Hi, I’m Breana and I live on the sunny Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten! My husband, Ben, and I moved here from Phoenix, Arizona.
1. Why did you move abroad?
My husband decided to attend medical school as an international student in the Caribbean. We eventually want to move to Africa, where he was born, but this is a great place to start our expat adventures! After all, who wouldn’t want to spend a few years on a tropical island?
2. How do you make a living?
Unfortunately, my visa doesn’t allow me to hold a job in the Dutch Caribbean. This has been tough for me, especially since we’re living mainly on student loans and watching our debt climb sky-high. The great thing about technology, though, is that it gives me the ability to work for U.S.-based entities. It’s hard to find full-time work online, but I’ve been able to get a fair amount of freelance work. I do design, writing, editing, and I’m trying to get into freelance photography as well.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I usually video chat with my parents once a week. I try to talk with friends and family over the phone and on video chat every now and then. The main way I communicate with people back home is through email and Facebook. I also post regularly on my blog, so people can see what we’re up to. I love mail, but it takes a month to mail anything from here to Arizona! My family gave up on mailing stuff to us when the lady at the post office informed them that the entire Caribbean belongs to the U.S. and thus has a zip code. So much for care packages.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Sint Maarten?
My favorite thing about being an expat in Sint Maarten is the chance to be somewhere totally different than home. I came from the desert, where we had a man-made lake, a little river, and two canals, all an hour away from my home. Here, I am surrounded by water! I’ve even had a chance to learn to surf. I came from a huge city that takes hours to drive through, and now I can drive the perimeter of the island in a single hour. I also love the challenge of learning to operate in a new culture.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Sint Maarten?
The worst thing about being an expat in Sint Maarten is that everyone assumes from my light skin and accent that I’m a tourist. People often try to rip me off in buses or in restaurants because they think I don’t know the local price, or they don’t have any interest in getting to know me because they think I’ll be on a cruise ship by the weekend. I try to indicate that I’m a resident by giving the typical island greeting in the proper manner right off the bat. Being a minority can be difficult no matter where you live, but I actually find it valuable to experience it for myself since I grew up as part of the majority group in my hometown.
6. What do you miss most?
I miss my family the most. We used to live half an hour from my parents and next door to our alma mater, where my sister currently attends. I miss sharing holidays, birthdays, and even the little moments with them.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
We are lucky to have a huge expat community in our area because of the medical school that my husband attends. We spend a lot of time with our friends from the school, and we also go to a church on the campus. We’ve also made friends with other surfers. I volunteer with local youth several times a week, and I meet a lot of kids and their families that way. I think the best way to integrate into a new culture is to go where the locals go, the way the locals go there. I like to take the bus to the grocery store or walk around in the less touristy areas of downtown.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
I guess the weirdest thing I’ve come across here is that the customer is not always right. Heaven forbid you return a gallon of sour milk.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
A myth about my Saint Martin and the Caribbean in general is that “Once you’ve seen one Caribbean island, you’ve seen them all.” The reality is that every Caribbean island has its own unique culture. Saint Martin is the world’s smallest dual-nation island, with its 37 square miles split between France (Saint-Martin) and the Netherlands (Sint Maarten). Even on this tiny island, the two sides each have a distinct culture and identity.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
The cost of living in Sint Maartin is extremely high compared to the cost of living in Phoenix, Arizona. We used to pay less than $600 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. Now, we pay $1100 for a similar apartment with fewer amenities. Food is also expensive. I rarely buy meat. I think the main reason for high cost of products is that everything has to be brought from Florida or France by boat. The one nice thing, though, is that we don’t have to pay sales tax!
We’ve always been pretty frugal, but the high prices here have made us even more careful with money. We don’t go out to eat more than twice a month, and we’re considering buying a sailboat to live on instead of renting an apartment.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
Expectations are key. It’s wise to be in tuned to yourself before making a move, to know your thoughts and expectations about the place you are going. Write them down. Then go through every single one of them and tell yourself that it’s probably not going to be that way. If you can enter into a new place with virtually few expectations, then you are going to have an easier time adjusting and accepting the place for what it is. I thought that when we moved to a Caribbean island, we’d walk through groves of mango trees dripping with succulent fruit. Guess what? Almost all the mangoes are imported from the United States and Mexico. Ha.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started my blog almost as soon as I knew we’d be moving out of the country. All of my husband’s family lives in various countries around the globe, and they send out newsletters regularly. I decided to make our newsletter a blog instead of an email. It got a lot of traffic right away, so I slightly changed my focus to make it an expat/travel blog. I hope you’ll stop by and enjoy learning about life in the Caribbean!
Breana's blog, 3rd Culture Wife
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