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?

Career choices and the expat partner: what I could have done differently

Woman Using Computer“If only I’d known then what I know now” is not something I say often, partly because I don’t believe in crying over spilt milk and partly because the world changes so rapidly that often today’s solutions just weren’t available back then.  But an upcoming webinar on portable careers for expat spouses has got me thinking about what I would do the same and what I would do differently with my career, if I were to do it all again today.

Same: I would be a stay-at-home mom until my son finished school.  I am forever thankful that I had an opportunity to be both a working mum (before expatriation) and a SAHM (during expatriation) and to experience the joys and frustrations of both.

Different: I would have studied more while I wasn’t working.  Distance learning when we first went overseas would have been difficult but not impossible, these days it’s just a mouse click away and the choices are almost limitless.

Same: I would study the local language.  Even though I know now that hell will freeze over before I could work in another language, it is such an insight into the local culture and even just a few words and phrases make everyday life so much easier.

Different: I would find a mentor or coach to brainstorm with from time-to-time.  Like many expats I had no idea how long we would live overseas.  Even those who have fixed term contracts often find they are extended or cancelled.  I had never heard the term “portable career” and I didn’t realize that once my spouse had an international resume, more international assignments would follow.  Years slip away before you realize what’s happening.  If I were doing it again I would conduct an annual review of my situation and goals, ideally with someone who has expat experience, an unbiased opinion and enough guts to tell me what I need to hear (in other words, probably not a close friend)!

Same: I would do a lot of volunteer work.  Looking back I can see I learned a hell of a lot doing things I didn’t get paid for and with a bit of creativity they can be made to look quite impressive on a resume. Nobody ever asks how much you got paid. ;)

Different: When I did finally return to the paid workforce overseas I would have looked harder for something related to my original profession.  My personal experience, and what I’ve heard anecdotally from other expats, is that starting a new career when overseas often doesn’t translate well when you return home.  I found prospective employers here far more interested in what I did in Canada 15 years ago than what I did in Dubai 1 year ago.  But maybe that’s just me and Canada, and for those who never return to their country of origin it wouldn’t apply anyway.

The webinar, “Creating a Flexible Career for the Accompanying Spouse,” is hosted by a new Canadian group, Spouses Without Borders, but is open to anyone who has an interest in this topic.  It is on Tuesday, January 29 at 8.30am EST (1.30pm UK time) and you can register here.   I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

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. :)

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?

Repatriation – One Year On

Most trailing spouses suffer from an identity crisis when they first move overseas.  But for me the crisis came when I repatriated.

At the time we left Canada to move to Azerbaijan 15 years ago, I was happy to toss away my old identity.  I had a career which occupied me 50 hours a week, my son was always last to be picked up from daycare and I had a house and large garden to look after.  With a husband who travelled 50% of the time I used to joke that I was a single mom without dating privileges.  Giving up all that stress and hard work to stay home and bake cookies was bliss.  I spent 10 years catching up on my sleep deficit alone!  Finally I had time to spend time with girlfriends – other trailing spouses – indulge in hobbies and see new and exciting places.  What wasn’t to like about my new identity as a trailing spouse?

But my lack of a career did eventually start to gnaw away at me.  It bothered me that I had no answer to the question on forms which asked for “occupation.”  When my son left for university I found some part-time work and then a full-time job supporting other expatriate women.  I was confident, happy and knew exactly, who I was.  And then came repatriation.

Suddenly I wasn’t an expat anymore.  I wasn’t even a trailing spouse.  I had no job.  I was invisible.  I didn’t know who I was anymore.  It was intensely frustrating, humiliating even that a 14 hour plane ride could erase my identity so completely.  I threw myself into job-hunting and  took a job I knew was wrong for me from the get-go, thinking it would help me find my feet.  But if anything it made things worse and took my self-esteem to a new low.  The urge to stay home and curl up in a corner with a blanket over my head was overwhelming.

Only now, more than a year after returning home, can I say I’m gradually putting my life back together again.  Through volunteering, finding a new job and finally, finally getting out and meeting people, I’m starting to discover a new “me.”

I’d like to offer some sage advice on how to get through it, but to be honest, despite having read a lot on the subject, for me it’s all been trial and error.  The main cure for re-entry shock, in my opinion, is TIME coupled with a lot of introspection. If you’re still struggling, hang in there, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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Thank Goodness It’s Thursday

It’s Thursday but it feels like a Friday, or rather what I mean to say is, it feels like the start of the weekend.  That’s because in Dubai, Thursday IS the start of their Friday/Saturday weekend.  It took a long time, many years, to adjust to Sunday being the start of the working week and I never did figure out whether mid-week was Tuesday or Wednesday.

To make matters worse, when we first moved to Dubai in 2000, the official, government weekend was Thursday/ Friday, which meant the schools were closed on those days.  However many companies, including the one where my husband worked, took a Friday/Saturday weekend so as not to be out of touch with the rest of the world for too long.  Confused yet?  I sure was.  It was tough for families because it meant the weekend really lasted three days, but yet we only had one day all together.

Fortunately the government eventually changed their weekend so everyone was on the same schedule, but it still took me a long time to adjust.  Even now in the Middle East there are many people who work a 6 day week, or even a 6 ½ day week, taking only Friday morning as time off for religious obligations.  The idea of a weekend is still a relatively new concept.    

I did finally felt comfortable with the Islamic week but now I’m back in Canada it’s taking me a long time to adjust back.  So, for now, TGIT !  :)

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The Repairman Cometh

On Saturday I realized my refrigerator wasn’t working.  I called a maintenance service and they sheduled an appointment on Monday.  Slightly ahead of the appointed time the repairman arrived and quickly diagnosed the problem.  He had the required part in his van and within half an hour the fridge was working again – no fuss, no muss.

I couldn’t help but imagine how this would have played out in Baku, Cairo or Dubai.  To begin with, the repairman wouldn’t have shown up on Monday.  After staying home until Wednesday I would have finally risked a quick dash to the grocery store, at which point the repairman would call and tell me he was standing on my doorstep.  There wouldn’t have been just one repairman either.  They always come in twos or threes.  An “engineer” to decide what to do, another guy to do the work and a third one to carry the tools – a plastic shopping bag containing a screwdriver, a hammer and a tube of silicone sealant.  After disassembling my fridge, the engineer would have told me “Fridge not working, madam”  and at that point they would probably have insisted on taking it away to their workshop for a week or more, or at best left for several days while hunting down a replacement part somewhere in the local souq.  When the fridge was finally fixed it would be covered in black fingermarks and there’d be a crack in the tiles on the kitchen floor but I’d be so grateful to have it working again I wouldn’t dream of complaining.

Maybe repatriating isn’t so bad after all.

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Spring Cleaning your Life

It’s Novruz, the Spring festival, a time for new beginnings.  It’s also #Follow Friday on Twitter.  So I’m giving a quick WOOT! to three expat women who have announced this week that they’re trying something different, taking a new direction.

@Global_Girlonln aka @ExpatArc aka Danie Barkhouse who’s just launched a new website for women on the move

@expatexpert aka Robin Pascoe who has traded in her suitcase for a computer and has officially embarked upon the “Third Act” of her life.

and

@chompermom aka Leighann Garber, perhaps the most adventurous of all, who is embarking on a repatriation to the US to try and establish a new life for her family, single handed.  Read the full story here . . .

Anyone else out there who’s spring cleaning their life and would like a mention?

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Families in Global Transition Conference 2010

I’m way overdue a blog post or two on the Families in Global Transition Conference which I attended for the first time earlier this month.  I’ll write in more detail on some of the topics which particularly interested me, but to start with here is a quick overview of the three day event.

  • I was very impressed with the quality of both the speakers and the participants.  Many had seriously professional qualifications and significant expat credentials in terms of the countries they had lived in.  In other words, they knew both the theory and the practice.
  • The various sectors were well represented – corporate, military, missionary, diplomatic, education, academia, relocation, coaching and a good number of accompanying partners/trailing spouses like me.
  • All the sessions were professionally put together and presented.  Participation was encouraged and many of the conference delegates also contributed valuable information and experience.
  • Everyone was just as friendly as I had been led to believe.  All the speakers were very approachable and willing to share the content of their sessions.  Many had detailed handouts.
  • I got to meet two of my expat heroes for the first time – Ruth Van Reken and Robin Pascoe – both autographed their books for me.
  • A surprising number of people were, like me, attending for the first time.  This tells me that this is an organization which is growing – always a good sign. 
  • The conference itself was very well organized.  There was a wide range of topics and things moved quickly; definitely no time to get bored!  Group sizes varied – some sessions had all 200+ of us together in the main ballroom, some were in groups of about 20 or 30 in smaller rooms and some were in intimate circles of 10, sitting at a round table.  This encouraged a variety of participation levels, which was refreshing.
  • There were several social opportunities which encouraged people to get to know each other on a personal as well as a professional level.

In summary, I enjoyed it immensely, felt I learned a lot and will definitely return next year, when it will be held in Washington, DC.  Maybe they can persuade Obama to speak about life as a TCK? ;-)

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Dubai Revisited

I’m back in Dubai on a short vacation, less than a year after repatriating.  Returning only 9 months after leaving is a rather strange sensation and I’m intrigued by the things which used to be unremarkable but which now I find striking.

Every expat in Dubai talks about the manic driving, but after only a short absence it still comes as a shock to see cars driving at twice the posted limit, weaving, tailgating and honking at every opportunity. 

As a pedestrian in Toronto I blithely step off the sidewalk without looking, confident traffic will come to a screeching halt.  Here I take my life in my hands even at a crosswalk or traffic light.

I’m back in a culture which still uses a lot of cash.  I’ve visited the ATM more times since I arrived than I do in 3 months in Canada. 

I’m now thinking in dollars rather than dirhams and as a result comparing prices.  Dubai is an expensive place to live (compared with Canada) with the notable exception of eating out and transport.

Despite this, the amount of retail space in Dubai is huge and seems to be doing well.  Yes, it is the height of the tourist season and the Shopping Festival right now, but I’m surprised that the precipitous decline in construction which fuelled much of Dubai’s boom hasn’t had a more obvious effect on the city.  Yes, there are lots of abandoned building sites, but the malls are full and newcomer coffee mornings as busy as ever.

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