Expats in Lockdown is a special series – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how we’re all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.
Tania is an adult Third Culture Kid who had already lived in several countries by the time she left school. After spending most of her life in different countries in Africa, she’s been living in Germany with her Dutch partner for the past 5 years.
Part of finding her footing in Germany meant that Tania would start a travel company, Swahili Secrets, promoting tours to Kenya for first time visitors. Needless to say, the travel part of her business has come to a full stop due to the border closures.
However, thanks to the experience of constantly moving around and starting over, Tania already knows how to tackle a time that requires turning inwards and finding peace within. Nevertheless, she still finds it confusing when she compares her calm reality in Germany and how the rest of the world has to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
Katherine: I know this isn’t going to be a simple question for you, but how would you summarize your many experiences with living abroad?
Tania: That’s always the most complicated part as an adult third culture kid. I was born in Kenya and that’s where my family comes from. My mom is from Madagascar and my dad is from England. Not long after I was born my dad got a job in Uganda so we moved there. After that we also moved to Botswana. But I went to boarding school and university in South Africa. So growing up I was mostly exposed to the African culture.
After graduating I wanted to see more so I went to Tanzania on my own, another Eastern African country.
I would say this constant moving all started with my family and my dad’s interest in Africa. I guess I inherited that interest.
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Katherine: So how did you end up in Germany?
Tania: I met someone so I’ve been living in Germany for the past 5 years. I’ve been trying to navigate the language, the culture and the work ever since. It’s all very different from what I’m used to.
The interesting thing is that I have a British passport, but I never once thought of using it. I had no interest in Europe. I really only knew Africa. So when I moved here for studies and for love, I thought I’d give it a try. But I was very naive, to be honest.
For one, I really thought that everyone in Germany would speak English. But that’s totally not true (laughs). I was quite taken aback when that reality hit me.
My German is a lot better now but it came with a lot of struggle. For me, German is my first foreign language that I’ve learned.
It’s a very direct language, which makes sense in Germany. But it also makes it very difficult because in Kenya, or even with English, things are a lot more wishy-washy when you communicate.
You then realize that you also take on a different personality when you learn to speak another language. This has also been a struggle for me because speaking German didn’t feel like me.
As another example, my partner is actually from the Netherlands and we communicate quite differently. He says exactly what needs to be said and understood right away. Whereas I have to first think really hard what it is that I want to say. I do prefer being more direct now – it just needs some practice.
I’ve really had to adapt my way of communicating because I grew up in a different way.
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Katherine: You moved within Germany to Frankfurt only three months ago. What impact does the coronavirus have on you getting settled?
Tania: To be honest, I’m taking a break from getting settled (laughs). Before, when I moved to new places, I used to meet new people and get out a lot. It’s kind of the opposite now.
Now I just want to stay in. I’d rather learn about me and be really patient with everything. That’s kind of how I’m dealing with it and it’s helping a lot.
The coronavirus outbreak hasn’t been the reason why I’m staying in more. That desire to turn inward was already there before all of this happened. Now everyone has to stay inside, which is good because I don’t want to see people (laughs).
I wonder how others are dealing with having to go inwards because I know it’s not easy.
One of my first jobs was in a really secluded resort in Zanzibar. I went there being very naive, again, not knowing what I was getting myself into. It was a very beautiful place but there was NOTHING around. Since all of my colleagues were much older, after work I’d just be alone. This period really forced me to search within.
I remember thinking ‘I’m here in this beautiful place but I have no one to enjoy it with but myself. This is scary.’ My feelings were all over the place every single day. At some point, a lot of meditation helped.
This period helped me understand life more broadly. I realized that all you really have is yourself at the end of the day so it’s so important that you’re at peace within.
People go about finding themselves differently, but this was definitely the first time I had to discover myself. That experience is definitely helping me now.
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Katherine: What sort of impact has the coronavirus outbreak had on your life?
Tania: It’s been very confusing. You see what’s on the media and you hear things from your family. Meanwhile, you’re still able to go for a walk outside.
From what I see, Germany has a really good approach to coping with the coronavirus outbreak. Even though there’s a distance when you go out for a walk, to work or to the store, you can still do all of those things here. Everything seems quite normal in the state that I live in so it hasn’t really affected me necessarily.
But then you hear a different story from your family back home in Kenya and how it’s affecting them. That’s when you realize that this is actually very serious.
Kenya went into lockdown right away after there were a few cases. All schools and public gatherings were closed. There was also a curfew set for 6pm.
However, because it is a third world country, people still have to make a living somehow. Nevertheless, my family has sent me videos of the police being brutal with people who haven’t gone home before curfew.
So it’s just been very confusing because here everything is very calm. The governmental response is different from country to country. In that sense it’s been quite confusing because I don’t know what to digest.
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Katherine: You run a travel business called Swahili Secrets. Has the current situation had an impact on your business at all?
Tania: It has for sure impacted the travel to Kenya part because part of my business is to promote tours to Kenya. Of course at this point you can’t do that (laughs).
I feel bad because I made a promise to my partners in Kenya that they will have employment through me. But now it’s really bad because they don’t have anything else to rely on. They can’t pay rent or take care of their families.
It’s just very conflicting because I don’t have the same struggles here. When I lost my job a few years ago because the company was closing down, the state took great care of me. But when my brother lost his job in Kenya, that was it. You don’t have any security or anything to build upon.
Sometimes it just feels very unfair. Because, at the end of the day, I’m only able to be here because I have the right passport. And yet, it’s just a paper, it doesn’t mean anything about my identity.
In addition to wanting to introduce people to the great food, people and other amazing things about Kenya, what pushed me to start my own business is my desire to support Kenya.
I can’t imagine being here and not supporting life back there. That would be quite selfish of me. Because I have this paper that gives me these advantages, I need to help out. It’s been a shock to me that not everyone thinks like that.
I was raised in an environment where, even if you’re struggling, you deal with it together. You’re all in it together. But here, you have to deal with your cash flow, mental, physical or whatever other problems on your own.
I really miss this sense of unity and it’s not easy to digest the lack of it.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.