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.

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 …

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?

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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