorphins and lose the effect of all the good Chinese food. I also started taking advanced Chinese classes three times a week with a great teacher and students. Slowly I started to enjoy my life in Beijing again, and loved being a student. I had a busy week, with a clear purpose. A few months later I was offered a job as a local employee at the Embassy, and got my own colleagues (including my husband), made my own money and had a great time.

One would think this experience taught me something, but I went through a lot of the same negative feelings when we moved to the US in 2011. When the first rush was over and every day life sat in, I yet again wondered what to do with my life. Luckily I recognized the symptoms and got myself a gym membership, knowing what both endorphins and cupcakes can do to you. I forced myself to attend different classes and seminars and just got out every day. Some days that was hard, but now I love my life here. I have been thinking about getting a proper job, knowing how much I love to work around people, but I also feel blessed to be able to spend so much time with the children, so at the moment I am happy with my own projects.


As a trailing spouse it is important for individuals to find a role for themselves. How did you approach this and what experiences did you have?

Since we moved to a place I knew well, I was very independent from the beginning. I already had plenty of my old friends living in Beijing, and here I was known as me, not my husband’s wife. Later I made more friends in Chinese class and among my different colleagues at the Embassy. My husband and I were social together of course, but also with the friends we made separately. I also traveled on my own or with my daughter, enjoying the change of scenery and change of routine.

Moving to the US was different, here we didn’t know anybody, but luckily our neighborhood is extremely welcoming and open. Within a short time I was a member of a book club and a running group. The school is very social and there is always a lot going on. We spend equal time with American friends as with other expats, mostly because the school is pretty international and a lot of Norwegians happen to live where we do.

Every day I do my own thing, either as a freelance writer or working on my blog. I have the main responsibility of the household chores, since I have the best overview


How do you feel about the term “trailing spouse?” Do you think it is an adequate description of people who relocate with their partners?

I think it sounds very passive! Like someone without a will on their own, just trailing behind their spouse. In our case, I was the one who wanted to move back to China. Can’t we use accompanying instead? Sounds a little more equal.


What advice would you give to women and men who are relocating as part of their partner’s careers?

  • Ask your self: How good and strong is our marriage? It might be uncomfortable, but if you already have problems in your relationship, chances are they are more likely to increase than disappear when you move. Relocating takes a lot of hard work on both parts, so good communication, respect and understanding of each other’s needs are extremely important. If this is lacking, someone will be left feeling very hurt and resentful, and those feelings are very painful, especially when family and friends are far away.
  • Have a plan before you go. Can you continue your job from abroad? Do you have any hobbies you want to pursue? How do you want to spend your time? Are you OK being the manager of the international firm your family has turned into? The more you have thought about this, the better prepared you are when the first hectic period is over and every day life starts
  • Learn the language. You will meet other people in the same situation as you, and mastering the local language will empower you and make every day a little easier. If you already know the language, learn something typical of the country/region. Take classes or join courses to learn art, music, dance, martial arts or whatever you care about, and your stay will get an extra dimension as you get to know the culture better. Also you’ll never be lost for conversational topics when meeting new people.
  • Get family and friends to visit as soon as possible. It is so much easier to keep in touch with them when they have experienced your everyday life. Take them grocery shopping, bring them to school and classes and let them meet your friends and neighbors. More important than just seeing the sights.
  • Pay someone to clean your house! Just because you have time to do it doesn’t mean you have to or should, especially if it will leave you feeling resentful and like the maid that everybody takes for granted. Not a happy feeling! It’s worth the money!

You have started a blog and written a guide to traveling in China. Please tell us what you do and how this came about.

What am I good at? One of the existential questions that comes up when you can’t get a job, only plenty of time. I am good at traveling in China. So I started China Scratched to help people plan their trip to China and get the most out of their journey. It keeps me busy, lets me connect with a lot of different people all over the world, is flexible around the kid’s schedule and it is a project I can take with me wherever we go. If you have a passion, you can make it your work all over the globe.


What is next for you?

We’ll move back to Oslo when our term is up in 2014. It will be a reverse culture shock for sure, but it will also be good to get closer to family and friends. If we want to, we can apply for another post later, but at the moment we have no idea where we would like to live. So many great places to live and explore, but first the kids must get some Norwegian experiences.

You can learn more about Christine and gain expert advice on traveling throughout China through her website, China Scratched.

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