WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

What expats can do in time of quarantine

I’ve been thinking about how to write this article for a while. I felt a surge of inspiration from the first day that emergency was declared in my city; I witnessed first-hand how quickly the community came together to adapt to this new unusual chapter of life. However, at the time I could not properly focus on how to link the overall expat experience to what we are still going through right now.

Today, after some reflecting on what is happening around me as well as in different societies and social communities, I realized that the answer is right in front of me…

These are some thoughts that came to my mind:

photocredit LEEROY Agency - Pixabay

photocredit LEEROY Agency – Pixabay

1. Many expats are not new to home isolation

It is a common experience for the first part of every move to a new country. The first few weeks have striking similarities to what we are all going through now – especially for expats’ spouses: confined at home, maybe with small children to entertain, trying to get a new house organized, trying to set up spaces so that everyone in the family can find their own spot. There are also many expats who have experienced this kind of total lockdown (sometimes in even more dramatic and pronounced ways) in some difficult countries: local wars, riots, dangerous strikes, political instability, and even other serious epidemics like Ebola.

2. Expats are used to experiencing social distancing

It takes time to build meaningful human relationships with locals in a new and unfamiliar country, especially if the local culture is very different from one’s own one. From the Middle East to Northern Europe, from Africa to Australia – I learned on the go that the “safe” and polite physical space you need to keep between two people in a social contest is a variable concept (and it is not an easy task for an Italian who grew up used to spontaneous hugs and kisses!).

photocredit - Ansgar Scheffold - Unsplash

photocredit – Ansgar Scheffold – Unsplash

3. Expats are used to geographical distance

We are familiar with the feeling of having our family and dear friends miles away from us, sometimes oceans away from us. Many expat families are divided at this moment: children are stuck in other countries for their studies, old parents are confined in their home country. I want to pay particular tribute here to all the Italians who have aging parents at home, who are terribly worried for them, and who cannot even provide a simple comfort like making food or shopping for them.

4. Expats are used to stocking foods for long period of time

Well, not all expats, but I know for sure there are many that have experimented with this before. I noticed how easy was for me to go shopping last week: the shopping list formed itself in my mind while I was lost amongst the shelves of the supermarket. Instinctively, I sought out the same items I did when I was preparing for lockdown in Africa, or before the war in Kuwait, though there are some differences in the quality and variety of food I can buy here.

photocredit Ryan McGuire – Pixabay

5. Expats are used to building and nurture human relationships online

Not necessarily out of choice, but out of necessity: without this skillset, you’d hardly be able to survive expat life! Many of an expat’s interpersonal relationships are mainly nurtured over distance.

6. Expats are aware of the importance of community and the interconnections between us

They know what it means to be alone – or maybe even sick – in a country where you don’t know anybody. They have learned how to build essential and vital connections with the people around them in their new local community.

So many expats have the knowledge and memory of the feelings we are all experiencing right now: the sense of isolation, anxiety, and concern for families and friends far from them; the concern for what is happening outside our front door;  uncertainty about the future and the feeling of being suspended from your normal life.

None of what I listed above are pleasant or easy situations. Many people aren’t able to bare it longterm. But many expats have gained the resilience to deal with these trials.

And so, what can expats do in this difficult moment?

Exactly what we are doing.

I’ve noticed many social communities are inventing and organizing social gatherings on the internet. Check to see who is behind the first proposal to take a coffee break together online, to have a yoga class online, to get children on virtual playdates through their iPads, to organize any kind of social gathering online… often times the catalyst is an expat.

We are all online those days. The Internet is at the maximum glory of its existence so far!

Expat are experts in building and maintaining relationships over distance. We can help those who are not used to this, we can share our knowledge, both technical and emotional. Let’s help others who are discovering the web as a resource for building connection and invite them to join us.

photocredit Ron Smith - Unsplash

photocredit Ron Smith – Unsplash

In the kind of lifestyle this pandemic is forcing us into, it is important to engage with our neighbors and pay attention to what the people around us may need – especially if they are sick, weak, or simply feeling terribly alone in their homes. Pay attention to what is happening around you: maybe your neighbor is living through difficult moment, maybe they are old and can’t be reached by their children. Offer them help like you would do if your parents were living close to you.

Help single parents deal with children at home: they are not used to it, but we can surely recall some tricks and games we used in similar situations.

Offer compassion and understand to people who may struggle with staying at home, with possible family tensions and other challenges that easily arise.

And while we’re at home we can better flex across different time zones that work may have previously been inconvenient during working times. It is a good time to refresh a friendship left on the other side of the world: maybe they would be happy to hear from us!

Smile and be positive: be a light for others.

This situation will pass and we will be stronger than before.

Despite the fact that this pandemic has created a very dramatic situation, my heart is warmed when I see people experiencing physical distance and yet getting together and being closer than ever in many other ways.

People are moved by news from countries far away: it is fear, but it is also our humanity that is coming back. We are rediscovering how interconnected we are, and how what happens somewhere else in the world will ultimately impact us where we are.

The physical borders are closing, but the virtual ones are opening up like never before.

 

Cristina Baldan
March 2020

Pages:

Living cross-culturally: the best gift to the world

I recently came across a wonderful human being. He is, among many other things, an expat. His intercultural experience is so vast, that coming up with a satisfying interview was a real challenge. I tried, and I am happy to invite you to meet Jerry, of The Culture Blend, and be as inspired by him as I was.

 

Jerry, you are from the US, live in China, and have a lovely multicultural family. How and when did it happen that you “went intercultural”? 

I have dreamed of faraway places for as long as I can remember. I grew up very mono culturally in the U.S. but have always been extremely fascinated by other cultures. My wife and I did a 6 month internship in Taiwan in college where we first fell in love with the Chinese culture and people. We adopted our daughter from mainland China in 2003, and got a taste of what it might look like to live here. We expatriated for the first time in 2006 and have spent most of the time since here.

And you have also shaped your work on interculturality, right? Tell us what you do.

I help people navigate the challenges and find the opportunities that come with living cross-culturally. Specifically I provide training and coaching for teams and individuals that focus on every stage of their experience from preparation and entry to departure and repatriation. I also write and build resources to equip them on that journey. I have worked most prominently with staff at international schools but have also worked with corporate teams and other organizations. The heart of what I do is to peel back the layers and get to the nuance of challenges that people face instead of simply slapping a cookie cutter, data dump on them that has no impact. I love watching people succeed at what they came to do and connect with the world in a way they didn’t see coming.

I’d like to talk about the “opportunities that come with living cross-culturally”. Besides the obvious (and we have repeatedly heard how living abroad makes your more flexible, tolerant, etc.), how does exposure to different people and lifestyles equip us with tools we can effectively use to make the world a better place?

I believe that something beautiful happens when you live cross-culturally. Two things actually.

Of course it is rich when you get the chance to observe and interact with a group of people who sees the world from a different perspective. The process of learning about a people adds so much to any person’s life. To be stretched by the way “they” do things is a challenge on the front end but ultimately becomes a wonderful, first hand training ground that gives you access to a broader scope. Working through those challenges provides you with more answers for how issues can be dealt with. Watching how other cultures have learned to solve the same problems that you have gives you a choice in how to move forward. So, actually living in a culture (versus just visiting it) affords you the time you need to move from “they’re doing it all wrong” to “hmm, that’s brilliant, I might try that.”

The bigger beauty happens, though, when you get to see your own culture through different lenses. It is a painful and powerful experience to process your own world view from a different perspective. When that happens you become more equipped with the kind of empathy that the world needs desperately. In the current political and social climate, people who are not only globally aware but SELF aware are the ones that I want to take the lead. The opportunities expand exponentially when you can see the world and yourself from a different angle.

When someone embraces what they can learn from other cultures and what they can learn about themselves, they become a bridge of understanding between others who have not had that experience. In a rapidly globalizing environment there are people who are struggling to make sense of other people. Bridges become essential in every space and the gates are opened for cross-cultural people to provide support, insight and understanding. That can be a great resource in professional, personal and relational contexts.

I’m interested in how biases, prejudice and the racism many of us have deep within themselves and living cross-culturally link. I recently read two things that were illuminating for me: one is White Fragility, a fabulous book by US-educator Robin Diangelo, the other is your article about the privileges of the white expat. Both made me think of how hard realizing the depth of these mechanisms is for some of us (i.e. the privileged ones). In some cases we even protect ourselves from understanding. Or we feel threatened and close within our bubbles. How can living interculturally practically help to curb racism and discrimination?  

Racism and bias are such loaded topics. They are packed with the most broken bits of history, experience, emotion, politics, culture and an endless list of other factors, which are then multiplied by the number of people in the world. The conversation is almost exclusively driven on the premise of being right and overpowering someone else’s ignorance with a false hope that it will bring about real change. “I’ve got it figured out. You’re wrong”. That’s the inherent danger of living in a herd. When everyone around you is just like you, the group builds a world view and supports it with a very limited scope. Then they respond passionately and sometimes violently to the other herds who challenge their thinking.

When you only spend time in a group of people who are just like you, your thinking is rarely challenged. Other cultures are simply scenery — but when you separate yourself from the herd and spend time in another one they become people. You no longer have the luxury of thinking you know everything. You get blasted with real life stories from the perspective of real life people and you get to see their history, experience, emotion, politics and culture through their eyes. That may not change everything (or anything) about yours but it should at least bring you to a space where you are willing to admit there is more to it. Living abroad confronts you with your own ignorance and challenges you to do something more than point out the ignorance of others.

Deep relationships with people who live and act and speak and think differently are the best hope for breaking down racism and discrimination — because, let’s face it, loud opinions and eloquent “rightness” aren’t working so well.

 

Interview by Claudia Landini
March 2020
Photos ©JerryJones

 

Pages:

The Expat Life “Gifts”

An expat survey.

 

In my experience, I’ve realized that most expats are not aware of the enormous potential they have. Nor are they aware of the skills they’ve gained from this kind of life.

I suspect the reason is probably lying behind the psychological challenges and fatigue they are obliged to overcome every time they face a new assignment. When you start from the beginning over and over again, often by facing challenges that you would never expect (some very hard), you develop the belief that you are not an expert – you instinctively know how much you still have to learn every single time you approach a new country and a new culture.

However, I firmly believe that expats are an incredibly positive source of energy and of great value to current society: I have seen with my own eyes what they are capable of, and I am determined to help them to become aware of this… But how?

 

The Survey

I decided to start by running an experiment. I enlisted the most qualified people I know in this field: the editing team of Expatclic.com.

The group of 7 women who answered my questions had all moved abroad as adults and had collectively lived outside their passport country for a total of 131 years, with an average of 18.7 years per person.

They lived as resident of a total of 31 countries (4.4 countries on average for each person) and they visited an additional total of 197 countries (28 on average for each person). All of this with accompanying children – some born abroad, some not.

Even knowing about the experiences of my colleagues, those numbers were still a surprise to me, and I think they constitute a solid group as far as interviewees.
 

Flexibility / Open-mindedness / Ability to network

The answers to my question about how much the expat lifestyle had changed the interviewees contained many similarities. Gaining the ability to be flexible and to adapt to changes – in situations as well as in relationships with unknown people – was probably the most frequent common theme. There was clearly a lot of self-awareness, and interviewees seem to have gained an open mind towards new cultures, to new ways of “doing things”. Furthermore, common to all the answers was the acquired ability to know how to better deal with people and how to build a network of human relationships in a foreign environment.

The most difficult challenge has been…

Loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, a sense of not-belonging, being forced out of a comfort zone, and feeling uncomfortable in a culture far from your own one. These are the strongest challenges these women reported having to face during their life abroad.

This result may not be surprising to you, but it is for me because I know that among these women there are some who have lived in really difficult countries and have faced some extreme challenges in terms of securities issues, discomfort, lack of basic services (like clean water), war danger, etc… It is surprising to me that those challenges weren’t listed as the most difficult ones.

Instead, challenges that threaten personal identity, our sense of belonging, and the possibility to have meaningful human relationships have been the most difficult part of the life abroad for these women.
 
 

Which of your personal resources was most useful in facing cultural shocks?

The women in this group are all happy with their experience overall. Despite the difficulties and hard times, they are still satisfied with the choices made, in fact, they offer their time and energy to help other expat women. Expatriation, however, is not always as successful as it was for them. So, I was curious to understand if there was a common starting point, a personal resource that helped them to overcome their challenges.

And indeed, I found some common skills in their answers:

  • Positivity, sense of humor, meeting others with a smile
  • Being adventurous
  • Flexibility
  • Empathy
  • No judgment attitude, modesty
  • Respect
  • Above all curiosity: never being tired of learning about how other people live and understand life.
  • Determination

The impact of expat life on human relationships with strangers and with familiar people

In all the contexts of human relationships (family, children, friends, colleagues, strangers, etc…), there is a common characteristic among these women: there is more desire for and attention given to the quality of the relationships. The expat life brings some peculiar and specific teachings in regards to how select your friends, how to educate your children, how to evaluate other people’s behavior, and how to relate to it.

By living abroad, you see and come into contact with other realities. You discover that things can be done in a different way and children can be raised and educated in different and unexpected ways, and the results can be as good as your own traditions. This develops an attitude of being open to learn from other cultures, to develop a feeling of freedom and wisdom in picking up and adopting what you evaluate may be good for you too. Most of the women interviewed think they would have been totally different mothers if they had raised their children in their home countries.

The expat life also teaches you how to face adversity: the wide amount of difficulties an expat family experiences provide the training ground to learn how to screen out troubles, to identify the real priorities in life, and to become effective problem solvers. Most of the time you are alone to face your adversities without the support of good friends or family members. The reality is that you simply don’t have the time and/or the energy to make things complicated, and so become skilled in quickly finding workable solutions.

These women all see themselves as much stronger and resilient. They have acclimated to adversities in such a way that they face them when the time comes and fix them. This stands true despite things you would never plan for in a normal life like wars, serious illness, grief, criminality, and so on.

In addition to those hurdles, there is the learning about what is happening around you.

Moving to different places, with different cultures, we necessarily learn, I believe, about the politics of the countries in which we live, of the neighbouring countries, of global issues, and of our country of origin. This, together with the capacity of understanding cultural differences, gives us the tools to be able to read and understand what is happening around us in a much better way”.

This sentence summarized the gift of being an expat in the best way possible. The expat life brings the gift of a special “lens” to see the world. This lens comes from having experienced living life in another country (or countries) first-hand. The ability to evaluate people and situations by automatically applying self-awareness and trying to avoid bias and judgment is one of the most common and valuable consequent skills.

Based on responses from these women who are currently working, I would also like to address some benefits of the expat experience that impact relationships in the professional environment:

  • Knowing what to prioritize and when, and the ability to evaluate and solve problems
  • Being able to analyze and quickly understand an unknown situation or environment
  • Being able to adapt and work in an unfamiliar environment
  • Constantly applying an attitude of self-reassessment to find solutions that may work
  • Being able to relate and work with people coming from different cultures
  • Being available to continually start from scratch and think about the future with an “out-of-the-box” attitude

Are there any Human Resource specialists reading right now? Would you agree that the list above encompasses some of the most wanted skills in a professional environment those days?
Unfortunately, it is very hard for a woman to have this kind of experience properly expressed in a resume (but this is a good topic for another article).

Change of life goals and self-awareness

When you choose this kind of life, you accept the unpredictable. Some are aware of this reality, but most are not. I asked the question: “Has the expat life changed your life goals and inspired you to do something totally different from your initial plan or dream?”. This is certainly a query worth an in-depth analysis.

What I first noticed in their answers was that when the expat life began in an early stage of their life, the goals didn’t change too much. For the ones who left a career, a job or a university degree in the home country, the change was in some way mandatory: all of them had to change perspective and adapt to new realities.

I wish I could have continued working and reaching my goals as a woman in the fields of finance.

I was a lawyer and I am a coach and facilitator now!

I wanted to be a scientist, now I’m considering becoming a teacher.

The ability to reinvent themselves to face a new situation is common, but it also brings a certain measure of suffering.

The last question

if you could put three values or skills you gained in the expat life in a time capsule for your descendants which they could use in their own life, what would you choose?

empathy

  • Flexibility and adaptability to new situations and to changes
  • Curiosity of the world, for the people – Respect for others – Sense of adventure
  • Ability to learn from your mistakes and don’t be ashamed to make them, they are part of our life
  • Optimism – Empathy – Tolerance
  • Ability to accept life events, the loss, the loneliness, the hard times
  • Courage to keep going in front of adversities
  • Gratitude and appreciation for what you have
  • Knowledge – Sense of justice – Capacity of relativize

I don’t think I need to add any comment to this.

Conclusion

My research is not complete: this survey was just a first experiment. I want to dig more into the expats’ personal characteristics. There is still a lot to discover and to speak about.
I want to conclude this reflection with one last point and a question for you.
While I was reviewing their answers, I constantly found myself thinking about the richness these women can offer to society: not only as individuals but also as a group with their collective life experience.
That being said, I invite you to think and ask yourself:

What would the entire expat community be able to offer society if their experience is considered a whole?

If this reflection moved something in you, please share it with us! You can do this privately or through our Facebook page. All feedback helps us to improve this research and is evaluated with deep appreciation.

Many thanks to my interviewees, the Women behind Expatclic: you are simply and incredibly amazing!

 

 

Cristina Baldan
April 2019
All photos ©Expatclic

 

Pages:
error: Content is protected !!

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this. Read our Privacy and Cookie Policy here. The Cookie Policy we comply to is here

Close