Recently I introduced Expats A to Z, a new series of posts about 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.
You know, the characteristics and features that can help smooth the way.
Last week I started with A is for Acknowledging Differences.
Let me acknowledge a difference right now and state that I won’t be writing this series in alphabetical order.
‘Why not?’ you ask.
Because I like mixing things up.
And quite frankly, it’s a whole lot more interesting when you don’t know what’s coming next. More fun for me as well.
I do hope you’ll follow along and share your own thoughts and experiences.
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F is for Flexibility
When I first envisioned this series, F was among the very first letters that I filled in. Flexibility is important in life – anyone’s life – and definitely an asset in making our way in different countries and cultures.
It’s something we all recognize as crucial, that we aspire to and claim we possess.
But I’m guessing, if you’re anything like me, you’ve got room in your life to stretch a bit in the flexibility department.
When I think of being flexible, I’m not talking about acquiescing or automatically accepting something new or different.
Sometimes it means accommodation, but only when you decide it’s appropriate. Often it means adapting, displaying adaptability, or at least leaving the door open for being adaptable.
I also don’t mean the type of flexibility in which you assume the form of whatever comes your way. Some people naturally ‘go with the flow’. But being flexible is more than just bobbing along with the current, risking an encounter with rapids or being swept out to sea.
I tend to think of flexibility as taking in the situation around you, noticing the signs, reading the tea leaves, and then – and only then – adjusting accordingly.
Ah, there they are. Adjust accordingly. Two words that form an ambiguous phrase that leaves more wiggle room than a pair of baggy clown pants.
What the heck do they really mean?
Here’s how I look at it. You know you. You know yourself. If you don’t, then there are bigger issues at play, and more work to be done.
Underneath it all, I believe that most of us know ourselves. Not necessarily the person we talk about when we’re describing ourselves (although it could be, if we’re being truly candid), and not always what we tell other people.
I mean the real you, the one who knows the things you think and even say when you’re standing in front of the bathroom mirror with something weighing on your mind.
You also know those around you that matter. You know your spouse or significant other. You know your children, not as an amorphous group, but as individuals with distinctive personalities and needs.
More importantly, you not only know what’s in your heart and mind, you also know what’s in your gut. You have that gut instinct that tells you when something is or isn’t right. You need to trust that.
You’ve been moping around the house, exhausted ever since you arrived, overwhelmed by all the details you have to sort out. It’s been four months, it takes all your energy to get up and go to work (and/or get the kids up and off to school), figure out how to pay the bills, do the grocery shopping (or go to the local market) and manage to do two loads of laundry given the dodgy washer, squirrely dryer (if one even exists), electricity on the fritz or total lack of clean water.
You know yourself. You know the difference between begging off the weekly ‘how to’ session at the local international school because you just need some alone time to regroup after doing what feels like battle in the local population to buy basic foodstuffs or a pair of shoes, and sequestering yourself in a downward spiral of depressive concern.
You may forego the coffee get-together or the job search or signing up for a new class because it’s been a tough day getting an extra set of keys made or arranging for a child’s vaccinations or the spring plowing of the far field.
You might skip the wine and cheese meet-and-greet after work because you want to curl up on the couch and watch television, or Skype with your best friend back home, or just get dinner on the table and the children into the bathtub.
Let me say that again: that’s okay. That’s being flexible, understanding your needs and your limits.
That’s okay as long as you aren’t constantly missing every single opportunity. It’s okay as long as you aren’t masking the fact if you are lonely, miserable and spiralling downward. In other words, be honest.
If you need help, seek it out. Ask for it, call for it, check online for it,please GET IT.
If you realize that you need human contact beyond the four walls of your living room or the babble of your young tots or the loneliness of yet another trip shopping/on the metro/running errands that ends without a single connection of any kind, then please GET IT.
I don’t care whether you call the doctor’s office, your elderly neighbor down the street who speaks a smattering of your native language, or the international school’s counseling offic (even if you don’t have a child attending the school, they’ll figure out who can help you), please JUST DO IT.
Flexibility is knowing when to follow your plan and when to make a necessary detour given the facts on the ground.
Me? My first year I took two intensive language courses and attended the weekly ‘how to’ sessions at the international school. I went, I learned, I figured things out.
I also spent my share of downtime at home, re-energizing. I felt at times as though I was the front lines, figuring out how everything worked in this new society I found myself in. I considered it a success that my children made it to school each day in clean clothes, made new friends, participated in activities and did their homework.
I met my Dutch friend Katja on a street corner one day while I was walking my dog. I am generally an outgoing person, but it was actually Katja, coming back from a lunchtime jog, who noticed little Oli and began to pet him.
I may have needed a friend, but more importantly at the time I wanted to get back into jogging. She obviously loved dogs, so we chatted briefly about that. She was red-faced from her exertion as a beginning jogger, so we talked about that. One thing led to another and we became walking/jogging partners who spoke Dutch and English as we went along.
Think about it. I met one of the nicest people on the planet at an intersection with a gas station and tram stop. She helped give me some confidence with my Dutch and I helped her train for her first 5K race. More than that, she explained the nuances of Dutch culture to me.
She recently moved to the UK (an expat herself now) and we stay in touch. If we both hadn’t taken a chance we’d have missed out on a wonderful friendship of two and a half+ years and counting.
My second year I took some writing courses, began a new career, and joined a writing group and a book club. The third year I focused more on my own writing projects but added membership in an international women’s professional group.
My point? Be flexible, be agile, be ready to make necessary adjustments.
Not quite feeling as though she fit in, someone I know asked around until she met a group who like to cycle on long rides. An acquaintance joined an after-work running club, making friends while she improved her language skills. Another decided to start up his own business consultancy round table group that also happens to go out for the occasional beer and darts.
Allow room in your plans for flexibility. If you find the country you’re in doesn’t recognize your work credentials, do some research and figure out whether you want to take a break, do what’s necessary to become re-credentialed, bite the bullet and learn new skills with a job in your field at a lower level, start your own business or consultancy, or try an entirely new occupation.
If you feel your pre-schooler needs more face-to-face time at home before a play group, accept that. If your adolescent child seems caught in a downward spiral, trust your gut and get help. If your teen is doing well in school and wants to add a time-consuming activity to their schedule, consider giving them the benefit of the doubt and supporting them.
If you want to paint, paint. If you want to play a sport, do so. If you want to volunteer, volunteer. Do you really think you’ll be turned away??
If your significant other seems distracted, lethargic and the ultimate couch potato, begin the conversation toward a healthier, more engaged relationship.
If that couch potato is you, remedy that. If you’re hesitant about becoming more involved in the culture in which you find yourself, ask a friend to join you. No friends to ask? Slap on a smile and visit a museum or new restaurant or sign up for an event. Try one new thing. Take baby steps. You’ll survive.
In other words, be flexible. Trust your gut. Adjust accordingly.
[Image credit: Vlado, portfolio 1836, FreeDigitalPhotos.net]