Katrina Rowland is our September ExpatMumma. I was privileged to meet Katrina whilst living in Mongolia and have watched her life from a distance over the past 2 years. Her story is certainly an interesting one because as well as being a seasoned expat she and her husband embarked on the extraordinary and extremely difficult process of adoption. I saw first hand the strength and resilience required to endure such a stressful process and the support offered by an amazingly tight knit expat community. Her insight into life as an Expat Aussie is certainly one for further discussion as I agree with her sentiments wholeheartedly.
My claim to “fame” or should I say “shame” is I ran into Katrina and her family in a supermarket in Ulaanbaatar one day. I was joking round with her young son (whom I had not formally met). He was being a cheeky possum so I grabbed him and I held him upside down ,was mucking around with him joking that I would drop him. We were both laughing but unfortunately both of us were wearing ski jackets which are slippery. I lost my grip and dropped the little fella on his head onto a concrete floor. It was the first time her husband had met me. All was forgiven as DJ didn’t have any long term head injuries and a packet of hot wheels cars was delivered to him ! I wish I could have photographed the look of shock on everyone’s faces including mine and the supermarket staff who were going to lynch me.
On that note I implore you to put on your cycle helmet and grab a glass of grape and read about this wonderful ExpatMumma’s experiences and thoughts.
Welcome to WIIYKF Katrina. Thank you for your time and honesty.
Where were you born and where are you currently living?
I was born in Sydney, Australia and am now living in Penang, Malaysia.
What other places have you lived?
England, Mongolia and Indonesia.
What languages do you speak?
I don’t speak 100% of any other language, but I can speak a bit of Mongolian, Bahasa Malaysian/Indonesian and have been trying to learn Dutch.
Where was your last country of residence?
Why did you move and how long have you been in this country?
We spent the last 3 years or so years trying to finalise the adoption of our son, which we were finally able to do, so once it was completed we left straight away. We had spent just under 10 years all up in Mongolia.
10 years in Mongolia is a long time. I imagine you saw a revolving door of expats.How did you feel saying goodbye to friends and adopted Mongolian family.
It was hard, particularly Saikhnaa who had worked for us for 5 years. She knew us inside and out, protected us, never gossiped about us, just a true friend. She was my rock for all of the adoption and I still miss her. What I realised once I was in Malaysia was how much I missed the safety blanket of friends, local and expat. I missed Seoul Royal County socially and having people around me I had known for so long, who knew me and had been so supportive of us during the adoption! I hadn’t had to deal with the unknown for so long. I knew Mongolia and its ways too well. In Malaysia I realised I had pretty big stress built up because of the adoption fight and it took me until about March to feel better about it all. I was still in fight mode and it took me a while to change my way of thinking. Thank God I was staying with a great girlfriend I knew from Mongolia so she kind of knew what I was feeling. Once we got DJ’s Dutch passport the sense of relief was huge, like a boulder was off my chest. I was so into dealing with the adoption process I had shelved a lot of my emotions and only dealt with it later. Now all is good, but I still feel some resentment towards those fucking adoption people and the Government that was in at that time for what they put us and our families through. Our poor families worried a lot about us during that period, and aside from hardly seeing us, were really worried whether the adoption would get through at all.
Thanks for the therapeutic question!
How many children do you have and who are they?
I have 1 child, Damian John (DJ). My husband has 3 other children from a previous marriage but they are all grown up.
What do you love the most about DJ?
What shits you the most ? naughty question
Well, I just love everything about him really! He just dives into any new experience and is so open with new people. He is nearly eight years old and really good at expressing himself, so conversations with him can be an eye opener! He is quite sensitive and quite an empathic person. I love that side of him. He is very caring and charming. He seems to get on with most people, doesn’t have any social unease at all.
What does shit me is he can be sooooo stubborn and h e tells me how to take short cuts on my laptop or iPad and he is always bloody right.
What school does DJ go to and what other schools has he attended?
DJ goes to a secular Primary School in Penang. He also attended ASU in Ulaanbaatar.
How often to you visit Netherlands or Australia?
As a family we have only been able to travel together n the last year since the adoption. Before the adoption was finalised we couldn’t leave Mongolia with our son which made it difficult to get home and see family and friends. It is very important that our son meets all our family and friends and builds relationships with them all. So, Since October last year, we have visited the Netherlands and Australia. They were amazing trips and very touching. The feeling of walking through Immigration as a family was a wish come true. We caught up with family and friends, but also friends from Mongolia who had moved back home who had supported us through the tough times of the adoption. It was great to be with them on Aussie soil. We plan to visit home as often as possible but really want family to visit us for a change.
What are the main differences living in your home country compared to life as an expat?
The main differences are the experiences you have and the people you meet. I have met some amazing people who have different outlooks on life because of their culture, living situations and heritage.
I think in your own home country, as much as Australia calls itself multicultural, a lot of people tend to stick to their own circle and don’t investigate or reach out to others who are truly different.
Living an expatriate life gives you that opportunity. Sometimes it is fantastic and sometimes it is really challenging. Living as an expatriate has changed my life 100%. I have also found that it is sometimes hard to go home. This is why having expat friends is important. Family and friends in the home country love you and want to see you, but sometimes you can’t talk about your life the way you can with your expat friends.
Living as an expat is a choice for sure but with the good comes the bad, just like everything. It is not all Kardashian glamour and sometimes family and friends at home don’t always get that. The other change is that you finally see you home country from an International point of view. You become an International person and I find myself comparing Australia more on the International stage. Some things I like and some I don’t.
How have these differences affected you?
Well, where do I start? Firstly, I went to Mongolia on a 3-month contract and ended up staying much longer, met my Dutch husband there, got married in Bali, went back to Mongolia, and adopted our son. The adoption affected us the most. Adoption, in general, is a huge experience whereby you lay yourself completely open to be scutinised, inspected, grilled and emotionally laid bare. Adopting when you live in your own country is a big commitment in itself, hut doing it as an Expat in a country that has a completely different political, legal and social system can be hugely challenging and extremely frustrating. No matter how much research you do and no matter how much you think you are prepared for it – it is so much harder.
The whole experience taught me that I am stronger, more resilient and determined than I thought I could ever be. I realized how wonderful people can be how unfair and selfish they can be and how the support of local and expat friends in the expat world is paramount.
I also discovered that coming from the Western world and living in a country that culturally is so different you sometimes have to park your western logic at the door and stop saying, “But that doesn’t make any fucking sense!” If I had a dollar for every time I said that I would be rich.
Because of the adoption we also had extremely challenging situations that were caused by the undulating and unstable political situation in Mongolia. We already had our adoption in process when a new Government was elected and their anti-foreigner stance really put our adoption case in dire circumstances. We really had to fight for our son and although in the end we won, the stress and worry really affected us. To be honest, as soon as the adoption was completed we left within days. I would never want to go back to Mongolia. The experience we had really tarnished my feelings for the place. Not the every-day people but the “system” there. The political system there is a disaster.
DJ is a TCK now growing up where he is not a passport holder of the host country with parents of 2 different nationalities and not growing up in either of those countries. What idea of “home” and “belonging” do you wish to pass on to him?
This is a very interesting question and not easy to answer! You have really made me think. I started to type and have gone back over it a couple of times.
Luckily Leen and I come from very close families and even before the adoption was complete DJ knew who his family was. Skype video calls were really helpful in setting up relationships initially, but because the adoption took so long, DJ had a few years to be introduced to family. I don’t think he remembers a time when he didn’t know them or hadn’t heard of them. But Home and Belonging can be two different things and feelings. Right after we left Mongolia DJ felt we had left Home. Left his school, his friends and everything that was familiar. Then, we settled into Penang and set up Home. But until we had visited The Netherlands and Australia, DJ still missed certain people and places and wasn’t fully settled here. It seems the two trips gave him a more tangible feeling of Home and Belonging. He knows and feels where his place in the family is. But where he feels he Belongs? I think it would be The Netherlands. He is very close to his Dutch Grandparents and was very grounded when we were there.
As far as what we want to pass onto him? Home is family and Belonging is family. I hope he has the opportunity of experiencing both cultures more in-depth and becoming more proficient in Dutch.
Tell us an anecdote from one of your postings?
I was working in Mongolia as a HR Manager for a mining exploration company and they had an exploration camp in the Gobi Desert. I would go down to the camp once every 4-6 weeks to run different programs for the local workforce. The Camp Manager was a fantastic South African guy called Andy who after being in the army and working in Mongolia for quite a few years had pretty much seen it all. One morning, in the early hours, the security guards alerted us that the camp had been broken into. We ran to the area indicated by the guards which was the very high pole that used to hold all the camps solar panels. After interviewing the security guards with the help of a translator, we found out that a local of the Gobi had rode into the camp on a camel (how he rode past security is a mystery), parked his camel at the solar panel pole, climbed up, disconnected the solar panels and rode off on his camel with them. The security guards swore that they had tried to chase him but could not catch him. I am not sure how fast camels can run with a full load of solar panels but obviously faster than security guards can run. Andy told me later that this was the second time the solar panels had been stolen.
What is your favourite part of being an expatmumma?
My favourite part is discovering new cultures, people, flying off to a new adventure. I love researching a potential new place, I get quite excited by the potential of a new country or city. Particularly now with our son, I love seeing him immersed into a new place. We are so lucky he has settled into Penang so well and loves his school and all his new activities. As a teenager I knew I wanted to live and work overseas, so I am living my dream. Can’t get better than that!
What is the most precious piece you just love- material possession from your travels?
I have lots! But you want me to pick just one. Ok, the Shaman leather bag from the Amazon. It was given to me as a gift by a female Shaman I got to know when I was there. I did Ayahuasca ceremonies with her and two other Shamans. It was her own little pouch bag, made from leather, she created herself. She stored stones and crystals in it (as I do now). When she gave it to me she put a talisman in it. I treasure it and it sits on my altar or travels with me when I go away.
How do you live your life differently now you have the hindsight of your expat experience?
How I live my life is totally different now, absolutely. After all my experiences, I like to think bigger. What I mean by that is my thinking and feeling about opportunities is not as limited. I am definitely more open, for sure, but at the same time I have realized that it is the people, not the Governments, companies or other organisations that make this world the best that it is. I don’t read the news and believe whatever shit is being shoveled, if you know what I mean. I don’t get home sick because my home is out here in the world with my husband and son.
What was the easiest thing settling into Penang life?
The things that made settling in easier was getting our son into the school we wanted. We were really lucky getting him into such a great school that normally had long waiting lists. We just happen to contact them on the same day a boy was withdrawn from school. The other thing that made settling easier was to have a few people in Penang I already knew.
What was the hardest thing settling in?
The hardest thing by far was having my husband working in Madagascar when we moved into our apartment. I had to do everything myself including cutting the top of one of knuckles off at 10:30pm at night and having to rush to the hospital with a little boy who thought Mummy was dying!!! Unpacking all our storage on my own was a nightmare too.
What is the best thing about living in Malaysia?
The best thing about living in Malaysia is that it is perfectly positioned between Australia and The Netherlands. So, visiting our Dutch and Australian families is much easier than before. Can I also say that the people here are so lovely and welcoming? Previously being in a country where adoption was not welcomed, coming to Malaysia where people are so open-minded made our life a lot easier.My husband and I are investigating all the restaurants and bars in Penang as it is well known as the food capital of Malaysia and we have discovered a few beauties!
Describe a usual day?
Get up at 6am, get a coffee (important)
Get my son ready for school and onto the school bus downstairs
Do a myriad of things: shopping, washing, organizing, etc
Go to the school for Guided reading with the kids
At the moment: prepare our son’s adoption report for the Mongolian authorities
Son comes home from school and then it’s all about homework, after school activities, cooking, showering and bedtime reading.
Is Malaysia your last stop?
I hope not! We would really like to stay here for another few years, until DJ is in 5th or 6th grade. Then we can look at where he goes to high school.
What advice would you give to a person who will be an expatriate soon?
Get someone else to unpack all your contents, sit on your ass and drink gin & tonics while directing.
Research, Research, Research – schools, hospitals (obviously), kids activities, etc, before getting there.
The kids will settle better than you think.
Get a cleaner ASAP.
Expatmummas always settle their family before doing anything for themselves so make sure you get your hairdresser, waxing salon and local Gin outlet sorted as soon as possible.
Be open, expect change and learn to welcome it.
WHAT is the most challenging thing about being an expatmumma?
The packing and unpacking when we move. I hate it!
What are some things you do when you know you are leaving to go to a new country?I do a lot of research. Schools, hospitals, what I can buy there versus what I have to bring in. I also check any expat blogs/forums/face Book pages. After all that, I check holiday destinations around the area.
So on that note what is the best holiday destination for a family you have experienced?
Aside from visiting Australia and the Netherlands, the best holiday we have had as a family was Phuket. It was our first time holidaying as a family and was very special. We stayed at the J.W Marriott and it has the best Kids Club and Kids Pool, DJ didn’t want to leave.
Where would your ultimate expat posting be and why?
That’s difficult, I have a few. I’d love to go back to Peru. I was there on holiday 14 years ago and just loved it.
Bucket list?Yes, I do!
Finish the book I am writing.
Get to Africa
See the Northern lights in Norway or Iceland
Go back to the Amazon
Renew my marriage vows with my gorgeous husband
Go to Casablanca
Most of my Bucket List is travelling. I suppose that means settling down in one place could take a while.
Any last thoughts?
Just that I am so happy to be living the life I dreamt of as a teenager. There are ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change anything.
What is it you simply KHAN’t Face ?
I wouldn’t want to go back to Mongolia. Also any place where safety is a real issue.
You rock ! thank you so much.
If anyone would like to discuss Katrina’s interview make a comment or drop us an email.