They reply: Fantastic Thank you. I can't wait! Me neither, I'm so pleased to be here.
Sound familiar? Expatriate postings are like those extreme sport team-building days. There's tension in the air, but you're not quite sure if the adrenalin is exciting or terrifying.
My good friend Sundae Bean, says that as globally mobile people, we live 'Olympic Level Lives'. Believe me, she knows her stuff. She's an intercultural strategist and solution-oriented coach who also lives this life.
She right. This life kind of takes you apart, then puts you all back together again, many times over. And that's now in 2020 when we are at a all time high for ease of instant communication. What about 10 years ago? 20 years ago? Or even more than 50 years ago?
It's almost unfathomable to me. Imagine setting off in the 1920s unsure of where you'd end up and when - or if - you'd ever see your family again.
So what's it been like through the Years?
There's nothing better than words from the people themselves. For this, I have turned to my trusty resource, 'The Source Book', which I bought from the Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague in 2018. This wonderful centre describes itself as a home for expat life stories.
So with my copy of The Source Book at hand, let me introduce you to our community of life-builders, the heroes, the brave, the determined, the emotionally resilient, the fiesty, the inventive, the survivors, the thrivers, the problem solvers and the inordinately adaptive people we call expats.
As you read on, I invite you to think about the skills developed, the lessons learned and the life review that these remarkable experiences trigger.
Take a moment too to reflect on each 'PAUSE FOR THOUGHT'.
On our arrival at the Lutong wharf we were met by the company men, Chinese coolies[sic], with four wheeled trolleys. Sitting back to back we were pushed through the jungle along a rentus (track) for two miles... our luggage on a following trolley, and so we arrived at the bungalow that was to be our home for six years.
- JG about EM, Malaysia, 1926
[The Source Book, page 035, EAC Ref 0500/479]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
How would a long journey like this help alleviate arrival culture shock and subsequent transition?
Husband in Prison
My husband was one of the many rounded up and put in Seria Police station. The rebels took possession of all the cars. One night...some of the hostages were taken in a truck to part of the road near Panaga Police station. They were lined across it and used as a shield and were caught in the crossfire between Police and the Rebels. One man was killed and several others were badly injured. Lachie had been a POW for five years during the war and there was no way he was going to be locked up again. He escaped across a bit of jungle.
- EM, Seria, Brunei, 1960s
[The Source Book, page 75, EAC Ref oacl/33/4/1]
As the gun began to drop slightly lower and away from his face, I realised he was looking as frightened and unsure as I felt. Throwing caution to the winds, I asked him in what Province he had been at school... The gun lowered, he relaxed and we leafed together through one of the standard English texts in use in most primary schools. He had wanted to continue his education, but the army provided a surer living....
He finally confessed that what he had come for was to ask me to provide...some space for use as a polling station. Together, we toured the compound and decided that one classroom nearest the entrance would be quite sufficient.... As we parted he almost shoook my hand - but his gun got in the way.
- AR, Nigeria, 1960
[The Source Book, page 119-120, EAC Ref 0401/54]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
Have you and/or your spouse worked out what are your non-negotiables? What scenarios have to happen for you to leave the country? Natural disasters? Civil unrest? Threat and experience of violence? The currency become vastly inflated?
Tanker Hit by a Missile
I was taken to the Graille Hospital in Saigon and eventually operated on to take the shrapnel, glass shards and burnt wire strands from my many wounds I had to my side, shoulders, head and neck, and then was stitched up well vaccinated with a syringe the size of a stirrup pump.
The French surgeon wore shorts, a flowery shirt and flip-flops on this feet, with a Gauloise cigarette haning from the lips, 'picture the scene'.... and asked Carol to come and watch while he operated, no anaesthetic, of course.... just like out of war movie, only this was for real.
- CM, Vietnam, 1972
[The Source Book, page 98, EAC Ref 0905/763]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
What has using local medical services made you grateful for?
How do you actively apply that gratitude in your life?
First Week in Bangkok
In our first week I was browsing through an antique shop and asked the owner to recommend a good rug dealer. He stared blankly, so I squatted to show him the floor. "Ah Toilet!" he said delightedly and ushered me to the back of the shop.
- CC, Bangkok, Thailand 1984
[The Source Book, page 41, EAC Ref 0600/166]
Women may not drive, cycle or employ female domestic help. Some feel they are living in 'gilded cages'.... Homesickness can be a real problem especially as extended family members may not visit and living in such a restrictive atmosphere can lead to paranoia and depression in various degrees.
Officially we're not allowed to gather in groups and certainly not mixed (male and female). We are extremely fortunate however, in having a great GM's wife who pointed out that we all have talents which we should use...I have just set up a small mixed choir (no previous experience in conducting!) and we plan to have a house concert very soon: prohibited of course and we have to leave out potentially provocative words.
- PH, Saudi, 1984
[The Source Book, page 57, EAC Ref 0007/732]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
In what ways can you 'get creative' and use your talents to create great connections and purpose in your life?
When our seafreight arrived in Nigeria, we were informed that the agent had been thrown into prison because customs had found consignment of military uniforms in our possession. What?! In fact my husband had an old pair of camouflage trousers he used to wear when photographing in the Gabonese jungle.... He was summonsed before the General at the military base to apologise. [Shell paid a large sum and the agent was freed]
... A similar thing happened to friends of ours a couple of years later. They were accused of importing 'espionage equipment'. This was in fact a small canoe acquired for their children.
- KM, Nigeria, 1997
[The Source Book, page 70, EAC Ref oac5/1/1/12]
A Guide to Etiquette in Delhi
The plumber - sadly everything leaks but he will persist in his repairs and come immediately. Sadly he fails to understand why we want the luxury of water out of both taps.
- SP, India, 1995
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
The best cultural interactions occur when both parties feel 'met'. How do you deal with challenges within another culture? Do you only see it your way, or are you able to stop and meet them in the middle? If your way is not working, perhaps try another option and open yourself to their cultural approach. What have you got to lose?
Relocating with Special Needs Children
When a family of a child with special needs learns of a possible international relocation, the rug literally is pulled out from under them. Even when research and treatment may be more advanced in the new country, parents need to learn an entirely different system, understahd the cultural context of special needs, and rethink best practice when considerable time, energy, thought and effort already have gone into the project. There may be insurance issues to be explored or mastered.
- LP, London, UK, 2004
[The Source Book, page 103, EAC Ref 0100/4/3/2]
I don't know anyone who sent their children to boarding school because they wanted to.
- AM, Den Haag, 2005
[The Source Book, page 123, EAC Ref oac5/6/2/22]
My husband never drank alcohol until we went to Nigeria.
- KM, The Hague, Netherlands, 2006
[The Source Book, page 101, EAC Ref oac5/6/5/7]
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT:
How we behave off the situations that present themselves to us can dramatically influence our mental and physcial health This includes what we're like to live with and work with too. How can you transform your choices that you choose through gritted teeth into ones taht you welcome openly, warmly and with purpose?
I hope that you can grace me a minute to remind you of the words I used at the beginning to describe expats:
Life-builders, the heroes, the brave, the determined, the emotionally resilient, the fiesty, the inventive, the survivors, the thrivers, the problem solvers and inordinately adaptive.
I don't see how we can see them as anything else. Do you?
They've worn their shoes well.
So well, they might need to retire them, but that's another blog for another day.
"No matter what the situation, remind yourself, I have a choice"
- Deepak Chopra
Firstly, THANK YOU! I love hearing that the book is so well received!!! It really makes my day.
Secondly, YOU HAVE SPOKEN!
Lots of you have asked me for more illustrations and more products!
I have listened to your passionate requests and am thrilled to 'give the people what they want'!
And so.... I am launching a NEW ONLINE SHOP.
What can you buy in the shop?
Mugs, journals, t-shirts, cards plus loads more - all featuring Living Elsewhere cartoons. You will also be able to buy expat/third culture kids/cross cultural kids themed items. We will also be adding to our collection regularly, so stay tuned for updates.
When will the new shop launch?
In March I'm presenting at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference in Bangkok. It's such an incredible gathering of people living globally mobile lives. Check out Releasing the Spoon to learn how mindblowing and life changing my first conference was.
Sticking to the theme of 'Releasing' and FIGT, the shop will launch in the first week of March, right before FIGT2020 starts!
Interested in shop updates and exclusive products you can buy?
Subscribe to be the first to hear!
Bangkok is calling!
See you there!
All the diners had arranged themselves roughly in the centre of the restaurant, except for one table.
Sitting in the furthest corner away from any other diners and under a loud TV was a family; two parents and their adult child who had an intellectual disability. They were distinctly separate; removed from other diners.
Now, humans are fairly predictable. We follow well-worn paths. We clump together. We struggle to be random, even when we try to be. For example, you can tell if someone has fudged their expenses because they will often include numbers ending in a zero or a five.* Yes really. Don't get any ideas! (*Is this where I enter my disclaimer?)
I admit that there may be a myriad of reasons why this family were separate (other diners had since left or they liked the TV? etc), but I couldn't help but wonder if they'd removed themselves because of their son?
And the minute I write that I want to correct it.
Not because of their son, but due to a fear of how people might react to them.
We naturally want to protect ourselves. Who wouldn't?
I know too as a gay woman, how much my own public behaviours are modified to remove any chance of being hassled, stared at or jeered. You self-select your protection measures.
Insight 1: DISCRIMINATION can create ISOLATION on route to PROTECTION
So you don't say anything, but you feel guilty. You feel guilty because what does it mean if I don't say anything? Does it matter? Well, yeah, because it's like I'm hiding. Does that mean I'm uncomfortable by my family's difference? No. I'm just scared about how I will be treated. I want to be open, but if I'm completely honest, I worry that..... And so the thought cycle goes round and round. It's exhausting.
I have a friend who works internationally in the developing world and travels a lot for work. Picture rural areas, broken pavements, pot holes, footpaths covered by market stalls, animals lying in your path, stairs not lifts etc. She clearly impressed them in her interview as she got the job. The first they knew of her wheelchair was when she entered the interview room.
Now, imagine that. Really imagine that.
Think of the emotional energy that goes into removing the chance for discrimination.
The excitement you feel at getting an interview takes a hit when you imagine the potential discrimination and previous experiences of 'not suitable for the job'. You try to work out how much it matters to you; whether or not you want to ask for the disability assistance that's available for the interview. NO, let's remove all chance of discrimination and just turn up. This protects you emotionally whilst holding the uncertainty of how it will be received. That's all before you even get to the interview.
That's a lot of emotional energy that could be redirected into more positive things.
Insight 2: INCLUSION removes wasted energy and creates a sense of BELONGING.
I'm not sure that people who are resistant to diversity realise that inclusion is going on all around them. They just don't see it.
And in many way they're not meant to. It's not for them.
It's a bit like a hidden code - only seen by those who can read it.
For example, my wife wears a sunflower lanyard when we go through airports. It shows staff that she has a hidden disability and might need assistance. A Rainbow flag sticker on a cafe door shows me it's a safe space. A Rainbow badge worn by the nurse and doctor in the UK's National Health Service tells me I'm seen.
These visual cues are so important. We all know to be careful walking near someone with a white cane. It is no effort for us, but makes the world of difference to that individual.
BUT, we still need to listen and not assume that we understand the code. We all speak different emotional and observational languages..... and if we go back to those *fudged expenses (*ahem...insert another disclaimer here), we need to remember that we struggle to be random. Based on our own set of cultural and social reference points, we tend to assume that our own observations of an individual's behaviour equals that person's intentions. Mostly, it doesn't.
I suspect that we've all stomped along that well-worn path of human predicatibility at some point in our lives.
Insight 3: ASK FIRST - Always! and FOLLOW THEIR CUE
The woman approaches. I now see she has britle bone disease. I'm hoping she goes straight past us and doesn't see us. But of course no, she pulls up, right next to us to also cross the road. The five of us in a row, waiting like peas in a pod - sandwiched together between two traffic light poles.
Angie and I stare straight ahead, trying to act as though wheeling a rubber man around in a wheelchair is normal. Mind you, he's quite life-like so people often don't realise that he's not real.
And then I see her.
I see her slowly turn her head to look at Ichabod. The look of surprise is palpable.
She opens her mouth to speak.
I wait, worried.
And then in a broad Glaswegian accent she says Aye, and there I was thinking I was the special one! before laughing uproarously.
I'm fairly sure I then embarrassed myself by chatting to her waaay too enthusiastically. My relief burbling out with freaky friendliness.
It is also safe to say that I didn't 'style it out' particulary convincingly.
But I didn't care. She showed me how to 'style it out' like a pro.
Thank you Glaswegian woman. You taught me well that day.
A bag of oranges here. A packet of dates there. A box of biscuits.
Different food groups, but all the same within their collective packet.
It's the reason that supermarkets, haven't offered (until recently) imperfect fruit and vegetables. We like symmetry and we like to lump together.
We like to lump together when it comes to people too.
We do it with nationalities. We do it with gender. We do it with religion. We do it with..... well, everything.
It's easy isn't?
But have you noticed that we only do it when our words have derogatory intent?
When was the last time you heard someone say,
Oh that's so typical of women to be amazing at juggling family life and work?
Typical men, they're so good at raising their kids.
We lump together and generalise when we want to slag off or have our misguided judgements confirmed.
Oh yeah, but that's not always the case I hear you say.
I wouldn't say that because some guys aren't great at raising their kids.
You're right, They're not, but I challenge you.
Do you afford the same positive variations and distinctions when generalising in a derogatory way? Do you say, Ah, typical men! or do you pause and say, that's so typical of a certain type of man?
Generalising Isolates and Incites Hate
I've seen it. It's not pretty. In fact it's horrid.
Social media is not kind. Faceless 'warriors' influencing and creating fear against certain people. Massive generalisations.
Transphobia. Xenaphobia. Islamaphobia...to name a few.
Inclusion and Being a Friendly Face is Not Hard
It's not till you see someone else's every day, that you realise the reality of why we need to reach out.
On one of my last trips to the USA I was standing in a slow security queue at an airport. People were starting to get irritated at the delay. The security team were being extra thorough on one person. A muslim woman and her 3 year old child.
People smiled as he played behind her, leaping onto anything he could climb, but at the front of the queue you could have cut the air with a knife. The security guys were doing their best to be polite, but there was a massive elephant in the room, stomping down the conveyor belt.
I swear I heard it blow its trumpet, at least twice. Once when they insisted on putting the woman's bags through the scanner for a third time and again when they offered to repack her now completely jumbled bags. She fought back tears as she grabbed her bags; all her belongings falling out. No, I'm okay. I'll pack them myself, she said, clearly desperate to get away from the public spectacle.
It was awful to watch. We all knew why she'd been stopped, but no one said those words.... Muslim woman.
A few minutes later I was in the toilets and realised she was there too.
By now she was crying too. She leant forward to hug me. There we stood in the bathroom, two strangers in tears, hugging each other.
And the incredible thing...?
I spoke to her to give her comfort, but in reality she gave me comfort. That experience of 'other' was new to me. THAT reality check of someone else's life.
How is it that we've got to the point where the victim is the one who reassures the privileged? And because they are so used to being treated as 'the other', it's become their normal.
That frightens me.
I do not want to live in that world.