We’re ramping up for the annual reminder that expats say “goodbye” an awful lot — Some because they are leaving and others because they are not.
It feels different this time though. All of the same old repatriation dynamics apply but there is a LOT going on in the world right now. Current events are screaming (even more so than usual) for the attention of the masses who are in turn screaming for the attention of the current events.
Homegoings are bound to be impacted.
One quick clarification: I’m not a political commentator nor do I desire to be. There are plenty. Regardless, though, of where you are from, where you are going and what you feel like screaming about . . .
Here are 10 Tips for going home when everything has changed:
ONE: Brace for impact
Re-entry can be kind of like when you’ve been sitting by the pool in the hot sun for a while and all of your friends are saying, “come on, the water is perfect”. Then you dive in and . . . PHUUUAWWW!!!
Instantaneous hypothermic shock.
There are multiple variables but one of the most significant is that you expected something different.
Repatting is most challenging when it is a surprise. Do your best to know what you are jumping into.
THEN jump in.
Bonus tip: Know yourself — Are you a diver-inner or a toes firster? Plan accordingly.
TWO: Anticipate the Eclipse
You’ve got stories to tell. Exciting ones. Grand adventures of far away lands, awkward moments and likely something that involves a toilet.
On a regular day one of the most commonly shared frustrations among repats is the sense that no one is listening. Add to that a dominating narrative or news event (local, national or global) and it’s probably a safe expectation that your stories could get trumped (no pun intended).
Be patient. Eclipses don’t last forever.
Bonus tip: Superlatives lie. Just because a lot of people aren’t as interested as you thought they might be does NOT mean that NO ONE is.
THREE: Find Your Safe People
Every repat needs a place to be understood.
You’ve got some catching up to do but that is not going to make sense to everyone. You need someone who gets it and will stand as a buffer between you and the rest of the well-meaning welcome homers who can’t fathom why you have broken down crying in the cereal aisle. Someone who has been there and felt that is a great option but don’t shut the door on someone who hasn’t.
If they get it — they get it.
More than anything look for someone who lets you be ignorant without making you feel stupid. The right safe person can help you make sense of the things that just don’t.
Bonus tip: Let people who “get it” help you engage (not hide from) people who don’t.
FOUR: Lay it on the table
Repats are a strange breed. So are expats but at least their strangeness makes sense. When you were a foreigner you had your foreignness to fall back on. There was little question as to WHY you were such a bumbling mess and you weren’t expected to be completely caught up on politics and pop culture.
Not so for the returnee. You’re supposed to be normal, up to speed and happy to be “home”.
However, it is unfair to expect anyone who has not experienced what you are going through to miraculously presume that you feel more like a foreigner than you ever did abroad. Give them the benefit of vulnerability and let them know what’s going on inside.
Bonus tip: Repatriation is not a disability. Don’t confuse being vulnerable with making excuses for bad behavior.
FIVE: Become a Master Asker
Asking questions is an art form on so many levels. Not everyone is gifted at shutting up, listening and probing for deeper understanding but it is a skill that can be honed.
Of course you have an opinion and something to say. Look around. EVERYONE has something to say and they are all saying it (loudly) at the same time. Being intentional and genuine about asking questions first will give you a MUCH deeper grasp on what is really happening AND earn you the right to be heard.
Bonus tip: Asking questions can also be a science (if you are more inclined in that direction). Develop a formula and ask away.
SIX: Flip the coin
Know what makes me mad? When someone rips on my host country.
I’ve lived in China for the better part of ten years so the “chingy changy” jokes or the cracks about dog meat strike a nerve especially when they are followed by the elbow of presumed agreement.
You’re talking about my friends. They are actual people.
Know what I forget? There are two sides to every coin and my home country is full of real people too.
I generally stick my foot in my mouth at least three times before I remember that life abroad doesn’t make me an expert on all things domestic. My “home friends” deserve the same respect that I insist they give my “far away friends”.
Bonus tip: Respect does not equal agreement.
SEVEN: Adjust the volume
Repatriating can also be like when the sound is not good on the Travel Channel. You crank the volume up to 85, put the subtitles on and scoot closer to the television.
Then you flip back to the news and nearly blow your eardrums out.
It’s ok if home feels loud at first. Sensory overload happens when you suddenly hit the switch and simultaneously understand more AND less than you have in years. There is no shame in pacing yourself.
Unplug when you can and even if you can’t, do your best to lower the volume.
Bonus tip: Scheduling things that you have never scheduled before could help. Start the timer on news intake, social media and binge-watching. When the buzzer buzzes . . . walk away.
EIGHT: Don’t lean on your ability to unpop balloons
A perfect storm is brewing. If you are going home, you have some wonderful things to look forward to but transition comes naturally with tension.
If you are stacking the typical repatriation tensions on top of an extra set of transitional tensions (for example your friends are adjusting to a new job or a new leader of the free world) the odds of conflict go up.
They just do.
People say stuff. People that you have known and loved for your entire life might even say things that make you think, “who ARE you?”
This is important: No one is the best version of themselves in transition.
When emotions are flaring and core values are being challenged from every angle people do and say whatever they can to make their voice heard.
Take a deep breath. Work hard to NOT say what can’t be unsaid or do what can’t be undone. You will still love these people when the dust of current events has settled.
Bonus tip: There is a world of difference between disagreement and personal attack.
NINE: Study Yourself
Living abroad changed you. You knew that already but have you considered HOW it changed you? Specifically.
This is a great time for you to become a student of you. The more you know about yourself the less confusing the tensions of re-engaging will be. Knowing yourself won’t alleviate challenges but it may shed some light on why they frustrate you so much.
Here are some questions to think through:
How has my view of my own country changed?
How has my view of my host country changed?
How has my view of the world changed?
How have my politics changed?
How has my faith been strengthened, stretched or challenged?
How has my perspective on wealth/poverty been effected?
What has changed in me that I wish had not?
What is different in me now that I hope never goes away?
Get alone with a piece of paper and figure yourself out. Better yet, have this conversation with your family, or your safe people.
Bonus tip: Physically writing is a powerful way to discover things that you may not have even known existed . . . in your own brain.
TEN: GIVE GRACE ALL AROUND
Count on this as you prepare to go “home.”
• There WILL be moments that make no sense at all.
• There WILL be people who say stupid, stupid things.
• There WILL be days when you feel incompetent, irrelevant and marginal.
There will also be great moments of joy and celebration. Your transition does not need to be defined by the tensions or the rough bits BUT . . .
When they happen and you’ve run out of options, patience and steam, consider giving grace like you have never given grace before.
When your brand new friend says, “you lived WHERE?” . . . “WHY?!” give him some grace.
When your best childhood friend says, “You must just be glad to be away from there” . . . give her some grace.
When your second cousin makes an ignorant stereotype joke about your host country . . . grace.
When your dad forgets which country was your host country . . . grace.
When your favorite people say painful things.
When the noise is deafening.
When the news is depressing.
When every conversation comes back to the exact same topic and none of them are about you . . .
GRACE. GRACE. GRACE.
Not because it is the best weapon but because it leads to a better place.
And here’s a bonus tip: When you fall apart in the cereal aisle — take some grace for yourself. Lot’s of it.
Transition is temporary.
Know someone who is headed “home”? Pass this on.
Are you a “home-goer” yourself?Share your thoughts . What excites you and makes you afraid?
Been there and lived to tell about it? Give us your wisdom. Comment below.
note — unless you are Polish you probably just pronounced this name wrong in your head. No judgment here.
Iwanska was a 20th century anthropologist who made one of the most simply profound and profoundly simple observations about humans that I have ever come across.
It’s so simple, in fact, that it can be summed up in a three word poem that you can hear once and never forget.
It’s so profound that once you know it, it will periodically sneak up behind you and smack you in the back of the head for the rest of your life.
Here it is.
“Scenery. Machinery. People.”
Mind not blown yet? Stay with me.
While Ms. Iwanska was out people watching (as anthropologists do) she observed that the people she was watching broke their entire world into these three groupings. She happened to be watching farmers in the Northwestern United States at the time but I would dare say she could have landed on the same conclusions just about anywhere in the world.
SCENERY, she noticed, encompassed everything off in the distance worth looking at and talking about. Mountains. Clouds. Trees. Fascinating things. Confusing things. Strange things. It might be fun to explore and makes for great conversation but doesn’t take priority in the day to day.
MACHINERY then, was everything that helped the farmer accomplish his goals and get his work done. Tractors. Horses. Pitchforks. Manure spreaders. It existed for the sole purpose of accommodating the farmer. Machine maintenance is hard work but worth it because the farmer’s life is better when the machines work well. When machinery is no longer helpful it gets chucked onto the scrap pile.
PEOPLE were people. Family. Friends. Neighbors. Other farmers. Complex relationships that involve a give and take. Emotions are invested in all directions and the benefits along with the challenges are mutual (although not necessarily balanced). People are also high maintenance but less likely to be chucked onto the scrap pile because they hold intrinsic value beyond what they offer to the farmer . . . and they keep climbing off of the scrap pile.
I know what you’re thinking. “Interesting . . . but not mind-blowing.”
Hang on. She’s about to light the fuse.
In her research she noted that there was a strange inconsistency in the farmers perspective.
Not only was this three category system the framework for how they divided the “stuff” from the people . . . it was the framework for how they divided PEOPLE FROM PEOPLE.
(this is about to get really relevant if you’re living cross culturally)
The Native Americans off in the distance, with their strange clothes and confusing rituals were definitely worth talking about and absolutely fascinating to watch . . . but not so significant day to day.
They were scenery.
The hired help — the farm hands — the transient laborers were good to have around, especially if you got a strong one at a low wage. They were incredibly helpful . . . until they weren’t.
They were machinery.
The prime spot was reserved exclusively for those worth a relationship. Family, friends, neighbors and other farmers. Despite the fact that they were not the only humans in the picture they had a category all their own.
They were the only people.
Pause for a moment to let that sink in.
Scenery, Machinery, People is the perfect pedestal to preach from isn’t it?
If those stupid farmers weren’t so narrow-minded . . .
If the haters and the bigots would just figure it out . . .
If the ugly expats who come in here and act like they own the place . . . could just stop treating REAL, LIVE PEOPLE like they were some kind of tourist attraction or personal servant the planet would be a better place to live.
Am I right?
Of course I am.
The one thing that I have found to be most true about Ms. Iwanska’s discoveries is that they serve much more powerfully as a personal compass than a public high horse.
At any given time I can hold these three simple words up against my view of the humans in my life and instantly know how far off course I have gotten . . . again.
Are those scenery people?
Or machinery people?
Or people people?
To be clear.
I love scenery — I’m a culture geek who is perpetually fascinated by people.
I need machinery — I’m a bumbling foreigner who requires help constantly from people.
I don’t have the time or space to develop a mutually beneficial/challenging, give and take relationship with 7 billion people.
I know full well whether I’m treating people like people or not.
I know when I’m gawking and wishing I could take a picture.
I know when I am fascinated and not the least bit concerned.
I know when I’m talking like I’m an expert because they are too far away to expose my ignorance.
I know when I am asking for help and I don’t even care what their name is.
I know when I value someone by what they can do for me.
I know when I am intentionally pursuing deeper relationships and when I’m just not.
I know when I am relationally lazy.
I know when I’m arrogant.
I know when I’m assuming.
I know when I’m ugly.
And I know when I would chuck someone on the scrap pile if they were no longer useful.
Not literally. I don’t even have a scrap pile.
Even though all of these things are crystal clear when I take the time to get painfully honest with myself, I periodically need to be smacked in the back of the head.
These beautifully simple, deeply profound, unintentionally poetic three words have been instrumental in helping me course correct.
This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.
You know who you are.
More homesick than ever?
Pricing airfare again?
I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year. Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.
I stopped saying that for two reasons:
ONE: No one listened. A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie. Hands down. I get it.
TWO: Some people do it really well. They go. They come back. They re-engage and it’s good. I won’t argue with that.
However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.
Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.
It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad. It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.
Point is . . . transition is a process.
So it makes sense right? If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.
A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.
A hug from mom.
A night out with old friends.
A Ribeye. Medium Well. With a loaded baked potato.
What were we talking about?
Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.
That’ll fix it.
In our heads it looks like this.
It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . . ready to move forward.
But home doesn’t live in the dip.
Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.
It actually looks more like this.
Think about it.
Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.
Au contraire (pardon my French).
Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:
For some people going home IS the pain.
For other people the holidays are the pain.
Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
Some people do this in May or September.
Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.
The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it. It’s a process. You’ve got to go through it.
That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice. It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:
ONE: Don’t blame your host country for not being your home
That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet. You knew it would be different when you came. Now you know “how” it is different. Keep learning.
TWO: Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS
It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust. It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet. Give it time. Give it a chance.
THREE: Focus on how far you’ve come
Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect. You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything. You’ve actually come a long way in a short time. Keep moving forward.
It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful. It’s supposed to be. It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough. It’s supposed to be. You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem. Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.
FIVE: Engage even if you don’t feel like it
You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive. Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.
SIX: You are not alone
Really. You are not. I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year. You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you. Myself included.
SEVEN: Accept the truth and move ahead
If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.
Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price. There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.
But you had a great Christmas.
You made some great memories.
If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.
There is nothing like the experience of living abroad. There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip. In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.
Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.
What’s your experience? Did you leave and come back? How did it hit you? Easy? Hard? Share your story below.
When I was your age we knew the value of staying in one spot. We planted roots and they ran deep. We didn’t run off galavanting on some fancy schmancy airplane or traipsing through some foreign country trying to speak some crazy language that sounds like jibber jabber.
We were solid.
We were stable.
We were strong.
When I was your age things were different so listen up. I need you to hear this.
I LOVE YOUR LIFE.
Let me tell you why.
I had roots but you’ve got more. I can see them. They’re not deep but they’re strong . . . and they’re all over the place. In fact what I love about you is that you could plant yourself anywhere and still grow.
I sure couldn’t do that when I was your age.
You won’t graduate with the same friends that you went to preschool with BUT when you graduate you’ll have friends in every corner of the world.
I never dreamed of that when I was your age.
I know it sounds weird to say but I love that you can’t answer the question “where you are from? . . . and you may not be able to pinpoint where home is . . .
But you will ALWAYS know when you are there.
Back then I was either at home or I was homesick. I love that you are almost always both.
Honestly I was a little sad when we came here because I was realizing that you would never really connect to things like fireworks on the 4th of July like I did when I was your age.
Chinese New Year.
I had no idea what people could do . . . what they would do with tightly packed gun powder when I was your age.
I feel robbed.
I love that you’ve still got my holidays but you’ve got a whole new set of your own too.
I was afraid that you would get left behind on things like pop culture and maybe you have . . . a little . . . but you are miles ahead of me on culture culture.
Such a good trade.
I NEVER had to say so many goodbyes. That’s a hard one but I want you to know that there is NOTHING in the world like, “hello again old friend.”
You’ve got a lot of those coming.
When I was your age, four hours in the back of a Buick was a long trip. Made me tired. Needed to stretch.
Six hours was just dumb.
I love that no place on earth will EVER be too far away for you.
I love that you see things through different lenses than I did.
You can look at a globe and it makes you think about people . . . real people . . . friends with lives and bossy older sisters and bratty little brothers.
When I was your age I just saw stereotypes with big funny hats and soccer balls.
I love that you hear things through a different filter too.
You understand the thickest accents and empathize with the struggle to communicate . . . I rarely even heard an accent and when I did I just mocked them . . . because that’s what we all did . . . and now I regret that.
I missed so much when I was your age . . . because I thought I already knew it.
You have tasted bugs and sea creatures and plants and meats that I never knew existed when I was your age and I love that you always share your seaweed if you have enough to go around.
I had Taco Bell once when I was your age.
You’ve smelled the foulest, most repugnant stank and you’ve learned to wrinkle your nose and move on with your day.
I made a HUGE scene . . . and toilet jokes . . . and rude noises with my armpit for a week.
I do need to say though —
I don’t love it when you fight like cats and dogs.
It’s not my favorite when you whine about your chores.
It drives me nuts when you leave your Legos on the floor.
And I question my competence as a parent when I realize that you would play video games for a solid week and eat nothing but ice cream if I let you.
But those are the golden, magic moments when I realize — you’re not at all different than I was when I was your age.
EVERYTHING around you is — but you and I — we are the same — and even with all of the fancy schmancy airplanes and 36 hour trips. Through all of the mess and the moves and the hellos and goodbyes.
Through all of the transition.
Through all of the chaos.
We are solid.
We are stable.
We are strong.
Just like when I was your age.
I love you young lady. I love you young man.
And I truly love your beautiful global lives.
Love your kids? Love their lives? Let them know. Let the world know.
Ever get smacked in the face with your own hypocrisy? It stings.
There are four things you should know before I move forward:
ONE: It’s my job to teach people how NOT to act in China.
• Show some respect
• Go easy on the stereotypes
• Don’t be a jerkwad
Stuff like that.
TWO: My most frequent Chinese conversation goes EXACTLY (word for word only in Chinese) like this:
Them: Do you have a savings card?
Me: No I don’t have one
Them: Would you like a bag?
Me: Yes I would.
It’s ALWAYS the same two questions at EVERY supermarket checkout.
THREE: My daughter is Chinese.
AND FOUR: The Chinese word for “No I don’t have” sounds the same as abbreviated Mayonnaise in English.
“Mayo (mei you)”
To be clear my daughter is ONLY Chinese on the outside. Her lenses, linguistics and cultural DNA have my wife and I written all over them. She is a strong case for nurture over nature. She’s adopted from China which mean she blends here . . . unless . . . she’s hanging out with us. That simple fact has been (hands down) the most frustrating part of her experience in China and possibly ours as well.
It starts with a baffled stare . . .
Them: Who’s your daddy?
Her: (pointing to me and rolling her eyes) That guy.
Them: Whaaat?! Impossible. Your hair is so black. You look like a Chinese girl.
She has had this conversation a bajillion times and every time it has made her uncomfortable. She’s gotten pretty good at the awkward chuckle but inside you can see the wheels turning:
“REALLY?!! I look like a Chinese girl?! THIS IS CHINA!! All girls look like a Chinese girl!! That’s not really the problem for you IS IT?!! The problem is the two WHITE people that I’m hanging around with — THAT is what’s throwing you for a loop!! Why don’t you talk to them about it?!”
Thankfully she doesn’t have the language set or the mitigated gall to go ballistic like that but suffice it to say . . . it’s a tension.
Even if she did work up the nerve (or finally broke down) she understands fully that they would never talk to us because we clearly don’t speak Chinese (even though we speak more than they expect) and it will ALWAYS come right back to her because she clearly does (even though she speaks less than they expect).
I sometimes try to step in and prove that my Chinese is actually better than hers which almost always results in a two second “that’s cute” blank stare before they turn back to her and ask what I just said.
The tension strikes multiple levels. One of them, I admit, is my pride . . . “HEY! My Chinese is not THAT bad!” Deeper yet the level of “that’s my little girl . . . don’t you make her feel bad.”
As parents we have tried to balance the awkwardness of a young girl’s fragile esteem and the opportunities for a teachable moment. We generally let her decide how to respond as long as she can do it with respect.
So this week we were in line at the supermarket . . . just the two of us.
It was loud, crowded and the customer in front of us had stalled all forward motion with some dispute over the price of spinach. They had to call in two managers while we waited impatiently and contemplated jumping lines. Finally it was our turn and the clerk spoke, as clerks do, directly to my daughter.
Wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
I didn’t quite catch what she said but I’ve been here a million times. There is only question that begins this conversation.
“Do you have a savings card?”
Frustrated by the fact that I was clearly the one paying but she was refusing to look at me I gently barked,
“MEI YOU (mayo — “NO, I DON’T HAVE ONE”)
She made eye contact with me for two seconds with a blank stare that felt less like, “that’s cute” and more like, “you’re and idiot.”
She turned back to my daughter and spoke again. Something inside of me snapped.
I was so frustrated that I didn’t even try to listen. I cut her off so it would be clear that she should talk to me and NOT my daughter. I barked even louder.
It was one of those powerless foreigner moments that expats get used to. The chasm between my irritated desire to express my true feelings and my pathetically lacking vocabulary was monstrous. I’m basically a two year old in situations like this.
What I wanted to say was:
“HEY JERKWAD!! OVER HERE!! White people can speak Chinese too you know!! Quit ASSUMING that SHE is the only one here who can communicate and I am the IDIOT who CAN’T!! Don’t you know what they say about ASSUMING?!! Where I come from this makes you a RACIST!!”
Boom! Trump card!
But I don’t even know the Chinese word for “jerkwad”
let alone “assuming”
So I went with what I do know and made it nasty like any angry toddler would. “MEI YOU!!”
Again. Blank stare. Even more confused.
She turned sheepishly to the manager behind her and said,
“Umm, little help here. I asked if they were paying by credit card or cash . . . and he said, ‘NO, I don’t have any.'”
It was one of those involuntary look in the mirror moments.
Here’s what I learned.
You can know what’s right when it comes to crossing cultures well. You can even teach this stuff. You can spend years honing your responses and your reactions and even convince yourself that you have moved past your childish presuppositions and your old hand-me-down stereotypes.
But if the right button is pushed all of that is out the window.
Somewhere in my core I’m still a jerkwad.
But I’m willing to process that which hopefully means I’m still pointed in the right direction.
Got an ugly foreigner story? Go ahead and get it off your chest. You’ll feel better.
Life abroad is a trade off isn’t it? You give some things up. You get some things back.
Some would call it a sacrifice which is perfectly accurate for so many. I prefer the term investment for myself. Both start with letting go of something but a sacrifice let’s go with no expectation or hope for return.
Truly and entirely selfless. Those people are my heros.
I’m getting way too much out of this to think that I have genuinely sacrificed anything (especially in comparison to those people). I’ve given things up but I’m an investor and frankly the returns are phenomenal.
To be clear — I’m not talking money here.
My investment has been comfort, connection and confidence.
I’ve given up things like a room full of power tools, a bathroom that doesn’t smell like raw sewage and literacy. Those are trivial compared to the relational investments — sure would be nice to drop the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the day.
I’m whining a bit but I’m not complaining. The returns are not lost on me — I’m getting a bottomless adventure, a network of close friends from every continent (except Antarctica), kids who will never be held back by words like, “that’s too far to travel”, free language lessons with every taxi ride, fabulous family selfies, street food that would make your head spin and a chance to live out my calling every single day.
Seriously — not complaining — but I do miss my family. Especially this time of year.
The holiday season has me thinking about traditions. Are they an investment or a sacrifice?
I feel like many expats buy into the idea that when you live abroad you have to check your traditions at the airport. Just put them on pause until you get back “home”. A total sacrifice on the altar of “that’s not an option here”.
I don’t buy it.
Traditions, for the expat (and the repat), are one of the great opportunities for something solid in a life which is otherwise incessantly marked by change. Adaptation is required to be sure. Adjustment is essential. You can’t do this without some tweaks and twerks and modifications but rock solid traditions are worth the investment.
My family needs that. I need that.
So I’m investing in a solid set of traditions (holiday and otherwise) that can remain constant here, there or anywhwere.
sidenote: Twerks are probably less essential to this process than tweaks and modifications. Please consult a doctor before you include twerking in your family traditions. Please also consult your family.
When you squeeze the old, stable customs through the filter of expat realities you end up with a set of TRAVELING TRADITIONS that can go with you wherever you land.
I’m working on mine and here are some things that I’m considering:
Traveling Traditions should focus on people not places.
We don’t have the luxury of going to Grandmother’s house every year let alone going over the same river or through the same woods. Our stability will likely never be a place. It is people (namely us).
Traveling Traditions should be focused on what “can always” instead of what “can here”.
Every true tradition must be held to the test . . . could we still do this if we lived in Dubai or Moscow or Bangkok or Atlantis? If not then it always runs the risk of extinction with the next move . . . or the one after that.
Traveling Traditions should be focused on small and not large.
Ornaments travel. Trees, not so much. We are mobile people. Our traditions should not be tethered to “things” that cannot move with us.
Traveling Traditions are more likely to need “translating” than simply “transplanting“.
Traditions probably won’t ever move seamlessly between spots on the planet but discovering how to convert the heart of the old into a new location or culture is worth some thought. sidenote: something is always lost in translation which does not render it unworth translating.
Traveling Traditions should be firmly flexible.
I am 100% dead set, unflinchingly convinced and resolved that our traditions will move forward according to our plan, absolutely . . . until they don’t. Then I’ll be flexible. We’re expats so we’ve already learned something about flexibility. It keeps us from breaking.
Traveling Traditions should break the time-space continuum.
20 years from now I want my kids to finish the sentence, “When I was a child my parents always made us ______________”. Then I want them to wrack their brains figuring out how they’re going to get their families to love it as much as they did.
We have a wonderfully challenging, beautifully transient life. Things change regularly and rapidly even when we don’t go anywhere. We make more friends than we ever dreamed we would, engage more cultures than we even knew existed and say more goodbyes than we ever signed on for.
Considering the fact that pretty much everything changes on a regular basis for the average expat . . . something needs to stay the same.
Traditions are worth the investment but they are certainly not without return.
What have you learned about maintaining your traditions in a constantly changing life?
A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery. That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years.
The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now.
The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.”
The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT. Keep dreaming chump.”
And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”
I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home.
But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.
(just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you)
I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis) and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:
• Issues can fly
• They expand when they land
The life cross-cultural can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure and the newness can serve as a great cover up for a good long time but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.
Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:
If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems non-available in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.
If your marriage is in the toilet —you may very well need some time away with your spouse and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.
If you have anger issues — That’s one thing when your life is compartmental. Blow up at work and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.
Whatever it is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).
Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.
Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out of control people and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.
This is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?)
If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be” don’t freak out
Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
Do everything you can to address them before you go — and set a plan to keep addressing them.
Don’t be naive — Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
sidenote — if your issues are actually going to crush you abroad it is MUCH better to discover that before you go
If you’re a half-jaded “Been There”
Good news — you’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
Say it with me — “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog)
Become a master of seeking wisdom.
sidenote — if your issues are already crushing you finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Do whatever it takes.
If you’ve been there, come through it and learned something along the way
Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
sidenote: Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.
Whoever you are and whatever your issues, add to the conversation and comment below.
Life abroad can be incredible . . . and challenging . . . and wonderful . . . and horrible.
Transition from one space, one place, one system and one normal to another is an ongoing process.
Even after the initial settling in, “culture shock” and newby bumblings, life abroad remains more fluid, more changing and more filled up with shaky uncertainties than monocultural life back on the farm.
Another angle that we often miss (in our sweet little expat bubble) is the fact that we have also imported copious amounts of transition into our host culture. They were normal before we got here — or at least they knew what normal looked like. Now their lives are filled with a constant stream of incoming and outgoing foreigners who talk funny, act weird, eat wrong and complain a lot.
You can’t write stuff this good.
Wide-eyed, hyper-optimistic, fresh off the boat Newpats (new expats) getting initiated and inundated by multi-varying degrees of seasoned or disgruntled or savvy or battle-weary Vetpats (veteran expats) who introduce them to the ways of the Locals with wise, wise words of expat genius like . . . ” you can’t get that here.”
It’s a wild mix of people who don’t understand the least bit about each other but feel the pressure to act as if they do. It’s like a gigantic petri dish for toxic assumptions to go crazy.
It’s not always fatal but it is never healthy.
Here is a short (and very abridged) guide to cross-cultural assumptions:
The assumption of direct correlation:The false assumption that every new experience is fully grasped and understood based on previous exposure to a completely unrelated and equally misunderstood foreign culture. Generally accompanied by the words, “That’s just like” or “When I was” or both.
Example:“Oh they eat with chopsticks?! That’s just like when I was in India . . . and they ate with their hands.”
Nope. It’s actually not.
The assumption of overestimated relational capital: The misguided perception that ones influence in his or her new community is stronger than than it actually is. Often accompanied by expectations for broad paradigm shifts based on personal recommendations, followed by confusion when said paradigm shifts don’t occur immediately.
Example: “Wow, you guys are way too introverted. It wasn’t like that where I come from. Let’s start a street corner karaoke night every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Here’s a sign up sheet.”
Slow down. People need to trust you before they can trust you (read that twice).
The assumption of different is wrong: The premature deduction that cultural characteristics, customs, traditions or actions are automatically faulty solely by nature of their deviation from the Newpats preferred alternative. Often accompanied by phrases such as, “did you see that?!” followed by some sort of question, mockery or expletive.
Example: “Did you see that toilet?!! It’s a hole in the floor. How do they even do that?”
Different does not equal wrong. If it does, you are in trouble. Look around — you are the different one.
The assumption of time standing still: The notion that virtually nothing has changed between the entry points of the Vetpat and the Newpat. Often accompanied by phrases like, “Yeah, you can’t get that here” or “you can’t do that here.”
Vetpat: “Soap? No we bring that from home.”
Newpat: “Really? I thought I saw some at the market.”
Vetpat: “No that’s probably Tofu.”
Newpat: “Ah. Ok. Do you think I could find it online?”
Vetpat: “On what?”
You don’t have to stay up on everything but don’t put the Newpats in your box.
The assumption of identical issues: The idea that the Newpat will experience the exact same gut reactions and frustrations that the Vetpat experienced. Accompanied by phrases like, “You’re going to . . . ” or “You’ll probably . . . ”
Example: “You’re going to love the food. You’re going to hate the smell. You’re going to get really frustrated when they stare at you so much so that you’ll probably snap at some point, put on a Spiderman costume and start screaming, “TAKE A PICTURE IT WILL LAST LONGER.”
“It’s ok if you do.”
Newpats will develop their own biases. Don’t insist they share yours.
The assumption of golden words:The ill-conceived impression that Newpats are hanging on every wise and wonderful nugget of advice and guidance offered by the Vetpat. Often accompanied by one sided conversations, long explanations, presumptuous opinions (stated as fact) and a deep sense of satisfaction for the Vetpat.
Newpat: “Hey where’s the bathroom.”
Vetpat: “Well, son let me tell you, there are actually three different types of (finger quotes) ‘bath rooms’ in this country. The first is an actual (finger quotes) ‘room for bathing’. Historically, you see, this is a much more collective culture than . . . (30 minutes later) . . . so the third one, or as the locals would call it the (finger quotes again) ‘room of the toilet’ is down the hall to the left. I’ll take you there.”
Newpat: “Nah. Thanks. I’m good.”
Your wisdom is so wise . . . really, it is . . . so stop talking and listen for a while so someone will hear it.
The assumption that ignorance equals stupidity:The misconception that ones intellect, intelligence or complexity is directly reflected in his or her capacity to express them in the context of a foreign language or culture. Generally accompanied by speaking louder, slower and offering disproportionate praise for the simplest accomplishments.
Local: “HELLO! WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . . . . . . . . . NAME?!!”
Foreigner: “Um . . . Bob”
Local: “WAAAHHH BOB. YOUR LANGUAGE IS SOOOOO GOOOD!!”
Foreigner: “Really? I just said my name”
Local: “WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . JOB?”
Foreigner: “Um . . . Astrophysicist”
Local: “WAAAH. YOU ARE SOOOO SMART. YES YOU ARE.”
Examples can vary drastically from location to location but the same assumption shows up universally. Just because the foreigner can’t say it, doesn’t mean they don’t know it.
The assumption of cookie cutter foreigners:The mistaken conclusion that all foreign people share a single set of opinions, ideas, understandings and temperaments. Accompanied by words like, “They”, “always” and “because.”
Example: “You’re feeding your foreign friend what?!! No don’t do that. THEY hate spicy food. They always start sweating and crying because they only eat cheese and vegetables.”
Special note: The assumption of cookie cutter LOCALS could be added to both the Newpat and the Vetpat lists.
The assumption of weird foreigners: The unfortunate deduction that all foreigners are strange, odd or different.
Actually this one is probably spot on. We can own it.
The only tragedy of oddness is when it becomes an insurmountable obstacle to relationship. Weird is worth working through.
If assumptions are poison then QUESTIONS are the antidote. Good questions. Lots of questions.
Starting with “I don’t know, but I want to” instead of “yeah, that’s just like” changes absolutely everything.
So how do you ask good questions?
That’s another post entirely.
How about you? Which assumptions have poisoned you or your community the most? What other assumptions have you seen (or used)?
Part of my job is to prepare people for toilets in China.
Don’t be jealous.
Many a Western style traveler now have a killer party story to tell because they were caught off guard in an Eastern style bathroom.
The odors alone are generally enough but that is never the end of the tale (no pun intended). There is also the issue of the missing toilet paper in most public restrooms. My absolute favorite bumbling foreigner stories of all time involve grown men who went into a stall wearing socks and came out wearing none.
(pause here until that last sentence makes sense)
The most crucial bit of forewarning, though, is that sometime . . . somewhere . . . you’ll be out and have no choice . . .
You’re gonna’ have to use a squatty.
I’ve even worked up a helpful training tool to help newbies remember the key steps.
1. Pause — don’t rush into this. Do you have tissue?
2. Observe — Scan the stall. Is there cleanup that should happen before this begins? Is there a hook to hang your jacket on?
3. Only Halfway — Which (without intending to be crude) has to do with your trousers and the distance between your waist and your shoes. Simply put, don’t drop em’ to the floor. It never ends well (no pun intended).
Pause — Observe — Only Halfway. It’s a bit of an acronym for easy remembering.
You’re welcome for that.
A foreigner’s first time using a squatty is a rite of passage — it’s a magical moment when you prove that you didn’t just come here for the stuff they put in the brochure. No, no — you are a mover and a shaker (no pun intended).
HOWEVER — The standard Western reaction to the experience of the Eastern toilet is typically handled tongue in cheek (pun intended a little bit). We’ll squat if we must but in the back of our minds it’s ridiculous and frankly uncivilized. There is smirking and joking and (at the very least) light hearted mocking because THESE PEOPLE haven’t yet figured out the right way . . . the proper way . . . the Queen’s way of doing their business.
It’s little more than a glorified, porcelainized version of pooping in the woods.
Confession time — I still snort laugh a little every time I go into a Chinese Starbucks bathroom and see the sign that says
“For your safety, please refrain from squatting on the toilet seat.”
That’s just funny.
Mostly because Starbucks is the poster child for all things Western and yet someone in the top office had to concede that they needed to take quick action, presumably because some poor soul had slipped and broken his collarbone complaining that there was no sign warning of the dangers of squatting on a Western toilet.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Here’s the thing. We joke. We laugh. We even question the sophistication and development of cultures who do things differently from us . . .
Until we realize that they are right.
One of the hottest new products in the Western world right now is the “squatty potty.” Not the ground level Asian sort but the pooping unicorn, as seen on Shark Tank sort that brings your knees up and converts your Westie to a squatty instantly.
(if you’re one of the eight Westerners who haven’t seen this video yet, give it a click)
Someone from our side of the globe has finally argued both convincingly and hilariously that squatting is best practice.
I mean except for the rest of world.
It’s a complex cultural phenomenon isn’t it? When THEY (whoever they are) say it, it sounds ridiculous but when WE say it, it’s genius.
It would be one thing if it was only one thing. But it’s not.
Few outsiders who come to China are not, at some point, overwhelmed by the the sheer number of toddler tushies that they see out and about in the public square. “Split pants” are just what they sound like — quick easy access because when babies gotta’ go, babies gotta’ go.
Consequently, parents and grandparents are often seen on the sidewalk, squatting their little ones while they make a mess worth stepping around.
It’s ridiculous. Messy. Disgusting.
But Elimination Communication (which is exactly the same thing) — Now that’s just genius. That’s the phrase that was coined when a Westerner spent time in India and Africa and came back with a “brand new” potty training method that focused on parent-child bonding, zero diaper rash, months faster results and an end to landfills once and for all.
The concept has taken off in the West and been the springboard for numerous more trendy (and pricy) lines of the exact same thing that has been common practice throughout much of the world for centuries.
photo credit: bbc.com
Maybe, the most prominent recent example of “it was stupid until we thought of it” has been brought to us by 23 time gold medalist Michael Phelps (and numerous other Olympians who jumped on the cupping train). He taught us in Rio that gigantic hickeys aren’t always a bad thing.
Confession time — I’m a lot like Michael in that (and only in that) I too have had my back covered in these enormous, suction induced bruises. I even wrote about it several years ago in:
My stance was, “stay away children . . . stay away” — but I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong. In fairness however, I wrote from my own experience back when it was THEIR idea . . . way before it was OURS . . .
Like the time I got 28 enormous hickeys on my back or the day I discovered I might be Amish.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Life as a bumbling foreigner makes me laugh — some days simply because the alternative involves some combination of thumb sucking, a fetal position and dents in my wall that match my forehead.
If you can relate — even a little — then you should read this new book:
“THE DAY GRANDMA GOT US KICKED OUT OF MEXICO (and other fun stories about life as a bumbling American foreigner)“
It’s a short compilation of my favorite and funnest stories, interactions and reflections over the past several years and it’s free.
This book is simply about stepping back and enjoying the expat ride . . . bumps and all. There is no moral to the story. No great self-help wisdom. Just a few light hearted thoughts from the perspective of an American living in China. Incidentally, it might even make a good read for a German living in Brazil . . . or a Kenyan living in Russia.
Probably not a Canadian living in Greece though. That’s pushing it.
Here’s how you get the book. Just sign in below and click on the big red button. Check your email to prove that you are a human (easier for some) and enjoy.
Thanks for reading . . . and for laughing at my Grandma. I hope to return the favor someday.
The Day Grandma Got Us Kicked Out of Mexico
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First things first -- Apologies to those of you who came looking for the real Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. That is not me.
I live in China with my beautiful blended family. Together we are on an adventure that has taken us around the world and back . . . and then around again. Specifically 7 years on the East side of the planet (China) -- two years on the East side of the U.S. -- and now . . . back in China (on the East coast).
We like East.
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