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Posts Tagged ‘ex-pats’

Why changing countries can be such a challenge

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, domestic life, education, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US on March 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm
English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 diffe...

English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 different ethnic backgrounds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excellent, helpful blog post recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, written by one of my favorite bloggers, a Canadian woman who has since re-patriated:

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I know that several Broadside readers — like Conor in Korea, Katharina in Germany, Rian in Canada, Holly in Australia, Wanderlust Gene in Sri Lanka – are living far away from your homelands (Ireland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

It demands a real re-boot of your notions of identity and belonging.

It’s not surprising to me that two of my closer friends here in New York, where I moved from Canada in 1989, are people who have moved around globally, like an American-born woman who met her French husband when they were both working in Tokyo. It helps to share international references with them — only about one-third of Americans even own a passport and many have no idea, (or interest in), how the rest of the world functions.

I left Canada in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, (double culture shock after living in Toronto, Paris, London and Montreal).  I moved in June 1989 to a small suburban New York town, 25 miles from Manhattan — whose towers I can see, glimmering like Oz, in the distance.

I lived in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. But my adjustment to life in the United States has been tougher for me in some ways than either of those, for the reasons Maria so wisely analyzes:

People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

Canadians live, as many Europeans do, in a “nanny state”, a country where it’s normal to pay a lot of tax — income, sales tax, tax on gasoline and wine and beer, even stamps — and expect a lot in return: free health care and heavily subsidized secondary education, to name two most important. You can apply for government grants for all sorts of things.

Map of Toronto

Map of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a small country in population — 34.5 million — but enormous in size. Canadians tend not to move around nearly as often as Americans, for a variety of reasons. There are only a few major cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; if you don’t speak excellent French, Montreal and Ottawa can present difficulties.

One of the major  behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

Move to the United States and you’re in for some serious culture shock and some significantly different attitudes.

Standing up and speaking out carry risks. But in the States, people go to prison, (like entrepreneur Martha Stewart), and come right back into successful business, which still leaves me somewhat open-mouthed. But the good news is that if someone here thinks you can be professionally useful to them — i.e. make them some cash — they’ll take your call or email and might meet you. In Canada you need personal introductions through mutual friends to even get someone to take your call and even then they ignore you…

As a freelancer, that’s been a big — and happy — adjustment. But I’ve also learned, after decades in the States, to be both much warier and more persistent. Wary of huge initial enthusiasm, (professional and personal), which is very American, and too often quickly disappears, and being willing to make the 3rd or 5th or 10th email or phone call because so many people are busy and overwhelmed.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference is bare-knuckled American capitalism. We’re all simply units of labor. Employers can fire you for any reason at any time. One editor I know just left a job after four years, after being one of the founders of a thriving website. She got one month’s severance.

(Many Americans would consider her lucky to have gotten even that much. For a country that yammers on about liberty, American workers seem shockingly cowed and powerless to me.)

Instead of unions, Americans rely on the court system, (which operates by quite different rules than other nations), to try and obtain redress, if not justice. I routinely send — and pay for — lawyer’s letters to deadbeat, cheats and late payers, who abound in the world of publishing and journalism.

You fight for your rights here, and people expect it. It sometimes feels like a wearying game of “who’ll draw first” like cowboys reaching for their pistols in some 1860s saloon.

Many New Yorkers speak to you as if they’ve known you for years — strangers on the street or train (!) have complimented me on my hair color, legs, shoes and other items in ways I still find forward and impertinent, if charming. I’ve started referring to people as “you guys”, sounding more Mafioso than elegant.

My husband is both American and Hispanic, a double cultural difference that plays out in all sorts of ways. There are days he hisses: “This not the time to be Canadian!”

Then I quote a Brit, (and a TV character at that), the Dowager Countess Grantham: “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”

What adjustments have you made as an ex-pat?

How did you feel about it?

The Ex-Pat's Dilemma: Where Exactly Are You From?

In Uncategorized on December 27, 2009 at 8:26 pm
The national flag of Canada.

Image via Wikipedia

Home again in New York after Christmas in Toronto, back in my native Canada. It was fascinating at the border — we drove — watching all the homesick Canucks about to cross the line stocking up on exotica like liquorice allsorts and shortbread (recently put on the markdown rack — why? — at my local Stop ‘n Shop) and all things maple. The sweetie, always in some vague military mode, bought a pile of teeny tiny maple leaf decals to stick along the side of the vehicle, like some battered WWII bomber, to mark every trip north.

License plates around us, two on two Virginia plates, read “CDN MADE” and “CDN QT.” Clearly, I’m not the only ex-pat Canadian living in the U.S. who is as proud of where I come from as grateful, mostly, for the legal chance to live and work in the U.S.

Then the border guard, uncharacteristically said “Caitlin!”

“Um, yes sir?”

“Are you still Canadian?”

“Yeah!” I answered, with a vehemence that shocked my partner. Sort of like asking. “So, are you breathing?”

What on earth prompted the question? And phrased so oddly? Not “a Canadian?” Meaning…?

Did he really mean to ask, which isn’t pertinent legally: “Why aren’t you a U.S. citizen yet?” He could see my green card.

It’s every ex-patriate’s dilemma. When are you no longer an ex-pat and when are you, officially, an immigrant? When you assume the citizenship of your adopted land? Does it matter? To whom and why?

I carry a Canadian passport, have the legal right to apply for an American one, after “naturalizing” but can also, I believe, still claim an Irish passport as well, thanks to my Irish-born great-grandfather. How James Bond-ian it would be to have three, legally; Canadians do not have to give up their citizenship if they become American citizens. As someone who loves to travel and hopes to retire, at least part-time, in France, all this would be helpful.

For all of you who now live somewhere you were not born, nor have not (yet?) assumed a second (or third) citizenship, where does your loyalty lie? What, if anything, would change it?

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?

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