Book Review: The Ruby: A re-entry survival story by Suzanne Johnson

Book review: The Ruby: A repatriation survival storyThere’s something compelling about personal stories.  It’s not just the guilty pleasure of vicariously living someone else’s life, it’s also revealing as to what really works and what doesn’t when it comes to facing life’s challenges.

There are  few books written on the subject of repatriation and reverse culture shock, and the ones I’ve found most useful have been written as personal stories rather than the earnest “how to manual’ approach.

The first half of Suzanne Johnson’s The Ruby: A re-entry survival story is devoted to describing her family’s expatriate experience working at a missionary-run orphanage in Mozambique.  Having been paid substantial sums of money to live in locations far less challenging, I have the utmost admiration for those who do so on their own nickel.  She certainly makes it sound rewarding, and even fun in places, although that doesn’t include the episode when a nearby exploding arms depot literally rained shells on top of them.

Although half the book is NOT about repatriation, this section is an entirely enjoyable and interesting read and of course sets us up for a deeper understanding of the profound re-entry shock Suzanne faced upon returning to life in the UK.

Her biggest challenge was re-integrating into her church community, perhaps a more tight-knit community than many of us come from, but the issues she faced are common to all repatriates – grief and loss for the friends and life left behind, identity crisis, values which no longer align with friends and family and no one who understands the pain you’re experiencing.  I found I related strongly to the emotions she describes, although I have to admit I was left wondering whether her faith was as much a hindrance as a help in her gradual readjustment.

Repatriation is still a topic most expatriates don’t talk about much.  It’s almost like death; in fact many would describe it as the death of a way of life.  But it is a transition you get through eventually.  Books like The Ruby are valuable for anyone in the midst of this difficult and often lengthy process.  Knowing that your feelings are not unique, that others have struggled with similar issues and resolved them, one way or another, is sustaining.

This book is well written and definitely worth a read.  All proceeds from sales are donated to the Zimpeto Children’s Centre where Suzanne worked.

Happy Day Off!

Canada Day 2013

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Today is Canada Day and so we have a long weekend here in Canada.  It’s another thing I enjoy about repatriating, knowing exactly when the holidays will be and that we will get time off from work (actually that’s 2 things).

We spent 8 years in the Middle East where many of the public holidays are religious ones.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year the holidays move forward about 11 or 12 days.  Many Muslim countries rely on their scientists to tell them when the holidays will fall and the dates are fixed well in advance, but the UAE still relies on a “Moon Sighting Committee” to go out into the desert (to get away from the bright city lights) and literally look for the new moon before these important events are proclaimed.  It’s a charming tradition, but not only does it mean the dates are often different in the UAE than elsewhere, it also means they’re unknown until the night before the holiday starts.

For expats this creates a bit of a problem if you’re planning a short getaway.  When you’re booking time off work you have to play Russian roulette with your vacation days, as they may or may not get used depending on when exactly the holiday falls.

To make things even more complicated there is no requirement for companies to give you a day off in lieu if the holiday falls on a weekend, and many choose not to do so, even western ones.  With Eid holidays lasting 2 or 3 days twice a year, it seemed you’d always ‘lose’ at least a day or two.

And on the topic of weekends, that too can cause problems.  When we first moved to Dubai the local weekend was Thursday and Friday.  All government offices were closed, and because the Ministry of Education was closed, all schools, even international ones, had to close too.  Many companies that did business outside of the Middle East chose to take a Friday-Saturday weekend, to avoid being out of touch for 4 days of the week.

As a result expat families with children ended up with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend-ish, which was really neither one thing nor the other.  It worked well for those who liked a day exclusively with the children and a day exclusively with their spouse (with Friday as the true family day sandwiched in between), but I found it a difficult adjustment to make.

Fortunately by the time we returned to Dubai for our second stint, they had switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, but it still took me many years to get my head around Sunday being a workday.

Here in Canada our holidays are either firm dates on the calendar (like July 1) or tied to a long weekend (like Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October).  In the years we were away they even added a new holiday – Family Day  – on the 3rd Monday in February.  In a country with a long cold winter it’s a welcome respite during the long slog between Christmas and Easter.  But enough words, it’s sunny and warm outside and the barbeque is calling . . .

4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well

Peeling back the layers on expat repatriation

Courtesy Stock Xchng

Maybe Steve Jobs was right and we can only connect the dots looking backwards.  At one point I would have said that I had no advice for anyone repatriating other than to simply hang on and get through it.  But now, looking back, I can see that there were at least 4 things that I probably did right, even though it didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time.



Leave well

We had more notice of this last repatriation than we’d ever had before, several months in fact.  This meant there was time both to say our farewells to people and places and start thinking about life back home.  Two essential elements of the RAFT model for transition.

Although I’ve never heard it recommended, I also found it helpful that we stopped off on the way back to visit with family in the UK.  That mini-break created a bit of a buffer between the two realities and landing in Canada didn’t seem like such a jolt.

Choose your destination wisely

We were fortunate that we were repatriating to a very multicultural and diverse city, our home in Toronto.  I’ve often said that I don’t need to travel anymore, because the world now comes to me.  Rubbing shoulders (quite literally on my subway ride to work each day) with people from all around the world makes me still feel connected to a much wider world. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances who have repatriated to small-town anywhere suggests that the cultural adjustment is much more difficult.  Something to think about if you’re planning to retire to a rural utopia.

Look inward

Bizarre though it sounds, signing up for Twitter and LinkedIn, when I first returned was a really valuable exercise.  At the time, my intention was simply to learn about this new social media phenomenon and find myself a job, but in hindsight coming up with the required summary/brief description of myself, compelled me to think long and hard about who I had become while living overseas and what I wanted for my life going forward.

Don’t sever the expat cord

I believe that one of the reasons there is so little written about repatriation is that many repats feel they must close the book on being an expatriate.  Even though I claim that I’m a ‘forever expat’ I admit to feeling occasionally that maybe I’m just a sad ex-expat to still be writing about my experiences.  But I know that it’s been helpful to my adjustment to acknowledge and celebrate my expat life rather than pretend it never happened.   A life lived in many countries is part of who I am and that’s never going to go away.

Even though I’ve talked about how little my international experience was valued when I was interviewing for jobs, it was someone in my international network who referred me to my previous position and on several occasions I’ve been able to connect people across the globe.  Staying connected on social media with those you met overseas can have valuable practical benefits as well as social ones (subject to the usual caveats).

It seems we only become wise after an event.  Four years have passed since we returned to Canada and every year I’ve blogged an annual “state of the nation” about my adjustment, each one peeling back yet another layer of the onion.  I wonder when, or even if, the adjustment will be complete?

A Middle Eastern Christmas

IMG_0345They say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and that certainly seems to be true in our household this Christmas.

Christmases overseas were spent pursuing the British traditions of my childhood – a decorated tree with gifts piled beneath it and dinner of turkey with stuffing, brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes and of course mince pies and Christmas cake in abundance.  None of which was an easy achievement when living in Muslim countries and often involved shopping for vital ingredients and supplies while on summer vacation (Christmas crackers and mincemeat in August?  Hmmm).  It also involved learning to cook a lot of things from scratch, as there were no microwave stuffing mixes or pre-basted turkeys in Baku in 1998.

When we first returned to Canada I enjoyed the convenience of having everything to hand just when I needed it, but this year, having cooked a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, the thought of doing it all again so soon seemed, well, blah.  A foodie friend (who will also be my guest on Christmas Day) suggested a lamb tagine and the idea caught my imagination.  Why not a Middle Eastern themed Christmas Dinner?  After all, Mary & Joseph wouldn’t have been tucking into turkey and cranberry sauce all those years ago, more like hummus and tabouleh.

So now here I am again tracking down elusive ingredients like tahini paste, sumach and rose water as I prepare for the big day next week.  I’ve pulled out the cook book which friends in Dubai gave me as a leaving present and I’m chopping and blending as I cook from scratch, just as I did in my days in Baku.

Seems no matter where I am, I’m thinking of someplace else.

An Insider’s Guide to the FIGT Conference

A recent blog post by Rachel Yates about her fear of attending an Families in Global Transition Conference got me thinking about the first one I went to in 2010.  Like Rachel I was daunted by my fellow FIGTers.  They all seemed so well qualified and successful and there was I, recently repatriated, unemployed and feeling pretty useless.  I’d never attended a professional conference before and had no idea what to expect.  So I have every sympathy for Rachel’s nerves and would like to share what I’ve learned since then.

It’s far friendlier than you’d expect.  At the last conference, Anne Copeland conducted an informal poll to determine our expatriate and intercultural experiences.  Everyone in the room stood up for something and one thing was clear, we all knew what it means to feel you don’t belong.  David Pollock described FIGT as the “biggest reunion of strangers”  and no matter who I sat next to, striking up a conversation was easy.   One tip, if you arrive the night before the conference begins, the early arrivals get together for dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Join us, it’s fun and by the time the conference starts you’ll already know a few people.

What the hell are Kitchen Table Conversations?  They’re a nod to the genesis of FIGT around the kitchen table of Ruth Van Reken.  For two one-hour periods a couple of rooms are set up with large round tables seating 8-12 people.  Each one is labelled with a topic and led by a presenter.  You pick one, and for 15 minutes listen to a short presentation and discuss the topic.  It’s then time to move to another table (and another topic) for the next 15 minutes.  Allowing time for all the moving around, you attend 3 Kitchen Table conversations in an hour.  They are fast, noisy and not everyone likes them for these reasons, but they’re a great way to get a quick overview of a topic, meet and hear a lot of presenters.  For those who’d rather not, there are Kitchen Table Alternatives – 2 one hour sessions – usually something creative and/or hands-on.

Dine-Around happens on the Friday night.  This is a free evening, not included in the conference program, but if you don’t know anyone well and don’t want to eat alone, sign up early in the day at the registration area.  There will be a selection of restaurants to choose from and at the appointed time each group with gather at the hotel and leave together, often on foot.  If the restaurant is willing, we ask for separate checks.

Early Bird Sessions are informal conversations over breakfast.  As you come downstairs in search of coffee you’ll see that the breakfast tables are labelled by topic.  The food is buffet style, so grab a plate, take a seat and join the discussion.  There is no formal presentation, but each table is moderated by a volunteer to ensure everyone stays on topic and gets a chance to speak.  There’s no need to stay at one table, so feel free to dip your toes into several conversations if you wish.

By now you’ve probably realized the schedule is VERY intense.  I’m usually flagging by the afternoon of the second day and by the end of the conference I’m exhausted.  It’s my own fault because I can’t bear to miss anything, but if you’re someone who needs quiet time to reflect, take some time out to be on your own and don’t feel you have to attend everything.  Browse the bookstore, take a walk or collapse in your room.

This year, I’m presenting for the first time – just a Kitchen Table conversation – so nothing too scary but already I’ve got butterflies.  It’s amazing to realize how far I’ve come in just two years, thanks in large part to support and knowledge I’ve gained by attending this unique conference.  And all because I replied to a tweet …

Home at last

My friend Maria over at iwasanexpatwife.com has inspired me to write my own retrospective of 2011.  It may have been a train wreck for her, but for me the train finally arrived in the station in terms of my repatriation.  What made it happen?

Finding a purpose.  For me that meant finding a job I truly enjoy, but it could easily have been a hobby, a sport or a volunteer activity.  Having a reason to get up in the morning, doing something that’s fun and being valued for it are things we all need and yet they often get blown out of the water when we relocate.  This is my third job in 2 years, so it has been a bumpy road.

Making friends.  This past year I’ve acquired a few more new friends and acquaintances.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that they too had (or still have) international lives.  I’ve also reconnected more deeply with old friends and I suspect that’s partly due to the fact that I, and they, no longer feel I’m about to pack my bags and head out again any time soon.

My family’s settled.  I guess this is very much an expat wife thing, because we’re notorious for getting our families settled before looking after ourselves.  Although we all repatriated at different times, I now feel both my husband and son are happy and settled, or at least as much as TKCs are likely to be.

This is the same list you’d make for adjusting to any new location, but there’s no doubt that repatriation adds a huge extra layer of complexity.  For us, a period of unemployment during a particularly difficult economic period created additional stress, but the emotional baggage of who we are now vs who we were before expatriation was the killer and affected every aspect of our lives.  Having said that, like many of life’s major challenges, it has been a time of learning and growth.  Perhaps every dark cloud does have a silver lining.

Many expatriates don’t have a home to come back to, either because they’ve been global nomads all their lives or have permanently cut the ties to what was home.  But for us knowing we had not only a country, but a house to call home, was an important touchstone during those inevitable down days of life overseas, so I don’t regret it.  However, during the early days of culture shock when you repatriate and find home doesn’t feel comfortable, safe or even pleasant anymore, it’s like having the rug pulled completely out from under you.  No wonder it takes so long to re-establish a sense of security and comfort.

So what now, going forward?  I’m really not sure and, given past experience, I’m not sure I want to know, LOL!  But one thing I do know is that I am a forever-expat.  I continue to rejoice in my expat friendships, my volunteer work with Families in Global Transition and the Toronto Newcomers Club, so please continue to watch this space.

English As She Is Spoke*

When I first arrived in Canada it came as quite a surprise to me to discover I spoke a different language, despite having emigrated here from an English speaking country (the UK).  Aisha, a more recent arrival, wrote a great blog post listing the new words she’s had to learn and I made the following comment.

“I will always remember my first day of working in Canada in 1979. I was sent downstairs to the coffee shop to buy coffee and muffins. I looked high and low for “muffins” but all I could find were “buns”   Returning without them, a patient but amused colleague had to take me back down again and explain what “muffins” were in Canada.”

Like many immigrants I was determined to pick up the lingo as soon as possible in order to become “Canadian,” and I quickly learned to say “tomayto” and “garbage” instead of “tomahhto” and “rubbish.”

While this was my first encounter with another form of the English language, it certainly wasn’t the last.  In Baku I discovered a surprising number of locals were fluent in English, even though they’d never met a native English speaker.  All their studying had been done from textbooks written in the 1950s and long playing gramophone records of similar vintage from the BBC.  As a result they all spoke like the Queen ;)  You can imagine their confusion when they encountered English speaking oil workers from Aberdeen and Houston.

I frequently found myself playing the role of interpreter between the English speaking expats.  “I’m going for ma messages, hen” (I’m going shopping, dear) would baffle the Texans, while any American reference to “fanny packs” would turn the Scots pink with embarrassment.

Amaliya, my Russian teacher, once asked me how to pronounce “ask.”  Was it a long “a” as in “park” or a short one as in “pack?”  She wasn’t happy with my answer that both were correct.  In fact even within the UK both are correct, depending on which part of the country you’re from, and don’t even get me started on my Louisiana friend who would say “Can I aks you a question?”

In Dubai there were South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders with their breezy slang, “no worries, mate” and “come for a Barbie” as well as the Indian tailor who made me “a trouser” (pair of pants), the Pakistani taxi driver who picked me up from the “backside” (rear) of my building, and my young Filipino friends who went “malling” (shopping) at the weekend.  This funny blog post lampooning “Dubai English” which it describes as a cheerful combination of Arabic, English, Hindi/Urdu and Tagalog spoken with a sing-song accent will make you smile if you’re familiar with any of those cultures.

I love the fact that so many people have taken English and changed it to suit their circumstances, whether as a first, second, third language.  Not only does it make life much easier for me, lol (my attempts to learn other languages haven’t met with much success) but it also makes for a bubbling hot pot of words and phrases that tickle my senses.

Now that I’m back in Canada I’m doing my best to speak “Canadian” again, but find I’m reluctant to give up all the fun vocabulary I’ve picked up along the way.  Perhaps I’ll settle for speaking a bit of everything; it suits my new hybrid identity.

*”English As She Is Spoke” is the title of a 19th century book intended as a Portuguese/English phrase book, notorious for its dreadful but humorous translations.

No more goodbyes

As August draws to a close it’s a time of year when many goodbyes are being said. Vacations are over and expats are heading back “home.” It’s also a time when many expat teenagers are packing up and leaving for university, an exciting and scary time for them, and for parents a time of anxiety mixed with pride over their soon-to-be independent offspring. But all involve goodbyes.

Our repatriation two years ago wasn’t planned. As I tried to get my head around it and find the positives in the situation, one of them was that there would be far fewer goodbyes in my life. I had always hated saying goodbye to expat friends as they moved on and goodbyes to my son and friends in Canada after our annual visits. The life of a global nomad is full of goodbyes.

When we set off on our last expat assignment we left our then 18 year old son behind in Canada at university. That was probably the most difficult goodbye of all. As we waited in the front hallway for the airport taxi to arrive, he said wryly “Isn’t it the kid who’s supposed to leave home to start university?” I cried all the way to the airport and the birthday card he sent me, just a few weeks later, didn’t help any either. But the excitement and activity of setting up a new home soon distracted me. At least I was spared the heartache of walking past his empty bedroom every morning.

He has a knack for always choosing great cards. He also calls me “Chief,” reflecting my true status in our family ;-)

We soon fell into a routine of emails and Skype calls, he came to visit us for Christmas, we visited him during the summer. If I count the hours we spent together, we probably had as much time in each other’s company as many non-expat families and yet the goodbyes each time we parted never got easier and the next visit seemed aeons away. I believe expat life brought us closer together as a family. We three were close before we started living overseas and perhaps that helped us to deal with the transitions.  But I also think the shared adversity, dealing with the initial strangeness and loneliness each time we moved, made us more reliant on each other and brought us closer than before. It’s a good thing, except when you have to part.

So my heart goes out to those who are currently saying goodbye and I’m relieved I’m not amongst you. I know it may not always be this way. One day no doubt my son will move away, or who knows, maybe we’ll move away again. But until then I’m happy not to have to say goodbye.

Third Culture Kids starting careers

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a pot luck dinner for a bunch of young adult Third Culture Kids.  Alaine Handa and her dance company were in town, performing at the Toronto Fringe Festival and they came together with several others connected with the local TCK community.

As we chatted the conversation naturally turned to these young people’s careers.   All were at some stage on the path to establishing themselves in the working world and several were living outside their home country or not in the same country as their parents.  Anyone with a 20-something child knows how difficult it is these days for young people to get a start.  Getting any job is hard, and there are often many false starts and changes of direction.  From my own family’s experience I know it is hard when kids can’t tap into their parents’ network of contacts, friends and colleagues.  Many TCKs haven’t held part-time jobs through high school and trail competing candidates when it comes to local work experience.

Watching my own son look for his first job, together with my own job search upon repatriation, was an eye-opener for me on how much the working world has changed in recent years.  Internships and contract work are the norm, as are many more part-time jobs with evening and weekend hours than used to be the case.  Employees, even freshly minted grads, are expected to perform “out-of-the-box,” with little or no training and flexibility is key.

While TCKs may lag their contemporaries when it comes to contacts and experience, many of the common characteristics of TCKs will stand them in good stead in this new environment.

  • The ability to adapt quickly to new situations
  • Willingness to relocate
  • A sense of urgency (let’s do it now, before we move again)
  • Self confidence and independence
  • Observational skills
  • Fluency in more than one language
  • Cross cultural skills
  • A global network of social contacts (which may eventually turn into business contacts)
  • A big picture view

Far from being at a disadvantage, I suspect that today’s TCKs have a significant advantage over their stay-at-home counterparts.  Certainly these particular TCKs seem to be taking it all in their stride.

Repatriation – Two Years On

It’s time for my annual report on the state of my repatriation.  Last year I optimistically wrote “I’m gradually putting my life back together again.”  Looking back I think I was trying to convince myself that was the case.  After all, things SHOULD have been going well.  I had found a job which OUGHT to be have been perfect for a trailing spouse and my husband had started a new job in Canada, after spending most of the first year of our repatriation working overseas again.  In theory all the pieces of the jigsaw were finally coming together.

But of course life never runs as smoothly as you would wish and that’s certainly very true with repatriation.  Just when you think you’re finally getting over it, there’s a setback; three steps forward and two steps back.  I found my new “perfect” job to be isolating and as my husband dealt with his reverse culture shock upon repatriating, I relived it all again through him.

So by the beginning of 2011 I resolved to find a new job and eventually in April started working for a couple of Toronto’s top real estate agents.  It involves many of the skills I’ve acquired along the way and enjoy using – administration (I started life as a secretary, back in the day when that was a job title to be proud of), real estate (I worked for 15 years as a real estate appraiser), social media (my newfound interest since repatriating) and relocation (my last gig).  It’s busy, interesting and the people I work with love what they do, which makes for a very positive atmosphere.

This last year I’ve also, FINALLY, made some new friends right here in Toronto who understand my expat experience.  Not that my long-distance friends aren’t important, but I need to have people I can talk to face-to-face sometimes and it’s got me out of my internet cocoon.  For that I also have to thank my last job in Destination Services, because that did at least get me exploring and reconnecting with Toronto again.  As an admitted computerholic, I’ve been very bad at taking my own advice about getting out and meeting people.

So now, two years on, I can truly say that I’m glad to be here, and when my husband, who is still struggling with his reverse culture shock, muses about the possibility of going overseas again, I’m not instantly exhilarated and ready to pack my suitcase again.  Which is not to say it won’t ever happen, just that it’s good to feel good about where I am now.  It’s taken a long time and I will enjoy it while it lasts.