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 drivers. 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 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 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
At about halfway through the summer each year, I start noticing newspaper articles discussing the strain vacation puts on couples. The gist of most of these articles is that heightened expectations (that are not well communicated), in combination with spending extended time together without the regular framework of everyday life, expose communication deficiencies within a relationship. One could argue that this is the exact situation expats living abroad experience. Only in their case, the everyday framework has been turned upside down completely with a new job, foreign language, and different culture all at once.
I read a fair share of articles and blog posts chronicling expat life and it appears to me that one of the big stumbling blocks for couples is that they enter life abroad with completely different expectations of what it will be like. Oftentimes, there is a working partner and an accompanying partner, and their realities, once in place are very different.
The working partner has to quickly get into the new job and focus on getting to know coworkers, work culture, and procedures while the partner staying home is left with the practical matters of getting settled. Both partners may have a difficult time understanding the other’s perspective.
I remember the early days abroad as very isolated and lonely. My husband worked long days and was absorbed with something new and exciting from the get-go. I spent the days making sure things worked at home — dealing with paperwork and making phone calls to institutions of various kinds. At the end of the day, my husband was filled with impressions while I was a little starved for real interaction. He was making social connections at work while I was mostly speaking to anonymous clerks and officials. He had instant access to a new and exciting world while I had the more mundane task of setting up “everyday life”. Considering all this, it’s not so surprising that a couple can end up with completely different experiences of life abroad, at least initially.
Complicating matters further is the idea that you are supposed to be happy and excited — after all, you’re on the adventure of a lifetime! Expressing unhappiness or doubt, letting your partner know how out of place you feel, or how overwhelmed at work you really are, is not an easy thing to do. Speaking about the experience to your regular support network of friends and family back home can be equally difficult, leaving you feeling doubly isolated.
It’s impossible to know beforehand how you will react to your new life situation, but the acknowledgment that change is coming and frank discussion about what you are thinking is a good start.
As with all communication you have to be willing to be open and honest in disclosing how you feel. Likewise, you have to be willing to listen and acknowledge that this is how the other person experiences the situation. Lastly, as is almost always the case with international relocation — there is much help and insight to gain from those who have gone before. So, if you get a chance, speak to someone about what his or her experience of life abroad has been; it’s invaluable!
By: Felicia Shermis
I’ve been thinking about social media and professional image and am wondering whether it’s at all possible to project the image of being fun, exciting, adventurous, and carefree on social media while maintaining a professional, knowledgeable, and on-the-ball profile for your professional life. I’ll admit I’m not the best person to answer this question, as I’m one of these people who don’t particularly enjoy posting or following on social media. I do however appreciate that it’s an important issue, and I can see the impact social media is having all around me, starting with my own kids. I understand how a person’s social media presence can make a difference in a potential employer’s eyes, in a positive as well as a negative way.
And while I may personally long for simpler times when my kids didn’t live their lives through a social media filter and when applying for a job meant you needed a resume and some good references. I do understand that those times are not coming back. It appears the only way forward is to gain as much knowledge as possible and then adapt to the best of one’s ability, and desire. When it’s the case that your life in the virtual world is used as a gauge to measure your abilities in the real world, well then you better know what the general rules and tendencies are.
It does raise some questions: what do employers look for on social media when determining a potential candidate’s employability? How do you know where to draw the line between what you share and don’t, whom you follow and how you comment on content? Will everything you post weigh on your employability scale? What should you be particularly mindful of?
There is plenty of information the be gleaned once you start poking around the internet. Maybe the first thing to know is that social media can be a strong self-promotional tool and that many recruiters do indeed use these sites to search for suitable future employees.
A study by The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 65% of employers had made hires through social media sites. It’s important to note however that not every industry is equally interested in social media as a tool for hiring. As one can expect, fields such as communications and public relations have a much higher rate of social media importance than say transportation and construction.
The same study reports the following two categories as by far the most important in order to maintain an attractive online profile: “Have a complete and relevant profile” (77%) and “Keep it professional” (73%). Keeping it professional may seem at odds with being able to use your Facebook account to keep up with friends and family in order to share what’s going on in your life. I think the best advice given here is to stay away from the very private — pictures and comments alike, and also to make sure these parts of your life are restricted to the maximum friends-only security setting. Or, just adhere to the tried and true idea of: “if it’s not something you can share with your mother, then don’t share it all”.
Many surveys point to the importance of joining career-relevant groups and making sure you have a clear link to your email address — there is nothing quite as frustrating as not being able to find the right contact information, and it certainly doesn’t add to an image of professionalism. Also, and this may sound obvious, it’s important to use correct grammar and spelling.
Other points that are worth keeping in mind, are to not complain about current or past employers and to refrain from posting offensive and inappropriate material. Obviously, what is offensive and inappropriate to one person may not be so to another. In the end, we are all left with a judgment call, so, take a deep breath, double-check, triple think and then press enter.
By: Felicia Shermis
Monster article: social media tips
A common question in recent months from people thinking about relocating to the US concerns safety: personal safety in general and school safety in particular. In short, people are wondering how to keep their kids and themselves safe were they to move to the US.
While some aspects of school safety, such as bullying, have always been a question for parents trying to find the right fit for their child, the issue has taken on a more serious tone lately. For many, the prevalence of guns, school shootings, and racial violence have been the catalyst, and in light of that, some are considering declining offers of moving to the US.
In this article, we discuss the broader topic of school safety and what parents can do to gather information to make the best possible decision for their family. We have interviewed Sara Schmidt from Bennett International, a school consulting company, to find out how to best counsel families on exploring the topic with schools.
It’s important to note that school safety encompasses more than gun violence. Sara Schmidt says: “School safety is a much more comprehensive topic than gun violence. Kids are more likely to be a victim of bullying or intimidation or cyber harassment than they are to be impacted by a school shooting. That said, while school safety as it relates to gun violence has not typically been a question parents have asked about — it’s been assumed that the school guaranteed a safe environment — now, more families are specifically requesting a safe school.”
Before getting to the interview, some background information about how gun ownership is regulated in the US: The Second Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the right of all Americans to possess firearms. The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulates that citizens and legal residents must be at least 18 years old to purchase shotguns or rifles and ammunition. All other firearms can only be sold to people 21 and over. There are also federal restrictions in place barring some people from purchasing or possessing firearms, such as fugitives and felons. There is no national gun registry. Beyond the basics, it is the individual states that impose firearm regulations. That’s why different states have very different approaches to gun ownership. To learn about the laws of a specific state, visit that state’s government website. This site compares state gun laws.
The interview below has been edited and condensed by Felicia Shermis.
Q — How would you advise parents wanting to learn more about general school safety?
A — The overall safety conversation should include discussions of classroom safety, cyber safety, and student well-being, as well as how a school works to prevent suicides, child neglect, and child abuse. Safe schools understand that the whole child is important. Platforms and programs should be in place to report/prevent bullying, harassment, and intimidation. Find out if there is a “community engagement officer” at the school whose role is to make positive contributions to the school community and overall school safety and help foster trusting relationships between youth and law enforcement. Does the school have an emergency response plan and conduct routine drills?
Q — Are there specific community traits to look for when determining the safety of a school?
A — School safety begins with a culture that embraces community connections, says Sara and references the website Edutopia (an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation), which states that a solid community engagement program may include these elements:
- Community/business school partnerships
- Parental collaboration and cross-generation learning
- Curriculum connected to real-world experiences
- Students are given a voice
- Local solutions to local problems
Q — How would you advise parents to go about finding out about how a particular school is working for a safe campus — can parents ask directly about firearm and bullying policies, for example, and if so, who is it that they should talk to typically?
A — First, a parent should always feel free to inquire about safety and security policies; in US schools, the parent’s role as an advocate for their child is commonly acknowledged. As always, we recommend a polite and cordial initiation of conversation. If there is a district lead security officer, this person may be a good source of information. While some district policies are sensitive and may not be available for public review, a family could ask for more details in a face-to-face meeting.
A good place to start is to review the district’s safety and security plan. This may be found in various locations on a district’s website. The security plan will likely run the gamut from anti-harassment policies to emergency response scenarios, including response to gun violence.
When assessing the plan, think about some of the following questions: Are safety protocols robust, and do they incorporate best practices? Since most families are not security experts, what they really need to know is that a school or district is being proactive and has engaged in creating safety and emergency policies. If a school is nonplussed by questions about security, then that is not a good sign.
To round off the interview, Sara Schmidt points to information shared by the National Center for Education Statistics, which says that during the 2019-2020 scholastic year, these are the safety and security measures most commonly used by schools:
- Controlled access to buildings during school hours
- Security cameras used to monitor the school
- Faculty and staff required to wear badges or photo ID
Sara also offers the following professional resources for those who want to learn more:
Changing schools can be tricky in the best of circumstances and doing so because of an international relocation can complicate matters even more. It’s not just the kids who go to school who have to make adjustments and figure out the new lay of the land; parents do too. With a new school, you have a different culture and new expectations, couple that with the fact that you haven’t yet made social connections you can rely on for information exchange and support, and the learning curve for the parents can be pretty steep.
When a child starts a new school, whether in a foreign country or not, there is a great focus on making sure it goes as smoothly as possible. As parents, we spend time and energy ensuring our kids are ok in their new environment: we aid as best as we can with social connections, see to that they can join in after-school activities, and we share basic information about our kids with the teacher. Likewise, the school on its end is focused on helping the new child feel welcome and get settled as quickly as possible.
The support system may not be quite as evolved for parents. Once you have gotten your child enrolled, you are typically left to your own devices to figure out how to get to know other parents and learn what the school culture is.
The well-known African proverb states “It takes a village to raise a child” and with a little bit of luck, and some work, school is definitely one of the places where that village is created. Knowing the school staff and other parents enhances your child’s experience at school and it aids your own. It’s important from a perspective of safety and wellbeing. A network of parents who know and look out for each other’s children is a resource that can’t be underestimated. This extends beyond the schoolyard into the community at large.
There is no one right way to build a network, and sometimes what works as a charm in one place won’t make a dent in another. So, it’s quite possible you’ll have to experiment a little and try a few different methods.
If you have the good fortune of switching schools at the beginning of the school year, you’ll typically be able to catch back-to-school night or a teacher meet-and-greet. These are great opportunities to introduce yourself to your child’s teacher and to make connections with other parents. Additionally, this is also the time when a teacher spells out how you can expect the school year to unfold: what volunteering opportunities there are, what the homework policies look like, and preferred communication methods.
Arriving mid-year can be tougher for all involved and may require a little more direct communication with the teacher and also some bold moves to get to know other parents. One thing I always look for is a class list with parents’ contact information; it’s a handy thing to have for a multitude of reasons: setting up playdates, information exchange, learning names…
When my kids were little I found chatting in the schoolyard at pick-up to be a great way to make connections with parents; some of the people I met are my good friends today. However, this is clearly not a viable strategy for all parents and it’s certainly not the only way to make connections. Field trips offer great opportunities. Not only can they be fun and interesting, but you also get to spend extended time with the teacher and other parents. Best of all, you’ll be able to see your child interact within the class environment. Joining the parent-teacher association is yet another way to connect with parents, as well as an excellent way of staying clued in on school issues.
Whether you are staying long or short term in your new place, putting some effort into the school community can be worth a whole lot, to you, your kids, and the community at large. Give it a shot!
By: Felicia Shermis
I have lived almost my entire adult life abroad with all that that entails — building friendships, raising kids, working, engaging in my community, and so on. While I have maintained close ties to my family back home, there is no doubt that, over time, my identity has been shaped by the culture I’ve lived in. At the same time, I’ve worked hard to hold on to my roots — my “Swedishness” as it were. I’m not sure what that has ultimately made me, but I guess I’m a bit of a “mix” by now — not fully Swedish and not fully American. Very capable of immersing in both societies but not quite at home anywhere. I think it’s a trait I share with many long-term expats.
About a month ago, I moved back home; after 28 years, I returned to the city where I was born. And I can’t help but wonder what it will be like to start over in what in many ways feels like a new country, albeit one very familiar to me.
I have to say here that it’s not lost on me that I’m one of the lucky ones. After all, I’m moving of free will, I made a conscious decision and executed a plan. I am not fleeing war. I’ve had the luxury of being able to plan for this move. I have a place to stay and the practical aspects of the transition are likely to be mostly smooth. As I said, I am one of the lucky ones.
And yet, I worry about adjusting, about making friends, about understanding how I fit in. I worry about how I’m going to deal with the long dark winters of Sweden after having lived in sunny California for over a quarter-century. I worry about maintaining meaningful relationships with my friends now that we are so far apart. Will we do all the things we said we’d do to keep our friendships active or will the distance and time difference eventually creep in and leave us mere acquaintances?
I struggle with the feeling of having left my kids behind. I know it’s irrational as they are adults who have already moved out and with lives of their own. But something inside of me nags and berates me — how could I decide to leave the safe nest they have always known as home, how could I move so far away. Never mind that they are spread out over the US and one of them is even living in Sweden. Irrational indeed, but nonetheless, these are thoughts that are swirling around as I try to wrap my head around this move.
For all my concerns, I of course have reasons for moving back; I would even venture to say they are well-vetted and valid. I suppose what is really at the heart of the matter at this stage is “identity”: I am uncertain about who I am in Sweden. My frame of reference has changed; the way I go about life is not typical. I don’t know when the shift happened; when I became more attuned to the California way of life than the Swedish, but somewhere along the line, I did.
I don’t think the reality of what I have done has hit me yet. So far, it feels like any other summer when I’m home for a visit. I think it’s going to take a while to sink in. Quite possibly a long while. In some ways, I feel like a foreigner — one that speaks the language really well but who has gotten their wiring a little mixed up.
By: Felicia Shermis
Pria Gokhale, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, has lived and gone to school on three continents. She has been the editor of one book and has written and self-published another. She’s a community activist who believes in the power of representation. We met late in 2021 to talk about what it’s like to grow up the way she did — a third culture kid with family and a foothold in different parts of the world but also with a sense of rootlessness. We talked about the importance of being engaged in your community, and why representation matters. And of course, we talked about her book.
Pria wrote “Her Story is Our Story: A Children’s Book for Young Women of Colour” to broaden the scope of representation and to offer a more inclusive take on what heroism is. “Representation and being taught about cultural diversity are two different things,” says Pria as she explains the premise of the book and continues by pointing out that while they may have talked about cultural diversity in school, rarely was there inclusive representation in the materials they studied.
And you don’t need to look further than the author’s note in her book to understand where she is coming from; she writes: “When I was younger, I rarely saw a person who looked like me celebrated in my classroom, printed in my history book, or made into a statute. As a result, I mistakenly believed that most women of colour had simply not done anything notable.” This “fact” wasn’t something she thought a lot about until she came across the Brown History social media account, which she says opened her eyes to a whole different view on history and race. She realized that the idea of what is history-making depends on who you ask and where you are, and often it is the “big” things that get attention.
Pria wanted to present a different narrative. So, with her book, she set out to profile ten women who have changed the world in some way. “These women have all done admirable things. They come from community involvement and grassroots activism, which I think is really powerful. They may not have made it into mainstream history books but they did change the world,” she says.
Before she wrote her own book, Pria served as the editor for her friend Ali Sait’s book “Aya’s Home” which portrays life through the eyes of refugee youth in America and around the world. The idea for that book came when the two of them worked as volunteers in a tutoring program for refugee kids and saw first-hand what little there was in the way of educational materials on the experience of integrating.
Pria’s own story started in Texas where she was born to Indian parents who themselves had grown up outside of India, one in the US and one in Australia. When Pria was five, her family moved to London for her dad’s work, and six years later his job took them to Tokyo. Living and going to school in different parts of the world has brought a certain sense of rootlessness, but, Pria says, that rootlessness is probably also where her deep drive for community engagement comes from: “I never felt attached to a specific community and so engaging in different causes, and in my community wherever I am, has been a way to build belonging while also doing something I believe in.”
When talking more about what makes a community, Pria says that to her, it’s people rather than a place. She points out that the people she loves and values the most are not physically close to her — they are spread out across the world: her grandmother in Australia, her friend from Tokyo who now lives in Boston, another friend in Copenhagen, and so on.
Like many third culture kids, adaptability was something Pria had to learn early. The combination of moving about as a child and growing up in a largely expat community, where friends leaving was part of life, meant that change was constant. “It’s really hard when your best friend leaves. Knowing how to handle change is a big skill — how you move mentally from place to place is a superpower and something I value about myself,” she says.
It’s a superpower she has needed because when Pria’s family moved back to Austin in time for her to start high school, she was in for the biggest culture shock of all, even though the family was returning to the place where she was born and where they had lived for the first few years of her life.
Partly this was because high school in Austin was very homogenous; most of her fellow students were white and had lived in Texas their whole lives. Pria looked different and had different experiences which made her feel like an outsider. And, it didn’t help that the move meant a loss of autonomy as she went from being able to move around Tokyo independently using the city’s transportation system to relying on her mom for a ride wherever she needed to go.
While the transition back to the US was the most difficult in terms of culture shock, it was going to college in her hometown that presented the biggest challenge with making new friends. At high school, she had bonded with the other “out of place kids” but at UT Austin, it’s been tougher. “I have lots of individual friends, but not a friend group,” says Pria and continues “maybe it’s because this is not a very tight-knit community”.
For Pria, the return to Texas has put into focus the importance of diversity. She reflects that when you don’t see a lot of diversity, it can be hard to value it because you don’t know what you are missing.
When I ask Pria where she sees herself in the future, she’s not sure. She has fond memories of all the places she has lived but the people who defined her experiences in each one are not necessarily there anymore. She does know that she wants to spend some time with her grandmother in Australia to learn more about her Indian roots and Indian culture and traditions. The two are also planning a trip to India, a place where Pria has never been.
And as for what she would like to do, she is double-majoring in econ and liberal arts honors studies but she is not sure yet where those will take her, maybe law school one day. She could see writing more books; and she finds children’s education very interesting, which, she says, may have something to do with her own unique educational experience. “Searching for a different narrative, perhaps that’s an expat kid’s path,” she muses.
One thing is for sure — Pria wants to keep engaging in her local community and working for causes she believes in, wherever she is. She says: “I believe in investing in your community, and I especially believe in investing in other women of color.”
By: Felicia Shermis
The proceeds of Pria’s book go to GirlForward — a community of support dedicated to creating and enhancing opportunities for girls in Central Texas who have been displaced globally by conflict and persecution.
Here we are again — year-end reflections long since in the books and new resolutions made. A few weeks into the new year, this is the time when we’re supposed to look forward with a sense of purpose and spirit based on wisdom gained and goals set.
But how to do that after yet another strange year and a discombobulated holiday season defined by a covid surge and the associated anxiety (again), upended plans (again), and something that can perhaps best be described as an achy longing for “something — anything — normal”? It’s hard to know how to BE right now when uncertainty is the only word that comes to mind to describe the current state of the world. Planning for the future seems impossible.
I don’t think I’m the only one who had hoped to start off 2022 with a recharged body and mind. But instead, it’s been a bit of a struggle to approach the year purposefully. As is often the case after the holidays, my inbox has been filled with strategies for success and must-dos in the new year. But frankly, these have all felt a bit out of touch, which has led me to be on the lookout for something else.
A few things have struck a chord. For example, Harvard Business School professor Hirotaka Takeuchi writes in an article about retraining your mind to think of issues as “both/and” instead of “either/or”. This appeals to me because I know that it’s easy to resort to black and white thinking when times are tough, and I also know that’s a mindset that is rarely helpful and definitely not conducive to creative thinking. Takeuchi argues that changing how we frame issues within ourselves can result in understanding the world through a lens of oneness, where what is good for the person or company is good for society as well. That sounds like something I/we need right now.
As I keep looking for inspiration, I’m reminded of the benefits of being kind — studies show that it leads to better physical and mental health not just for the recipient but also for the giver. Often, when we talk about kindness, it’s through the lens of volunteering or donating money to a worthy cause. And while those are great things to do, it’s good to remember that kindness can be so much more. In an article on CNN.com, Sandee LaMotte points out that kindness can be as simple as leaving room for the car blinking to get in front of you in traffic, or listening to a friend who is going through a rough time. Kindness also means giving yourself a break when needed. The positive effects of kindness can trickle down and impact all aspects of life.
And in an article titled “Why mindfulness is the most important skill of 2022” on mashable.com, Rebecca Ruiz says: “When we pause, bring ourselves back to the present moment, and interrupt a cycle of worried thinking, the brain develops new associations.” That’s what my brain needs — new associations and less worried thinking. The thought patterns over the last two years are not serving me well, not at work and not at home. The good news about mindfulness, in the words of Ruiz, is that “there is no competition, judgment, or failure; just the ever-present chance to find calm in the midst of relentless uncertainty.”
We place a lot of emphasis on starting off a new year “right” — to bring the big ideas and then chase them with our boldest moves, thinking that that’s how we become better and more successful. In her recent article in The Atlantic, Faith Hill talks about moving away from the realm of accomplishments and instead trying to focus on “gratitudes or bright points” and using those as “road signs” for a future self to follow. I think that sounds like a feasible route to take this year — reflect on what’s good and build on that, one step at a time.
By: Felicia Shermis
My first “expat job interview” took place when I was still fairly new to the country — it was terrifying, confusing AND a good learning experience. Even though I had been fortunate enough to get prepped by local friends, the whole thing ended up being a bit of a disaster. As great as it is to get the locals’ point of view (it really is) it turned out to be a bit much for me at the time: all the dos and don’ts made me very nervous. As I was heading out for the interview, I tried desperately to remember the most important points and instead fell completely blank. Walking into the office, I was less than confident and completely overwhelmed.
Actually, I was so afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, while at the same time remembering to ask the right questions, that I mostly mumbled and stuttered my way through the interview. Needless to say, I didn’t get asked back and I certainly didn’t get the job. It took many more interviews for me to start feeling at least a little bit comfortable and confident. It took a whole many more before I landed a job.
Part of what makes it so hard to interview in a foreign country is that pretty much everything is uncharted territory, starting with the fact that you are trying to show off your best self in a foreign language. Even if you are fluent, there are the more subtle nuances of tone, jargon, and familiarity — how formal should you be, is it ok to joke? How far can you take the idle chitchat, what kinds of questions are ok to ask? Should you talk about money, time off? On top of that, you have to figure out dress code, which for me, to this day, continues to be tricky. I feel like I am always just a little off, either too formal or a tad casual, and that adds to the discomfort of the situation.
Starting a new job in a foreign country can be equally disorienting. You have to navigate everything from the mundane, like lunchroom etiquette and water cooler gossip, to the more intricate such as hierarchies and company culture in regards to meetings and deadlines. And while you have a learning curve at any new job, it tends to be extra steep in a place where you have no cultural background.
For example, in Sweden where I grew up, it’s common to have two short “communal” coffee breaks (also known as “fika”) each day — once in the late morning and once in the afternoon. To someone not used to this tradition, these 15-minute breaks may seem like a waste of time, and they may opt to not join in. But the fika-breaks fill an important function: in addition to getting away from the desk for a few minutes, they offer the opportunity to network, as well as serve as informal meeting sessions where minor issues can be discussed and resolved. Last but not least, they build company spirit.
Learning to communicate with colleagues from different cultures might be the hardest task of all. Styles of communication vary widely, from straightforward to the more diplomatic, from detail-oriented to visionary. In my experience, how successful you are, often has more to do with how well you learn to navigate the culture and the communication style of your new environment, and less to do with your specific skills.
By: Felicia Shermis
One of the things about expat life that appealed to Sara Nöjd when she first set out to live abroad as a 19-year old was that it offered an opportunity to start from scratch, to create a persona that no one had any preconceived notions about, to be who she wanted to be. For someone who grew up the youngest of four siblings in a small town in Finland, where everyone knew everyone, and with parents who were both local teachers, this was a welcome relief.
Now, about a decade later, Sara has gained a broader perspective on what it’s like to make a life for yourself abroad as a young person — what is easy and hard, what some of the trade-offs are, and what it is that matters in the long run. For one thing, the initial feeling of being free to be yourself has come with a realization that expat life also means having to work really hard to fit in.
“It’s eye-opening to live in another country. You learn so much about people, about the stereotypes we carry, and about yourself. Your perspectives on life change, but it’s also easy to lose yourself. It’s rewarding but hard, perhaps especially as a young single person, as there is no support system other than the one you manage to build for yourself,” says Sara.
Sara’s first expat experience was as an au pair in Switzerland, and it left her wanting more. After a short stint back at home studying French at the University of Åbo, she decided to do something about her situation. By then, she knew she wanted to go back to Switzerland — she just needed to figure out a way to get there. For Sara, the path included studies in Sweden, internships in Switzerland and Germany, and then finally, a job at a Scandinavian travel agency in Zug, Switzerland.
While Sara liked her job at the travel agency, she also knew that it wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term. Her big interest has always been in health and well-being and how to find a balance in life when it comes to stress, exercise, food, and mental health. “The stresses and challenges of early expat life made me realize that it was all too easy to slip into unhealthy habits. I found that ‘a party lifestyle’ was the driving force in much of the socializing. In the long run, that’s a destructive cycle that really only leads to a lack of sleep and bad food. It definitely doesn’t promote deeper social connections,” she says.
She found that because some of her colleagues at the travel agency were also her friends, the balance between work life and private life could easily suffer. “Some of the things I learned was to make sure to nurture interests and to build friendships outside of work. And to figure out what’s needed in terms of basics to feel content.” For Sara, this meant living in close proximity to good public transportation, easy access to nature, and making sure whatever room she rented had good natural light and space for her yoga mat.
Sara’s interest in health eventually led her to seek out an online program in holistic health through a Swedish academy (the Holistic Health Academy), where she completed a six-month course to become certified as a holistic health therapist. For a while, she wasn’t exactly sure how to use her skills so she started offering packets of three free sessions to potential clients. She got positive feedback and learned that her techniques were making a difference in peoples’ lives — she started thinking that perhaps this was something she could do professionally.
Sara believes that the holistic health perspective can be particularly beneficial to expats, as one of the goals is to explore what works for you as an individual so that you can thrive as a person. One of the reasons Sara got into the health field in the first place was her own discoveries about life abroad, and connecting the dots about what made her feel good and the impact of that on her overall health and ability to thrive, she says: “Holistic health is not about drastic change, it’s about making deliberate choices surrounding food, exercise, and stress that can be incorporated into your everyday life. I believe that small steps will bring great results.”
When Sara lost her job at the travel agency because of the coronavirus pandemic, she decided that this was the time to start her own business. She is the first to admit that the learning curve has been steep. She got help from the Swiss unemployment agency as well as a company that provides assistance to start-ups — after months of research, developing a website, and figuring out the legal aspects, Sara launched her company Lifestyle Holistica in February of this year. As of now, she runs her business part-time and works as a Swedish teacher part-time. She is hoping her business will become her main source of income over time.
One of the benefits of having her own, online-based business is that it affords her the flexibility to work anywhere. At this point in time, this is a big plus as she is thinking about moving back to Finland. Not only did the pandemic help push Sara into starting her business, but it also made her reflect on life abroad, and it put into sharp focus what she wants, and doesn’t want going forward. “Not being able to travel home as easily made me realize how much my family matters to me, and how much I miss some of the everyday things you can do when living close to your near and dear.”
Sara says she appreciates many things about Switzerland — the fact that she has easy access to both city life and beautiful nature, that it’s so centrally located in Europe, the people she has met. But after five years in the country and ten years total abroad, she’s starting to crave something different. She says: “I feel done with living in shared apartments, which is what I can afford in Switzerland. I want to have something of my own. I want to put down roots and I want to be close to my family.”
Sara concludes by saying that in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are an expat or not — she firmly believes that what is important to all of us is to have a good work-life balance, good friends, goals, and a sense of who you are as a person. In her experience, if you don’t have that, you’ll feel a little lost regardless of where you live.
By: Felicia Shermis
There are few things as important as the issues of climate change and sustainability right now. In a way, these topics have become a unifier for people across the globe. Not because everyone feels the same about them but because they are discussed everywhere, and if nothing else, there is a collective awareness surrounding them.
While most societies have measures in place to encourage sustainability and counter climate change, they look different depending on where you are. Not just the practical ways of everyday sustainability such as recycling, but also when it comes to the bigger picture of environmentally and socially sustainable values and how they are discussed and addressed — what role they play in a country’s culture at large. For those of us who move between different parts of the world, that means there is a lot to learn when arriving in a new place.
And a common concern when moving abroad is indeed how to keep up a sustainable lifestyle. How does it work in the new place — how do you recycle, what kind of vehicles can you rent, are there incentives for buying an electric car? What energy alternatives are there? Is there a comprehensive public transport system? And, whether relocating or not, there is always the question of how to travel with minimal impact.
Having recently returned to California after spending a couple of months in Sweden, I have had reason to reflect on some of the differences you come across regarding how sustainability is addressed and “lived” in another country, and how it exists in the consciousness of people.
Recycling is a good example — it’s second nature to most of us by now. But how and what we recycle varies from country to country (and sometimes city to city). While it takes a little more work, I have come to appreciate the recycling system found in Sweden where you sort and take your recyclables to communal centers. There are specific bins for specific items. And because you are responsible for sorting your own stuff, I find that I am more aware of what I am using and how I am discarding it. In the town in California where I live, there is an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of effect, as paper, plastic, glass, etc. are all thrown into one big bin to be sorted off-site.
And, talking about traveling with minimal impact, this is something I think about often. There is an expression in Swedish, “Flygskam” (“flight shame” in English), that captures some of my feelings. It’s a word you hear often and the debate regarding the need to fly has been heated — in media and among people in general (although, the pandemic has halted the discussion a bit), with some vowing never to fly again, others proposing a sort of cap-and-trade system for individual aviation, and everything in between. In short, it’s an issue that evokes all kinds of emotions and ideas — pretty much everyone in the country has an opinion.
My feelings when it comes to flying are best described as conflicted. I have family on different continents, as well as on both coasts of the US. Like many expats, if I don’t fly, I don’t see family. And because my family is so spread out, I fly quite a bit. I know I’m not the only one tossing the question of flying (or not) around in my head without being able to come to a satisfactory solution. I usually land on “until there is a better way of traversing the planet, I’ll have to make do with such ‘solutions’ as paying for the carbon offset”, for example.
It’s easy to feel hopeless when reading the news about climate change and sustainability. As individuals, we often feel powerless when it comes to creating what we think of as “real change”. But we all have the capacity to do something and doing something, even if it seems “small”, is real change.
In addition, seeking out organizations or networks of like-minded people is a great way to work towards change, and as expats, this can also serve as an opportunity to make friends and get to know your community. Our abilities, conditions, and resources vary but the power is in our hands, individually and collectively.
By: Felicia Shermis