Tag: foreigner

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expat, home

Home is what you make it

“I see you.” As Doug Ota said in his moving keynote speech that concluded this year’s Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT15), we exist in the eyes of others. I see you. I see into you. I understand who you
are. We exist in the eyes of our tribe. We are at home,
with our tribe. We are “seen.”
Just like every year, coming to FIGT15 was like coming home – to my tribe. I was not the only one who felt that way. For the majority of the 150 or so participants from all over the world who braved the weather conditions and made it to Washington, D.C. that first weekend of March, this was home. First-time attendees and veterans alike, we had found our tribe.
We were seen, understood, “gotten.”
This year I had the privilege of being able to combine this annual ritual of finding home and being with my tribe, with my passion, which is to explore exactly that – how we, perpetual foreigners, find home. The theme of this year’s conference – “Finding ‘Home’ Amidst Global Change” – has occupied me for years. I have been researching, talking and writing about it and wanted to share some of that. Presenting one of the Concurrent Sessions at FIGT15 was thrilling, stimulating and rewarding. The audience was probably the most welcoming and responsive audience one could wish for. I shared their energy; I learned from them; I came away with a richer perspective and a sense of gratitude.
I’ve been asked several times for a copy of my presentation, so here’s a summary:
“Home is What You Make It: How Our
Concept of Home Shapes The Way We Move”
Why do we feel at home in some places but not in others? Why are there times when connection is almost immediate, while other times we struggle to find a sense of belonging? I believe that this has to do with our concept of home and how it affects the way we handle transitions; how it influences the strategies we use to adjust and
create home every time we move.
In my research, I saw emerge three broad themes that home evokes; three dimensions that pervade most concepts of home: Home as Place, Home as Feeling and Home as People.
Home as Place is the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect. We can be rooted in place and that place can be as narrow as a specific room filled with familiar stuff that gives us comfort; as broad as a landscape that speaks to our soul and makes us feel grounded; and everything in-between.
Home as Feeling refers to the emotional dimension of home: feeling a sense of belonging, safety, comfort, authenticity, love. Home can be a
single moment, a taste, a smell, an image, a sound or anything that evokes those feelings.
Finally, Home is People. We feel at home when we are with the people we love – whether these are our family, our close friends or our “tribe” – the people who “get” us and with whom we connect at a deeper level.
The need for home is a universal human need. But for us foreigners –who take the leap outside the normal paradigm of home – it is even more central: it shapes the way we experience expat life, how we reap its rewards and cope with its challenges. Our quest for home (and the kind of home we look for) affects how we cope with transitions and how we fare through them; how we constantly pack, unpack and repack our life; how we rebuild, recover and reconnect.
Different concepts of home often lead to different
strategies for finding home. These include gravitating towards particular landscapes that evoke in us a sense of home; choosing to live in a bubble that offers us comfort and homeliness; creating a physical home that makes us feel grounded; establishing (and transferring) rituals and routines that create continuity and familiarity; and nurturing relationships, whether that involves connecting with our close family or finding our tribe.
No one strategy is better than the others. There is
only what works best for each one of us; the strategy that helps us find the comfort of belonging and home. Reflecting on our experience and becoming conscious of our core concept(s) of home helps us make better transitions. If we can use that fundamental sense of home as a guide, if we know what we need and what to look for when we cross cultures and create new lives, then we can find home wherever we are.
Linked to #MyGlobalLife linkup at SmallPlanetStudio.com

My two expat lives

The first time I moved as an adult was almost 20
years ago – from my home in Athens to Boston, to pursue a graduate degree. The choice to immerse myself in a new, completely foreign universe was entirely mine. It was a journey I always knew was ahead of me. I chose the journey – and the life – of a foreigner fully conscious that I would have to learn to cope with leaving behind family and friends. Still, the big, heavy wave of homesickness hit me hard during my first days and weeks in the US, as the extent to which I was cut off from “my people” began to sink in.

The only way I could be in touch during those first days was either through very expensive phone calls or letters that I would fax from the copy shop near my school – assuming that the recipient had a fax machine. There was no Skype, no VOIP calling, no Viber, no FaceTime. I remember buying prepaid AT&T cards to call home or using my credit card to call a special number that offered cheap international rates. My short-lived long-distance relationship with my boyfriend back home was barely sustained by weekly phone calls – in the best case, if our timing worked. He, as well as my parents would leave me messages on my answering machine at home – but I was never there, at least not at times that they would be awake. Without a mobile phone, there was no other way to reach me. I had no access to Internet, no email, no social media accounts, no smartphone. I got my first (student) email account at the university and was lucky enough to be able to communicate with my friends who were studying abroad and also had received emails. But that was about it. No one in my family had email.

How could I not feel homesick?

I would have had a hard time imagining how much my life would change in the
course of the following 20 years. Comparing what it’s like to be a foreigner today with what it was like 20 or even ten years ago is like comparing two different worlds.

There are many aspects of our lives as expats that we take for granted: our ability to reach and be reached; to connect with “our people,” wherever they are, and keep up with their lives; to stay updated on developments in our different “homes,” whether it’s politics, culture or everyday life – all that, almost instantly, at minimal or no cost. Developments in technology, especially those related to the Internet, have had a profound impact on what it means to be a foreigner and how we experience that life. Communication is just one dimension of how technology has transformed the expat experience, but a powerful one. So much has happened so fast and yet, these fairly recent additions have shaped our lives into what they are today.

I still feel homesick today, but it’s a different kind of homesickness. As a result of the technology in my foreigner life, I can never feel isolated or out of touch – at least not because of lack of possibilities. I don’t feel helpless. I can stay connected with my family
and make sure that my children develop and maintain relationships with their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins. I can keep up with major events in the lives my loved ones. I can stay in touch with my friends, most of them scattered around the world.

There are drawbacks, of course. One could argue that the technology that brings me closer to those that I have left behind, also allows me to avoid living in the here and now, if I wish to do so. But the technology can only reinforce an existing tendency, not create it; it doesn’t make me choose to live, virtually, somewhere else, it just empowers me to do that. Also, I may sometimes feel homesick because of too much connection, not too little.

Feeling so close but knowing that I’m not, makes the homesickness more concrete. I know exactly what I’m missing by not being there – because nothing can ever replace
physical, face-to-face connection. Still, I am grateful for this life. Even if, for some, the instant gratification of email or FaceTime does not match the excitement of receiving a letter or unpacking a package sent by someone you love, I’ll take that instant gratification any day over the loneliness of being in-between.

Rootedness and openness

We took the kids to a “family” concert last weekend, part of a series offered by Zurich’s main concert hall. The theme was Christmas
singing. There were several children’s choirs taking part and a program that extended from folk songs to Christmas carols to classical choral pieces. When I booked the tickets, I thought that this would be a very “Swiss” event, perfect to get into the Christmas spirit of our adopted hometown. I was not expecting to find, featured prominently among the several local community choirs, that of the International School of Zug and Lucerne; and later, wedged in-between the many lovely German and Swiss-German tunes, a section of the concert dedicated to English ones. Not to mention the interspersed orchestral pieces by a Polish composer and a traditional Estonian Christmas song. “Jingle Bells,” Benjamin Britten and “Grüezi wohl, Herr Samichlaus” somehow all fit perfectly together. A slightly different, and perhaps more powerful experience than I had expected.
Before we moved here, I had read about how attached the Swiss are to their homeland; how intensely homesick they get when they are away and how they don’t last long before they succumb to the urge to return. In fact, homesickness as a term was coined
in the 17th century to describe the condition also known as “Swiss illness” (mal du Suisse) – the pain frequently felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, who would pine for their native landscapes. My favourite passage about the particular relationship the Swiss have to their home is from a book called The Geography
of Bliss
by Eric Weiner:

The Swiss are deeply rooted in place. Their passports list the name of their ancestral town. Not their hometown but the town of their roots. Maybe they weren’t born there. Maybe they’ve never even been there. But it is their home. It’s said
that the Swiss only become Swiss upon leaving the country. Until then, they are Genevans or Zurichers, or otherwise defined by wherever they happen to come from.

One would have expected that focus on one’s home and roots would be accompanied by a certain neglect towards the outside; a lack of interest leading to a lack of attention. Nothing like the pure openness that I felt at that Christmas concert. As a foreigner, I was not simply an observer of a beautiful holiday tradition; I was invited to become part of it. I felt included, welcomed, embraced.
Maybe I did not expect that, but it makes absolute sense. Being rooted in place, even if that is a tiny little spot on the map, makes the Swiss feel grounded. It is exactly that rootedness, the confidence and security that it brings – about one’s core identity, among others – that makes one open to the outside. It’s the grounding that makes one willing to acknowledge, include, integrate the foreign (and the foreigner), without worrying that they will somehow dilute or otherwise corrupt that
identity. That’s a big part of why I – and many other foreigners – feel at home here. At that concert, I did not feel any less of a foreigner than I usually do. I did feel, however, that my foreignness is something enriching; something to be appreciated and celebrated.
Holidays can be a confusing time for those of us who have chosen to lead a mobile life. Sometimes we are torn between so many different traditions and customs, that we don’t know which one(s) to choose and when we do, often our choices seem like an incoherent mishmash. Last weekend, the Swiss taught me that might not be such a bad thing after all.
Happy holidays everyone.

The language of foreignness

Last week I read an article on how our personality changes when we speak different languages and it reminded me of a conversation I had years ago. A good friend and I were talking
about our “mobile” life and the challenges of adjusting to different environments every time we moved. I asked her how she felt about having to function in a language other than her native one – she is a Spanish speaker in a German-speaking country. “I get by fine,” she said, being quite fluent in German, “but I am only an adapted version of myself in that language.” Somehow, switching to German managed to turn this lively, assertive, energetic Mediterranean woman into a much tamer, quieter, shy person. I thought of my own French or German persona and how different it was from the Greek one.

The image we project in different languages differs – especially when our level of proficiency differs among those languages. It is not unusual to be more reserved than our usual self when we don’t feel confident enough to express ourselves in a foreign language. My husband often says that his IQ drops by at least 30 points when he speaks French. I feel intellectually challenged when I try to function in a language that I don’t master. While I struggle to make a point and get frustrated when I can’t, someone who does not know me may assume that I don’t actually have a point to make.
The opposite can also happen, though more rarely: we may feel more confident in a language that’s not our own. Another friend of mine discovered that there was a language that fit better with her personality than her native one. Although she came from North America and grew up speaking English and French, after learning Spanish as an adult, she realised that she felt more herself, more genuine in that language than in the ones with which she was raised. So she gravitated towards everything Spanish – both in her professional and personal life – because in that context she felt more connected and more genuine.
When we move around a lot – unless we are perfectly versed in all the languages of the places we move to (which most of us are not) – language is a big part of the foreigner experience. While it might be fun to slip into different characters and switch between personalities depending on the language we speak, it also makes it harder for us to be our true selves all the time. Doesn’t this inability to feel authentic and genuine, make us feel even more foreign? Doesn’t it make adjustment more complicated and challenging? How do we deal with that?
I used to disapprove of people who moved away from their home country only to end up socialising with the same kids of people – from back home or from similar cultures. Greeks seeking out other Greeks; Francophones or Anglo-Saxons clustering together. Typical expats, in my condescending opinion, wasting a unique opportunity to enlarge their horizons and enrich their lives; stagnating rather than moving forward. Then I moved to countries whose language I did not master and, over time, I understood. When you are assembling and disassembling (and reassembling) your life multiple times over, in the process of reinventing yourself, you sometimes lose track of who you are – at the core. So there are moments when you need to be able to feel genuine; to be yourself; when you crave the comfort of authenticity. And for most of us (though there are exceptions, of course), despite our multicultural, multilingual upbringing and multiple exotic experiences, that can only happen in one language. We do not necessarily seek out people who speak our “comfort language” to that we can continue to lead the same life we led back home; we seek them because it feels good to be ourselves from time to time. In our nomadic life, that comfort is essential.

The space between

I have wanted to write this post for a while. A comment on a previous post made me think about how we – foreigners, expats, global nomads – raise our children; the choices we make with respect to their education; our aspirations, explicit and implicit, for their present and future lives. While we each have our own ideas, methods and child-rearing philosophies, there seems to be a common pattern: many of us want to turn our children into expanded versions of our – international – selves.

We go to great lengths to broaden their horizons; to open their minds to different cultures, people and perspectives; to make them multilingual, multidimensional, multicultural, citizens of the world. We speak to them in our mother tongues and teach them about our native cultures. We travel with them; send them to international schools; hire native speakers as caregivers to teach them their languages; sign them up for immersion camps and exchange years abroad. And this does not only happen in bicultural or multicultural families; I know several couples who come from the same culture, speak the same language and decide to raise their children bilingually.
We make all these efforts to equip our children with their world citizen identity, knowing that at the same time, we are pulling them further and further away from any
specific cultural identity. They will learn to embrace our home cultures, but will never be native in any of them, since they will not have lived in them. They will travel and live in many different places and the world will be their oyster but where exactly will be their place in that world? Like us, our children will be neither here nor there. They will inhabit an intermediate space: the transitional, the “almost home,” but not really. They will be foreigners like us, only an enhanced version.
The paradox is that we raise them to be perpetual foreigners even though we struggle with our own foreignness. Why do we set them up for that kind of life? Do we recognise benefits for them that outweigh the challenges and adversity that
they will confront?
Absolutely. We actually want them to have that life – our life. We want them to experience the richness, the stimulation, the
excitement. They may often feel like foreigners, but what they will have seen and learned and experienced will make up for that – in our book. They may feel homeless and rootless sometimes, but only in conventional terms. Essentially, they can always be at home, because their concept of home will become deeper and much more portable. And yes, they will get lonely and miss their friends, who will be spread out all over the world, but their life will be richer because of those friends.
That said, they didn’t choose this life. What if, at some point in the future, they turn around and tell us that they would rather have lived in one place, put down roots in one
community and made lifelong friends? What will we tell them then? Most of us just
keep hoping that moment will never come.