Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The occupational hazards of being expat

DSC05884 (1400x931)‘Winding up the week’s travel here in Maastricht, a day to catch up around town and then a ferry back to the UK.  The autumn leaves are beautiful this year, the rains really make the colours glow.

Traveling, I’ve reading the WSJ Expat, my best source of news and commentary for working American nomads. The blog publishes often, featuring a variety of experienced voices.  All of the articles are free, relevant, and timely, DSC05886 (1400x921)addressing finances and taxes, implications of legal and political decisions, and personal stories from people living all over the world.

Three recent articles dealt with personal questions of expat identity, and how people can be changed by their overseas experiences. Each bears some caution for long-term expats, and resonate deeper than the expat / repat surveys that dominate our literature.

DSC05871 (1400x933)Jessica Scott wrote a thoughtful piece asking whether Living Abroad Changes Your Personality.  Faced with conversations in unfamiliar languages and cross-cultural social / business situations, most expats lie back a bit and watch, learning how things are done before jumping in.  The natural extroversion required of a successful expat gets tempered by a more thoughtful practice of reflecting before acting.  In the long term, which the author suggests that this leads people toward being more introspective.

For me, it’s a mix. I always tended towards being more reflective and analytic, something that I needed to overcome as I became an expat and entrepreneur.  The year at Cambridge definitely helped: we were placed into daily presentation and networking situations where we needed to stand out.  Rehearsal builds skills; Success builds confidence.  I become more assertive and outgoing (hopefully without becoming controlling and arrogant).

But I’ve also made a lot of mistakes, big and small, omission, commission and ‘not my fault along the way.  Hard truths and life lessons change how I approach business and social situations.  It could also be the wisdom of age, or a greater reliance on non-verbal cues in a Dutch environment.  But I know that I am more measured and gentle in my approach; I listen for different views and signals, read intent and motivation more clearly than previously.

On balance, I do think that I have become more introspective as a result of my decade of expat experience.

DSC05868 (1400x929)Expats and Alcohol is explored by Malia Politer: Do we foster an abnormal culture around drinking when overseas?  Certainly there are countries where drinking is a bigger part of social and business life than it is in the (post 50’s) US.  Tight expat communities define themselves by evenings at the bar and parties in resort towns.  Boredom, alienation, stress and loneliness all factor in, coupled with the natural tendencies of the high-performance / risk-taking / adrenaline junkies who frequently become global nomads.

This is one that I’ve certainly noted as a risk in others and have taken conscious steps to avoid for myself.  I think that the UK guidelines are a bit tight, and reject recent recommendations that folks over 55 cut even those in half,.  Nonetheless, I do avoid hard liquor, and I moderate  beer and wine to two well spaced glasses most evenings.  If there is a period of particular stress or sadness, I keep closer contact with positive and constructive people so that I’m not alone with thoughts and temptations.  And I am strict about limiting  if I’m at a business event or will be driving back from a social evening.

DSC05889 (1400x922)Finally, Jessica Scott again on Expat Guilt. Life as a global nomad means accepting a distant and disconnected relationship with family, friends, and colleagues back home.  Skype, email, and ‘home tours’ can keep us somewhat in sync, but we remain largely apart from everyday life in our native country.  When a life event happens, good or bad, it raises questions: Should we stay here, should we go back, how do we participate or give support?  A decision to remain overseas is a guilty choice, giving the appearance of being selfish or indifferent.

This is really a tough one.  Living in Europe is a wonderful opportunity, and I don’t regret decisions to build a business and a life here.  Still, it’s an all-in commitment, one that necessarily becomes more binding even as connections home weaken.  So I don’t get back to see family as often as I like, we don’t arrange the exchanges.  I’m aware of seeing people’s lives in glimpses, as news exchanged over an evening’s conversation a few times a year. 

And when something really happens, as with William’s death, there is guilt, and there are questions about how long it can continue.  Can the next ten years be like the last ten?  No, and I’m making adjustments after this summer’s experiences.  At the same time, this is all so remarkable, and the rewards can be so great, that I can’t imagine backing away.

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