Michelle- Repat in Sth Africa

 What is it You Khan’t face?

Michelle dogsledding in Mongolia
Michelle dogsledding in Mongolia


Michelle Barnett is the type of woman who is not afraid to give it a go. She is the first one to volunteer to try it and she usually excels at it: be it dogsledding, skiing, running, fundraising or drinking gin! ha ha She is good friend of mine and I miss seeing her every day.  Michelle has lived in several countries on the African continent and in Mongolia where I met her (I quickly assumed the position at her kitchen table  drinking her coffee and her gin). She is humble, brave, ridiculously intelligent, super competitive and has the heart of a lion. She is  a magnificent person and a wonderful confidant. Michelle moved from Mongolia to South Africa and has shared her story with us about being an expatmumma and now a repatmumma.
Welcome to WIIYKF Michelle.  I will assume many of our readers are looking at returning “home’ or have returned home and the insights you provide will be valuable  and can be shared by many.
Where were you born and where are you currently living?                         
Born in England and currently living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Where was your last country of residence?
Is there anything you wished you had done before you left Mongolia? I wish I had learnt more Mongolian, especially how to read it. I got lazy in Mongolia for a few reasons – Mongolia is such a difficult language to learn and is also not a language widely used. But that said, I could have learnt a little more. It really does help in establishing and nurturing bonds with the people of the country that you are in, who often see you as just another expat who will be leaving in 2 years.
Why did you return “home” and how long have you been back?
           My husband’s work came to an end in Mongolia recently and we returned to South Africa in July 2014.
What are the main differences living in your home country compared to life as an expat?
  Probably the people – when you are an expat, you are surrounded by people from all nationalities, cultures and walks of life. There is always something new and interesting that you can learn about someone else’s way of life. Being back in South Africa, I am surrounded by people whose country, upbringing and culture I know. Not that the people aren’t nice or fun, but it is different. And of course, another major difference is that I can now get almost anything in any store and all the packaging is in English.

Brad( Michelle's husband) in Erdenet, Mongolia
Brad( Michelle’s husband) in Erdenet, Mongolia

How have these changes affected you?
I don’t feel as much of a need to get out and meet people and find out all about them. More content with my own company now.
What was your favourite part of being an expatmumma?
Meeting people from all over the world. But if one looks at the mumma bit – probably watching my children grow up and thrive in multicultural societies and seeing the friendships that they developed in these different environments.
What other places have youlived?
    Guinea (Conakry), Democratic Republic of the Congo and Botswana

What languages do you speak?
English, Afrikaans (badly) and French (even worse)
How many children do you have and who are they?
Twin 9 – year old daughters, Erin and Juliette

Erin ( Right) and Juliette ( left) in traditional Mongolian Deels
Erin ( Right) and Juliette ( left) in traditional Mongolian Deels

What do you love the most about your children?
The hugs and kisses. Their individual personalities and watching these develop over time. Their enthusiasm to get out and try new things.
What shits you the most about your children? naughty question
One of them has developed the ability to give the ‘whatever’ attitude without actually saying it. And one of them has a pretty impressive sulk. Both of these crack me up. But mostly it is the little things, the things that at the end of the day shouldn’t really matter but at the time really do – the wet towel on the bathroom floor, the school dress just ironed in a crumpled heap, dirty hockey socks put back in the cupboard……

What school do your children go to and what other schools have they attended?
A local government school 1km down the road which is an absolute pleasure – Summerwood Primary School. Before this, they were at the International School of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia for three years and prior to that at Thornhill School in Gaborone, Botswana.
What is your job? If you are lucky enough to be a lady of leisure then what are your hobbies?
No job – am I allowed to say ‘thank goodness’ here? Not really hobbies as such – running, cycling and swimming. Loving living 2km from the beach and being able to join groups who train in the sea.
How do you live your life differently now you have the hindsight of your expat experience? 
Back when I was at University, I thought that I would graduate, get a good job, meet a nice man, marry, have children, a mortgage and a cat. And then I met Brad and that all went out the window. If truth be told, the whole notion of my career went out the window before our first expat gig in Guinea (but never let truth get in the way of a good moan – after all it is many an expatmumma’s complaint that they gave up their careers to be a travelling spouse). I guess I live life in a fairly transient manner – settling in whichever country that we might be and enjoying all the experiences and adventures on offer – but knowing that at some stage it will come to and end and we will move on to something new. As a family, we definitely live by the motto ‘ Home is where the heart is, and where we all are, is home’.


Camping in Storms River Sth Africa
Camping in Storms River Sth Africa

What was the easiest thing settling  in ?
Choosing to live in the same city and suburb as my sister and her family. It gave us an immediate connection to the place. And did I mention living less than 2km from the sea?
Also meeting some of the other Mums quite early on and discovering a sports community amongst them. Being able to get out and meet people whilst doing sport and slowly getting to know people made the adjustment to being back home that much easier.


What was the hardest thing settling in?
Getting to know people at a deeper level. It is easy and quick to develop intense relationships as an expat, but as a repat, not so. One is coming back into an environment where most of the people have lived their entire lives. They have a network of relationships and don’t necessarily need or have the time for more.
What advice would you give to a person who will be repatriating soon? 
Don’t talk endlessly about your expat days and all the travel that you have done. People will be interested to hear your stories, especially those of the more ‘exotic’ destinations but don’t be a ‘When we…’. Know that it might be difficult – your life has changed and has been completely different for a number of years. In all likelihood, you will not be doing the jetsetting that you have been used to. But enjoy the change – go camping or visit a part of your own country that you have never visited. It will also be more difficult to make deep connections as quickly and as intensely as you did as an expat – but if you know this (and get used to your own and your partner’s company), then you will soon adjust and start fit in. Be prepared for some cabin fever in the early days though 🙂

Michelle's family in Mongolia Khongoryn Els sand dunes
Michelle’s family in Mongolia Khongoryn Els sand dunes

Describe a usual day?
Wake, cup of tea, school lunches, shout at the girls to get ready for school, get the girls to school, swim, cycle or run, cup of tea, admin/housework, cup of tea, pick up girls from school, shout at girls to unpack their bags, hang up clothes, etc., take girls to swimming/cricket, shout at girls to do their homework, learn for test, shower, hang up towel, etc, make dinner, relax with book, wine, husband, Tv once girls have gone to bed
(all said tongue in cheek – there is not that much shouting!)
What is the best thing about living in Port Elizabeth?
Family and being in the same time zone as family. Choice of sporting events to participate in. Warm weather. The sea.
WHAT is the most challenging thing about being an expatmumma?
Having to tell your children that they are leaving the country that they have grown to love, the school that they adore and their friendships.
What is the BEST thing about being an Expatmumma!
Being able to travel to some unique destinations and experience things that one doesn’t get when one is just a tourist.
Tell us an anecdote from one of your postings?
Something that stands out was the afternoon in Mongolia that my daughter was chatting on Skype to a friend in Dubai. Before I could explain time zones, her and her friend were trying to conference call with their friend in Australia as well as their friend in East Timor. They didn’t get it right but this is so typical of the expat experience.
What is the most interesting experience you have had as an expat?
Not sure this can be pinned down to one experience. But running the Lake Baikal half marathon on frozen ice at -25 degrees has to be up there for me. Having my passport taken away by an armed soldier who was trying to get money out of me on my 2nd day in Guinea was certainly an interesting experience though definitely not a favourable one. There are so many memories of people, places and experiences – both good and bad – picking one is impossible.

A family of sports! The Colour Run 2015
A family of sports! The Colour Run 2015

What did you do before you repatriated to South Africa?
The repatriation was quite sudden, although we knew it was in the pipeline. So there wasn’t time to do those last things in Mongolia or even think about them.  But looking back, I would have liked to have visited a Shaman (think that could have been cool) and visited the blind massage parlour again. That was a complete hoot the first time. And I would have bought a horse head fiddle – there is a corner of a room in our house here that really could do with one of those! There are people I wish I had spent more time with and got to know better but you can’t do it all. So no major regrets.

Where would your ultimate expat posting be and why?
I am not sure if there is an ultimate expat posting for me – all of ours have been different but have all brought different something to our lives. I would probably not have chosen any of the places that we have lived but there are absolutely no regrets. But if I HAD to choose – probably South America – new continent, new culture, new experience.
Any last thoughts?
Whether you are an expat, repat or someone who has not moved out of the 5-mile radius that they grew up in, embrace it. People at home often think that being an expatmumma is all lunches, coffee dates and yoga classes. But they forget the emotional stress involved in all these moves, being the person who has to hold the family together. So yes, it can be a fantastic experience but it comes with costs too. As there are pros and cons to being a repat or someone who has never done an expat gig. So enjoy wherever you are, enjoy the culture, the diversity, the food. Life is way too short to be wishing for something else.
What is it you simply KHAN’t Face anymore living back in this country?
Lack of access to good champagne…. Ok, seriously, probably lack of travel and new experiences, and not meeting lots of people from all over the world anymore.

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