A Bump in the Road

Don’t speak too soon my mother would have said.  Perhaps I jinxed it, by crowing about finding a job.  Or perhaps I was just too keen to prove (mainly to myself) that I was still in demand, despite being 56 and having lived outside of Canada for so long.  But I suspect it was my desire to put down roots and call Toronto home again that made me jump at the first opportunity offered, despite a small voice that told me it didn’t feel right.  I should have listened more attentively.

I quit my job on Friday.  For two months I’d been telling myself that I would settle in, that I just needed to get to grips with the job, get used to the company, make friends with my colleagues.  But with each passing day I was becoming more miserable, knowing that I was a round peg trying to hammer myself into a square hole.  In the end it was time to admit my mistake and cut my losses.

I feel I’ve been flung back 7 months to the day we landed back home, like a giant game of Snakes & Ladders.  On the one hand there’s a world of opportunity in front of me, but on the other hand I’ve no clue what comes next.

For now I’m going to take a trip to Dubai, where my husband has returned to work again (yes, we are trying to repatriate, but so far not very successfully) and then I’m also going to the FIGT Conference in March.  Perhaps I’ll present myself as an interesting case study.  In all seriousness I hope I get some inspiration from others who’ve been through this.

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A Reunion of Strangers

. . . is how Robin Pascoe has described the annual conference of Families in Global Transition.  I think that sounds wonderful and can’t wait to attend for the first time.  It’s happening in Houston, March 4-6.

I’ve already written about how I came to volunteer for this group and although I haven’t met any of them face-to-face (except for Jo Parfitt, who I met in Dubai) I feel I already know many of them through “meeting” them on Skype, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and email.  And I think I already know what Robin means by calling it a reunion of strangers, in that I already sense the common bond we share.

In case you’re thinking this will be a kumbaya event – just a bunch of expats reminiscing, or worse, moaning about how hard expat life is and how misunderstood we are - let me tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.  FIGT is focused on providing solid information and sharing research on what works and what doesn’t with not just expats, but also the myriads of people involved with those who relocate across cultures.  The participants include HR professionals, relocation companies, educators, expat coaches, corporations, missionary groups, members of foreign services, NGOs and of course the military, many themselves expats or former expats.

The group came together after the publication of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Between Worlds”, written by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (who will be attending this year’s conference).  They recognized that there was a need to continue the discussion on how moving around the world affected families and what happened to a child or an adult who lived, not in just one culture, but who was raised in several.  From that the idea for a unique annual conference was born.

Registration is now open.  I do hope I’ll see you there. 

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I got a job using Social Media

Actually I got two, one volunteer and one paid, and I must admit it’s been a big boost to my somewhat battered ego after a tempestuous and difficult year repatriating to Canada.

Like many people I joined Facebook quite a while ago but it was only when I repatriated in 2009 and had some time on my hands that I investigated LinkedIn and Twitter.  In fact job hunting was one of the main reasons for opening those accounts as almost every article I read told me how important networking through social media was becoming.

My first lucky break came via a Tweet from Jo Parfitt linking to a posting from Families in Global Transition who were looking for a volunteer to help them manage their social media presence.  It was a perfect fit for me.  Not only did it scratch my itch to do voluntary work, but it was related to expatriates, virtual (so I knew I could make a commitment even though my location might change), and coincided with my new interest in networking using the internet.   I still haven’t met anyone from FIGT in the real world – we communicate via Skype and email – but I’m looking forward to getting together with them at their next annual conference in Houston in March.  Through them  I’ve already connected with dozens of interesting expats, ex-expats and expatriate experts and learned a lot from their experiences.  As always, volunteer work is giving me back far more than I contribute.

But it doesn’t cover the bills, so I was still on the lookout for a paid opportunity.  Not easy when you’re in your late 50’s, haven’t worked in your home country for 14 years (including 10 years completely out of the paid workforce) and the world’s in the middle of a huge recession.  Still, fortune favours the bold and encouraged by my success I started tapping on the virtual shoulders of a few people on LinkedIn.  Having joined a whole host of groups on behalf of FIGT, I discovered I was now connected with literally hundreds of thousands of people and with a former career in real estate, combined with my expat experience, I thought relocation companies might be a good target.  Not all my polite requests for referrals were answered, but all it took was one, and soon my resume was being placed in the hands of someone directly responsible for hiring.  The wheels of corporations turn slowly, and I must admit that as the weeks drifted by after my first interview I assumed I wasn’t a suitable candidate, but then in late November I was summoned to a second interview and by the end of the day had a job offer in my inbox.  Wahoo, I did it!

What I’ve learned through these two experiences:

  • Writing online profiles is a really useful excercise in defining who you are and what you want.  Don’t expect to get it right first time; I still tweak mine from time to time.
  • Networking can be done from your living room.  I’d rather have root canal than walk into a room full of people I don’t know.
  • You can reach out to people even if you’re new in town or newly returned.
  • Strangers (not all, but most), as well as friends and former colleagues, will give you a helping hand.  Don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Networking and working, even as a volunteer, gives your self-esteem a huge boost and really helps you get over culture shock/re-entry shock.
  • Social media is an incredibly power tool.

Good luck to all those who are job hunting!

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Expat Christmas

All over the world expats are preparing to celebrate Christmas in another culture.  It can be a bittersweet experience, particularly for those who are away from home for the first time.  On the one hand you are missing friends, family and the familiar traditions of home.  But on the other hand there may be local customs you can join in and new friends who can sometimes seem as close as family due to shared experiences. 

Our first expat Christmas was held in Baku, in a predominantly Muslim country and where the few Russian Christians celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on January 7.  Most expats had left for vacation over the holiday period and the handful of us who remained decided to get together for a potluck Christmas dinner.  We had several nationalities attending and as a result had a wonderful range of dishes.  We had brought a birthday cake as my son is a “Christmas baby” and unable to find birthday candles in the local stores I’d brought a few small sparklers to light.  Unfortunately they sprayed with cake with metallic spots, but we just scraped off some of the frosting and ate it anyway!  After dinner we turned out the lights and sang carols by candlelight, a truly magical memory.

The next two Christmases were spent in the same rather grim temporary apartment in Dubai – the first time we were enroute to Cairo and the second time were enroute back to Dubai.  With all our household goods in transit, a mini pre-decorated Christmas tree on the coffee table had to suffice.

Subsequent Christmases in Dubai fared much better.  We made some very close friends and so always had someone to share Christmas Dinner with.  When our son headed off to university, he’d always visit us over the holidays which made it extra special.  And although you might not expect it to be so in a devoutly Muslim country, in fact Christmas is well celebrated in Dubai.  Many expats say there are more festivities and decorations than in their home countries, where political correctness has frowned them in recent years.

This year we’re celebrating in our home in Canada for the first time in 5 years.  I’m looking forward to pulling out my old tree decorations, some dating back to my childhood, but many purchased or given to us while living overseas.  There are the beautiful blown glass ones from Egypt, the delicate handmade lace ones from Azerbaijan, and the scruffily embroidered stocking I made in the UAE but which brings back happy memories of the “Stitch & Bitch” group which was such a support for me when I first arrived.  It’s going to be great to celebrate at home after so long away, but there will definitely be a toast to absent friends at my dinner table this year.

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Forever Expat

“The harsh reality is that you are forever going to feel like you don’t belong,” says Robin Pascoe in her book Homeward Bound, speaking about the tradeoffs we make for the many benefits of expatriate life.  That blunt statement hit me right between the eyes with the certainty of an undisputed truth.

In the Afterword of the same book, Dr Kirsten Thogersen, a clinical psychologist, agrees, “There is no way you will every again be assimilated with a group of people who have not been travelling like yourself.” 

For the past 14 years I’ve lived as an outsider and been very happy, so why should I expect it be any different now that I’m home?  I believe it’s an acceptable price to pay for all the amazing experiences I’ve had as an expat.  Although it’s tempting to think those who haven’t travelled must be boring, many of the people I met in other countries hadn’t travelled either and I found them fascinating.   I may never fully assimilate, but people at home lead interesting lives just as the locals I met overseas did. 

And yes, I guess I am still trying to convince myself, but reading Robin’s book has certainly helped me a great deal and I strongly recommend it to any expatriate, even those who don’t go home, as eventually everyone settles somewhere and will go through the whole expatriate-withdrawal process.

Since returning to Canada 6 months ago I have started this blog, connected with many involved in the expat world through social media and starting volunteering with Families in Global Transition.  I had thought these were a temporary means to “hang on” to the expat life I’d left behind and perhaps I was being a bit desperate and sad.  But reading Robin’s book has made me realize that’s not the case.  Even though a chapter of my life may have ended, expatriate life will always be a part of me.  I am a forever expat.

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Thankful for Friends

I love my computerToday is Thanksgiving in Canada and it’s the first time in 5 years that I’ve been here to celebrate it.  This has been a rollercoaster year for my family.  Repatriation has and still does bring its highs and lows. 

But today I’m focusing on the positive and thinking of what I’m truly thankful for.  One of the best things about our travels has been the opportunity to meet so many different people; people of different nationalities, different religions, and from all walks of life.  They’ve opened my eyes, broadened my mind and shown me generosity and kindness beyond measure.

The students who used to come to my apartment in Baku to practise their English are now all working, some are married and all have realized their ambition to travel.  Last year I was able to return to visit and they were so generous with their hospitality.  I’ve lost touch with the sweet young Egyptian woman who taught me Arabic in Cairo, and also the lovely Korean lady who invited a small group of us to her home to enjoy traditional home cooking.  But I’m doing a better job of keeping in touch with my most recent friends from Dubai, most of whom are fellow expats, some also now repatriating or moving on to new adventures.

The internet, still in its infancy when we first headed overseas, has probably changed the lives of expats as much as any other group.  Email, Facebook, online chat and forums are now essential tools we can’t imagine living without.  My computer is my window on the world.

And so as I sit down to my turkey dinner later today, I will raise a toast to absent friends.  Maybe I’ll see them again, maybe I won’t, but they continue to enrich my life and I am thankful for them.

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The Disenfranchised Expat

Vote_800x1200It’s probably the last thing you think of when heading off on an expat assignment, and perhaps many don’t care, but you will probably be losing your right to vote, if not immediately then within a short period of time depending on your citizenship.

An article in today’s Telegraph points out that most British expats don’t register to vote, even though they can do so for 15 years after leaving the country.  Big deal, you may say, if you don’t live in a country you ought not to be able to vote and in some circumstances I would agree.  When I emigrated from the UK 30 years ago I continued to vote there for a while, but soon realized that my allegiance was to my new home in Canada and it was inappropriate for me to vote in a country where I no longer had strong ties. 

But most expats don’t take up citizenship in the countries in which they live either because they’re ineligible or intend to return home at some point, so like it or not they can easily become disenfranchised.  It’s not just a matter of how long you’ve been away, it can also be due to logistical difficulties or even a reluctance to impact your tax status.  They say you only long for things you can’t have so perhaps that’s why I found I missed being able to participate in the political process when we started the expat life.  Now that I’ve returned to Canada I can add being able to vote to my “positives” list for repatriation.

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Re-entry shock

CryingThe practical problems arising from repatriation can be anticipated and planned for but the emotional adjustments are much more difficult to handle.  A lot has been written about the emotional toll of repatriation, but where are the constructive suggestions on what to do about it? 

While you’re away:-

Read about it.  Do an internet search on repatriaton, re-entry shock, reverse culture shock.  This will  prepare you in advance and when you’re feeling low you’ll know that you’re not alone and you’re not going mad!  Only someone who’s been through it can fully understand it.  Most family, friends and co-workers  will expect you to slot right back in after a week or two.  After all, you’re home, right?

Stay in touch with family and friends back home.  They’ll be an important support system when you return.  But also realize they can’t appreciate what you’re going through.  If you meet up with them during vacations you’ll probably notice the glazed look in their eyes when you talk about your life overseas.   The solution is to focus on what you do have in common, which is why regular contact with them while you’re away is so important. 

Keep up with the news.  Follow the local newspapers and magazines while you’re away.  Most are online these days.  Keeping abreast of the issues will help you stay connected and ease the transition.

Observe the holidays.  Of course it’s important to learn about the new culture you’re living in overseas, but don’t neglect your own traditions.  In many locations you’ll find expat clubs eager to help you celebrate everything from Thanksgiving to Novruz.

Once you’ve repatriated:-

Make some new friends to supplement your old ones, just in case you’re not as close as you were.  Not easy to do, I know.  In expat locations it’s much easier to find a fellow expat who’s looking for company.  Back home everyone seems to have known everyone since kindergarten and it can be hard to break in.  The good news though is that living overseas has probably improved your social skills.  Join a club, pursue a hobby, take a class.

Stay in touch with  your expat friends overseas.  They are a valuable emotional support network.  There’s a real temptation to hole up until you’re “over it” and perhaps some reluctance about admitting things are tough, but a complete and total silence will leave them hurt and puzzled.  Although your level of connection with them is bound to change over time it should happen slowly and naturally.  In the meantime they can provide a virtual social network for you while you rebuild and develop new friendships at home.

Give it time.  You’re grieving for your former life.  Just as it takes time to get over the death of a loved one, so it will take time to come to terms with your repatriation.  The life you had is not lost, it’s still within you.  I once read that you go out expecting to change the world and come back realizing the world changed you.  That’s very true.  Be glad you’ve had the experience and know that you are richer for it.

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Plan B

SavingWhen moving overseas you always need to have a Plan B.  What will you do if it all comes to a screeching halt?  What if you just don’t like the job or the location?  Your new boss is intolerable?  The schooling for your kids isn’t working out?  Heaven forbid one of you gets seriously ill and needs to return for medical treatment.  There are many reasons why you may return home before your planned date (assuming you had a planned date to start with), so better be prepared with an exit strategy.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a permanent employee or a contract hire, read the small print and you’ll probably find you can be asked to leave on a month’s notice (or two if you’re lucky).  Check the terms for termination closely.  For example, will you have to repay relocation expenses or housing/school fee loans if you leave in the first year? 

A place to live.  If your original home is sold or rented out, what will it cost to rent a place? Is staying with relatives or friends an option you want to consider?  Furnished short-term rentals can be pricey.  And yes, it will have to be furnished as it could take your shipment of household goods 6-8 weeks to arrive.   As an aside, if you do own a home, think long and hard before selling up before leaving.  For some (Canadians in particular) it may make senses for tax purposes, but being out of the housing market for a few years can put you in a situation where you can’t replace the home you used to have when you return.

Your shipment.  Check the customs regulations for your home country if you plan to bring household goods back with you.  Canada, for example, requires everything to be at least 6 months old in order to be exempt from duty, and you can only bring a car back if the exact same model was sold as a new vehicle in the Canadian market.

Health insurance.  If you have a government plan, will you be immediately eligible?  If not, add insurance to your budget.

Schooling.  If you return mid-year, can the children go straight back into your local school? 

Tax implications.  Many countries require you to be away for a fixed number of days in order to avoid paying tax.  I’ve known expats wander the globe, staying with friends or even backpacking in Asia because they can’t afford to go home before the end of the tax year.  If you did end up in this situation, how would you handle it?

An income.  There might be a period of unemployment, particularly if you were hired specifically for an overseas assignment.  A long time ago a recruiter told my husband that for every $10,000 of annual salary it can take a month to find a similar job. 

A rainy day fund.  If it’s all starting to sound a bit expensive, then you’re right.  These days many employers won’t pay much more than a cheap airfare to repatriate employees.  Shipping treasured possessions, or even just a few extra suitcases, can be expensive.  So the first thing you should do when you get your first big fat expat paycheck is open a savings account!

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Begin at the End – Repatriation

RepatriationRepatriation is one of the first things you should think about when starting a new assignment, even though it’s probably the last thing on your mind.  Almost no one talks about it; it seems to be almost a taboo subject, despite the fact that anyone who’s been through it, will tell you it’s the hardest part of expat life.

I’m starting this blog just as I’m experiencing our third repatriation.  For us the situation has always been compounded by the ending of employment and the beginning of a job hunt that can last many months.  But it is the reverse culture shock and social isolation, not just from friends in our former location but from expats generally, that is more stressful than the temporary loss of income.

A friend who repatriated to the UK wrote this to me a full 18 months after returning home.  “We are just about getting sorted out to what appears normal UK life, but boy it takes time as you miss so much. The friendship and things we did together it’s just not here.  People are so tunnel visioned, they don’t see beyond going to work and coming home.”

From South Africa another friend wrote just this week “I think I left a large part of my heart in Dubai – I cried when I arrived as I was so isolated and then cried even more when I left as I had made so many friends.  I often wonder where everyone has now gone, all over the world, continuing with lives as before, but at the same time fond memories of our times shared in Dubai.”

But there are steps we can take at the beginning of the relocation process and during our time overseas help ourselves prepare.  I’ll talk about some of the practical ones in my next post.

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