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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A Little Hospitality Goes a Long Way

The expression “Southern Hospitality” is usually defined as “showing graciousness, kindness and warmth to others”. Visiting the American South recently, I feel like I got to experience it first hand — people in general were friendly, welcoming and very helpful. I don’t know that Southern Hospitality is truly a thing, or if I simply got lucky in my interactions and happened to meet some really nice people. Regardless, my overall impression was a positive one — I found it smooth to get around because I wasn’t afraid of asking “stupid” questions, or taking a wrong turn. It was easy to talk to people because they seemed happy to share what they knew and liked about where they lived.

I’ve been thinking about the experience quite a bit since returning home, partly because it’s such a contrast to the current news from around the world, which seems centered mostly on topics concerning how to keep people out rather than make them feel welcomed, but also because the concept makes so much sense — extending a friendly smile or helping hand when someone is looking for assistance, directions or a place to go, seems a win-win kind of deal. I mean, the worst that can happen is that you’ve been friendly. Meanwhile, the upside is endless — you might strike up an interesting conversation, learn something new, maybe even make a friend.

Traveling as a tourist is of course different from moving to a foreign country, but there are some parallels. Sometimes, all it takes to remedy the feeling of being lost and confused is some  guidance from someone more intimately familiar with the surroundings. I remember trying to figure out how to buy tram tickets from an automatic dispenser in Lisbon and getting stumped over and over again. Eventually, the person behind me took mercy on me and decided to lend a hand — once I knew what to do it was fairly easy — I am sure I would have figured it out all by myself, at some point, maybe…

I think settling in a new country is a little bit like that — if you stay long enough and try hard enough, you’ll eventually get how things work, you’ll start feeling at home. However, it is oh-so-much-easier when you have someone who can show you the ropes, who can give you a hint of how things are done — a mentor at work who can decipher the ins and outs of the office dynamics, a seasoned fellow parent at your children’s school to help explain the PTA, fundraising and volunteering, a wise neighbor to help figure out paperwork, a friendly face to talk to. In short — a support network. This is something we have in our home countries through friends and family, and what most of us miss when first heading out into the unknown.

I think the natural inclination of many who live and work abroad is to seek out others in the same boat — other expats who are also trying to find their footing and figure out life in a new environment. Bonding with locals, or those who are firmly settled, can be a little trickier. However, often times all you need for that first breakthrough is simply to dare ask for help, to extend your own hand, or give a friendly smile. A little hospitality goes a long way.

By: Felicia Shermis

The Hybrid Existence of the Globally Mobile

Flying back to California after a visit home in December, my seatmate was a woman visiting her daughter and grandchildren over Christmas break. Like me, her daughter had lived abroad for many years and, like me, her daughter had recently bought an apartment “back home”. I asked my seatmate if her daughter was planning on moving home soon and her answer was one that resonated with me: “Oh, she’s been on her way home ever since she left. All these years, she has talked about moving. She still has stuff to unpack, she’s still talking about buying a nice comfy couch and getting rid of the temporary cheap one.” All I could do was smile in recognition — I knew exactly what my seatmate was talking about.

Thing is, living abroad often means a degree of uncertainty and unsettledness. Feeling in limbo, even during longer assignments, is not uncommon. The feeling strikes me especially at this time of year, when you are surrounded by new year’s resolutions and best-of lists — where to go, what to accomplish and what to be. During my first many years abroad, I felt very much like I lived in a kind of no man’s land. The idea of making longer term plans, or becoming too settled, wasn’t something I felt I could do.

When we first moved abroad, our deal was that we’d move back home after a couple of years. Making plans, big or small, seemed like something that could wait until we got back home and everything was normal and known again. Better to think about career choices when I am someplace where I speak the language, where I understand the culture a bit better. No reason to decorate the house if we’re moving in a year or two. This was my thinking for a long time. As for moving home — that didn’t happen, we stayed long past the two years we had initially agreed on.

The reason my seatmate’s story resonated so much was because, even after very many years abroad, and by all accounts feeling pretty settled, the idea of moving back home was still regularly tossed around in our house — and not just as a joke. That “maybe next year we move”-mentality has an impact on how you live life, how choices are made.

I wonder if part of the reason why the globally mobile population often feels so rootless is because everyday life tends to be a “catch up”. You are trying to overcome language barriers, learn about customs and cultural codes, as well as build a social and professional network — in short, you are trying to catch up to something resembling an everyday existence. Very little is given. Combine that with the inherent temporary nature of international assignment, and it’s easy to see that making longer term plans and feeling truly settled can be difficult.    

I recently bought an apartment back home. I’m not sure what it would be like to live there full time at this point. I’ve spent most of my adult life abroad, and even though I have kept close ties to family, I know there are many things that I haven’t kept up with. Living abroad has made me a bit of a hybrid, I feel comfortable in both places, but where I belong I don’t really know. And this is something you hear often from people who have lived abroad for a long time — a feeling of being comfortable in many places, but not quite belonging anywhere.

By: Felicia Shermis

Learning the Local Language – a Key to Social Adaptation

As a non-native English speaker, I have had my fair share of English language faux pas over the years. Mostly, the mistakes have been innocent and without great consequence, such as mispronouncing a word or messing up grammatically. There are a couple of instances that my children will never let me forget – they particularly like to tease me about the time I got the expression “on the DL” (on the down-low, defined as “keeping an act, action or some other piece of information a secret”.) reversed. Yep, I asked them to keep something “on the LD”, which was immensely funny to them – it has been a source of entertainment to the family ever since.

Sure, I felt a little embarrassed about my mistake but clearly the consequences of my mix-up were non-existent – other than said occasional teasing by my children. There are times however when language gaps can present real problems, and within the globally mobile community, it’s definitely a concern. Studies show that it’s one of the big worries expats have before relocating. Furthermore, the ability to learn the local language is a contributing factor to how well someone settles in a foreign country.

Whether we like it or not, language is a social identifier. Think about it, in your home country with your own language, you can probably build yourself “a rough picture” of someone based on the way they speak – posh, working class, from the North, highly educated, and so on. That’s because the way a person speaks – dialect, choice of words, etc. is an indicator of sorts of where they come from and who they might be.

If you don’t speak the language where you are living you are always identifiable as “other”, and that in itself can be stressful and isolating. Likewise, if you speak the language a bit, but struggle to express more complicated thoughts, that is equally frustrating and can enhance the sense of isolation and not belonging. The nuances of everyday-life are harder to grasp when you have limited knowledge of the native language.

There are other concerns as well, practical tasks and business matters become much tougher when you don’t feel comfortable with the language – be it a phone call, a doctor’s visit or filling out school forms. I remember my first year abroad when I had to make phone calls to the bank, the utilities office, or any other “official” place – I truly dreaded it. Even though I spoke the language pretty fluently, I had a hard time understanding people over the phone and I felt like I struggled to find the right words, making me nervous and prone to mistakes.

My strategy was to write down what I wanted to say and practice out loud. Once I had gathered enough courage to make the call, all I could do was hope that the person on the other end of the line spoke clearly and slowly and without too strong of an accent.

Language barriers can come to have more serious consequences in the workplace. Especially if you have an international workforce where many people have different mother tongues and English is the common shared language. The chances of misunderstandings and miscommunication are pretty big. Also, in a professional environment you may feel less likely to admit to not understanding or parsing a conversation, thinking it may reflect poorly on you.  

Learning a foreign language can feel like a big-time task, but the impact on social adaptation can’t be underestimated. As I always tell my kids when they complain about homework – learning a foreign language should be done vigorously and wholeheartedly, and definitely not on the DL…

By: Felicia Shermis

Source: HSBC Expat Survey

Globiana’s team share their holiday traditions

Globiana’s staff hail from all over the world. Not only that, we reside in different parts of the world — many of us far away from our native countries. The holiday season tends to remind us of traditions, foods and activities from home. Here are a few of our favorite holiday traditions, from around the world:

Elena: Nutcracker! Definitely!

Growing up in the Soviet Union, the gift giving was… well… not a big part of our lives. Except for the one special gift I got from my father every single year – tickets to see a ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. A lot of times it would be their production of the Nutcracker. This is what made Christmas the most magical and most anticipated time of the year for me. Years later, even in my now all-boy home environment, I kept this tradition alive and my men gladly join me whenever we manage to get tickets. Watch the Snowflake dance from the Bolshoi Theater Nutcracker here. S Novym Godom!

Camilla: Decorating the house and the tree

Living abroad and far from family is extra difficult during the holiday season. This is when creating your own traditions is so important. Some are well thought through like us trying to make sure we always go to see a ballet, concert or a theater but I would say our favorite tradition has evolved over the years. It is decorating the house and the Christmas tree.

We always do it as a family and it is a journey through memory lane. Every ornament involves a story of where we bought it or who gave it to us. We cherish the ugly white elephant gift as much as the beautiful white Christmas angel sitting in the tree, because of the memories they offer.

We also save all our Christmas cards in the Christmas ornament box and look through them while decorating. We look at how children grow up and discuss life. It is great as everyone remembers things slightly differently, and that in itself is interesting to reflect upon.

Shannon: Strategizing for fun and unique gift giving

My favorite holiday tradition is the strategic planning of what kind of gift giving my family will do. It changes, sometimes, year to year, or sometimes we do the same thing for a few years in a row, and then we switch it up. We look at this as a challenge to see what can be unique and the most fun each year. We draw names, we donate the equivalent of our gift spending budget to our favorite charity, or we revert back to the age old stocking stuffers approach, but kicked up a notch. Our decision every year is like a gift, a real element of surprise, with hopes to impress like never before!

Marlies: Oliebollen and Appelflappen

Ah, “’tis the season”! Growing up in The Netherlands, we would usually celebrate Christmas Eve, with the unwrapping of the presents. As a child, I always wanted to wait till 12am… of course everyone was half asleep by then, and dad was getting frustrated, but in the end it was a lot of fun. Christmas Day was usually celebrated at my grandparents’ house during the day, and then a big dinner in the evening. Second Christmas in the Netherlands or Tweede Kerstdag, (Boxing day in Canada and the UK) was the so-called “uitbuik dag”. We would be so full with goodies from the day before that this day was for eating leftovers and watching movies or going for a long walk.

Two of my favorite things to eat as part of the New Year’s tradition are “oliebollen” (dough balls, similar to doughnuts) and “appelflappen” (apple slices dipped in sweet batter and deep fried). Wherever you would go there would be a bowl of oliebollen with or without raisins, and appelflappen. We would also watch a comedy show by a famous Dutch comedian and when the clock hit midnight… people in the neighborhood would go outside to wish everyone a Happy New Year and kiss. Some people would have fireworks as well. There is a link to the oliebollen recipe here.

Fijne feestdagen everyone!

Melinda: The Great Pickle Hunt

One of the highlights of Christmas at my mother’s house is the Great Pickle Hunt. She always has a wonderful, wrapped chocolate or candy treat for whomever finds the pickle ornament hidden in the tree. That worked well while the kids were little but as they got older and wiser, the field was expanded and the pickle(s) could be hidden anywhere in the vicinity. Now, Mom was smart and had consolation prizes, but still, there are rules:

  1. You have to be able to see the hiding spot from the Christmas tree.
  2. You shouldn’t have to move anything to get to the pickle, say, the lid of a jar.
  3. There is NO advance scouting when you arrive — we will monitor that tree and if you start looking around, the others get a five-second head start.
  4. If there is more than one pickle, you have to stop when you find one. One year, the oldest found all three and these kids have long memories.
  5. If a child has never found a pickle or even believes, despite many people arguing to the contrary, that she’s never found the pickle, the others are encouraged to step back and give hints.

Whenever cousins were there, and when three stepbrothers joined the family, we started hiding more pickles. They are all teens now, so it gets a little brutal and more than one pickle has been shattered but the punchline is: there’s always candy for everyone.

This year, we moved to Seattle, so we are hosting Christmas in our new home. As we said our goodbyes after Thanksgiving dinner, Mom shout-whispered, “DON’T FORGET TO BUY PICKLES.” I ordered them today.

Carol: Christmas Cantata

We attend a local concert featuring the Christmas cantata by Frederick Handel, “The Messiah”, which ends with the famous Hallelujah Chorus. It’s very festive and reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas at a time of year when we can get so distracted with other things.

Norman: White elephant gift exchange

Our family has a “white elephant” gift exchange. Everyone brings a gift, not designed for anyone in particular. We set a very low price limit of $20, or just something from home. It doesn’t have to be of any use at all. Along with the gift, each person writes a poem that kind of explains the gift. Lots are cast, and people choose gifts from the pile and read the poems. A catch is that if you like a gift someone else has opened, you may take that gift instead of opening a new one. This tradition makes for a lot of fun for the whole family, it’s cheap and gets us away from the commercialization of this time of year.

Felicia: Baking lussekatter with my children

My all-time favorite tradition around the holidays is baking Swedish Lucia buns, or “lussekatter” as they are also called, with my children. Lussekatter are saffron buns made into S-shapes of various kinds. They are traditionally served on Lucia (celebrated on Dec. 13), but we eat them all season long. This is a tradition that not only takes me back to when I was a child, it’s a tradition my children have wholeheartedly adopted as well — they agree, it’s not the holidays without lussekatter. The fun part is that they love the baking as much as the eating. The bake takes a few hours from start to finish and I enjoy every minute of it. The house smells of melted butter and saffron and we get to spend an afternoon chatting and listening to favorite holiday songs while working the dough, waiting for it to rise and then shaping the buns. Once we’re all done we have the most delectable, and beautiful, golden-yellow buns. It’s a sure sign the holidays have arrived! Here is a recipe for lussekatter.

Happy Holidays!