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Posts Tagged ‘ex-patriates’

The Ex-Pat’s Life…Where’s Home?

In behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, family, life, travel, US on October 17, 2011 at 5:28 pm
Postcard of McGill University, Toronto, Ontari...

McGlll University, a long time ago! Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a lovely blog post by a Romanian woman who has wandered the world, reflecting on the ten things she’s learned in her ten years away from her native land.

And a powerful set of posts from one of my favorite expat sites.

I left my hometown, Toronto, in August 1986 to move to Montreal, where I worked for 18 months as a newspaper reporter. While living there, I soon fell in love with a tall, thin, handsome medical student in his final year of medicine at McGill. I knew from the minute we met he was going to move to New Hampshire the following year for a four-year residency. Loving him (and we were discussing marriage within months of our meeting) meant leaving behind family, friends, country, culture and a well-established career.

Everything!

I remember distinctly my excitement at obtaining my “green card” through my mother, who was then an American citizen. I also felt tremendous fear as I crossed that border for a new life, like a raindrop falling into the ocean. The U.S. has 10 times as many people as Canada.

How would I ever create a new identity for myself?

Here are five things my 22 years here have taught me:

Identity is mutable.

It’s a deeply Buddhist issue to detach your ego from your identity. By clinging ferociously to one specific identity, we shut off other possibilities of what we might (have) become. In my time in the U.S. I’ve swung wildly in income, now earning barely 25 percent of my staff salary from 2006. Scary? Yes. But I don’t define my value by my income anymore.

Trying new roles is freeing, fun and can lead to all sorts of unimagined outcomes.

In my years here, I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer; competed twice in a major national sailing competition; sold two books to major publishers; learned how to hit a softball to the outfield and seen one of my books sold to China. At home, where people “knew” me so well, I doubt I would have tried on so many new roles.

What won’t kill you does make you stronger.

I’ve survived being a crime victim several times; three orthopedic surgeries; divorce; job loss; the loss of several women I thought were friends for life. I’m still here and still fine.

Being an “outsider” is a huge advantage for a writer.

I’ve known this since I got my first New York City magazine staff job, thanks to my fluent French, a rarity in my field. Since then, both of my books have been well-reviewed and appreciated for their fresh eye on eternal and widely-accepted American verities — guns are good and low-wage labor is normal. Neither assumption is shared by many people outside the borders of the U.S. and it takes an outsider’s eye to see it, and call it. (Some of the nation’s best-known and most respected writers and editors have come to the U.S. from  elsewhere.)

Home is wherever you make it.

I think every ex-patriate feels a little lost after a while. You no longer fit, or unquestioningly accept, your former cultural norms and assumptions — but neither, necessarily, do you adopt them wholesale from wherever you are living. Home becomes your family, your friends, your nest, your passport.

If you’ve been an ex-pat, or are one now, how has it changed you?

Feeling Foreign

In behavior, business, cities, culture, immigration, travel, US, women, world on November 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm
American students pledging to the flag in a fo...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s taken a while, but I’ve started to find blogs written by other women living outside their home countries — one in a regional Spanish city, one in a small Italian town and even a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia.

I love their posts because hearing other women describe their lives in a country other than the one in which they were raised helps me feel less foreign. I live only a nine-hour drive away from my hometown and a six-hour drive to the border, but sometimes it feels very far away.

I left Canada, where I was born and started my journalism career, more than 20 years ago to live in the U.S. in a small town 25 miles north of New York City.

I love it — I stare north up the Hudson River to astonishingly beautiful views, can enjoy all the things Manhattan has to offer and have a town so charming its main street has been featured in several films, like The Good Shepherd and The Preacher’s Wife and Mona Lisa Smile.

But even after all these years, I still sometimes feel foreign. I love Thanksgiving — family, friends, gratitude, pumpkin pie — but am left cold by the insane commercialism of Black Friday. (Although Canada, and others, has instead the commercial insanity of Boxing Day sales, which have nothing to do with sports.)

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, although I can sing the national anthem. I now know what a “do-over” and a “Hail Mary pass” and “step up to the plate” mean — all these sports references! I know that New Yorkers stand “on line” and that ordering a “double, double” (two sugars, two milks in coffee) or a bloody Caesar (a cocktail) here will elicit only blank stares.

It’s easy enough to memorize the number of senators or why there are so many stars or stripes in the U.S. flag. It’s much more  challenging to play cultural catch-up!

But I never (thank Heaven) had to write the SATs nor freak out over which college to attend and whether or not it was affordable — I attended the University of Toronto whose annual cost (no, this is not missing a zero) was $660 my first year. It now still costs only $5,000 a year for Canadian residents.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, as I keep a running video in my head of what life might have been like had I stayed in Canada. Of course, there’s no way to know, is there?

I visit Canada up to six times a year, as my parents live there (in separate provinces), as well as dear friends going back decades. Every time, someone asks if or when I’ll move back. With a green card, I can only leave the U.S. for  year at a time, so it would take an amazing job offer to lure me north, and for the moment, none is forthcoming.

In my adolescence, I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for four months and, at 25, lived in Paris for 10 months. In Mexico, men hissed at me on the street and in buses, two words: juerita and fuerita: little blondie and little foreigner. My very appearance marked me as foreign with my waist-length blond hair and pale skin.

Both experiences changed forever how I saw the world and my place in it; once you’ve made the break away from everything you know, you discover how adaptable you are. You find kind people live everywhere and realize that you can thrive many time zones away from where you’ve always felt best understood.

Have you ever lived outside your native land? Did you enjoy it?

How has it changed you?

When Your 'Home' Country Feels Alien: Frustrated Indian Re-Pats Returning To The U.S.

In business, world on November 28, 2009 at 2:46 pm
Magnus' panoramic view map of India

Image by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL via Flickr

Many ex-patriates dream of one day returning home, triumphant, with their American education and/or professional successes, happy to settle once more into a culture they know, love and miss.

Or not.

Turns out, heading “home” can be so alienating you turn right back to the U.S., reports today’s New York Times. A fascinating piece examines the experience of several Indian businessmen who moved to India after years of living and working in the U.S., where business culture is so profoundly different they simply didn’t fit in: they talked back to their managers, challenged authority, asked direct questions, insisted on action, not just discussion. They didn’t like endless government red tape either.

I’ve lived this experience, running headlong into problems when doing business, or trying to, with Canadians. Born, raised and educated there, and after two staff newspaper jobs, I left Canada in 1988. I’ve lived in New York, doing most of my business in New York City or with other Americans since. Oy!

I love Americans’ commercial directness. If someone wants to do business with you, you know it, you know it fairly quickly, and it happens. If not, you move on and that’s normal. In other cultures, India and Canada included, things can move much more slowly and even stating in plain direct language what you want can be considered pushy and rude — enough so to blow a deal. I’ve managed to reduce, I was told, someone’s Toronto assistant to tears, for using language and a tone that most New York college interns wouldn’t even blink at.

I used to do cross-cultural consulting with Berlitz, training senior execs moving from the U.S. to Canada and Canadians moving to the U.S., sort of a cultural intrepreter.  Such differences, subtle and large, fascinate me as so many faux pas are made every day by people who really don’t understand how differently other cultures think, behave and respond.

The great thing about being an ex-pat is tasting another culture, or many. The tougher part is — where’s home?

Barack Obama,Timothy Geithner, Valerie Jarrett, Are All TCKs — How It Helps

In culture, politics on August 11, 2009 at 8:01 am
Mercator projection

Image via Wikipedia

I met a young woman at a dinner party last week whose demeanor and poise were markedly different from all the other educated, smart New Yorkers her age at the table.  She was friendly, outgoing and unusually curious, with an intrigung sort of detachment. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until she told me she had lived abroad for many years as a child, following her father’s corporate relocations around Latin America. She lived in Panama and Costa Rica until she moved back to the U.S., to Miami at the age of 13. A Caucasian, she hated Miami, was heartbroken, disoriented and desperate to go home — to Panama.

Her manner was typical of a TCK — a third-culture kid — a phrase she had never heard before but immediately understood when I told her more.

This sort of nostalgia for another country, or several, despite owning a U.S. passport, is typical of third-culture kids, like President Obama, Treasure Secretary Timothy Geithner and Obama’s closest advisor Valerie Jarrett, those born in the U.S., but who leave it for a significant period of time during their childhood or adolescence, later returning to what is, technically their country, but often one they know little, if at all, a country with a very different culture and values from where they’ve grown up.

As a result of moving around the world and making friends over and over, adapting to new ideas constantly and reaching daily across languages and cultures, TCKs are unusually comfortable in a wide range of situations, able to coolly handle challenges their peers can barely imagine — the woman from Panama described daily confrontations by soldiers armed with M-16 rifles as an accepted part of everyday life. It’s returning to the U.S.’s materialism, individualism and inward focus that often hits them hardest. Kids at school don’t get their references, nor do they necessarily know the same songs and TV shows.  TCKs and their peers have lived in places that some of their teachers, professors, colleagues or neighbors can’t pronounce or even locate on a map, let alone appreciate the returning TCK’s favorite foreign food or music or beach. Their unusual and sophisticated memories are harder to share. As a result, TCKs can move through life forever feeling a little dislocated, never quite fitting in anywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

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