What Expat Can Do: bringing hope to the world

Last month I participated in the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) conference in Amsterdam. It was my first time and I was eager to know more about this organization.

I am not new to expat communities sharing their life issues: at Expatclic.com we have been doing it for a long time, discussing almost every aspect of our unusual daily routine. The FIGT conference elevated this experience to an international framework, gathering writers, psychologists, and several other professionals in the same place and for the same reason each of us is struggling every day: to find a way to give words to our peculiar experience and not feel like aliens in the crowd.

I was there only one day out of the three, but it was enough to unleash an inner process that prevented me from sleeping well for the following weeks. Without taking anything away from the several interesting presentations at the conference, there was one that hit my comfort zone straight from the start.  Christopher O’Shaughnessy gave the opening keynote presentation and did it with amazing oratory skill, keeping the whole audience hooked with his words. If you want to know Chris better, you can read his amazing book, “Arrivals, Departures, and the Adventures In-Between , editor Summertime, 2014.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan - images cannot be copied, downloaded, or used in any way without the express, written permission of the photographer.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan 

In this article, I will focus on the main issue that Christopher raised with his talk. While he was speaking, I was enjoying his stories and laughing all the time (yes, he really has the ability to make you laugh for more than one hour while you listen to him, while at the same time conveying a strong message). Without me even realizing it, he introduced a simple concept that got into the back of my mind and punched hard. This young guy, at least certainly younger than me, was verbalizing something that I have been carrying inside me and that has made me feel uncomfortable for years. He simply said that we, as expatriates, Third Cultural Kids (TCK), TCK parents or whoever, people who have lived in several different countries, have gained the skills that empower us to bring hope to the world. This is exactly what the world needs right now, in a time when, despite increasing physical connection, individualism and loneliness are permeating our lives more and more.

Bringing hope to the world. Hope. But which kind of hope?

“Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refuses to believe that this is all there is”[i]

After living in 9 different countries in the world, on 5 continents, making my children adapt to 4 different school systems, having faced some really big cultural shocks in countries where language, belief, social rules, values, even the basic daily activities were radically different from what I was used to, I had to listen to a young man suggesting that my responsibility is to bring hope to the world.

Yes, I underline responsibility”.

Because if you have skills that the world needs, you have the responsibility to use them. Or, at least, this is what I firmly believe is the purpose of a human life.

Now, honestly, if you had lived as a European in some countries in Africa or in the Middle East, if you have travelled a lot and visited many different places, if you care for human beings and if you are not blind, you can easily become cynical after a while. In your expat life, year after year, you collect experiences that help you to understand how the world really works, and what are the real rules it is driven by. The ideals you brought with you from your previous life no longer fit in the new scenario you discover by living abroad, and you can start to doubt them.

The economy, environmental sustainability, the use of resources, our shared knowledge, and much more are now making each country totally interconnected with the others. Anything you chose to do in your location will have an impact on the life of someone else in the world, directly or indirectly. Whether you believe it or not, it is a reality.

And the impact, most of the times, is not a good one.

As expats, we have seen this with our own eyes, several times, year after year.

We have even contributed to this system with our jobs, for better or for worse. We know that, and sometimes it’s easy to think there is no hope at all.

We think we don’t have the power to really help.

We think we are nothing in the face of these bigger forces.

We have the responsibility to bring hope to the world.


all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan - images cannot be copied, downloaded, or used in any way without the express, written permission of the photographer.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan

Think for a moment.

As expats, we have lived in places and countries that other people have only seen on their travels, and we all know the huge difference between being a tourist or even a long time visitor in a country and living in it.

As expats, we have seen and learned things and experienced cultures that other people know only through newspapers, books, the internet or other media.

As expats, we have got to know the different cultures through the people, directly through their daily lives that have crossed path with our own.

As expats, we are raising TCKs or we are TCKs ourselves, we live in different cultures and we know instinctively that our point of view is only one of the many different ways to judge and think, that there are different ways of living and doing things and that they bring good results even if they look strange to us.


I want to share with you a true life story as an example.

When I was living in Nigeria, my 10 year old daughter bonded with a classmate in school.  The two girls became very close and wanted to play together outside school. It was not an easy task because both of them were part of an expat community living under strong security restrictions and there was a considerable driving distance between the two houses, but girls of that age don’t see these kinds of problems. They don’t even see the other barrier: one was an Italian-EuropeanEducated-Christian -10years old girl and the other one was Malaysian-AsianEducated-Muslim-10years old girl and the parents didn’t know each other at all.

On my part I was expecting that the Malaysian parents would have some concerns on that, because of our different cultures and the difficulties of trusting  the other family who would be hosting, taking care and protecting their daughter. I admit I was having some concerns too on them, because I didn’t have any idea of what kind of people they were. I am quite sure that the mother of the other girl was thinking exactly the same.

In short, after some months, the two girls were enjoying sleepovers and Sunday trips hosted in turn by the respective families and they became best friends.

How could this have been possible? Because of one simple action: as a mother I saw how important was this friendship for my child and I decided to take the risk. I opened myself up to the other family and went to see beyond the barrier. The other mother did exactly the same and we met in the middle. We discovered we were had the same basic values in life: the respect for others, the love and care we gave to our children. All the other differences were just logistics. We found a spontaneous, mutual and silent agreement, looking for ways to reassure the other about possible issues, even if they were issues they didn’t belong to our way of living. All of this was possible because we were committed to allowing our children to live this beautiful friendship, without having to worry about anything else.

If you were there, you could have seen two girls that, apart from their clothes, skin colour and a totally different educational framework, they were talking, looking and behaving like sisters. Indeed, in many aspects they could have been sisters, they were sharing the same values in life, they were the living proof that raising children in two totally different cultural paths can bring about similar results.

It was possible, it was real.

Diversity can definitely be a barrier, sometimes it can even be a huge and powerful barrier, because it involves language, culture, beliefs, preconceptions. However, this is not the point.

If you can climb over that boundary, you will discover it is only a fence: there is much more beyond and this is the most important part.

As expats, we have developed skills in overcoming barriers, because we had to do it as a mandatory act to survive abroad. And after a while we also want to do it, because we are interested in what can be found beyond them.

We are living witnesses of the fact that once the barrier is down, the real substance is revealed.

It is possible. It is real.

We have the responsibility to bring hope to the world.

It is like a woodworm.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan

I sit in my house now, in the heart of Europe, and I know that all around me there are refugees, immigrants, expats. I am part of that community. There are locals that have their own opinion about them, about us. There are government officials that are talking, discussing, taking decisions about them, about us, about human beings.

One or two hours flight from here, there are friends, members of our family, compatriots, who suddenly experience a world at their doorstep, which previously they had only seen on holiday. It is a world made of human beings arriving by boat, by feet, by whatever means, stuck at the border of their home country. Waiting. Our compatriots don’t know how to face all this. They don’t have words. They borrow the words from newspapers, social networks, media.

As expats, we should have the words. We know how it feels to be a foreigner in a country, in a culture, in a place where people look at you in that strange way. We have the responsibility to bring hope to the world.

The easiest way is to focus on “diversity”: there are already a lot of words available for this purpose, it is a topic that brings up lots of issues and keeps people focused on politics, religion, beliefs, and any other aspect of humanity where diversity looks like a barrier. The nature of the barrier can certainly not be ignored, but the point is  to try to see what is beyond.

We should focus on what is made of flesh and bones, on women and children, on young people who need good role models to follow, on families with children to feed and raise, on values of love, friendship, trust, respect.

 If we could only focus on commonality and not on diversity, maybe a solution would be found.

And we have the responsibility to bring hope to the world.

As expats, we know that diversity can put you in front of things you like or dislike, but in our experience we didn’t stop in front of what we didn’t like, because we had to find a solution anyway. We did it and we overcame diversity several times, sometimes easily, sometimes not, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But for sure, when we were open (spontaneously or forced by circumstances) to meet the other with the awareness of our cultural nudity and our vulnerability, we found a solution. Not always the best one, but still a solution.

As expats, we know that looking for commonality instead of diversity is possible. It is not easy, it is demanding, it requires getting rid of our cultural armour, it also involves a dose of suffering from both sides. But it is possible. We went through it. Raise your hand if your heart has never broken leaving a good friend behind in a foreign country, in a different culture. I am sure it happened more in a culture that was different from yours, didn’t it? If today that person knocks at your door with his family because he has lost everything in his own country, you will open your house for them, without even thinking about it. Why? Because you went through the barrier and you met the substance.

As expats, we can be witnesses of this.

It is real. It can be possible.

And we have the responsibility to bring hope to the world.

Now, being practical, it is also easy to become demagogic and just talk a lot about it.

On the realistic side, there are a lot of aspects that must be considered, maybe there are other ways, other settings, other spaces or possibilities to work on.

I am still thinking, still being disturbed by that woodworm. And I don’t have any solution yet. At this point my question is …. How? How can we expats honestly and practically act and work to bring hope to the world?

Think about… We are sharing the responsibility to bring hope to the world.

Which kind of hope?

Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refuses to believe that this is all there is”[i]


Cristina Baldan, May 2016


[i] Velvet Elvis. Rob Bell. HarperCollins Publishing. 2005