Lately I’ve been busy working on my book about the importance of emotional resilience in expat life. I won’t kid you: it’s been, well, challenging to try to cover the full range of issues I believe are important, and to address them in a fitting manner.
Especially when real life continually intervenes. Sheesh, what’s up with that?
Still, I’m plugging away, trying to write it bird by bird.* Anne Lamott would be proud, I think. Well, maybe not just yet. But I aspire to make her proud.
And the conversations with and contributions from current and former expats around the world are nothing less than inspiring. They keep me going, wanting to do right by them and get them out into the world for others to share. It’s a long process, but we’ll get there.
As I continue to read, research and write, I’ve been struck by the little things that can make a difference in how we approach some of the challenges and experiences of expat life.
I’m talking about those qualities and traits that we can nurture within us to help not only survive, but thrive amid constant change.
That’s why I’ve decided to introduce Expats A to Z, a new series of posts designed to address these characteristics and features that can help smooth the way.
I hope you’ll follow along and add your own thoughts and comments.
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A is for Acknowledging Differences
It may seem strange to be advocating that we focus on the differences experienced. Doesn’t putting our attention on how we are not alike run the risk of encouraging feelings of superiority, that this is better than that, we are better than they?
After all, isn’t one of the main lessons of living in another culture that we are all far more similar than we may think?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, I do believe that underneath it all, we are the same. But that ‘it’ is the sum of our differences in culture, history, values, beliefs, experiences.
I’ve come to realize that in order to get to the bigger picture, we need to spend some time examining the individual snapshots.
Acknowledging differences requires that we actively see them.
Most of us (myself included) tend to jump into a new culture and seek the familiar. It helps us get our bearings, gives us something comfortable to hold onto. We may be in a form of denial, not wanting to acknowledge considerable differences for fear of rocking the emotional boat.
But at some point the cracks start to show. We begin to realize that while some aspects of our new home are indeed similar, there are also very real differences. Sometimes they are subtle, sometimes jarring.
Now the last thing I want is for someone to arrive in a new setting and start a running list (oh, let me count the ways) of how this environment isn’t like their previous one.
We’ve all encountered others who, during the transition from involvement in one culture to re-involvement in another, seem to get stuck in one or more of the less attractive stages of the change model. Maybe it’s been us who’ve become stuck.
[For background, please see this article on expat Transitions & Change I wrote for I Am Expat last year.]
You know what I’m talking about. The fellow expat who can’t seem to stop tallying all the ways in which their current posting is so inferior to their last, or the one before that or, heaven forbid, to ‘back home.’
Negativity seems to permeate every pore of their being. Questions usually start with the annoying phrase ‘why do (or don’t) they…?’ and are tinged with disgust.
Now this may be the regular state of these Debbie Downers (or Donnie Downers, for that matter: women have no corner on the bitching and moaning). But I’m guessing that most are trapped in the anger or depression stages of the change model; they’re stuck in a negative groove and can’t seem to get out.
But to get through the expat transition successfully, to become more fully involved in where we are now (regardless of whether it’s our preference or not), we’ve got to work our way through the change stages and reach the stage of acceptance.
Acceptance cannot come if we refuse to acknowledge that things are different. And that acknowledgement allows us to begin seeing that different doesn’t necessarily have to mean better or worse. It can simply mean not alike, unusual, not the same.
In seeing and acknowledging the differences, we can begin to explore why those differences might exist, what history and experiences may have brought our new culture to this place in time.
We can begin to make peace with them.
And in acknowledging and accepting the differences, we find ourselves open to seeing that there are far greater similarities than we ever imagined.
We realize that those snapshots are actually part of a larger mozaic, rich in color and texture and hue.
*In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s inspirational book on writing, she recounts how when they were younger, her brother was overwhelmed at the thought of having to write a long book report on different birds, due the next day. Lamott’s father, also a writer, cautioned against fixating on the enormity of the project. He encouraged him instead to break it down in reasonable chunks, and focus solely on writing one piece at a time: in other words, write it bird by bird.
[Image credit: Vlado, portfolio 1836, FreeDigitalPhotos.net]