Safety for the International Assignee

Moving abroad for work typically comes with a bit of a learning curve — there is a new language to learn, a different culture to understand and an array of practical matters to figure out. From a safety standpoint, having a deeper knowledge and understanding of the country in which you are working is particularly critical for countries that are considered high risk and where the cultural differences are greater compared to your home country. In these instances knowing customs and how people and society function is not a must just in order to make the most of an international assignment, it’s a must in order to stay as safe as possible, both physically and from a cybersecurity standpoint.

However, keeping employees and company data safe can be a complex undertaking that requires a deliberate and multi-pronged effort by the employer. Several speakers at a recent global travel risk forum stressed the importance of combining a deeper cultural knowledge of a host country with a common-sense training program for the employee to form a comprehensive duty of care program.

A phrase that came up often at the global travel risk forum was “the mistake of assumption” — meaning there is a risk in heading abroad thinking that everything works the way it does back home. As an international assignee you are often already at a disadvantage with language barriers and unfamiliar surroundings — the “mistake of assumption” becomes an additional liability. However, this is a liability that is fairly easily countered by training and support.   

For example, China limits many types of internet communication services — this could have a serious impact on an unaware assignee who is expecting to be able to carry on as usual with email communication, or various Google tools.

Also important to know as a foreign citizen abroad — you typically don’t have the same privacy rights as you do in your home country. Being aware of your rights as a foreigner abroad is important, as is being familiar with your home country’s presence and services abroad.

Many bigger companies have a system in place for automatically triggering a digital information flow once an employee has been issued a ticket for international travel. This flow may include information such as safety procedures, emergency information while abroad, and perhaps even some country-specific support. However, there is often a gap in information delivery by the company and information absorption by the employee.

As an employee relocating abroad it is crucial to have easy and ongoing access to such information as company safety procedures abroad, chains of communication in case of emergencies and country-specific details to serve as a risk minimizer in combination with a comprehensive intercultural support program for the employee and any accompanying family members.

By: Felicia Shermis

Finding a Community  — While on the Road

I recently went on a cross-country road trip with my oldest daughter. I was helping her move from Florida back to the West coast. Like many, I’ve been dreaming of taking this kind of trip, but have never been able to figure out the timing or decide on the route (it’s a big country). This time, the parameters were more or less set and it was just a matter of doing it. We had four days to make it from Tampa, Florida to San Diego, California. We packed up the car early one morning and headed out on our big adventure. It was fun. It was also a bit of a surprising experience.

We developed a “road-routine” almost immediately. We discovered that 2.5 hours was a pretty good driving interval. After that, it was time to stretch our legs and switch it up. By the second day, we had both come to the conclusion that we preferred eating on the go. We had a cooler with some basics and that was all we really needed. By now we had also learned which was the best rest stop chain along the way: Love’s. They had clean bathrooms, our favorite beverages, and friendly staff — all crucial ingredients for a successful road trip.

What I hadn’t counted on was that we would start looking for something to identify ourselves with so quickly. It was as if we needed some kind of an anchor while moving through the ever-changing landscape — before long we considered ourselves as part of a traveling tribe. The “Interstate 10-tribe”, I suppose you could say. (Interstate 10 is the southernmost cross-country interstate highway in the US and it is the fourth-longest at roughly 2,460 miles.)

I find it interesting that just like that, we were thinking in terms of “community”, even though we were just travelers, passing through towns, logging mile after mile on long stretches of open highway. But perhaps that’s exactly why, because, when driving for hours on end in more or less deserted areas, it’s hard not to consider who your fellow travelers are. Notice the word choice: “fellow travelers”, as if we were on a common mission (I know, we weren’t). 

One of our favorite pastimes while driving was imagining who these fellow travelers were. We would look at license plates, and if we got a chance, peek in the car, and then make up stories about where they came from and where they were going, their lives and their families. It certainly was a good way to keep ourselves entertained. 

I guess it’s just human nature to try to build a world where you belong in a larger context — even when just zipping by each other on the freeway at 80 miles an hour. After all, that’s how we typically make sense of the unfamiliar — we try to find the things we recognize or can relate to.

Stopping to fill up gas, we would sometimes chat with our “pump neighbor”. Often, we would commiserate about the weather, or more specifically, the heat (at one stretch through Texas our thermometer hit 114 degrees Fahrenheit), and exchange little tidbits about our travels. One mom we talked with was driving in a caravan of several cars with her kids, dropping them off at different colleges. They had a couple of days left on the road, we had a couple of days left. We may not have had the same destination, but we were in the same “boat” — it felt nice! 

I was sad when my daughter dropped me off at the San Diego airport on our last day together. I was flying back to my place while she was continuing the journey up the coast to Portland. I wished then that I could have finished the whole trip with her. I felt like I was missing out — I wasn’t just sad to leave my daughter, but my community of fellow travelers as well — I think we had bonded.

By: Felicia Shermis

Overcoming the Back-to-Reality-Blues

I often return from summer vacation back home feeling a bit blue and unsettled. I find that these feelings hit me the hardest just as we are settling into a routine, preparing to return to school and work. Maybe the blues are really more of a bittersweetness — yes, there is a sadness there, but there is also a sense of relief at being back in our own environment. 

I’m sad because summer went by far too quickly and I know I’ll miss my home country. There is sadness because I feel like I should have accomplished more  — I should have spent more time with family, shown my kids more of the country, gone to the beach more. At the same time, I know we squeezed out all we could from the time we had, we saw people and places, we managed the chaos, and we had fun. So why the blues? 

Well, the most obvious explanation is that it’s the aftermath of having just said our goodbyes and knowing it will be a while before seeing everyone back home again — that’s enough to make anyone gloomy.

But I think there are some other forces at play as well. I think it happens, partly, because when you go home you see everything and everyone from a new vantage point. You see family dynamics differently — tendencies and relationships, what’s wearing on people, health problems. All the things you have known about in theory, but not seen in reality, are now right there in front of you. Often times it’s not until you are back in the everyday that you can truly reflect on these observations and digest the reality of living with one foot in each of two worlds.  At least, that’s my experience. 

I have learned that living abroad, you tend to have a slightly idealized view of home. However, the reality on the ground is often very different from how you see it in your mind. So you come away with this nagging feeling that things are not as you remember them — be it relationships, people or places. It’s unsettling and bewildering, but not so strange if you think about it. We all change over time. It’s just that when we change while living in different environments, apart from each other, the contrasts undoubtedly become greater. 

One thing is clear — living in two different worlds can be taxing, it messes with your mind a bit. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling torn about living abroad — I like it, but it comes at a cost; there is a certain amount of latent guilt along with a sense of missing out. And there is nothing like a visit home to put it all to the forefront. 

I think the transitional phase right after you come back from visiting home is the toughest, for several reasons. For one, you’re often exhausted from the trip (and if you’re like me, seriously jet-lagged). Second, when returning back to everyday life, you have a lot of catching up to do — work, mail, bills, pets, paperwork for school — it’s overwhelming and tiring, the stress only adding to the post-vacation blues.

But perhaps most importantly, it’s not until returning to your home-away-from-home that it becomes clear what the trade-offs are for having made the decision to live abroad. There is a renewed awareness of what you’re missing out on, and a fresh sense of the impact of your decision on others. It’s no wonder you’re feeling a little blue. 

By: Felicia Shermis

The Need to Belong

The past few weeks have taken me from the West coast of the US to the Midwest, and from there to Sweden, only to eventually end up in Spain. It’s been an interesting journey because while all these places subscribe to the same general western culture, there are some noticeable differences in how life is lived. One of the beauties of visiting a new place is observing the unfolding of daily life — its quirks and specificities, its similarities and differences compared to what you’re used to at home. Of course, adapting to daily life in a new place can also be one of the hardest things to do, especially when relocating for an extended period of time — what is a charming novelty in the short run isn’t necessarily so charming in the longer term.

How we approach trying to fit in in our new environment is an interesting part of the equation when traveling/moving abroad. Everything from ordering food to figuring out how the bus fare should be paid, to renting an apartment and understanding the local school system can be a mystery when in a new place, and if you don’t speak the language the challenge is even greater. Acquiring the knowledge and insights to “move about freely” — both physically and intellectually — is the goal for most of us, I believe.

Maria Shriver wrote in her weekly newsletter about people’s desire to fit in. Her article sprung from the recent words of President Trump who’s been urging several elected US officials to “go back to where you came from” (all but one of them were born in the US). Maria writes “… underneath those words is the implication that one doesn’t belong, and not belonging cuts to the core of what we desire and need to survive as human beings.”

I think that sentiment is why one of my favorite things to do when in a new environment is to people watch (with the occasional eavesdrop to boot) — it gives me a chance to understand the world around me, bit by bit. I loved the early mornings in Spain with the locals sitting at sidewalk cafes, facing the street, talking to friends or reading the paper while having their favorite coffee drink and perhaps smoking a cigarette. The contrast to my everyday is real — you’d have to look long and hard to find a scene like that in California, that’s for sure. 

Also in Spain this summer: topless sunbathing. Women of all ages and shapes had put away their bikini tops — locals and tourists alike it appeared. My teenage daughter and her friend were intrigued and a little shocked. You’d never see this in the US. As a matter of fact, my mom recently reminded me of the time, long ago, when I reprimanded her for changing into her bathing suit on the beach in Florida (under a towel, which is how it’s done in Sweden). I had only been in the US for about a year at that time and I desperately wanted to fit in.

When asking my daughter what differences she has noticed during our travels she had lots to say. I already knew that she doesn’t feel like she can wear her usual daily uniform of leggings and a t-shirt while in Europe — she says that people wear this strictly for exercising here. Her sense is that, unlike where we live, where the dress code is notoriously laid back, people tend to dress according to their social status to a much higher degree. If you have money you show it with your clothes and your accessories.

She also pointed out that people don’t queue the same way in Europe — it’s much more erratic when people line up, and not infrequently, the whole scene is a bit rude. One thing she has noticed that everyone seems to be doing, regardless of location: zipping down the street on an electric scooter. Rental scooters are everywhere, whether in Indianapolis, Gothenburg or Palma.

Belonging does not mean being the same or subscribing to all the same ideas. Belonging has to do with understanding what it is that makes a certain society tick and then making your own way within that framework. Belonging means accepting that people, and places, are different.

By: Felicia Shermis

Different Cultures, Different Relationships to Time

I came across an article this past week titled “A Norwegian City Wants to Abolish Time” (you can find it here) — it caught my eye, partially because it seems an impossible endeavor and partially because the concept of time, and how we relate to it, is always interesting from a cross-cultural perspective. In my mind, getting rid of time seems if not impossible, then certainly impractical. But, I guess changing how one relates to time is quite doable, and sometimes even necessary. 

After reading the article, it seems that that was what this Norwegian city (although at 320 inhabitants, it sounded more like a village to me) was thinking of doing — they were proposing relating to time differently, albeit in an extreme way. But then again, this was a village located in an extreme location, North of the Arctic Circle, where the sun only rises once a year and sets once a year. Maybe the traditional concept of time isn’t a big deal if you live half the year in perpetual darkness and the other half without the sun ever setting. 

In this village above the arctic circle, the inhabitants (or at least some of them) argued that they have no need for conventional timekeeping because they aren’t affected by the things that have traditionally influenced how we divvy up the day. Such things as getting up with the light to get the working day started or taking a siesta during the hottest part of the day. I’ve always found it fascinating how people in different parts of the world view time and how they relate to it, but having no time — that I find difficult to wrap my head around.

Time can cause problems, of course — just consider how confusing it can be to collaborate on work projects and set up meetings across time zones. I’ve seen faux pas happen because of unawareness of how a certain society relates to time. Not long ago, I read an article about how in Brazil if you arrive on time to a gathering the host is not likely to be ready for you, and you are considered rude — it’s expected that you are an hour or two late.

I feel like in these instances of culturally specific “time-tendencies”, at least you have a chance to learn and adapt. But with no time, what do you do? How do you set up meetings? How do you know when stores are open? When will people arrive at the party you’re hosting? Maybe it’s my lack of imagination, but I have a hard time seeing a society function without a commonly adopted concept of time.

As a Scandinavian, my natural mindset is something along the lines of “if you are not a few minutes early, then you are late”. Yep, I’m one of those. Naturally, friends from other cultures don’t typically subscribe to the same sense of time as I do and that sometimes makes for interesting situations. Actually, mostly these situations just involve me waiting. But, there are also some compelling patterns that become visible when people from different cultures get together.

For example, at my family’s annual holiday party the same thing tends to happen every year: our Scandinavian friends arrive right on time (unless they have let us know beforehand that they’ll be late), the local Californians are fashionably late, say, anything from 20-40 minutes and our Middle Eastern friends arrive closer to whatever end time we have set, and then just stay on. By now I’ve come to embrace this progression of the party. I can even see that there are some benefits because, with staggered arrivals you get “staggered socialization” as in, I get time to talk to everyone!

These are generalizations of course — not everyone within a specific culture approaches time in the exact same way — there are individual habits at play as well. However, learning a little about the tendencies of the country you are going to, or people you are working with, is always a good idea. And who knows, you might find yourself enjoying a different “time-mindset”. I know I’m looking forward to some lazy afternoons on my visit to Spain this summer, adopting the local tradition of taking a siesta.

By: Felicia Shermis

Sensory Memories of Home

With summer around the corner and many an expat getting ready for a trip back home, thoughts about what truly signifies home keep popping up in my head. I have noticed that the longer I live abroad, the more intense my sensory memories of home seem to get, or rather, the more easily my sensory memories get triggered — sending me back to a certain time or place, reminding me of something that feels, tastes, or smells like “home”. The other day, for example, when out for a run through my local neighborhood, I came across a garden that smelled just like my grandparents’ place the way I remember it from when I was a kid — a mix of faint lavender, sweet rosehip and something earthy with an ocean breeze mixed in. I had to stop and just breathe, to take it all in. If I could, I’d bottle it.

I was talking to my sister back home the other day and she told me about how spring is finally putting its mark on the landscape in Sweden — how everything is green and fresh and fragile, how spring flowers are blossoming. This kind of spring green is different from any other I know, it’s more spectacular than anything I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it’s a function of the long dark Nordic winters being so unforgiving that when spring finally arrives, the contrast is so extreme, it can’t be anything but spectacular. Or, perhaps I’ve just built up a romantic view in my head after all these years abroad. Regardless of the reason, there it was in my head, an overload of sensory memories — a vision of blinding greens, combined with the smell of fresh cut grass, and the excitement and possibilities of near endless summer evenings.

Food is yet another of these triggers. When I first moved abroad many years ago, it could be hard to find the right ingredients to make some of the traditional dishes that I longed for. These days that’s not an issue. International foods of all kinds have become much easier to find — at restaurants inspired by cuisines from around the world, as well as at local grocery stores, and if not at a store nearby, then online. Still, there are some foods more than others that just scream “home”. Earlier today, my son and I baked a batch of Swedish cardamom buns. We had both been longing for them for a while and had finally gotten around to getting the ingredients we needed. Biting into a fresh-out-of-the-oven cardamom bun was definitely a sensory throw-back — a very delicious one at that.

I know that what I’m talking about is not news — most people seem to experience these kinds of sensory triggered memories. There is even science to back up the idea — smell, for example, is one of the strongest memory sensors we have. The (very) basic theory for that has to do with where we process smell in our brain: the olfactory bulb, which sits right next to two brain areas that are active in emotion and memory — the amygdala and the hippocampus. That’s as far into the science of this that I’ll go, but there is plenty to read about the subject for those interested (see links above to start).

In contrast to the pleasantness of the sensory triggered memories, actually going home for the summer isn’t necessarily that serene of an experience — rushed and frazzled are maybe better words to describe how you feel. Between getting together with family, visiting a few favorite places and catching up with friends, there really isn’t much time to “stop and smell the roses” as it were.

By: Felicia Shermis

The Payoffs of Learning the Local Language

One of my neighbors is an elderly French woman — Cecile — who has lived in the US for most of her adult life. Whenever we run into each other we chat for a bit, and over time I’ve learned a little about her life story. I know she grew up poor in the countryside outside of Paris with her mom and sister. I know that when she arrived in the US some fifty-five years ago she spoke no English. She moved here to join her husband who had arrived before her for work and the two had a young daughter. She has told me many times of the isolation she experienced during the first couple of years, and how she knew that learning English would be crucial if she was ever going to feel settled in her new country.

When Cecile moved, there were no online language programs or apps, there were no social networks or groups to join. Going to school wasn’t an option as she was taking care of their daughter. Cecile always smiles when she tells me how she spent the early years pointing and gesturing more than anything else — it was how she communicated when she went to the store, or on the bus, or while meeting other moms at the park with her daughter. She slowly picked up the language, and as she learned English she started to make friends and build a community.

When I think about the isolation and hardships that come with not knowing the local language, I am grateful that I had a good grasp of English before moving here. Not only was I able to understand and make myself understood I could also take care of paperwork, make phone calls, deal with tradespeople and do all those everyday things that we normally don’t give a second thought to. It wasn’t always easy and I experienced my fair share of misunderstandings, but on the whole, I could communicate without impediment.

Because I knew the language I could go to school and start taking classes to add some relevant skills to my field of work. This was a great way to gain confidence and to start building a network of connections. Because I knew the language I could sit at a cafe, book in hand, eavesdropping on the people around me, picking up cultural references and bits and pieces about life in my new country. I learned a lot about my surroundings this way — I think it was invaluable in terms of getting acclimated.

It’s worth noting that speaking the language is one thing and understanding the culture is another. Figuring out how a society works and why people do what they do takes time. However, it’s much easier if you have some language skills. Still, there are some things you might never understand, no matter how hard you try — like baseball for example. I know it’s America’s national pastime, but to me, the game is just a long wait for something to happen. I have tried to get its appeal, but twenty-five years later, I’m still a bit puzzled…

As someone living abroad, I would think that the social benefits of learning the local language alone would be motivation to get at least some basic skills. In addition, there are all sorts of cognitive benefits. Learning a second language is actually good for the human brain — it purportedly improves memory, enhances creativity and strengthens your ability to problem solve. And if that’s not enough, there is the fact that you just have more language to choose from — as in more words and expressions at your disposal. You can pick what you feel works best in a given situation. For example, I almost always use the Swedish word “gurka” instead of cucumber (unless I have to make myself understood at a store), it’s an easy word to say and cucumber is, well, cumbersome…

The one thing I never learned to do well is swearing. I just feel silly when I hear myself swear in English — it sounds fake and feels unnatural. So I don’t really do it. I suppose you can count that as yet another benefit!

By: Felicia Shermis

Healthcare for the global citizen

“If you haven’t got your health you haven’t got anything” – so goes a quote from one of my favorite movies – The Princess Bride. Granted, the movie is 30 years old by now, but I think most will agree that good health is essential in order to live life to its fullest. Lifestyle is, of course, a big contributor to overall health, as is access to healthcare.

How healthcare works varies from country to country, and who has access to care varies as well. Nearly all of the countries in Europe for example, have a universal healthcare system. Citizens within the European Union who move between countries have the right to the same healthcare as the local residents of the host country. Japan is often hailed for its high quality, low-cost care. And with the second highest life expectancy in the world at 84.74 years, one can see why.

Other countries, like the United States, does not have a universal healthcare system. Here, many people get health insurance through their employer, which is the case for most expats who relocate to the US. Others buy individual health insurance or go without entirely.

There are few things during relocation that are as overwhelming as trying to figure out healthcare in a new country. The entire process, from filling out paperwork to actually seeing a doctor, can feel impenetrable. One reason is that you are typically making decisions without much specific knowledge – clinics, doctors, types of insurance – it’s impossible to know what’s best until you’ve tried it out. Another part of this is language related. The healthcare and insurance fields have a lot of specialized language attached to them, and if it’s all in a foreign language as well, then it gets even more complicated.

Going to see a doctor is a perfect example of where the language barrier can really become an issue. I used to find it extremely difficult to parse what doctors and nurses were telling me. I still do to some extent (it’s that medical lingo, it throws me for a loop every time), but by now I feel confident enough to ask for some further clarification. Back then I was too embarrassed to ask questions, so I mostly nodded and kept quiet. If possible in those early days, I would try to bring someone with me to a doctor’s appointment, just so that I had another set of ears to help with the deciphering.

Anyone with a half decent pre-departure checklist will know what needs to be done with medical records, medications and specialty care. I won’t go into details here, other than to say this: make sure you have access to your medical records and translate them if needed. Also, make sure any needed medications and specialty care can be obtained in your new country.

What may be harder to prepare for is the prevailing “care culture” in the country you are moving to. For me it’s the dentist – the style of care here in the US is completely different from what I am used to – it has a more cosmetic focus, and I always end up feeling like they are trying to sell me a new set of teeth. There is nothing majorly wrong with my teeth, I just happen to not have perfect anchorwoman-on-TV teeth. Every time I’ve gone to the dentist here I’ve been asked if I don’t want to straighten this or whiten that, and it bugs me. So, to this day, whenever possible, I still see my dentist back home.

By: Felicia Shermis

The Accompanying Partner — the Facilitator

I was talking to a friend and fellow expat recently about life abroad as an accompanying partner — what the difficulties and rewards are. We agreed that the rewards are many, we wouldn’t be where we are otherwise. However, we both recognized that there are some real challenges as well — challenges that are often overlooked when first heading out, but that are big enough to impact one’s life to a great degree, for a long time. In particular, we were talking about an issue we came to call the “facilitator” problem.

Our train of thought started with the fact that, as an accompanying partner you typically leave behind the very things that make up your identity, such as your job and financial independence, your network of friends and family, as well as activities and engagements. Reclaiming all these aspects of life in your new location can take a long time. And in the meantime, it’s important to have something to build your existence around. Being the facilitator serves this purpose.

When first arriving abroad it’s all about making life work — finding an appropriate place to stay, getting utilities up and running, making sure that paperwork is in order, that the kids are ok, etc — there is an almost never-ending list of things to do. More often than not, the accompanying partner becomes the facilitator, the person making sure that everything and everyone is taken care of.

We take it upon ourselves to make sure the international transition goes smoothly, with all that that entails. However, deep diving into the facilitator role can be problematic in the long run. Because, in combination with known accompanying partner issues such as the uncertainty regarding getting a work permit, having job credentials and skills that don’t translate, and struggling to learn the networking and job-seeking culture, as well as language barriers, it can make for a situation where you don’t really look to be anything other than the facilitator.

This was the case for me. Being the facilitator was how I built my identity. It became a safe harbor. While it might have been great in the beginning, over time, it hampered me and held me back in how I approached life abroad.

I know we all have a responsibility to “make our own lives happen”. But when you are in a new environment, where the “rules of operation” are different, and where you are without your regular support system, that’s not always easy. It took me a long time to understand my own situation, and even longer to figure out how to change it. Finding a support network is important, as is connecting with people who know how life in your new location works. Other expats who have gone before are a great resource. A coach or a mentor can be extremely helpful. One thing is for sure — no one can do this on their own.

By: Felicia Shermis

Coping with Tax Season on Two Continents

It’s not unusual for me to wake up from nightmares this time of year and they have almost exclusively to do with taxes; more specifically being late and/or incorrect with taxes in one form or another: not finding all the right documents and being late, using the wrong color pen to fill out forms and being late (does anyone actually fill out paper forms anymore?), getting the math wrong and being late, you get the picture… It’s totally irrational, I know! I figure that my affliction stems from the old Swedish fear of being late, coupled with an overly keen sense of following rules.

Turns out however that filing taxes as an expat can be a little extra stressful and often times, you have to do double duty and file in both your home country and your host country. As an expat, you might be faced with filing in a language that is not your own and that in itself can make the whole process feel almost impossible.

My husband and I met with our tax guy earlier this week and even though we have seen him every year for the past 15 years, I still always come away with questions regarding what certain things actually mean. Take the 1098-T and the 401(k), what are they anyway and what do I do with them? Once the conversation turns to carry-overs, deductions and accelerated depreciations, my head is spinning for sure. I am glad that at the end of the meeting, I can turn to my list of action items that Mr. Taxman helped put together, and just get it done.

I think the best piece of advice I ever got to take at least some of the stress out of tax season, is also the simplest one — educate yourself on the basics: where are you required to file taxes, when are they due, what kind of help do you need? Once the basics are clear, you can put those worries to rest and focus on more intricate matters.

There are some other good pieces of advice and finding a professional who can help is probably at the top of that list. As an expat it’s important to find someone who is well versed in tax law both in your new country and who is aware of the complications your expat status may or may not add. It may be that you need to consult someone in your home country as well. If you want to read up on your own, most countries have comprehensive websites.

Regardless of how hard it is to get all your papers and numbers together, make sure to do it. Skipping filing taxes may compromise your status as an expat. Personally, I think I am just about ready, if only I can locate that 1098-T… I better find it quickly though — my next wave of tax filing is just around the corner!

By: Felicia Shermis

Longevity Abroad and the Rootlessness that Comes with it

This is my 25th year of living abroad—that’s practically my entire adult life. During this time, I’ve gained insights into a new culture, learned a foreign language, and found my way in unfamiliar situations. I have gone to school, worked, raised kids, made friends, been sick, had pets, been happy and sad, gotten divorced, sent kids off to college, made mistakes and had successes. In short, I have lived life. This quarter-century milestone also means that for most of my adult life I’ve been away from family. It means I have missed out on the comfort of innately knowing how the society around me works, of having a shared culture.

I find that one of the harder things of spending most of your adult life abroad, is the sense of rootlessness that eventually starts to creep in. Over time, I have adapted and adjusted to the society I’m living in. By now I understand it, I feel comfortable with it, but it’s not “home”. At the same time, my home country feels increasingly foreign. I’m not up on popular culture anymore, politics are peripheral, and relationships have changed. Yet, I still think of it as “home”. But, will it ever feel like home again? I play with the idea of moving back, and I wonder, what would it be like if I did?

One of the things you learn early on when living far away from home is that you’ll have to make some tough decisions regarding missing out, on the good and the bad—on celebrations and festivities, on being able to “be there” for a friend in need, or helping a sick relative. Time, money, and support are typically what determine the course in these instances. Sometimes, you not being there will very clearly put the burden on someone else’s shoulders. You’ll have to make a deal with yourself to be ok with all of this. I think you’ll also have to count on some regrets—at least that’s true for me.

Returning home to one’s roots as you get older isn’t that unusual. Plenty of people do it. But, perhaps the leap to starting over is a bit bigger when having lived abroad for a long time. Readjusting and blending takes time, and oftentimes what you used to know so well, now feels unfamiliar. In some ways, it’s like moving abroad all over again.

As my kids are getting older—the youngest will be off to college before I know it—I’m beginning to think of what comes next for me. Once they are all out, I have little to tie me to where I am, other than good friends. I don’t think my kids are going to stay close by, they are more likely to be geographically spread out. I feel it is part of their makeup by now. Ever since they were little they have flown back and forth across the Atlantic, they hold dual passports, they know multiple languages, they are used to communicating across time zones. My two oldest have already managed to live across the world from each other (and me) for their first couple of years of college. Perhaps some of my rootlessness has spread to them—I hear it’s common with third culture kids.

I often think about spending more time with my family back home. Getting to know my nieces and nephews better, helping my parents as they get older, bonding with my siblings, being there for some of the celebrations—and the hard times—that I have missed these past 25 years. However, when I think about what it would be like to live there, the picture gets fuzzy—it’s unclear to me how I would fare and how long it would take to feel at home.

By: Felicia Shermis

Feeling Settled—Gaining and Losing Cultural References

I was looking for a long lost friend on the Internet the other day when I stumbled across an article on her dad in a Swedish newspaper. Her dad was American and the article highlighted his 50th birthday with an interview discussing his life, how he had ended up in Sweden and what his wishes were for the future.

Growing up, I never knew much about him, other than that he was from North Carolina, that he worked at the post office and that he spoke Swedish with a heavy accent. My friend had the mysterious aura of someone who had access to a bigger world compared to the rest of the neighborhood kids—even though she had never been to the US. I think most of that was just a vague imagined perception on my part, but still the mystery was there. I didn’t know then that her father had ended up in Sweden as a young man in order to avoid going to the Vietnam War. I didn’t know that for many years he couldn’t return to his home country and his family.

I think we were about eight or nine when she announced that they were going to the US for the summer. As far as I know, this was the first time her dad would be back since he had left, and it was the first time my friend would meet her relatives and see her dad’s home country. I remember getting a letter from her that summer. It was written on Ramada Inn letterhead and I thought it was the most glamorous thing ever. I don’t remember what the letter said, other than that America was big and beautiful! Soon after they came home her dad took delivery of a gorgeous Harley-Davidson motorcycle, something none of us had ever seen. Oh, to have an American dad! I think about him sometimes—how hard it must have been to leave home, not knowing if he’d be able to go back. I wonder if he ever really felt at home in Sweden?

I remember when I first came to the US, how unprepared I was for the isolation and the loneliness and how hard it was to feel part of the community at large. After over 20 years in the US I can see that part of what makes you feel included in a community is your frame of reference. As a foreigner, your frame is different and you have to slowly but surely build a new understanding of the world around you. Still, there are some behaviors that will never seem natural to me, such as trying on clothes in a store and then leaving the “rejects” in a pile on the floor for someone else to pick up, or not bagging your own groceries.

Part of the struggle of the expat existence is that as you gain new cultural references you may also lose some of your old ones. How else do I explain, when I am visiting back home, my lack of patience for poor customer service or, why I look strangers in the eye and say “Hi” when sharing an elevator, sometimes only realizing it as I see the confusion on their faces?

About my friend’s dad—the article said he was looking to live in one of the southern US states and get a black belt in Karate before the age of 60.

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