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)

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.

How I let my past ruin my present moment.

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Lately I have begun to notice how I worry about things in the future that all derives from my past experiences. Of course they do – how could I predict the future? All I have is the moment of Now and my past memories. But it actually helps me to react to my worries and ask myself what experiences and memories these feelings of fear or unease come from.

Then I can also ask myself if I am absolutely sure that this exact same thing will happen in the future. If I believe so (which is very seldom) – what can I do to prevent it? It helps me to focus on actions which I can control instead of feelings that I can’t change. If I don’t think it’s absolutely sure that it will happen, I try to convince myself that the worries will only make me loose the joy of the moment, my mindfulness, and peace of mind for something that has already happened.

Is the thing I am anxious about happening right in this moment? No! So the fear is all about something that does not exist, something that is not happening. Either it’s a past memory or an imagination of the future, based on the same memories. But it is not happening right now!

A while ago I tasted a fruit that I had not tasted before. “Is it good?” my daughter asked. I didn’t know. It wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t say if I enjoyed the taste or not. “What does it taste like?” she continued. I didn’t know that either. It tasted like nothing I had eaten before.

I could really imagine how my brain was working at high speed to try to find something somewhere in my brain that could make sense of the taste in my mouth! And even if my answer to my daughter was: “Maybe it tastes a bit like banana mixed with something” it was not the true explanation of the sensation of the moment. So I had to stop searching and instead concentrate on the present – to enjoy the happiness of tasting something completely new!

Our daily lives are like tasting new fruit every day, but since we mostly think the same thoughts today as we did yesterday, we miss the moment and keep ourselves stuck in old memories. We keep ourselves busy all days trying to imagine all the dangers and troubles that might meet us tomorrow or next month. Of course we have to plan our days and use our experiences when needed, but then let go and enjoy the Now, the thrill of not knowing what tomorrow will bring!

 

 

 

My mood changes with the falling leaves

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Today I walked home from a friend, looking at all the leaves falling from the trees around me. The street workers were busy gathering the leaves in big stacks. It was much colder today. After a while I got aware of my feelings. They were my typical “autumn feelings”; a mixture of slight depression and calmness. Things are slowing down after a hectic summer. Suddenly I started to laugh for myself. It’s not autumn! It’s spring! It’s just that here in Shanghai the leaves didn’t fall from the trees last autumn, but now when the new spring leaves push them off the branches they fall.

That makes me wonder what the Chinese feel. Do they get the typical spring feelings from falling leaves? Probably.

Isn’t it amazing how our moods are suddenly influenced by things around us? Sometimes I know exactly what it is, like a special song I hear. Immediately I get a happy or sad feeling, depending on the song. But I’m sure that my feelings are affected by a lot of situations, sounds, smells and things that I don’t even notice consciously. I might wonder why I am suddenly happier or more worried than before, but the reason that triggered my emotions has already passed.

Is there anything I can do to prevent myself from being negatively affected this way? I don’t know. Is there?

Just being more aware of my mood might be a good start: “Okay, I’m a bit irritated today. Why?” I might not know why, but just to get aware of it I think will make it possible for me to change it. To do something nice, something that I like. Or just breathe and accept the feeling.

So if you concentrate on your inner feeling right now – what do you feel?