Early in their relationship, Trina & Jeniece Lusk knew they wanted to see the world. However, it took a short move to Texas to reaffirm their commitment to living internationally. The Lusks discuss how this couple finally were able to go abroad, navigate two international moves and what it means to be an expat partner.
Tell us your a little bit about your upbringing. Did you grow up travelling or living cross-culturally?
Jeniece: I am from Richmond, Virginia. My dad was in the military early in my childhood so I grew up in Kansas, Hawaii, and Kentucky before returning to Virginia around age eight. Other than going to DC for school trips, I didn’t leave the state again until college. I have never been tied to “place.” However, I always had the propensity toward the nomadic life! In graduate school I told my Brazilian best friend I envied her ability to call two countries home, and then I joked that I didn’t feel like the U.S. was home. About ten years later, my husband, daughter and I finally left for Japan; two years later the UAE. I now admittedly feel more at home abroad than in the U.S.
Trina: I was born in Corsicana, Texas but grew up in the small rural town of Dawson. Growing up, travelling was nonexistent except venturing a couple of hours away for school, church, or family reunions. I recall leaving Texas maybe two or three times prior to college and none of the trips included family. Travelling was not on the to-do list largely due to the lack of monetary means. My first plane trip was at twenty-two.
What first prompted your family to move abroad?
Jeniece: In some ways, I think our marriage was based on the mutual understanding that we both wanted to travel and experience as much as the world had to offer. I had a bit more travel experience than Trina when we met, but he enjoyed going on road trips with me for visits home and conferences. I think traveling and sharing new experiences and places together was what solidified our relationship. We moved to Pennsylvania for my new job just a week or so prior to our wedding date. We actually drove back to Texas for our wedding. I had “journey with me” engraved in Trina’s ring, and it truly set the tone for our union.
Trina: Taking a job in Texas, I thought going back home would be a good opportunity for our daughter (Parker) to be close to extended family. Jeniece had the opportunity to be home with Parker while adjuncting at my alma mater, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. I worked in my field of study and gained some much needed experience in management. But we really struggled with being there. Work became unstable and stressful, and financially we were barely getting by. We were not happy. We spoke with one friend at church, who lived in Japan at the time. She shared many wonderful stories about living abroad and we began to have conversations about possibly living in Japan. We originally planned a mission trip for the summer of 2014, but one day after a trying day of work, I looked for opportunities in Japan. We applied for Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. I found a sociology professor position in Miyazaki and encouraged Jeniece to apply. Long story short, she was offered to position and we were off. We were in Texas for exactly nine months before leaving for Japan. Although Texas did not work out for us, it gave us the push to seriously pursue living abroad.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is your second expat experience. How does it compare to living in Japan?
Jeniece: We moved to Sharjah (UAE) in August 2016. Trina and I discussed our future as expats since we had arrived in Japan. We both agreed that we would probably stay in Japan for the long haul, unless something awfully tempting came along. He joked that it would take a job in Dubai (with its tax-free incentives) to move him. I was updating my curriculum vitae and noticed a listing for a visiting professor in the UAE. One week before the starting date, I received an offer we literally could not refuse. We initially just planned for the year to be transitional to the next stop on our journey: however, I fell in love with the MENA region and the American University of Sharjah, and secured a permanent position.
There are a lot of things that make the UAE appealing to me: English is a common tongue, my job is fantastic, and there is a variety of people and things to see and do. The biggest thing is that we have a very close-knit community, which is very, very difficult to achieve as a foreigner in Japan.
We are also pretty close to Dubai; even though Sharjah is the most conservative of the Emirates, we still have easy access to the more “Western” notions of fun. We get to do Dubai Friday brunches just like everyone else.
Trina: Here, I don’t feel that we are outsiders like I felt in Japan. We live in a community where we are able to share our expat experiences and similarities. Jeniece enjoys her job and working with many wonderful students and colleagues. Currently, I’m not working, but there are ample employment opportunities for non-native language speakers.
Trina, what has been your experience as an expat spouse, especially as a male partner?
Trina: In both cases, I treated my first couple of weeks as if I were on holiday with no pressure to find work. I just wanted to set up shop and support Jeniece. I had the luxury to take it easy as she hit the ground running in her new positions. I explored and gained a sense of how things operate (i.e. where to buy food, clothing, home supplies, entertainment).
After the first month or so, reality set in. I’m in a new place, my new home, which I know nothing-to-very little about. Jeniece and Parker were set in their routines, going to work and school, while I was home trying to figure out what I should be doing besides bingeing on television. I have tackled most of the domestic activities: family chauffeur, cleaning house, making dinner, and doing laundry (occasionally turning Jeniece’s white blouses odd colors, although I have become a better cook).
Moving abroad also meant giving up a part of myself in support of my wife’s career. In the U.S., although I wasn’t making millions of dollars, I was working. I had structure and a daily routine. I thought that working and making money was the way that a man provided for his family. Not working has hit hard on my pride but it has given me time and opportunity to learn and provide for my family in other ways. Luckily, I was able to find work in Japan, but I’m still seeking an opportunity in UAE.
While abroad, my individual social interactions have been limited. Most of the expat spouse groups cater to the ladies since a majority of the time the trailing spouse is the wife. In Japan, there were several times when I took Parker to the children’s center and would be the only male parent. I have been known only as Jeniece’s husband. Most of the new friends I’ve gained are connected with Jeniece.
In UAE, I’m protected by the bubble of the campus, and have been able to meet other males who are in similar situations. There are days when I feel lost and like I’m not doing enough to override the fact that I’m not bringing home a paycheck. But Jeniece finds every opportunity to show and tell me how much she appreciates what I do.
How have you navigated being one of the few black families in your community?
Jeniece: In Japan we encountered a lot of awe and curiosity; in our rural-ish town we were perhaps the first Black/African American family locals had encountered. Our daughter was definitely the only child with two Black parents around. Here in the MENA region we’re not such an exception. However, it does surprise people to find out that a) we are not tourists and b) I am a professor and not a domestic worker. Also, people typically ask us if we are from Nigeria or Kenya. When we say we’re from the U.S., they either continue to probe to find out if our parents were immigrants (no) or how we got U.S. nationality (We were both there with U.S. national parentage).
One of the main complexities we have had to deal with is the ethnic hierarchy, which pretty much ranks in this order: GCC (Gulf Countries Council) nationals, Western expats, Southeast Asian expats, then African expats at the bottom. Often times, until others hear my American accent, they assume that I am an African expat. Once, we were standing in line at an ATM and a Pakistani expat just walked right up and cut me in the line. I started berating him and once he heard my accent homeboy was shook; he apologized profusely and took his rightful position at the end of the line.
Your daughter started living abroad from a very early age. How do you think she’s handled the Third Culture Kid life?
Jeniece: I think that she is handling it pretty well so far, since she really doesn’t know much else. Her personality is growing and I think that her language development is really increasing. Her foundation is Japanese, and now she is improving her English ability and learning Arabic. We are so jealous because she learns each language much faster than we can.
The downside is that she doesn’t have much of an understanding about the U.S. It has been two years since our last visit and she doesn’t seem to have much recollection of that time since she was only about two years old. Our main concern is making sure that she feels a sense of home, even as a foreigner. The sad reality for many African Americans we still don’t get to experience that sense of home, even when if we’ve resided in the U.S. all of our lives. I hope that her experience is similar to my own, and that she is able to feel a greater sense of home by living in an international community, where the odds of finding others that feel like home to her seem to greatly increase.
What is one must have experience in your location?
Jeniece: Friday Brunch. It is definitely an expat must, and a way of building our own community and culture away from home.