The Expat Dilemma of Friends Coming and Going

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This time of the year is often filled with complicated emotions for expats. Spring is on its way and there are several holidays to look forward to, but at the same time the end of the school year is coming closer and a lot of families and friends will move.

To move abroad as an expat is fantastic and somewhat stressing when it comes to friends. To me it has been unusual to get that many good, new friends as an adult. Usually it takes many years in my home country before a person I just met become a close friend. When I moved to Istanbul, five years ago, I didn’t understand that I had to be much quicker! By the time I asked a nice lady out for lunch she told me that she was packing to move. And that happened again and again. My best friends in Istanbul I got the last year, when I had understood the unwritten rules.

Some of the rules are
“She seems nice.” Ask her if she wants to join you for a lunch or coffee immediately. If you still find her nice after the coffee, ask her for her number, WeChat, WhatsApp information or whatever app is the primary in your country.
“How nice that I was invited to a coffee by that lady”. Now you have to act! Don’t think that you are the newcomer after more than one month, or expect anyone else to pamper you more than once. Call her and ask her to check out a place you want to visit.
“I want to visit this place with someone, but how shall I choose one of the five ladies I just met?” Don’t! Invite them all even if they don’t know each other. That will broaden the network for everyone.
“It would be nice to join a group (book club, sightseeing, discussion etc), but I can’t find one” Start one!
“I don’t like to fix my nails or go to lunches all the time, I want something else.” You can be absolutely sure that you are not alone – just tell people what you want and the ones interested will join you. And praise you for your intitiative!

(Not so many men out there, but of course this goes for accompanying men as well!)

There are of course many more rules, but those are the ones that were hardest for me to catch up with. The common thread is ACTION – now!

So you follow the rules and get wonderful friends from all over the world. Then what happens, just when you started to enjoy life in this new country? They move! Usually at the same time. Now you might encounter even tougher emotions than the ones of loneliness and lack of friends you experienced when you arrived. To most accompanying spouses friends are an important part of everyday life. The worries about how life will be when you are alone again might disturb you. And you might not look forward to starting all over, inviting newly arrived ladies for coffee and find out which ones might be good friends next year.

I myself, try to first of all enjoy my friends all the way until they move. It’s very common that friends (especially children and teenagers) part before they actually have to part, in an unconscious way of trying to avoid the pain. Then I try not to envision what next year will look like. Some days it work, some days not … I try to stay open minded and believe in my own ability to develop my friend finding skills and trust that there are a lot of nice people out there also open minded and eager for a coffee!

What is your experience and how do you cope with it? Are you about to move or are you the one staying?

We are only alive in the moment

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Even before I left Sweden, I had heard friends living abroad saying that they found themselves so much more alive there than they did in their home countries. They thought that people at home just lived every day the same way and were only looking forward to the weekend or the vacation. During my years abroad I have heard this often and wondered what it’s really about. The other day I was working on a course in mindfulness and I suddenly got it!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of modern mindfulness, explains in an interview what mindfulness is:

“It’s the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” And then he adds: “As if your life depended on it!”

Day in and day out our brains are fully occupied with thoughts about the past or planning in the future. We very seldom just ARE in the moment, experiencing it just the way it is, without thinking. But since we’re only alive in the moment, not being aware of it makes us sort of emotionally dead! Only when we are fully aware of the moment do we feel alive.

When you’ve left the people, the environment, the language and the culture that you know so well and suddenly are standing in a street with completely new smells and sounds, people acting in new ways and talking a different language and you’re trying to cross the street with a seemingly chaotic traffic, you are most probably not planning your dinner at the same time. You just are. You are completely alive and aware of the moment.

Maybe you’re not completely non-judgmental all of the time though, and you might find it extremely stressful to have to get to know new people all the time, experiment with new groceries or trying to explain what you want in a new language, but this lack of grueling on the past or planning of the future actually makes you live here and now more than you did at home. It’s a kind of unintentional mindfulness, that is forced on you whether you like it or not. The best is of course to practice some awareness and let go of the thoughts just for a little moment every now and then and just enjoy what you experience, no matter if it’s in a chaotic corner in Shanghai or in your well-known kitchen in your home country!

If you want to hear Jon Kabat-Zinn explain what Mindfulness is you can click here (5:17 minutes)

How can it be stressful being an expat spouse?

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You’re an expat. Your children are at school and your spouse at work. Your only duty is to make dinner today. You have all the day to do whatever you like. Yet, you’re not happy. You actually feel quite stressed and you feel stupid about it. How on earth can you be stressed under these luxurious circumstances? If you would tell your friends at home they would probably frown at you and not understand how such a spoiled person can be stressed. So you try to tell yourself that you are such a lucky person, that all is well and you engage in a mass of activities to keep your mind off those depressing emotions.

If you’re actually living an expat life I’m pretty sure that you have been there. The question is how it can be stressful?

Last week I took a look at the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. It lists 43 stressful life events that can lead to illness, and I realized that when you move abroad you (usually) have to separate from your extended family, say goodbye to all your friends and social network, quit your job not knowing if you will ever get it back, leave or even sell your house and then move to a new house with foreign furniture and no things of your own, try to find food that you can use in a new food culture, try to find your way around in a new neighborhood, try to communicate in a new language, try to understand all the new, unwritten laws and behaviors, get used to the climate and all the noise in a big city as well as the traffic, take care of a stressed out spouse coming home from his/her new job and comfort your children coming home from school in a roller-coaster of emotions (with a new language, friends, system, teachers, subjects and unwritten rules), get yourself out and find new friends and finally enjoy that now you can do whatever you want – if you just had any idea of what that might be.

My conclusion was that you hit so many of the crucial stress factors at once, in a way that you probably never ever do in an everyday life at home. You might not have the stress related to time management that you have at home, but that’s not the most dangerous one. You sort of get BINGO in stressful events!

So accept that it’s enormously stressful to move abroad like you have done! You have had to meet so many stressful events at once that your friends at home would be shocked if they actually understood! Take care of yourself and accept your feelings. Share them with the new friends you find and you’ll be able to comfort each other. If you listen truthfully to yourself you’ll probably be able to figure out what you need to do to reduce your stress level. It might be to start meditate, find a gym, read a book, organize excursions with a neighbor to get to know your city, sleep a lot, watch a movie in the middle of the day or join a course to try new hobbies. The most important, I think, is to accept your feelings, listen to your thoughts and wishes and take a first step to reduce the stress and bring in more moments of recovery and joy.

 

Below you will find the Holmes and Rahe stress scale.

Life event Life change units
Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Imprisonment 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Beginning or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Major Holiday 12
Minor violation of law 11

Score of 300+: At risk of illness.

Score of 150-299: Risk of illness is moderate (reduced by 30% from the above risk).

Score <150: Only have a slight risk of illness.

Making friends the expat way.

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If you have lived in a small town for a long time, or maybe in the same neighborhood in a bigger city, you might have the same experience as I have when it comes to making friends as an adult. It takes a long time – sometimes years – before you ask that nice mom at your child’s school or that good college of yours to come home for dinner or go to the theater together. Making friends is an investment for life and you want to be absolutely sure that you like this person and that you can be sure that he or she likes you too, before you expose yourself.

It is also a risk. What if it turns out that the person wasn’t that nice after all? Now that you have invited that person or that family into your social life, they have to return the treat and so it goes on forever!

Living an expat life requires quite another way of making friends. You know that you have a limited amount of time, maybe two or three years, before you will leave this place. And that goes for everyone else too. You’re living in the moment. You have to be active yourself or you will be invisible! You have to grab that nice mom and immediately ask her out for lunch, you have to ask the new neighbor if she wants to join you to the vegetable market and you have to throw yourself out and ask those three ladies at your language course if you can join them on that interesting day trip they are talking about.

You might see pictures on Facebook of the ones you thought were your friends doing things together – without you. Or you will realize that the nice mom always has a good reason not to be able to plan that lunch you’ve been talking about. But you mustn’t give in and lose your self-esteem. This is the way it is. And after a few years you will be a professional when it comes to mingling around and daring to ask people to join you for the most different kinds of excursions. And you will get friends from different cultures, religions, political opinions, child raising philosophies and different backgrounds. You will grow and develop and enjoy being with all these wonderful, funny and fascinating people whom you’ve met in the middle of your life! Some will be closer than others, but they will all share some part of this adventure of yours – with all the ups and downs – and you will never forget them.

But one day your new soul sister tells you that her husband has been relocated and she will move in some months. Your lovely neighbor tells you the next day that they will leave too. June comes and every day you give someone the last hug and farewell. Maybe you will meet, in your home country or in another country, maybe you will never see each other again. Those are heart breaking days. But the sadness you feel is the proof that you’ve managed well in your “expat friendship education”. Go celebrate!

 

PS: All the examples above are fictional and not about any of my friends.

Lessons learned by living an expat life

DSC_0760When an employee is starting a new job in a new country, the accompanying spouse is often facing a job free life. In theory this is paradise! But in reality, the ones who loved their job with all the responsibilities, hardships and engagement, find themselves frustrated by not having something purposeful to do. Yes, it’s quite nice going to lunches with new friends, enjoying a manicure or shopping new decorations for the home. But after a while many accompanying expatriates whom I’ve met say that they have a desperate need to “use their brain”. Along with this comes the fear that their career is finished and that these years abroad will be nothing but a drawback to their future chances.

But don’t we learn a lot of things that we could not have learned if we had stayed at home? Have we required any skills that we maybe even could put in our CV? Some weeks ago I asked my expat friends on Facebook about this and I got answers, e-mails and messages from men and women all over the world! Thank you all for your contributions!

Yes. We have learnt a lot!

If I summarize the experiences I would say that living in a new country, a new culture, puts us out of our comfort zone. Suddenly we can’t communicate with the locals in our own language and we have to use body language and smiles to help us do the most ordinary things during the day. We have to be humble and ask for help all the time, because things in this new country are done in other ways and found at other places. Soon we find friends in our new country, mostly expatriates coming from all over the world, and in our discussions we realize that what is bad or good, right or wrong for us most probably look very different for them. They have completely different values and perspectives on things like children’s education, religion, equality, treatment of animals, family life or law and order. “How can she be such a nice person, but have these strange values?”, can be a normal question to ask oneself.

We pretty soon come to understand what people from our own country have in common, cultural things and values that we wouldn’t have noticed until we meet other cultures. Suddenly we can see that not everything in our home country is that logical and perfect. In the beginning we are most probably irritated or even disgusted by how people do things in this new country, but after a while we start to see things their way, we get more patient. We know that things can be done in different ways, that these people also have their truths, ethics and moral – it’s just that they aren’t the same as ours. So how can I be so sure that mine are the correct ones?

After a while we might have learnt some more words in this new language and we have understood more of the “codes”, the unwritten social rules. (I can tell you the Istanbul traffic is full of them!) Interacting with locals and friends from other countries is now a wonderful adventure! Thanks to our new friends it’s much easier to solve all these new problems that arrive every day in a new country. Once again you have to accept that you have to ask for help. Also thanks to our new friends, we start to see ourselves, our home country and even life in a new perspectives. Maybe there are other things in life that are more important than I thought before? Maybe the truths I’ve never questioned are not that good?

The hardest lesson though might be the one concerning loss and grief. Living an expatriate life usually means that we have to leave the rest of our family, friends and colleges for months, sometimes even years. When we meet we know that we will soon part again. And the new friends we get suddenly move or we leave them behind. For our children this might be the biggest problem, so we have to deal with their loss and sadness as well. The good part of this lesson is that we slowly learn to live in the moment and enjoy the friends we have right now.

Honestly I think we can put some of these lessons, specially the more traditional ones, in our CVs:
A new language; basics or advanced, taught by the people in the country.
Intercultural communication; how to interact and communicate with people from other cultures, how to detect the “codes” in a new culture
Critical thinking; how to interpret information based on new observations and experiences
Problem solving; how to constantly find creative solutions, how to ask for help in every moment, often in languages you don’t know
Body language; how ask for help, food, solutions, directions, appointments etc. without any words (and understand the answers!)

Other skills are softer, but not entirely uninteresting to the HR department:
Patience; how not to be upset because things aren’t done the way I am used to, but in a much more complicated and time consuming way
Humbleness; how to realize that my way might not be the only way – and maybe not even the best way!
Thankfulness; how to be grateful for life, laws, environment etc. in our own country
– Self-awareness; how to discover yourself when you are out of your comfort zone, and your country based values when confronted with other peoples’ values
Mindfulness; how to better enjoy the moment and not fear the unpredictable future

Do you recognize yourself in this? Please let me know if you have learnt some other lessons!

Of course also people not living in another culture can learn some of these lessons, but I think the combination is somewhat special to expatriates.

Are you a Seeker or a Source?

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The other day I listened to an interview with author Neale Donald Walsch. He said that you have to realize whether you are a Seeker or a Source. He meant that if you’re a seeker you wait for someone or something to teach you or show just what you need to know to grow or reach your goals. It might be a course that is just the right course for you, or a book that will finally make you take the step needed. If you’re a source, you know that you have all the potential within yourself. You are the creator of your life and you don’t wait for someone else to tell you how to make it.

So all we Seekers just have to transform into Source! Piece of cake …

Well, Neale Donald Walsch actually went on by saying how to do. Let’s say that you want to develop a certain trait in your personality, for example you want to be able to talk in front of people with more ease. Then you should start by finding someone else, who is just as scared as you are, and teach or help that person to get up on stage with confidence. You become a Source to someone else! And by doing that you have activated your own sense of the strength and possibilities you have deep inside of yourself. Eventually, by acting more and more from the source within, you will find the answers to your own questions. Without any teacher.

Starting this blog was actually an attempt from my side to go from Seeker to Source. When I lived in Istanbul I used to enjoy my weekly meetings with a wonderful Buddhist monk further down my street, so when I moved to Shanghai eight months ago I was soon looking for a new teacher. But I didn’t find one. So I decided to write about the things that I would have liked to talk with a teacher about and share it with others. Hoping that someone might gain some insight or growth by reading about my thoughts. I sort of became a source.

And last week I started a course in Leadership by Coaching, to teach some expats something they felt useful to learn during their stay here. And seeing how happy and excited they were, made me feel I was doing something very useful with my time here!

What do you want to change or develop? Do you know someone who wants the same thing? In what way can you help that person?

The four stages of cultural shock

IMG_0115.JPGMy new neighbor was not at all happy with her life in Shanghai. She had been here for a month and found everything dirty and different. Her young children hated it at school and were crying every morning. She had no friends and wondered what on earth she was doing here. That exciting, adventurous life she had expected was not appealing at all. She just wanted to go home.

Because it’s my second time moving, with three years in Istanbul and now four months in Shanghai, I stopped by the playground trying to comfort her. “This is just the way it should be. Your feelings are following the culture shock schedule exactly. After 2.5 month, or so, you and your children will enter the next phase and everything will be better”, I told her, hoping that this information would make her feel that she was not alone in this, that there was actually an end to this stage in her transition.

1.5 months later I got a message from her: “Yes, it turned out exactly as you said. Just suddenly at 2.5 months it was as if all problems started to dissolve. Unbelievable! And so incredibly GOOD! We are now 6 days into this new phase!”

Finnish anthropologist Kalervo Oberg was one of the first to do research on “culture shock”. He stated four stages; honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. Below are some explanations, “translated” from academic language into my own words.

Honeymoon
Everything is new and exciting. Perhaps you are staying in a hotel and live more like a tourist in this new fascinating culture.

Negotiation
Now you start to notice how different everything is, how strange people behave, how dirty and insecure it feels everywhere. You don’t know how to buy and cook proper food or get around doing everyday life tasks. You’re alone and disconnected. Your children are switching from hysterical unhappiness to excitement about their school life every second day and your working partner is busy with his/her new job. If you find some people from your own nationality you will feel extremely dependent on them.
(This is just where my neighbor was when I met her!)

Adjustment
After some more months (maybe 6-12 months) you get into a more normal life. You have found your ways around and have even got some new friends. The children have become accustomed to the language and the school system much better. You are getting more and more used to the strange behaviors of the host country people and are even starting to see the charm about it.

Mastery
When you come back after the summer break (not everyone is moving at that time of the year of course), your home in this new country feels much more like a true home. This is your life now. You might even have missed some parts of it when you were away! You don’t feel like you and your family have become a complete part of your host country, but you have found a sort of bicultural level.

My experience is that the three first levels can go a bit back and forth if something new is introduced in the everyday life. And the rest of the family members might not go from one phase to the next at the same time as you do. But I think it is pretty good to have some understanding of the different stages, knowing that it is a very natural series of reactions. Later I will write more about what you can do to feel better in each phase.

 

I’d be happy to hear your comment on this! And if you like what you’ve read, please share it!

 

Expat wife life: Bring a piece of peace

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I have found that when I start something completely new, like moving, starting my own business or getting involved in a relationship, it brings a lot of stress. It isn’t that familiar stress that comes when I’m experiencing lack of time, due to too many things to do. No, it all has to do with me being out of my comfort zone. I don’t know the hidden rules, I feel lost or confused or I am constantly doing things that I’m not used to do.

It has become very important to me to make myself some kind of physical comfort zone. To be able to relax in a comfortable armchair, reading a nice, uncomplicated book and drinking cups and cups of tea – that brings me peace in times of confusion. To when we moved to Shanghai this summer I was quick to ask the people I met if they had any nice books I could borrow. I even asked the school librarian if I could use the school library, which was fine. At first I was ambitious and choose some classics that I haven’t had time to read before, but it turned out that they were also adding to my stress. Some feelgood books were just the right thing!

So my advice now to people moving abroad is to bring something that can give them a little peace in the beginning. It might be some books, painting equipment, training clothes, baking material, knitting things etc. I know that most people who move just have one suite case for clothes and things to use for a month or two before their shipment arrives, but I still recommend to bring it. It is worth it to be able to relax just a little bit in that first stress.

And I am sure that goes for us when we are out of our comfort zone in our regular home and country as well: to know what brings us peace and mindfulness. Not everybody knows that. Try to find out what energy sources you have! Is it to sit on that stone in the forest? Is it to meditate, write, read, paint, workout at the gym? Whatever it is, don’t underestimate the importance of it in your way to everyday peace of mind.