How a military wife from the UK became an expat coach in Brunei

Expat interviews
  • expat in Brunei
Published on 2022-08-12 at 10:00 by Veedushi
Originally from the British countryside, Amy spent ten years in London before following her military husband to Brunei for an international assignment. She talks to us about her career conversion into an expat coach after giving birth to her first child and her journey as an expat.

Can you tell us where you are from and what you do?

Having grown up in a very small, sleepy, idyllic village in the English countryside, I went on to spend almost 10 years working in the face-paced corporate life in London. Working within the Global Mobility function of large corporate companies, I facilitated international moves for senior executives. These would be assignments that would last anywhere, on average, from between 6 months to 3 years, with some becoming permanent moves. 

I have now set up my coaching business, AIM coaching. I help corporate expats and their families successfully integrate aboard without weeks of overwhelm, stress and isolation. 

I have combined my years of expat (and repat) experience with my own isolating expat journey and extensive coaching training to provide a program that enables corporate expats to adapt to their new working environment. This identifies and addresses cultural, family and other social and personal challenges quickly. 

What brought you to Brunei? For how long have you been there?

I am a military spouse, so it was through my husband's posting with the British Army to Brunei that brought me to this unique country back in August 2020. 

Was this your first experience abroad? How did your adventure start?

Brunei is my first time living not just abroad but also as a military wife on a posting, residing on a military base, and, wow, what a first experience! 

The adventure all began back in March 2020; we had sold our cars, our shipping had gone, I had given up the tenancy of the rental property we were living in, notice to my employer, and excited to be off on our Southeast Asian adventure. We couldn't wait to see the Orangutans of Borneo and complete our jungle road trip armed with our annotated lonely planet guide. 

Two days before we were about to depart, with no belongings left but our suitcases, Boris Johnson made his Coronavirus lockdown statement. We knew then that we weren't going to be able to go anywhere. Left without a place to live and minimal support and communication from the British Army as to what our next steps were, it was actually the shipping providers who informed us that we wouldn't be able to move anytime soon. 

After 5 months of overwhelming uncertainty, challenges and living back with my parents, we finally made the move to Brunei in August 2020. 

What is your life as an expat in Brunei like? Have you been able to overcome the culture shock and adapt?

Brunei is small; it has a population the size of the county I grew up in. It is an independent state, still wholly reliant on its oil and gas production. With readily available domestic help, unspoiled jungle, clean air, and petrol cheaper than water, it is a peaceful, safe place to raise a family. Usually a springboard for travel around Southeast Asia, it was a dream military posting to have received, but with borders shut due to Covid, we were, unfortunately, unable to explore anywhere. 

Upon leaving quarantine for 15 days, my husband and I both felt eager to start exploring our new country. We were grateful that Covid was not present in Brunei at that time. Being able to walk around with no masks and even attend social events and dinners within the military community, we felt extremely lucky. We reminded ourselves of this every day. 

After the initial ‘honeymoon' period was over, I started to struggle. I was used to a very active social life in London, but with Brunei acting under very strict Sharia Law, there were no bars and very little in terms of entertainment, sports, or arts. Nightlife consisted of a few hawker food stalls and limited retail of any sort. From doing my research, I knew these things, I understood that Brunei was the “Abode of Peace” and I didn't expect a western environment. I tried to embrace the slower pace of life, but despite managing my expectations before relocating as much as possible, culture shock still got me! 

What are usually simple day-to-day tasks in the UK can take weeks to get done in Brunei; it can be a very slow bureaucratic process. There is very little information online; businesses usually run via WhatsApp, and the most common way to find anything out is by word of mouth. I was left feeling frustrated most days, particularly when it took hours every day for months to get a birth certificate for my firstborn. 

As Brunei doesn't offer spousal visas, there is very limited employment opportunities for the military-entitled family members. I was used to working long hours in a fast-paced environment, but I left my career to accompany my husband on his posting. At first, it was refreshing not having to firefight emails all day every day, but I have always had ambition and drive to succeed, so leaving my job left me feeling like I had lost my identity. Initially, I didn't know my purpose and felt lost. 

After the first few weeks, I had succumbed to inevitable culture shock, frustration, and a complete loss of identity. I felt guilty. On paper, I had everything, so why was I unhappy? I was determined to overcome this and turn it around. I changed my perspective and reminded myself that this was a temporary assignment and to really make the most of it. We were, in fact, lucky to be in Brunei. Privileged to be surrounded by such generous and kind local people. I was fortunate to have a network of incredible, resilient military wives. This highlighted that making friends overseas can be more important than those at home; it's imperative to work at this. The secret to how I was able to adapt is mindset, resilience and patience. Through these things, I was not only able to cope with cultural differences and consistently overcome difficulties, but I started appreciating and loving Brunei. I felt so grateful for this opportunity. 

You then became a mother for the first time, miles away from home, in Covid times. Tell us about this experience.

The week after leaving our quarantine hotel, I found out I was pregnant. In a country where there was no Covid and no temptations of good wine, this was the perfect time! 

I was so grateful for being in Brunei for the pregnancy and birth; the healthcare was incredible. Because of Brunei shutting the borders early, my husband was able to attend all my antenatal appointments and the birth, for which I will be forever thankful. The usual UK post-labour toast was replaced with a plate of rice, but luckily, my husband found a massive slice of chocolate cake to recover! 

I was lucky to have no medical issues, but a month after giving birth, I started finding things a little challenging! On top of the usual experiences of being a first-time mother with no family support, the humidity, mosquitos, and non-pram-friendly infrastructure meant I was effectively housebound with a newborn. Baby shops were limited in Brunei; prams, cots and essentials like nappies had to be ordered online, but, with Covid, delivery times could take at least 3 months! Again, without resilience, a strong mindset, my husband and a network of incredible military women, I would have struggled! 

Tell us about your career as an expat coach. What made you choose this path?

While pregnant in Brunei, I needed to keep busy. I wasn't used to not working, and I needed to achieve something to keep me going. So I decided to complete an accredited coaching qualification. I wanted to use my personable skills and combine them with my 10 years of working with assignees and my own expat journey. This is what I am good at and what I am passionate about. I believe not enough expats and their families are given support once the logistics of the relocation have been completed; hence as much as nearly half of all assignments fail. Coaching others aligns with my values and determination to help people move forward and achieve success. I find a great deal of satisfaction in maximizing other's performance. 

After 18 months, I qualified with the International Coaching Academy. Locally and online, I coached military wives, helping them get back into careers and to create a fulfilling life during their posting. I also started coaching senior executives in the oil industry, helping them to successfully integrate into the workplace without weeks of stress, isolation and overwhelm. 

This has now expanded to online coaching for both corporate executives and their spouses in a wide range of industries, with clients in the UK, Singapore, New York, Australia and the UAE. Regardless of industry, my signature approach to coaching enables corporate expats to adapt to their new working environment as well as identify and address cultural, family and other social and personal challenges quickly. 

What are the major challenges expats face when moving abroad and settling down in a new country, especially for work?

There are many common challenges faced by expats, but the main themes that come up with my corporate clients are the feelings of loneliness, loss of identity and homesickness, together with struggling to fit in at work. The need to adjust to a new culture, work environment, and social structure with no immediate support system is no small task.

What are your tips for overcoming these challenges?

The following are just some of the steps that I find significantly improve a client's happiness and productivity in the workplace, and for families, at home. 

  • Acknowledge that it will take time to adjust. Give yourself the time to settle in. 
  • Put the time and effort in to make friends. In the international community, it is primarily friendships that hold you together.
  • Don't compare everything to home. Embrace the differences and be adaptable. 
  • Be curious. Learn the culture. Learn the language. 
  • Maintain home rituals and also work to adopt new ones. 
  • Remember why you chose to be where you are.

You need to be enterprising, resourceful and open-minded. Patience, politeness and determination is normally the best formula. 

From your prior experience working in corporate companies in London, how would you define the importance given to the well-being of international assignees by employers?

Improving the expat experience and taking a more holistic approach needs to be made a priority for employers. In my experience with recent clients, not enough is done for the well-being of assignees. Implementing appropriate strategies to address the mental health of expats needs to be a focus for HR professionals. There is little point in investing in the logistical move and a rich remuneration package if the assignee has no well-being support. This will only not lead to a failed assignment which is costly to the business but potentially a disenchanted employee that may come back with far lower productivity. 

It is not only the assignee that needs well-being support but also the spouse and children. The assignee often has the continuity of an organized job structure, but frequently the spouse has given up their career, former social circles and lifestyle. They are equally, if not more, lost. This may lead to questioning their sense of worth; labeled as “dependents' they can feel wholly reliant on their working spouse. Depression and anxiety are prevalent in the clients I have worked with, it needs to be addressed. 

How do you juggle your remote career and your family life as a mum and military spouse?

With my work being online and my 15-month-old being in nursery a couple of days a week, I am in a very fortunate position to be able to prioritize the time spare I have to put in as much time as I can with my clients. 

What are the things you love the most, and you like the least about your expat life?

Being an expat has been the most amazing and hardest experience! 

I will cherish the friendships and business network I have made living abroad and hope that they will last a lifetime. 

I've been fortunate enough to be able to have the time and personal experiences to set up my coaching business. 

I have started to embrace the slower pace of life and the time I get to spend with my husband and 15-month-old. 

What I least like about expat life is, unsurprisingly, the distance from family and friends, particularly with my mother not being able to see her first grandchild often. 

Being an expat, both short-term or long-term, is a big commitment that requires tremendous effort and persistence, but it can be extremely rewarding.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Geographically, with my husband transitioning into corporate life, we are expecting to make our next move to the Middle East. Professionally, I am hoping to expand my coaching business even further. I want to be the expert in my field and the go-to expat coach! 

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