Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 2

IMG_0423Day 2 of the conference I decided on a slower start which unfortunately meant missing out on that day’s Early Bird discussions over breakfast.  I arrived just in time to grab a coffee and something to eat during the announcements before heading off to my first session.

As I chose Eva Lazslo-Herbert’s presentation entitled “Living Whilst Surviving.”  I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but I’d heard rave reviews of her keynote speech at the 2012 conference.  Born in Transylvania she has lived and worked her way across Europe acquiring languages, in the way most of us gather stamps in our passport.  Using her own family history, she spoke to us about their resilience (both emotional and moral) in living through wars, forced relocations and even prison camps.  It was very personal and very moving.  Just some of her wise words:

  • The only thing that defines you, is who you think you are
  • Live in the moment
  • Don’t forget, but do forgive
  • Be independent, think what can *I* do?
  • Give back
  • Love the child you have, not the child you want
  • Stop the glorification of busy

From there I moved on to a very hands-on session with Rachel Yates, entitled “Family Focused Assessment in Relocation Planning.”  I’m not a visual or artistic person and was at first a bit skeptical of her approach to needs assessment,  using posters, images, glue and scissors.  Divided into groups at large round tables, we quickly got over our inhibitions as we imagined ourselves as a family moving to Kenya.  As we put together our poster vision of what our lives would be like, we quickly realized we were having meaningful discussions over not just housing (would we live in a glamorous villa or a cramped high rise?) schooling but also what would day-to-day life look like and how much time would we really spend on safaris and lying on tropical beaches?  It was a useful and instructive exercise and a great tool for getting the whole family involved.

My last session of the day was with Elizabeth Liang, a TCK actress and actor on the creative process for writing memoirs.  She took us through a series of writing exercises, which I know worked for many in the room, but if I finding writing hard here on my own at home, doing it in a room full of strangers is totally impossible.  But she did provide is with a detailed hand out and one of these days (yes, really) I will try it all again.

All too soon we reassembled in the main hall for the closing of the Conference.  Ruth Van Reken introduced the closing keynote speaker Leila Buck, who was to speak on the topic of goodbyes.  She gave us an amazing performance, combining suspense, tragedy and humour, describing her hasty departure from Lebanon in 2006 when fighting broke out with Israel.

Having made my own goodbyes I reluctantly headed by metro to the airport.  Unlike many who attend, I don’t make my living working with expat families, but this organization feeds my soul, and I know I will keep returning.

Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 1

IMG_0411As always the Families in Global Transition conference sparked a lot of ideas in me, including ideas for future blog posts, but to start with, here is some straight reporting on the conference itself.

One thing everyone comments on about FIGT is the friendly atmosphere.  Those of us who arrived the night before met up in the hotel lounge and it was impossible to tell who was a newcomer and who was an old-timer as the small group quickly fell into animated conversations over drinks and snacks.

You will never be short of something to do at an FIGT conference.  Even discussions over breakfast are organized by topics of interest to the community.  I hosted one such “Early Bird” on HootSuite, one of my favourite social media tools, which morphed into a short workshop when I found most people at the table had never used it and wanted to learn.  Other topics were Parenting from Afar, Close Neighbours (moving to a neighbouring country), Uplanned Repatriations, The Multicultural Self, Setting up an FIGT Affiliate and Adult TCKs/CCKs.

As soon as breakfast was over the conference was officially opened and we were entranced by Pico Iyer, the keynote speaker for well over an hour.  He is one of that rare breed of successful authors who are also eloquent speakers.  Modest, humorous and very perceptive he rolled from one engaging anecdote to another, all pointing to his central theme that even in our increasingly connected world the distances between us remain and in some instances seem to be increasing.

During the break prior to the first session, I headed straight to the bookstore.  Is it just me, or are more and more good expat books being published every year?  The photo above is of the authors who attended this year’s conference and books by many more were available for sale.

For my first session I chose “We Are a Family Case” presented by researchers Debra Miller, Dr Rebecca Powell and Becky’s cousin, Abigail Thornton.  The write-up sounded a little dry, but the topic of adult Third Culture Kids was of interest and the session itself didn’t disappoint.  Research on Becky Powell’s extended family was the topic, comparing those who had been mobile with those who hadn’t and how they formed and maintained relationships.  Fascinating stuff as I really enjoy content that is based on solid research.

After a buffet lunch (excellent food this year!), we gathered in the main ballroom for a new feature in 2013, 7 Ignite sessions.  Similar in style to short TED talks, these presenters were strictly timed to 6 ½ minutes and I’m hoping their presentations will soon be up on YouTube, so stay tuned for the link.

For my second session I chose Building Cultural Intelligence with Trisha Carter, an Intercultural Psychologist who had travelled all the way from Sydney, Australia.  Having followed her for quite a while via Twitter and her newsletter, it was a thrill to meet her in person.

By now my knees were seriously knocking as I was presenting a third session on expat blogging.  Not only was this my first time as an FIGT presenter but the conference microphone I’d requested for my Skyped-in panelist, Maria Foley, had failed to materialize.  Fortunately the rest of my panel of expat bloggers, Linda Janssen, Norman Viss and Rachel Yates didn’t so much as blink at the prospect of huddling around a spindly desktop microphone so that Maria could hear their contributions.  Expat resiliency won the day!  A post dedicated to this presentation will follow soon.

Sorely in need of a stiff drink, I headed off to the last event of the day, an evening reception and was delighted to find that both the drink and canapés were complimentary.  I have to admit that I’m no good at mingling in large groups, but again the organizers had planned an image-matching activity to help us break the ice and meet new people without feeling intimidated or foolish.

Buoyed by the warmth of my favourite expat tribe and not having fainted with fear during my session, I headed off for dinner with friends.  More about Day 2 in a future post.

Out of my comfort zone

Scan 11When I tell my friends that I’ve battled shyness most of my life, many of them laugh in disbelief.

I was the toddler who cried when the bus driver said hello to her and I earned the nickname of “Noddy” when I went the entire first semester of school not speaking to the teacher (I would just nod my head).  My mother often recounted the day I finally rushed home “Mummy, mummy, I SPOKE to Miss Dixon!”  “That’s nice, what did you say?”  “Yes, Miss Dixon” I said with pride.

Making friends for me was always a slow and painful exercise but was made much easier once I married a sociable extrovert.  However when we moved overseas, I suddenly found myself alone and friendless while he was at work.  My shy inner-child re-emerged.  Fortunately in most of the places we lived I found friendly fellow expats who reached out and drew me into tight and friendly expat communities.  In time, I felt comfortable enough to extend my own hand of friendship to newcomers and locals alike.

In Dubai I started hosting a weekly coffee morning for expatriate women.  For the first one there were 5 of us (all friends I had coerced to attend) but soon the group grew to 20 or more.  From time to time I had announcements to make, gulp, I was public speaking!

Looking for a portable career, I enrolled in the CELTA course to learn how to teach English as second language.  It was very intense, very hands-on, involving a lot of teaching practice.  To say I was petrified to stand in front of class of 20 Emirati college students is an understatement.  But I did it and I survived.

As a volunteer I got involved organizing the Terry Fox Run for cancer research. When I  took over as Committee Chair one of my responsibilities was to take the microphone at the starting line to thank all the volunteers.  As I looked out over a crowd of 12,000 people, my relief that we had a record turnout helped overcome my wobbly knees.

Each of these experiences was a valuable step along the road to overcoming my shyness and none would have happened if we hadn’t moved overseas.

This year I’ve been strong-armed asked to moderate a panel discussion on expat blogging at the Families in Global Transition Conference in March. Fortunately the panelists are well known to me, as (I hope) will many of the audience. Inside that little girl is quaking at the prospect, I just hope I can shut her up with cookies. :)

My own Road Home

263922_471110349589494_733036653_nI can’t say that I often get a flash of insight about my own life when watching a film, but I did the first time I saw ‘The Road Home’ at the Families in Global Transition Conference a couple of years ago.

The plot summary on the DVD case tells us “Bullied for insisting he is British despite his Indian heritage, ten-year old Pico runs away from a boarding school in the Himalayas, determined to return to his home in England.  As he journeys through a landscape unknown to him Pico encounters others who mistake him for an Indian boy, forcing him to face the painful truth that the world does not see him the way he sees himself.”

The film mirrors Director, Rahul Gandotra’s, own struggle with his identity, a common issue for Third Culture Kids and his Director’s commentary on the DVD version is well worth watching, once you’ve seen the movie.

Although I’m not a TCK, the notion that the world doesn’t see me the way I see myself lit up a large light bulb in my head.  I immigrated to Canada from the UK in my mid-twenties, took up citizenship as soon as I could and like many immigrants worked fervently to “become Canadian.”  I adopted Canadian English, learned to cross-country ski and bought a BBQ for my back yard :p.  But the one thing I never mastered was a Canadian accent.

So 17 years later when we started travelling again I discovered that, amongst the English speaking expat community at least, I was instantly pegged as British as soon as I opened my mouth.  Even the locals saw me that way sometimes.  And yet that wasn’t how I wanted to be seen.  I was Canadian dammit.  I’d worked hard to become Canadian.  My son was a born-in-Canada Cannuck.  Why couldn’t they see I wasn’t British anymore? I felt a lot like a TCK when asked the question “where are you from?”  “Well, I was born in England, but …” I would begin.

Thirty years after swearing my oath of allegiance to Canada, watching The Road Home  made me realize what I should have known all along, I am both Canadian AND British. I don’t have to stop being British in order to be Canadian.  Just like Pico, I don’t have to choosem; it’s OK to be both.  Duh.  Boy, It certainly took a long time for that penny to drop.

The film, which I highly recommend is now available for purchase or rent.  You’ll find all the information on the The Road Home website.

Not where I should be

I should be at the Families in Global Transition Conference which is starting today, but I’m not.  The reason I’m not there is because I picked up the phone to speak to my medical insurance company after reading about recent incidents with Canadians who’d traveled to the US and ended up with huge medical bills as a result of not understanding their policies.

Now I’m the first to admit that insurance policies are right at the bottom of my reading list. But the helpful woman at the other end of the phone explained that because I’m currently undergoing tests, my coverage won’t extend to some potentially very expensive medical emergencies.  So even though my doctor assures me I’m well enough to travel and in all likelihood I’m healthy as a horse, I could be putting my family’s financial future on the line.  So very reluctantly I cancelled at the last minute.  My apologies to my many friends and colleagues who are shouldering my responsibilities in my absence.

To say I’m frustrated and disappointed is the world’s biggest understatement, but I’m not writing this for your sympathy.  I want to alert you to this ‘loophole,’ which I’m told is a common, even on policies like mine which advertise that they cover you for pre-existing conditions.  I shiver to think about past incidences where I may have traveled unwittingly without coverage.

Rachel Yates at Defining Moves just posted a few days ago with a useful checklist about healthcare for expats, and I’d like to add my tip about checking with your insurer if you have seen a doctor anytime in a 3 month window before you travel.

I’m well aware that this is a privileged expat whinge.  Millions of people don’t have healthcare insurance even in North America, and millions more all over the world don’t have access to healthcare treatment at all.  Despondent though I am at missing this annual get-together with bright international minds, I am thanking my lucky stars for who I am and where I am right now.

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 …

Friends and food

Where do you keep your recipes?  When I first went overseas I had a motley collection of pages torn out of magazines and handwritten scraps of paper which I tucked inside a 1937 cookbook I’d inherited from my mother.  That old recipe book stood me in good stead as I learned to cook in a country where convenience food was almost non-existent.  In many ways it helped me change the way I cook forever, but in time I grew weary of sorting through all the bits of paper and decided to create my own cookbook of family favourites.

It took time to type them all into my computer, but once that was done I could print them out and put them in a 3 ring binder.  Every time we moved countries I’d ditch the binder (one less thing to pack) and print them out again when I arrived in my new location.  Along the way of course I picked up lots of new recipes from the people I met. These ones were special and I would usually name them for the people who gave them to me.  So I have Olga’s Beans, a wonderful stew of beans, dried fruits and caramelized onions, Milli’s Chicken and Rice, her Louisiana speciality and Angele’s Lemon Meringue Pie, an out-of-this world confection and just as easy to make as a can or packet mix.  My latest version of the 3 ring binder is even decorated with many of their photos.

Today is World Blog Action Day and the topic is food, hence this post.  However I’d also like to use this opportunity to ask you to contribute YOUR recipes to a project I’m involved with which is the Families in Global Transition Cookbook Project.  Proceeds from the sale of the book will help to provide scholarships to their annual conference for students, volunteers and non-profits.  And if you want to know which recipe I contributed, you’ll have to buy a copy :)

Research, Resiliency and Writing

Looking back on the Families in Global Transition Conference which I attended just over a week ago, 3 things struck me in particular:

Research

I heard several attendees say that hard facts are what they need; both in their own work and in order to convince others of its value.  So it was good to see that there was a strong focus on research this year.  The opening keynote speech was given by Anne Copeland, a leader in the field of intercultural transitions (many of her research findings are freely available on her website).  There was a special workshop for members of the FIGT Research Network to discuss best practices and their current projects.  And on Friday the afternoon’s sessions were clustered around 5 different research presentations on various aspects of support for globally mobile families.

Resiliency

Resiliency is definitely the new buzz word.  I heard it over and over again.  The cynical side of me might say that this is code for “you’re on your own, buddy” when it comes to organizations supporting expats at a time when most are looking for ways to cut costs.  But in truth expats do need to be resilient, no matter how much assistance is provided.  Duncan Westwood described it as “the ability to bounce back” and that’s a life skill we could all use, expat or not.

Writing

We expats do seem to be compelled to write about our experiences whether it’s blogs, books or bylines, as Jo Parfitt’s presentation was entitled.  The bookstore did a brisk trade and many of the authors were there in person.  Over dinner, Tina Quick and I traded repatriation stories and when she mentioned that many tips in her book “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition” applied to adult repatriates too, I decided to buy it.  Having read excerpts of Alan Paul’s story of his life as an accompanying spouse, “Big in China,” I took advantage of having him sign a copy for me.  And I was so inspired by Joanne Huskey’s closing keynote that I also purchased her book “The Unofficial Diplomat.”  An exclusive pre-release copy of Expatwomen.com’s new book “Expat Women: Confessions” was a tucked inside our registration packs when we arrived.  And as if that wasn’t enough, I WON a Kindle from one of the sponsors, Clements International and am now anxiously waiting for it to arrive.

FIGT is something of a unique group in that most people who attend (including the service providers and representatives of sending organizations) are expats or former expats themselves.  As a result there is a common bond and instant sense of understanding between them.  As a first time attendee said to me “It is nice to feel there is a sector of the population that “gets it”, isn’t it?”

Photos of the 2011 FIGT Conference are available here and you’ll find video interviews with some of the attendees here.

The new expat reality

I’ve read quite a few articles over the past year about “alternative” expat assignments and other ways to do more with less when it comes to relocating international staff.  It’s not only about cutting costs but also a response to the increasing complications of expatriate life – dual career couples, children with special education needs, aging parents.  So I’m happy to see that several sessions at next month’s Families in Global Transition Conference will be addressing these new trends.

Diane Endo, who lives in both the US and Japan, will be talking about Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners.  Several of my friends have commuted while caring for elderly relatives in different countries, and I’ve also lived it, with my husband working away while I stayed home with my son who was finishing high school.  It’s not an easy, or cheap, option, but can be a solution for many families.

Expat Light Trend & Partner Support by Jacqueline Van Haaften will look at the trend toward less generous expat packages and how the need for partner support can still be met.  This will blend well with Doris Fuellgrabe’s talk on Choosing the right expat support services for every budget, which will be an opportunity to learn what kinds of support is available.  Participants will be encouraged to share their personal experiences.

Of course you can always start your own expat support service, just as Anne Copeland did with her International Writer’s Club and the Adjusting to Life in Brookline program run by Liliana Busconi, Andrew Miser and Mindy Paulo.  On a larger scale, Maaike Le Grand will explain how The World Bank Family Network provides support to over 500 families using volunteers to supplement minimal full-time staff.

In total there are over 70 (yes more than 70!) different sessions relevant to everyone from the senior corporate executive to the missionary kid, ranging from up-to-the minute academic research to the latest movie about Third Culture Kids.

It’s good to see that this year’s Conference will again be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the expat world, bringing together all the stakeholders to share what works best and pool their knowledge.  It’s a conference which is primarily educational and always inspirational to those who are, were or work with globally mobile families.  Why don’t you come and check it out?

A Great Job for a Trailing Spouse

I took a hiatus from blogging due to several recent events, most of which are fodder for future blog posts.  The first one being that I’ve started a(nother) new job.

I’m working as a Relocation Specialist for a company which provides destination services.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term it relates to the receiving end of the relocation process.  My job is to help new arrivals in Toronto find a home, schools and daycare, acquire their government documents and generally show them around the city and their new neighbourhood.  It’s part-time, contract work which means I’m self-employed, work from home and get paid by the assignment.

I’m amazed I didn’t think of this job before but put it down to the fact that a) we’ve never been provided destination services by any of the companies who relocated us, so I only vaguely knew such a thing existed and b) my stupidity on not viewing my hometown as an “expat destination.”  I found this job through a referral at the FIGT conference (thank you, you know who you are!) so again would like to plug the importance of networking when job hunting.  In fact the woman who hired me says she ONLY hires via referral which I thought was rather interesting.

While I’m probably a perfect candidate for the job – my former life in real estate in Toronto means I know the city well and having been relocated myself so many times I have a good understanding of my clients’ situation – in reality I’ve found it quite a learning curve.  So at the moment I’m investing a huge amount of time researching everything from how to get a government health card for an infant who’s not a Canadian citizen, to night clubs and restaurants for young, single professionals.  Not only have many things changed in Toronto since I last lived here, but some things I never needed or experienced.  So far it’s fun, interesting but also a bit scary as I’m expected to be a seasoned Toronto expert and yet I still feel far from it.

A destination service specialist/consultant is a great job for any trailing spouse as they’re needed pretty much anyplace you find expats.

Pros

  • Flexible hours
  • Not stuck in an office
  • I’m learning lots about my city

Cons

  • Workload varies and therefore income varies
  • Dependent on someone else finding work for me
  • Tiring if driving around for a full day
  • Some weekend work (although I can decline it)
  • Business calls can be at any time
  • Working alone

Requirements

  • Knowledge of the city you live in
  • Willingness to learn and research
  • Strong people skills
  • A 4-door car
  • Computer, printer, cell phone

In my former, pre-expat life, I was self-employed as a real estate appraiser, so in many respects the job and lifestyle are similar.  However for anyone used to working regular hours in an office it could be quite an adjustment.  My biggest problem so far is missing the interaction with colleagues because I’m working from home.  I probably need to find some kind of local networking group, but if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

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