Friday, 26 December 2014

So You Want To Be An Expat

Stuck in a rut, craving a little excitement, something different and more glamorous than school runs in a small town, a chance perhaps to move up the corporate ladder, expand your horizons, intrigued by how others live on this increasingly crowded planet? Those pictures of the sophisticated cafĂ© life in Paris or picturesque villages nestled in the sun-baked hills of Tuscany beginning to look better and better? Starting to ask yourself what you’re missing? Have you started, secretly at first, collecting a pile of information about life overseas?

If so, then you’re a good candidate to join the more than 7.5 million Americans whose home address doesn’t include a U.S. zip code. This, however, is the moment to sit down and think again, very carefully. While an expat life can undoubtedly be very fulfilling and fascinating, it is not for everyone. No matter how attractive the brochures, no matter how often you’re told ‘You don’t really need to speak the language. Everyone speaks English’ it will certainly be very, very different. For many people that is the very essence, the satisfaction, of an expat life. For others, it can be a nightmare.

            Like many things it is a much easier decision when you’re young, just out of college. You have time to live for a while in many different countries, learn languages, you don’t need that much money, you’re generally more flexible. Beware, though. Once you gain that experience at an early age it is very hard to get it completely out of your system. It will always be there as a temptation, an alternative. On a rainy, miserable day back home you will stare pensively out the window and think longingly about those days in Malaysia, India, or Chile. Add a family, a decent job, a dog or two and it becomes a much more difficult choice. Still possible, but it can be difficult to convince everyone around you that disrupting their lives and moving abroad is the best choice.

            My older daughter, then on a research trip for several weeks in the Republic of the Congo, recalled what may be the extreme example of commitment to an expat life. She met an American missionary family with two children living deep in the bush far from any town that could remotely be called large. After a while she politely brought up the question of exactly how they came to find themselves deep in the African bush. They had been living quite happily somewhere in the Midwestern United States when the husband came down to breakfast one day and said he had been called to do missionary work in Africa. Fair enough. But if I had been his wife I just might have had him sit down, have a cup of coffee, maybe a couple of aspirin and double check that the call wasn’t a wrong number.

            Before you grab your boarding passes and head to the airport there are couple of things to think about.

1.      Be careful about people who tell you how easy it is to transplant your lifestyle to another continent. Closer examination may reveal they have a few advantages you don’t. Such as, a) already having dual citizenship and fluency in the language, b) having family members with invaluable connections in the host country, c) being married to a native of the country in question, or d) already having job open only to citizens of that particular country.

2.      Be careful also of rushing into foreign assignments for your company. They can be the springboard to more responsibility and promotion or they can equally be the slide into oblivion. Out of sight, out of mind. Make sure the country of your assignment is critical to the company’s overall success. Otherwise you are in a sideshow that doesn’t even have the benefit of useful gossip around the water-cooler. You can get into a position where a number of previously junior colleagues are promoted ahead of you at home simply because you are not there. When it comes time to go home, you may well find your bosses hemming and hawing about ‘difficult times’ or ‘it might be hard to slot you back into your old position’, etc. etc. Without iron-clad guarantees you might well be stuck overseas for a much longer period than you anticipated. Few things are sadder than an aging expat who hangs on by the skin of his teeth with marginal jobs in a foreign country simply because there are even fewer opportunities at home.

3.      Be especially careful of taking a job for a foreign company regardless of how much they offer you up front. You may be coming in over a number of local executives who could resent your presence and undermine everything you try to do. When trouble comes it is a lot easier for your new employer to get rid of you than them.

4.      Check the procedure for obtaining tricky things like resident permits and work permits. You never had to give either of those a second thought at home. Overseas they are crucial. Without them you will be floundering around. Countries are very careful about giving jobs to foreigners ahead of their own citizens unless you have some special skill. Don’t assume you can pitch up anywhere you like, find a place to live and start looking for a job without jumping through a lot of hoops.

5.      In cross-cultural situations the words ‘why’ and ‘should’ are the worst words in the English language. You can go nuts constantly asking ‘why’ things are done in a certain way that seems totally weird. Your life will be a lot less frustrating if you can restrain that impulse and take the time to appreciate that maybe, just maybe, there is a good reason that is not obvious at first. Also, no one wants to hear your opinion about what ‘should’ be done. Most people are well aware of their national problems and don’t appreciate constantly being reminded of them. Wait until you are asked. Things may take a little longer than you would like, but you will earn a great deal of good will by not constantly informing everyone within earshot that ‘We do it differently at home.’

            But most of all work hard to get the most out of your total experience. Don’t be afraid to jump in the deep end and immerse yourself totally. Moving overseas, even for a few years, can be one of the most memorable things you have ever done. Enjoy the difference. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Welcome To America! Brace Yourself For Contrasts.

Visitors to the United States use many adjectives to describe the country. Subtle is not one of them. To many, the U.S. seems much more the lethal, cumbersome 70-ton Abrams tank thundering down the road than the nimble, fleet-footed forest creature relying on cunning and camouflage to escape capture.

My native country can often seem an incredibly jarring mixture of loud noise, blaring commercial assaults to buy something – anything, constant change coupled with in-your-face innovation, and a near-total disdain for anything that happened the day before. Europeans steeped in centuries-old traditions -- along with their assorted vicious religious and political feuds -- are often shocked that history in America is what you had for breakfast. Ancient history is last night’s TV schedule. Culture buffs are horrified that classical opera is reduced to elevator music and works by giants like Michelangelo can be reduced to hastily-created digital images on hand-held tablets.

On a recent visit home I was struck once again by the stark differences between the United States and Europe. Even in New England, considered by many to have close cultural and social ties to Europe, it was clear that the U.S. really is an ‘all bets are off, anything goes’ country.

American TV ads are one of my favourite examples of this. Other than the ban on cigarettes and alcohol there don’t appear to be any standards at all. The airways are filled with ads for prescription medicines that are supposed to cure all sorts of horrible diseases. A deep, authoritative voice assures you that this particular pill will reverse your downward slide and return you to sparkling shape in no time at all. Then the last half of the ad mentions, very rapidly, all the equally horrible side effects of this drug that could send you to an early grave.

Best of all, though, are the ads aimed at older men suffering from what is politely called erectile dysfunction. These ads all feature an attractive woman saying how much she likes older men, but, unfortunately, so many of them seem to have difficulty between the sheets. This little pill, however, can cure all of that and have them prancing around like randy teenagers in no time at all. Then the sonorous voice comes on listing all the adverse side effects, and says that if you have an erection lasting more than four hours you should call your doctor. Doctor, hell! It’s time to notify the Guinness Book of World Records.

These are just part of the stark contrasts that seem to define America. Awe-inspiring natural beauty and some man-made horrors; world leading universities stuffed with Nobel prizes coexist with some stupefying, almost wilful (I-don’t-know-nuthin’-and-I’m-proud-of- it)ignorance; cutting edge medical industry that leaves many with no care at all; dynamic economy that offers great opportunities but no guarantees.

Then, of course, there is the American love affair with ice. It can -15 degrees with a howling blizzard outside and the waiter will invariably serve you water in a glass filled with ice cubes. As you glance at the snow outside and politely ask if it would be possible to have the water without ice cubes the waiter gives you a look that says you are seconds away from being reported to Homeland Security. That threat level goes to orange when you mention to the same waiter that the portion size of the meal is perhaps better suited to a small town than just one individual.

Maybe it was the impact of the holiday season, but no effort is spared to part the consumer and his money. You are constantly bludgeoned with your patriotic duty to shop – on the internet or in real stores. One famous retailer specialising in outdoor gear is open 24/7 all year with no exceptions. I was jet lagged the day after arriving and decided to experiment with a bit of browsing at 4 am. Interesting people go shopping in a rural town at 4 o’clock in the morning. You want to watch out for the genetically-challenged guy with the glassy-eyed stare going over to the gun rack at that time of day. “Boy, that sure is a real nice looking shot gun you got there,” he gushes as he lovingly strokes the barrel. Others were just taking advantage of a warm place to sit and get some free coffee.

Personal freedom is cherished above all else. There are no thought police, no taste police in the form of not-so-subtle community pressure that dictates what you do. You want to wear orange bib overalls with a loud green shirt, go right ahead. You want to put enough reindeer and Christmas lights on your house and lawn so it can be seen from the planet Mars, go right ahead. People will congratulate you. Same for cars. You want what Europeans would consider an environmental disaster of car, go right ahead. Again, no one is going to stop you.

Perhaps most of all it is the sheer energy level, the drive to innovate, to change, to renew that make America an exciting place. Sometimes exhausting, frustrating and hypocritical, but seldom dull. All that went before -- your lineage, your achievements, your sense of proper social order -- means absolutely nothing. You are what you did today. Perhaps this is why the people who appreciate America the most are those who arrived with the least.