I am back in the United States this week – the usual rush of planes and automobiles, the swirl of time changes and meeting addresses. This always seems offset by the eerie constancy of airport lounges and hotel rooms, faceless Skype calls, global news coverage, chain shopping, and incremental emails. Sometime it all feels disconnected from any particular time or place: there’s only task and identity, floating on the swells of work and deadlines.
I can tell that it changes the ways that I see people and the world, sometimes better, sometimes worse. In one of the darkened airplane cabins, high above Somewhere between Closer and Father, I reflected on the past few year, the ways that I / we evolve as expats
- Prosody: 80% of human communication is non-verbal, increasing to 100% in places where I don’t speak the language. I think I’ve become much more attuned to what’s not being said, to when people are interested or impatient, to seeing wen someone is buying or selling or just passing by. Part o it is learning to read the flowing river of social interaction, part is learning to listen to and trust gut feelings. Paradoxically, non-verbal cues are much less reliable across cultures ( does a smile mean embarrassment or happiness) , but even then, it increases awareness of correlating cues and being attentive.
- Seeing: I take a lot more pictures than I used to, only slightly because I want to share things with people back home and readers of the blog. Mostly, it’s because I am constantly encountering the unique and unfamiliar. Over time, I’ve lowed down (a little) to spend time with the experiences: some people create drawings or journal entries, I like to take pictures. Photography helps me to be aware of the light and color, that center of interest, the juxtaposition of objects. It forces me to *look* at the world, rather than just pass through it. I’m the despair of my friend sometimes, dawdling behind and taking pictures, but I value the engagement to see and contrast people, landscapes, and cultures.
- Liberal: We all start out provincial, secure within family traditions, nurtured by familiar neighborhoods and school, fed by national and religious myths of our own exceptionalism. But the world’s people live successfully in myriad ways matched to environment, tradition, culture, and society. I’ve become much less dogmatic about right and wrong, tolerant of non-destructive choices, and open to learning from a world of clever people adapting solutions to their needs and resources. This is social liberalism, encompassing equality based on individual freedom and the good of the community.
- Immigration: I’m understanding, first hand, how hard it has become to be an immigrant. While I’ve integrated socially and contributed economically in my adopted countries, I‘m mired in language exams in the Netherlands, visa renewals in the UK, all born of stricter immigration policies. It’s not clear that I can achieve Indefinite Leave to Remain in either country: The renewal process alone is costing nearly 5000 euros this year alongside months of paperwork. I understand the concerns surrounding non-integrating, non-contributing immigrants. But, as time, cost, uncertainty of immigration procedures rise year to year, it creates unnecessary challenges for the majority who do want to join a community and start a business.
- Confidence: I have goals for myself as an expat, for my businesses, my personal growth and my professional future. But it’s not possible to plan in any long-term detail: I find myself taking incremental steps forward knowing that, whatever I find on the other side, I can recognize the opportunities and deal with the issues. Doing that over and over, year by year, on levels from simply navigating a new city to challenging the fundraising process, builds confidence. I feel like I have an understanding of process, a network of resources, and a personal assurance that I can figure things out. It’ can still be stressful, frustrating, exhilarating, but I know I can do it.
- Comfort: Over time I’ve become more comfortable not only with my surroundings but with myself. It grows from thoughtful evenings listening to music in the bar downstairs, days bicycling in the countryside, weeks vacationing for fun and traveling for business, years of sharing with people, artifacts, and places that form the vital fabric of life in the US, Netherlands, and UK. Identity grows and consolidates, not to expat icons George Clooney or Jason Bourne, but towards Piaget’s successful integration of assimilation an accommodation. I find ambition, balance, connection; I welcome the solitary and the social times.
I’m recognizably different in these six dimensions than when I started back in 2005, I think it’s more than simply six years of aging, and more than the “Big Five” traits that define expat success: extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism. How are expats changed by their experiences; what is the longitudinal evolution of their personality and social traits as a distinct group?