The active work of finding your groove

What do you do if your partner or children are having a hard time getting settled in your new location, if they are struggling to the point of not wanting to stay? It’s a common enough problem. As a matter of fact, the inability of loved ones to adjust to the destination country is one of the top reasons for a failed assignment. But why is this the case, and what can you do to proactively work toward a different outcome? There is no “one way” to do it, but in almost all cases curiosity, deliberate work, and support, are basic ingredients.

Language barriers and cultural differences are two of the main obstacles to feeling settled and immersed in a new community. Learning the language is an obvious place to start, but it takes dedication and a willingness to put in the effort. However, the rewards of knowing your local language, even if it’s just a little bit, are substantial. Author John le Carré says it best in this recent article from The Guardian: “The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking.”

Cross-cultural training as a concept is a bit vague and undefined. It can be difficult to know how to “work on” your cultural adaptation. Most of us figure that if we only give it time, things will naturally fall into place. To some degree that’s true – over time you will get to know your community and the culture, at least a little bit. The problem is that when you don’t actively set out to learn about your surroundings, or try to understand why people are the way they are, you will never get deeper than a scratch to the surface.

Many companies offer practical support to expat employees and their families, some also offer cross-cultural training. It’s common for assignees to leverage the practical help, such as assistance with finding a place to live and to fill out applications. But the more intangible, like cross-cultural adaptation training is often met with skepticism, as many can’t see what it can do for them.

Cultural adaptation means different things to different people. It can mean learning how to build a social network, or figuring out parenting practices in your new country. For an accompanying partner it may mean getting help with career decisions, setting goals and making networking plans. For a working partner it may be focused on work culture and social norms in the workplace.

I interviewed an acquaintance of mine recently (read full interview here). She relocated with her family seven years ago when her husband’s company offered him a position in their Silicon Valley office. There were two things in particular she talked about that stuck with me. One was that from the very get-go they viewed their relocation as a family project. This was not a move to further her husband’s career. This was for the whole family and the goal was to make it work for everyone. They were actively engaged. They took advantage of the company’s support services such as tutoring. In their case, they used the tutoring hours to get a head start on language learning and to make sure their kids were caught up on math, which they knew was going to be a challenge once school started.

The other thing they did was to seek out people with experience of international relocation. Talking to those who have gone before is an excellent way to get insights to your new country and to your new life. Because of course, you are not only getting used to life in a new country, you are also getting used to life away from your old surroundings. You are getting used to life without regular support networks of friends and family, without favorite comfort foods, places to go and activities to engage in. In a way it’s a double whammy – setting up the new while not being able to lean on the old.

By: Felicia Shermis

Moving day — the end of planning, preparing and packing, or so you thought…

Last time I moved was an across-town affair about six months ago and it really shouldn’t have been that big of a deal. After all, it was just across town. But, because this was a downsizing move after having sent two of our three kids to college, there was a lot to sort through and many decisions to make on what to keep, what to store and what to donate. We had lived in this house for almost ten years and, unsurprisingly, we had managed to accumulate “stuff”. It turned out to be a much bigger effort than I had anticipated.

And even though I thought we were in pretty good “moving shape”, in hindsight that was not true at all. One of the reasons was that we didn’t have a hard cut-off date. So, even though we had a moving day where most of the furniture and boxes were taken, it still became a long drawn-out process. It was like a battle on two fronts – dealing with unpacking and settling at the new house, while still taking care of the last of everything at the old place. I think I prefer the pressure of the up-front stress, to the long drawn-out process we ended up having.

One of the reasons moving day is so stressful is that it typically marks the end of a period of planning and packing and trying to figure out logistics. It’s the day when everything has to be ready! In reality however, it doesn’t really stop there, because once you are out you have to hit the ground running setting up your new home. I think this is especially true if you are relocating to a new country. I remember when we first moved to the US and were trying to get our home up and running with basics such as phone service, cable, trash and gas – it was stressful and sometimes very confusing.

First of all, every phone call was a bit of a nightmare as I wasn’t sure I would be able to follow along in what the person on the other end was asking of me. I was new to the specific lingo of whatever industry I was talking to, so names and expressions often didn’t make sense. To top it off, I didn’t have full check on things like zip code, area code and gate code, or whatever other codes and numbers they were asking for. I didn’t even have a social security number the first few months, which was a problem in itself.

Sometimes when I got stressed, I couldn’t remember any of it and just hung up and started over. Sometimes when being asked to pick the level of service that best matched our needs, I just picked the middle option because that’s all I could think to do. In addition to all this I was living in a sea of boxes, trying to locate necessities and comforts alike, without much luck. It was a mess!

I spoke to a friend the other day who has a lot of experience moving, both internationally and locally. She told me about the “moving box” cataloging system she has developed and I was mighty impressed. She has worked out a system for labeling boxes and tracking every item in a spreadsheet. She told me the story of her college-aged son calling her from school to see if she had his back-up glasses as he had misplaced his regular ones. The glasses were buried deep in a box, placed in a stack of boxes. A quick consultation with the spreadsheet and she could easily locate the glasses. She sent them the next day. If only those were my boxes in my garage right now!

I hope my next move is still a ways away. But when that day comes, I vow to be better organized, to stay on top of paperwork, be smarter about time and be more willing to apply the “if you haven’t used within the last year, you can get rid of”-rule. For now, I will focus on the more pleasant aspects of moving, namely the possibility of forging new connections, meeting neighbors and getting to know a new community – even if it’s just across town.

By: Felicia Shermis

Home

As someone who’s been living far away from home for most of my adult life, I have spent a lot of time thinking about where “home” is and what it is that makes home “home”. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to us at different stages of life and under different life circumstances. The last couple of weeks, the whole concept has been nagging at me even more as I have followed the news on the devastation caused by natural disasters – hurricanes Harvey and Irma, an earthquake in Mexico, wildfires – all causing massive destruction, loss of lives and displacement.

This kind of catastrophic displacement makes you think twice about your own feelings of “displacement” as an expat far away from home. There is no comparing the two in any way. If anything, it becomes a reminder that sometimes home is literally where your heart is, because that’s all you have at that given moment. It’s also a reminder that “home” means something different to all of us.

I saw an interview on TV a few days ago with a woman who opened up her home to some ten people during the recent storms in Texas. What struck me wasn’t the fact that she offered complete strangers a place to stay, but rather what she said about how it has affected her to share her home with people she doesn’t know. She said that the decision to take them in was not a hard one, it seemed the only human thing to do. They had no safe place to stay and she did. In the interview, she is not suggesting it’s been easy. However, as taxing as it has been, it has been just as enriching. She attributed part of that to the fact that they have had shared experiences under extreme circumstances, but also that she got to know people she would not normally meet, they broadened her world in a way she didn’t expect.

An extreme weather event brought these people together and obviously that is not an ideal shared experience. But as grim as the experience has been, the woman in the interview said she could not imagine what it would have been like to go through the storm without them. As expats, shared experiences is an intangible that we can’t rely on when arriving in a new country. We have different cultural backgrounds, different foods, languages and points of reference and there is no immediate fix to bridge all these. It takes a little time.

I have never experienced forced displacement and for that I am grateful. I do have experience with the self-imposed kind, and while I have never feared for my life, I have felt worried about how I am going to make a go of the new situation, will I ever make friends, learn the societal codes? Feel at home?

Moving abroad can be a challenge, but as expats we have the good fortune of time to plan and research, and we can prepare mentally for what is to come. But, while there are many resources, you also have to be willing to put yourself “out there”. You have to be interested in getting to know your neighbors and learn about traditions. What I’ve learned with time is that it is the small and intangible that eventually makes you feel at home – like getting a joke with cultural references that you would not have gotten before, or knowing how to order a bagel like the locals, or a shared experience with others in your community.

How we think about home changes over time and with circumstance; it can be a bit fluid, it can be many places at once and mean different things depending on where you are and with whom. As one of my favorite Swedish authors, Henning Mankell, said: “You can have more than one home. You can carry your roots with you, and decide where they grow.”

By: Felicia Shermis

Planning for the unexpected

I know, it sounds counterintuitive to plan for the unexpected, but just hear me out – there is a case to be made for doing just that. One of the big questions for anyone relocating to a foreign country is how to handle relationships and practical matters back home. It’s an issue that gets easily lost in the hustle and bustle of pre-departure preparations and hit-the-ground-running mentality upon arrival. However, giving some thought to how you’ll deal with an emergency back home is an exercise worth undertaking. Likewise, pondering how you’ll feel about missing some of the fun stuff, such as birthday parties or holidays, is an equally worthwhile exercise. It all comes down to being well prepared.

The good news is that actually keeping in touch with people is pretty easy and affordable these days, so staying informed should not be a problem. However, anyone living abroad for an extended period of time will eventually be in a situation where a decision has to be made to go home unexpectedly for an emergency, or figure out if there is time and money to attend a family event. When that happens you’re not only up against time, but finances and practical issues such as who-will-pick-up-the-kids-from-school-when-I-am-gone-without-having-had-time-to-make-arrangements, will also come into play.

I’ve been living abroad for over 20 years and I have been mostly lucky. Only once has there been a true emergency, where circumstances were dire enough that all I could do was hop on the first flight out, without thought to money or kids or appointments, and hope for the best on all ends.

I got the call during my daughter’s birthday party, saying my brother had been in a life threatening car accident (I’ll spare you the agony and let you know right here that everything ended well). However, the panic and helplessness I felt were intense. There was nothing I could do. I was a 12-hour plane flight away. Not only could I not get home fast enough, but the travel itself was excruciating as I had no idea what was happening while I was in transition.

You can never prepare emotionally for this kind of phone call and circumstance. It will always be a shock and if you live on the other side of the planet, you’ll likely end up feeling helpless and scared, like I did. However, there are some things you can do to be prepared, such as making sure you have an emergency travel fund and a plan for who takes care of everyday stuff at home while you are gone. Do you have a support network that can help with your kids for example? Who walks the dog? Can you take time off work, if so how much, and what is the procedure?

There are other times when you may have to miss out on the fun stuff – either because of timing or money or both. And while it’s not as traumatic as a medical emergency, it can still sting to have to say no to a family reunion, a holiday celebration, a 50th birthday bash, or a friend’s wedding – all of this I know from experience.

In the early days these kinds of decisions came down to money for us, and more often than not did we not have the extra cash to spare on a trip. Later on it was time and timing, and being pregnant or having a newborn, or school or work or …, well, you get the picture – it’s hard to get away when life is in full motion. What you can do: make plans for that which you can control, give some thought to that which you can’t.

By: Felicia Shermis

Building a social life as a new arrival

Building new friendships as an adult can be difficult, and being a new arrival in a foreign country only adds to the difficulty. Ironically, this is also the time when you have a real need to meet people and make new friends. As a new arrival, you have left your support network of friends and family behind. Establishing friendships in your local area becomes crucial in order to have a successful stay in your new environment.

Couples with kids often find that they have a natural way of getting to know people as they meet other parents and bond around their kids’ friendships. Also, arriving as a couple, you have each other to rely on. But for a single person without kids, there aren’t many natural ways of meeting people, except for perhaps at work. So what do you do if you are single and newly arrived in a foreign country? How do you strike out on your own without a support network to help you?

There are three conditions, identified by sociologists in the 1950’s, that are considered crucial to making close friends:

  • Proximity – you need to be near each other.
  • Unplanned reactions – chance that you run into each other by accident.
  • Privacy – you’re in situations where you can confide in one another.

There are few situations where all three of these are present at the same time. So, according to sociologists, if you want to build an environment conducive to making friends, you will have to be deliberate.

The good news these days is that there are many avenues for meeting people. The Internet makes it easy to find out if there are groups from your native country in the area, for example. There are a number of dating apps for those looking for a partner, and online sites such as Meetup.com are great if you want to meet locals who share your interests — be it hiking, playing scrabble or wine tasting.

Thinking back on my own single-and-looking-to-meet-new-people days, in the dark ages before Internet life, I can only conclude that there are so many ways to connect with people today that perhaps the biggest problem is figuring out which ‘way to go’ and then building up the courage to do it.

However, for many new arrivals there are barriers other than the question of ‘where do I go?’ to overcome. There are language issues, cultural traditions and social cues to learn about. These can be major hurdles, as can the fact that many view their overseas assignment as temporary and thus feel there is no point in putting the effort into making new friends. Also, as a newcomer it’s easy to get so immersed in work that you feel you don’t have the time or energy to engage with people outside of the office.

As someone who has always been shy in new social settings and a little hesitant to just ‘dive in’ I can appreciate how hard it is to meet and get to know new people. I can’t remember any instances however, where I have regretted venturing out — be it to go to a party, to join a tennis team or take a class. Sure, I have gone to parties and I have felt awkward and not had all that much fun. And yes, I have taken classes that have been so-so and dropped them after a few weeks. Most of the time though, something good has come out of these ventures. So, if my experience tells me anything, it is that you have nothing to lose by trying!

By: Felicia Shermis

A Goal Check to Stay on Track

While cleaning out an old moving box recently I found a list tucked inside an old diary. It was a to-do list of sorts and the three top items said:

  1. Get a summer job
  2. Buy/find/make a pair of black pants
  3. Cut hair short

I was 14 when I wrote this list and I did get a summer job and I sewed myself a pair of black pants. I am not so sure about the third item, I think I cut my hair the following summer. But still, two out of three goals achieved, isn’t all that bad.

Most of us have goals of various kinds, long-term and short-term, big and small. Some of us write down what we want to accomplish, how to go about it and by when. Taking stock of our goals however, is something that often falls by the wayside as we get busy with everyday life. So what better time to think about the things you’d like to do, change and experience than during summer vacation? After all, this is the time when routines are shifted and time slows down just a little bit, leaving room for reflection.

As an expat you may feel like you have to examine most everything in your life and reconsider all of your previously set goals. Perhaps you are thinking that since your circumstances have changed drastically, maybe your goals should as well.

That can be a jarring and overwhelming thought and I would say one that isn’t really true. Sure, you may find that some goals need to be adjusted, and you may discover a whole new set of goals simply because you have new perspectives and inspirations. For many however, the immediate goal when first arriving in a new country is pretty given as you are trying to adjust to a new culture and learn to speak a foreign language.

However, once the moving dust has settled, taking a closer look at your goals is a good idea. There are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started, such as:

  • What are my short-term goals?
  • What are my long-term goals?
  • What goals have I achieved so far this year?
  • What am I struggling with in terms of reaching set goals?
  • What kind of adjustments do I want to make?

Lastly, having a plan for how to achieve your goals is important. Goals without plans become wishes more than anything else, and wishes are subject to luck and the benevolence of others. A goal with a plan is your own creation all together, and one you can make happen!

By: Felicia Shermis

Communication between expat partners – sometimes fragile, always crucial

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, exposes 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. Often times, there is a working partner and an accompanying partner and their realities, once in place are pretty 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, or 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 acknowledgement 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 is invaluable!

By: Felicia Shermis

Summer reading – it’s not just for school kids

This month has been all about communication and language and the impact both have on those settling someplace new. It struck me that the two have a lot to do with one of my favorite pastimes: reading. And since we’re in the middle of summer vacation, I figured – what better time to share some ideas for books to read? After all, books, from whatever genre – fiction, memoir, travelogue, etc. have the power to transport and illuminate, by examining cultures and simply offering different perspectives on life. Sometimes, they remind us of home, and that can be good too.

There are of course several expat-oriented books that explicitly deal with the experience of moving to a new country and adapting to life there. There are guide books and travel books that can be immensely helpful to someone moving abroad, as can any number of expat oriented websites and blogs. This post won’t really talk about those, other than to provide some links at the very end.

What this post will discuss are a few books that deal with transition, moving, and life changes in general. Whether you pick up one of these, or something else, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all about reading something – anything – that fits your needs, tickles your fancy and suits your taste. Here are some that I like:

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg: this series of four books is perhaps the ultimate tale of what it’s like to leave your home and settle in a foreign place. It describes the long and hard journey of a family of emigrants leaving behind their poverty stricken lives in rural Sweden to settle in the United States in the 1850s. Clearly, moving across the globe these days is very different from back then. However, the feelings of loss and wonder are timeless, universal and relatable.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: this book describes the lives of four Asian women who had to leave China in the 1940s and the relationship with their four adult, very Americanized daughters. A central question in the story, and one I believe resonates with many global citizens: how do you maintain familial bonds across cultural and generational gaps?

The price of water in Finistère by Bodil Malmsten: beautifully and poetically written about the author’s struggles and joys when settling in a new country and all that that entails: picking up a new language, finding reliable help with fixing up a house, learning how to behave at the grocery store and the post office in order not to offend anyone. It’s funny and touching.

Paris in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James: author Eloisa James took a year long sabbatical from her job in the US and moved her family to Paris. This memoir describes her day-to-day life, the obstacles and successes and it gives intriguing glimpses of Paris as the author slowly but surely “discovers” the city.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss: this may be a children’s book but anyone entering a new phase of life can gain insights from its simple but powerful messages. The fun illustrations and rhymes add to the reading experience.

While on the topic of reading books – joining (or starting) a book club is a wonderful way to meet people and make social connections. “Book clubs are the great leveler in expatriate life. It’s where you can talk to the head of a huge multinational and still discuss things on an equal footing,” says Catherine Gough, a member of a Tokyo book club (from the article “Tips for starting an expatriate book club”, The Telegraph).

By: Felicia Shermis

Expat reading tips:

The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman

Expat Women: Confessions – 50 Answers to Your Real-Life Questions about Living Abroad by Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth

The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone

Moving Without Shaking: The guide to expat life success (from women to women) by Yelena Parker

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Davis C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken

Communication – Brings us Together and Sets us Apart

If our ability to communicate is what defines us as humans, then why aren’t we better at it? If you consider that something as simple as the “V-sign” hand gesture has completely different meanings depending on where you are – it’s a symbol for peace in the USA, while signaling contempt and rudeness in some other parts of the world – then maybe it’s not so strange that other kinds of communication are equally complicated.

It’s a little ironic that in a time where we have an abundance of methods with which to communicate, we still have the same problems we’ve always had. It doesn’t seem to matter that we have language translation programs at our fingertips, instant information on any topic available by a tap on a screen, and a love connection a swipe away. True communication, as in understanding each other, appears as elusive as ever.

One of the reasons, of course, is that interpersonal communication doesn’t happen in isolation, there is always a context to a message and there are many aspects in play. There is the “sender” and the “receiver” and that which they both bring to the table – cultural backgrounds, age, sex, mood, education, etc. If we are not in tune with the context in which something is being communicated, misinterpretation and misunderstanding are very possible outcomes.

I spent this past week at a volleyball tournament with my teenage daughter. It struck me that the group I was with is a perfect illustration of the difficulty of achieving good, effective communication across cultural divides, while also navigating language barriers.

It turns out that this team has a diverse group of parents from different cultural backgrounds, everyone with a slightly different perspective and emphasis on what’s important, be it in regards to what and how you eat, how you get around, how much you pitch in and what is expected of the kids. The following became clear very quickly: good communication almost always brings people together, whereas poor communication does the opposite.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that our week had its fair share of miscommunication, and not infrequently, hurt feelings and bruised egos. Now, you might think I am talking about the teenagers here, but that’s not the case – these were the adults. It’s interesting to note that most misunderstandings started and spread via electronic communication and they were always resolved through face-to-face interactions, where there were opportunities for questions and clarifications.

Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is that interpersonal communication is indeed complicated and people are not mind readers. Also worth keeping in mind: the rewards of good communication are outstanding — as Rollo May says: “Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”

By: Felicia Shermis

Quote from: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_communication.html

Do we Become More Patriotic While Living Abroad?

As I am writing this, I have just spoken to my mom back in Sweden about the day’s Midsummer’s Eve festivities. It was getting to be evening, and things were winding down, but it sounded like they had had a really good time. It’s morning for me so I still have time to figure out what we’re going to do. Uncharacteristically, we have no plans. When the kids were younger, we would make an effort to celebrate with all the traditional fixings – food, Maypole, singing and dancing. It felt important. This year, with the kids all scattered and doing their own things, I’m thinking maybe it’s enough to “celebrate by proxy”, via my mom. That, and maybe a glass of bubbly tonight!

I am not quite as indifferent as it may seem however. Before the day is over I will undoubtedly talk to some friends back home and have them tell me about their celebrations. We’ll probably reminisce about the good old times, and tell a funny story or two. I’ll read newspaper articles about the raucousness that by now will have replaced the family friendly early evening festivities. In short, I will revel from afar.

During all my years abroad I think I’ve become more prone to celebrating my country’s holidays, following its sports teams and promoting its culture. I don’t think I am alone in this. For many of us it’s a way to stay connected and involved, it helps make home more tangible.

I often hear stories from other expats about the lengths to which they go in order to keep some of home alive and well while living overseas. Who hasn’t traveled far and wide for a specialty food item, or squealed for joy when unexpectedly finding a favorite item from home? Or better yet, promoting something that you never really gave a thought to before moving. I know I have.

I read an article recently about a guy who had never been interested in soccer whatsoever. After living abroad for some time he found himself a huge fan of his national team, watching games on TV, reading up on players and even traveling to see games if they were within reach. Being able to immerse from a distance made him feel closer to home. It spurred pride and longing all at once.

For me it wasn’t soccer. No, I have developed a slight obsession with crossword puzzles. I had never as much as attempted to solve one before, and now I am stocking up every chance I get. I think it’s a combination of having to deal with the language in a tangible way while at the same time getting current event insights. The whole exercise just gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

I’m not sure we become more patriotic while living abroad. I do think it’s common however to crave things that remind us of home. I don’t think it has anything to do with not wanting to be where you are, or a lack of interest in the new culture. As a matter of fact, when I think about it, among my expat friends, it’s the ones who are the most in tune with traditions from back home, that are also the most settled and invested in their new community. Maybe this speaks more to type of personality than anything else. But regardless, it’s interesting to think that absorbing a new culture and way of life, is also something that fuels your wish to maintain a strong connection to home.

By: Felicia Shermis

Bringing up Multicultural Children

Watching my now mostly adult children navigate the world around them, I can’t help but think that this planet would be a more understanding and tolerant place if more of us had grown up the way they have, with several cultural heritages to influence them, and with the opportunity to get to know different parts of the world. It strikes me as a little ironic that, even though we are increasingly connected across the globe, both virtually and physically, somehow interpersonally we seem to become more polarized and less understanding of each other.

I had many concerns about having children abroad and raising them far away from home. I worried about what it would be like not to have a family support system to rely on for advice and help. How do you replace the comfort, knowledge and wisdom of family and long-term friends in a place where you have none? The answer is an ambiguous “you can, and you can’t”. The truth is I often found it very difficult. However, as time passed, I started making connections and forming new bonds. And, eventually, I had built something akin to a “substitute family”.

For my children I wondered if they would struggle with connecting with their grandparents and cousins, whom they only got to see once or twice a year – is that enough time to form a bond? I questioned whether they would ever feel at home in my culture, if they would adopt any of its traditions?

As my children got older and had more of a say and were making their own choices, I thought maybe they would lose interest in their heritage on my side. I thought maybe the trips back home would become a chore to them and not something they enjoyed, let alone something they wanted to set aside time for.

I am sitting at an airport as I write this, with my youngest and my oldest, one already an adult and the other well on her way. Both of them excited to go visit family. All I can think is, I shouldn’t have worried so much. They are firmly rooted in both cultures; they speak the languages and love celebrating all the traditional holidays. They have a close bond with family on both continents.

Furthermore, they are capable of a deeper understanding of different cultures. They know that just because your cultural heritage is different, that doesn’t mean you aren’t also similar in many ways. They have navigated culture clashes. They know that you can combine traditions and ways of life without losing their meaning and importance. They have done it all their lives and whatever lessons they have learned along the way, have had an impact on their tolerance and open-mindedness, I firmly believe that.

We are about to board our flight and as I watch my daughters calmly wait their turn, I have this last reflection — after having been hauled across the planet since infancy, they are awesome travelers!

By: Felicia Shermis

Danielle Kim – a South Korean in the US, moving back home again

Danielle Kim has lived most of her adult life in the US. She has good friends here and her children were born here. She has a house and she likes her kids’ schools. Yet she is now in the process of planning her family’s move back to South Korea. Danielle grew up in Seoul and arrived here in 1992 as a high school student and except for three years of grad school, she has lived in the US ever since. She came by herself and stayed with her Aunt’s family in Pittsburgh.

As Danielle explains it, she decided on high school in the US because she didn’t get into the art school she wanted to attend in South Korea. Most of what she knew about living in America she had learned from TV shows such as Beverly Hills 90210. Her impression was that everyone was cool and interesting and being here was like a dream come true. She was really excited and her friends were jealous.

Life in the US wasn’t exactly like the TV shows however, and it was harder to adjust than she had expected. Danielle missed her family and she felt out of place, not really knowing how to act to fit in. The biggest hurdle was the language. “You can’t be the person you want to be when you can’t tell cool jokes, or express yourself like other people do. You become more of a listener and not a talker” she says, thinking back on those high school years.

Danielle was involved in many traditionally American activities at school. She played lacrosse and was part of the yearbook committee. She had a couple of close American friends, though she felt more at ease with her Korean friends whom she had met at church. It was just easier to be with them: she could express herself without language restrictions, she felt like she could be herself.

It was when she was back in South Korea for grad school that Danielle met her husband Don, and when he got relocated to work in the US, they decided to move back (he had been in the US for part of his schooling as well) and they have been in the Seattle area ever since.

The South Korean community in the US is very church-oriented, so when they first arrived they joined the biggest Korean church in the area and that is how they made their friends. To this day, most of their friends are Korean or Korean-American and she says part of the reason is that they are more comfortable speaking Korean. Once their two children started school, Danielle made friends with American moms as well and she says “these days I hang out with whomever I feel a connection with. Ultimately, it depends on how open-minded you are and how much you want to integrate with American life”.

When Danielle and Don arrived in the US, they came as expats via her husband’s company. They eventually got Green Cards and then, about 12 years on, they became US citizens. Reflecting on her move back to Seoul, Danielle muses: “we are now Americans who are moving to South Korea. I think that makes us US expats”.

The idea to move home came about after Danielle’s younger sister had come to live in the US for a year. She explains: “We got to spend some time together during this year and it struck me that I really didn’t know her well. I wasn’t sure if she was the same little sis from ten years ago. I just started feeling like I didn’t want to miss out any more. Also, my parents are getting older, there are cousins for my children to get to know – I miss my family”.

The decision to repatriate has not been an easy one and Danielle is aware that there will be a period of adjustment when returning. There are many things she worries about, in particular the educational system, which she explains is all about surviving loads of homework and not receiving a lot of nurturing. She says: “we had to consider the cultural, educational and financial aspects when deciding where we wanted to end up living. For us it was the desire to be with family that drove the decision”.

When asked about what she’ll miss the most about the US she says “I will miss how there is respect and decency when it comes to how you view others and how there are manners between people. For example, in South Korea, if you hold the door open for someone, you will end up holding that door for a long time. No one would think to release you. Also, people are better behaved in traffic, laws are followed and basic rights are respected to a larger degree here. And air-quality, I am not looking forward to the air quality in Seoul. What I will not miss is the gun culture here or the silence at night”.

Danielle started actively planning the move in January with applications for schools and house hunting. She is hoping they will be in place before the school year starts in South Korea. They decided on an international school for the kids, as they don’t speak Korean, though she hopes they will pick it up quickly. Based on recommendations by the teachers at school, they waited with telling the kids about the move until about a month ago. They didn’t want them to be distracted or lose their motivation. The kids were sad at first but the thought of being close to cousins and grandparents is starting to grow on them.

Danielle is excited and a little scared. She recognizes that there will be culture shock. At this point in her life she feels not 100% Korean and not 100% American. She says “it’s like being half human and half expat, and that feeling applies to all my relationships, whether in the US or South Korea”.

By: Felicia Shermis