LIVES IN BETWEEN

The somewhat different intercultural communication blog

Year: 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Going home for Christmas? Last minute expat Christmas survival tips

I am certainly not the first person to write about the expat Christmas experience: that time of year when you buy overpriced flight or train tickets, stand in endless lines of security checks, and don’t find anymore space in the overhead lockers on the plane because they overflow with Christmas presents. And we bravely endure all of this only to go on what a fellow blogger suitably called a “speed-dating frenzy” with family and friends “back home” (which sometimes is not really “home” anymore, but that’s another story and you can read more about it here).

Over the years, I have accumulated quite some experience in trying to get through this season without major dramas or nervous breakdowns, sometimes more successful, sometimes less so. While I can’t say that I have figured it all out, I have gone through a series of “trial and error loops”, adjusting every Christmas based on lessons learned the year before.

So, in the spirit of generosity, I am sharing with you my painfully acquired wisdom in the hope that it may help you to make the most of this festive period and avoid major disasters. My top 4 pieces of advice are…

1 – Plan well ahead & share your agenda

I find that everybody making requests for my time is flattering (they love me after all and want to see me), but it can also be a pressure to try to satisfy everyone. Reach out to people well in advance to ask them about their plans and availability. Then put together your personal Christmas schedule, and share this document (or, if that’s too much transparency, only the “allocated time slots”) with people. This helps to set expectations straight and avoid misunderstandings and disappointments (e.g. mum breaking out in tears because I stay out late for drinks with friends while she expects me home for dinner… I don’t need to mention my age for you to see that something’s wrong here).

I also found it helpful to present my agenda simply as a given fact rather than a basis for negotiations as to how much time I spend with whom.

2 – Schedule 1 on 1 time with people you really care about

As lovely and fun as large family gatherings or Christmas parties can be, there is nothing more precious than spending time with a friend or family member to have a personal, meaningful conversation. In groups the discussions tend to be about things like politics, the weather or upcoming vacations. In a one-on-one meet up on the other hand, you can really focus on the other person and make the most of the little time you have.

3 – Be open about what you want and don’t want for Christmas (and I don’t mean presents)

Your family might plan a large gathering with everybody including your 2nd degree cousins, but you’d much rather have an intimate, cozy dinner. Your grandmother wants to go to Midnight Mass, but you’d rather stay by the fireplace to continue good conversations or more nutmeg. My point here: dare to express (again, ideally with some leeway) how you envision to spend Christmas. Your family and friends are likely to respect your wishes and take them into account, but they need to know about them. Again, it’s about communication and alignment of expectations.

4 – Plan for some R&R (rest and recovery)

It is easy to get carried away with all the people you want to see, and all the people who want to see you during this short week or two. If you are not careful, you might end up feeling as if a truck just ran you over, flattened out from all the social interaction (this is the introvert in me speaking here), needing a holiday after the holiday. People often don’t realize that you are essentially telling the same story over and over to answer questions like “So, what’s new in life?” However tight your agenda is, ensure you take some time out, get some fresh air, some alone time, or whatever it is you need to recharge your batteries. The key is to listen to your needs and respect yourself.

With this, I wish you a relaxed Christmas full of meaningful conversations and valuable time with people you care about.

As always, I’d love to hear about your experience with Christmas as an expat. Have you got any other coping strategies to share?

Thanksgiving Thoughts – Celebrating Extraordinary Encounters

Last weekend I was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Although this gathering around an enormous turkey is not a European tradition, it lives on through the many Americans who import it to Europe and keep it alive. The origins of Thanksgiving lie in an encounter of two very different cultures: the encounter of European settlers (now commonly known as Pilgrims) with Native Americans sharing an autumn harvest feast in 1621.

Around the wonderfully decorated dinner table sat a colorful bunch of people. A Swiss-American dating a Swiss living in France, another Swiss-American married to a Peruvian who runs a business in Madrid, an Austrian dating a French living in Geneva (guess who that is ;)), an American who just met a Sudanese during studies, a Canadian dating a French, and the list actually goes on. Throw into the mix the occasional “Swiss only” couple from next door, and what you get is a lively and lovely crowd of people having fun and conversing in approximately 4 languages.

To fellow Geneva residents this might seem like just another multicultural gathering. I call it creating encounters. In the spirit of the original extraordinary encounter – where Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants – it is this kind of personal interaction that fosters understanding, tolerance and respect for “the other”.

Two disclaimers here:

I realize that all of us at that dinner table come from similar socio-cultural backgrounds, well-educated, well-travelled global citizens, winners of globalization, if you will.

I am also aware of a certain level of romanticism and naivety in my observations here, viewed against the backdrop of a highly problematic relationship (to put it diplomatically) between European colonists and Native Americans throughout history.

Nevertheless, I wanted to share with you through this little anecdote my firm belief in diversity and the creative energy it can unleash. It is my vision and hope that such personal encounters can break down the metaphoric walls politicians literally put up these days. We need more of that. The world needs more of that.

„The Little Virtues“ – Why you should read Natalia Ginzburg

the-little-virtuesI recently discovered Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Don’t get me wrong, I knew she existed, I even had some of her books on my Amazon wish list for months (or years?!). Then I came across this article on The New Yorker, which finally made me buy “The Little Virtues”. And I am so glad I did. Instant coup de coeur as the French would say. Her way of writing – plain yet so full of meaning and poetry – went straight to my heart.

The Little Virtues is a collection of short essays published in various magazines and newspapers between 1944 and 1962. Historically, this period covers Fascist Italy and World War II. Experiences of war and oppression, of having to flee in the middle of the night leave a mark in her writing. The topics are as relevant as ever.

In Son of Man she tells the story of war. Of what war does to people. “Those of us who have been fugitives will never be at peace. Once the experience of evil has been endured it is never forgotten”.

In Portrait of a Friend she describes her feelings when she visits her home town she no longer lives in (if you’ve been reading my other posts, you’ll see the red thread here).

“…when we go back, simply passing through the station and walking in the misty avenues is enough to make us feel we have come home; and the sadness with which the city fills us every time we return lies in this feeling that we are at home and, at the same time, that we have no reason to stay here; because here, in our own home, our own city, the city in which we spent our youth, so few things remain alive for us and we are oppressed by a throng of memories and shadows.”

To those of you who live in London, England: Eulogy and Lament is for you: A dry yet funny depiction of London as what Ginzburg perceives a colorless, melancholic city where “they all dress in the same way. The women you see in the streets all have the same beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower-curtains or tablecloths in restaurants.”

Ginzburg also gives parenting advice in The Little Virtues, powerful reflections which I will certainly keep in mind for the day I have children.

And finally, my personal favorite, the story of a lifetime in fast-forward, Human Relationships. A beautifully written journey of a human lifetime, from childhood over adolescence to adulthood, examined through the relationships forged and lost along the way.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about the writer, the book, the topic, or anything that comes to mind!

Americanah – Another book review

americanahI just finished reading this fabulous novel and couldn’t wait to recommend it to you here on my blog. It’s one of those page turners (the last time I experienced such a captivation – this is a confession – was with E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey), all the while maintaining a steady level of quality writing and clever observations about sensitive issues, such as race, discrimination and alienation.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young people in love, growing up in Nigeria during the military dictatorship. Both of them dream of leaving the country to study abroad in an idealized United States of America, and build a better future for themselves.

Narrated at times by Ifemelu and at times by Obinze, the book takes you on an insightful journey of people experiencing life as strangers in new environments, and then again as strangers when they return back home to Nigeria. Seen through the main characters’ eyes, the story is dotted with sharp observations about the peculiarities of societies and sub-cultures.

In the US, Ifemelu is confronted for the first time with the issue of race. In the UK, Obinze’s fate illustrates the motivations and dangers of illegal migration, and sheds light on a topic that couldn’t be more relevant in view of the current debate about the global “migration crisis”. At a dinner party in London he observes that guests “understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.”

They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.

Having reflected and written a lot about culture shockreverse culture shock, and what it means to feel at home, here comes a book that makes you see and feel for yourself. As I so often say, sometimes a story is all it takes…

Home Sweet Home? What you should know about reverse culture shock

In my last blog post I wrote about the notion of „home“, and to what extent it changes once you live abroad for a while or are confronted with very different realities through travel to foreign places. You start questioning things that seemed completely normal before, and appreciating things you had previously taken for granted. Old norms and values from your home country are viewed from a fresh perspective.

And herein lies the tricky part: when you go abroad, you expect to encounter challenges in the new culture. When you return “home”, however, you expect to find a certain familiarity and comfort – only to realize: home is no longer home. It feels different. The experience abroad has changed you substantially. And it’s the unexpectedness of reverse culture shock that hits you hard.

What to expect when returning home – The stages of reverse culture shock

The concept of reverse culture shock can help you make sense of your feelings of disorientation and alienation back in your original home country. Like “outbound” culture shock, it has a number of stages.

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Overall, it goes like this:

  1. Initial euphoria: At first, you may be excited to return home – seeing friends and family members again, eating your favorite food at your favorite restaurants, and speaking your native language.
  2. Alienation: The initial euphoria eventually wears off, and that’s when you find yourself feeling out of place in your own culture. This can even lead you to feel hostile and overly critical towards your home country and culture.
  3. Readjustment and adaptation: Eventually, you will gradually readjust to life at home. You will build up daily routines again, and things will start to seem a little more normal, even though they will never be exactly the same as when you left. But don’t be discouraged. Instead, incorporate the experiences you’ve made abroad into your new life back home.

There are ways to better manage re-entry into your native culture, and better cope with re-adjustment to your original home country’s way of life. Being aware of the emotional ups and downs you will be going through is already a good start. Stay tuned for some useful tips in my next post!

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock? What did you do to cope with it?

That funny thing called home

“What is home to you?” That’s the question I’ve asked friends of mine, some of them living abroad, others enjoying life close to where they grew up as a child. To me, home is a funny concept. Every time I visit my “home” country (the one I hold the passport of), I am confronted with this question. People ask me – their eyes beaming with expectation: “Does it feel good to be back home?” My answer usually consists of a friendly nod and smile. But in all honesty, I don’t know.

Ever since I spent 6 months abroad to study in the US, something has changed. I came back a different person. I was suddenly more aware of cultural particularities in the country grew up in (Austria), and the way people behave and interact with one another. As I continued travelling, I came to see different ways society can organize itself. I started to question, even disagree with, things I had found perfectly normal before. I also started to be grateful for things I had taken for granted (like clean drinking water straight from the tab).

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” ― Miriam Beard

Travelling and living abroad broadens your horizon – and there is no way back. It forever changes the way you see yourself and the world around you. This is a blessing and a curse at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I gave up the reassuring stability of “home” for a cosmopolitan life where everything is relative. But only sometimes. Most of the time I feel energized and excited by the richness of cultural diversity I am lucky to experience through work and life.
So, back to the notion of home. Hearing my friends express what home means to them brought me a bit closer to grasping the essence of the concept. The answers I got almost all pointed to one fact: It has little to do with geography or passport. It is not so much about BEING at home. It is all about FEELING at home. It has to do with feeling accepted and loved. With a sense of inner peace and comfort. And this in turn is often linked to the people around us. To the quality of personal relationships we build and maintain. And finally, it is about the relationship we have with ourselves. Home is not a place. It is a state of mind.

Thoughts?

Cultivating empathy – Have you tried meditation yet?

Today I dare you. I dare you to try something unconventional.

One of the basic, underlying principles of intercultural communication is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Without this capacity to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes, an encounter of people from different cultural backgrounds will not automatically lead to understanding and tolerance.

I have been astounded lately by the lack of empathy and compassion displayed by members of our society towards people who are experiencing terrible things in life – war, loss of loved ones, violence, constant danger, and humiliation. A study conducted at the University of Michigan in 2010 showed that levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years. Most alarmingly, trends suggest they are declining at an increasing rate, despite globalization and massive improvements in telecommunication. Thanks to television and internet, we are better connected to other people across the globe, but at the same time we care less about their lives and fates.

Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek. Dalai Lama XIV

In essence, empathy is a cornerstone of a peaceful and tolerant society. Is there a way to restore and cultivate it? Research suggests that meditation in general, and the practice of mindfulness in particular, encourages caring and benevolent behavior toward oneself and others. I found this encouraging and thought, let’s give it a try. I did some research and found this short (10 minutes) guided meditation focusing on cultivating compassion, kindness and forgiveness. It aims at increasing one’s capacity to feel empathy for people who you would not normally relate to, people from different cultural or social backgrounds, complete strangers.

I invite you to try it. It will only take 10 minutes of your time.

What do you think? How do you feel?

Intercultural Communication 101 – How to prepare for your trip abroad

Back in 2011, one of my first international assignments brought me to Bangladesh. I was part of a team evaluating a livelihoods reconstruction program, which was implemented after Cyclone Sidr had hit the country, killing thousands, and destroying homes, crops and livelihoods of many more.

Ahead of the trip, I prepared everything meticulously: the technical details of the program I was going to evaluate, travel logistics, medical and security considerations, etc. Everything? Well, if only I had thought about the implications of working in a very different socio-cultural context than my own. In all my enthusiasm for the new project, I overlooked one tiny but crucial point: culture. The consequence? For starters, I didn’t bring culturally appropriate clothing (such as T-shirts covering my behind, or a scarf to cover head and shoulders – it is a majority Muslim country after all). I also committed a faux-pas during my first interview with a local farmer: I heartily shook his hand to greet him. What’s wrong with that, you might think. As I learned afterwards, Bangladeshi men do not generally shake hands with women (out of respect). You can imagine we were off to an awkward start.

Conducting interviews in affected areas

These 6 intercultural communication tips will help you avoid cultural pitfalls on your trip abroad:

1 – Do your homework – on sights AND culture
This might sound like a no-brainer, but once you’ve bought your Lonely Planet, have a look at the History & Culture sections in the back of the book in addition to reading up on places and sights to see. This will give you an initial idea of what to expect and some basic ground rules.

2 – Talk to people who have been there or – even better – who live there
Talking to locals or people who are very familiar with the place you are travelling to will help you get an even better sense of important dos and don’ts, especially regarding dress code, gestures and general behavior.

3 – Learn the language
… or – if you’re staying only for a short period of time – at least a few key words and basic phrases like “Hello, how are you?” and “Thank you”. It shows that you care and will earn you smiles and friendly reactions.

4 – Watch movies and read literature
… from the country you are going to. Immersing yourself into local arts will open up your horizon to local issues, politics, and different points of view.

5 – Be prepared for culture shock
… especially if you’re staying for a longer period of time. Read my earlier post to learn more about it.

6 – And finally: Be flexible and patient
No matter how much you prepare, you will encounter situations which do not quite go as you had planned them. This is normal. An open and friendly attitude will go a long way, and get you out of most dilemmas. And at the end, you’ll have learned something new.

Finally appropriately dressed

In case you were wondering, my trip to Bangladesh went fine in the end. It was an extraordinarily enriching experience, not the least thanks to my local colleagues who helped me out by lending me appropriate clothes and guiding me through the cultural mine field.

Do you have any other tips to share? Which cultural pitfalls have you run into?

 

 

City of Thorns – A book review

City of Thorns coverThis week I’d like to share a fabulous book with you, which I have just finished reading over the past few weeks: Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns (published by Portobello Books Ltd 2016).

A glimpse into the lives of 9 individuals who fled violence in Somalia and sought refuge in Dadaab, Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp. Rawlence follows them over a period of several years and tells their stories: their daily struggles coping with poverty, hunger, disempowerment, insecurity; but also their joys, hopes and dreams. While for some residents of Dadaab the biggest hope is resettlement to a country like the United States, Canada or Australia, others simply want to be able to return back home some day, to a peaceful and stable Somalia.

“Everything spoke of transience. The inhabitants lived in their heads, in the future, elsewhere.”

In Dadaab, all of Rawlence’s protagonists have one thing in common: their lives are put on hold. “Life was only a process of waiting. […] Nothing had any permanence, there was no building anything, since both the people you loved or the people you hurt could soon be gone.”

This book is a must-read for everyone who ever wondered what life is like in a refugee camp. You’ll dive into a different reality, which exists at the fringes of our Western society. The topic of forced displacement and migration couldn’t be more relevant.

If you are still looking for an educational, captivating summer read, I can heartily recommend you this book…. And if you live in or around Geneva, give me a shout, and I am happy to lend it to you.

 

Culture Shock – Making sense of your experience in a foreign cultural environment

I just came back from spending 3 weeks in Bali, Indonesia. Bali is a hugely diverse island with a rich Hindu animist culture. Its landscape offers anything from stunning beaches, lush rainforests, and impressive volcanoes and waterfalls. Its culture is deeply rooted in Hindu beliefs, and Balinese people are very tolerant and welcoming to foreigners and people from different cultures.

While all of these are prerequisites for a perfect holiday destination – and don’t get me wrong, I had a fabulous time there – I did find myself exhausted at some point halfway through my vacation. Exhausted from trying to decipher the unfamiliar ways Balinese people behave, interact and communicate. I felt lost, unable to orient myself in an unfamiliar social and cultural environment. All I wanted for breakfast was my beloved coffee and croissant instead of Nasi Goreng. Then suddenly it hit me: I am experiencing culture shock!

Have you ever felt disoriented, lost, even irritated when you were on holiday, or living, studying or working abroad? If so, the culture shock model will help you understand why, and make sense of your experience.

What is culture shock?

The Oxford dictionary defines culture shock as disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. The term culture shock was first coined by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960. To this date, it remains one of the most powerful and practical concepts to explain behavioral reactions that occur when people attempt to live, work, or study in unfamiliar cultural contexts. Here is how it works:

When you expose yourself to a foreign culture, you go through 4 phases.

1 – Honeymoon: You will feel excited, fascinated and stimulated by the newness of everything: new food, different pace of life, people’s habits. The differences are intriguing; you see the new culture in an almost romantic light. However, as with most honeymoon periods, it doesn’t last.

2 – Distress or Crisis: After a while, the differences between your own and the new culture will become more apparent and start to wear you down. The initial excitement gives way to feelings of frustration, maybe even anxiety or hostility. Language is often a major barrier, which can make it difficult to manage common day-to-day activities, such as shopping or transportation. You might feel homesick, longing for familiar food and surroundings.

3 – Recovery or Adjustment: Slowly but surely you will get used to the new culture and develop abilities to cope with and adjust to the differences. The culture begins to make sense to you, and you start appreciating where you are. The fog is being lifted.

4 – Adaptation or Feeling at Home: From here on, you’ll really start to adapt to the new culture, embrace its differences and accept what it has to offer. You’ll feel confident and comfortable, and are fully able to participate in the new cultural context, even making friends, building social relationships.

Moving through the stages of culture shock is completely normal and can be a great personal learning experience. It’ll make you more aware of aspects of your own culture and broadens your horizon. If you understand the phases of cultural adjustment, it can help you cope with stress and negative emotions when you are travelling, working or living in an unfamiliar culture.

Has this been helpful? Have you recently experienced culture shock yourself?

 

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