‘Repatriation- the deepest and darkest secret of the expat experience’– opens a recently published article in The Wall Street Journal .

Do you recognize this, I was shocked reading this because it’s o so true and nobody tells you. I was unaware and therefor unprepared for this last transition.

‘You expect life to be basically the same. But you have changed, and things back home have changed since you’ve been gone’ says Tina Quick in the article. It’s so logical that everyone’s life goes on back home while you have gone, because why would everyone and everything still remain the same, they have a life on their own.

The reality for lots of repats is that the reverse culture shock couldn’t be more intense. Because we assume that everything back home is put on hold or paused until we return. We only start noticing when we become disappointed when we actions we took for granted have changed, when we feel left out because nobody is waiting for us to return and when the excitement of moving turns reduces to tiresome unpacking while being a stranger at home. A stranger in your own familiar life.

I remember clearly of enthusiastically sharing stories about foreign experiences while you see your listener’s eyes slowly but steadily blanking out. The more exotic the experience, the sooner this process started. It was their inability to relate to these experiences, as it was my unawareness about this. As adults we are able to rationalize this reverse culture shock back home, but what about our children?

The reality of home is not the home leaves. What stays out in their memories are the never ending home leaves over summer, a chain of sleepover parties, seamlessly floating into pool parties, visiting their families, friends make themselves available for a ‘hi&bye’ – moments, always bringing gifts and toys and endlessly chilling. These days where never ending, always fun and the best of times. That’s how our children picture ‘back home’.

And so will repatriating be for them: in their mindset everyone is over the moon, anxiously waiting for them to return, and inviting them over for play dates just like during home leave. The reality is upsetting: they have changed and things back home have changed. Just like nobody is waiting for you to return and same goes for your children. They also have to fight their way back in. They will find their friends far too occupied with after school activities and sports, no more play dates and nor hanging out. This is necessarily painful and annoying unless you prepare for this repatriation as if it where you’re next move.

How can we prepare our children in smoothing the transition back home? How to avoid the feeling of being a stranger back home?

3 Tips

1.Sharing isn’t caring: Depending on the age (s) of your children try to explain to them how they have grown and have experienced new adventures. A life abroad to which their friends back home can not relate, the location is unfamiliar to them, the trips your children have made are too exotic, the schools to attended to different from the local school back home.

Tip 1: Sharing a slight sliver of their experiences is fine while keeping this in the back of their minds.

2.Back home we do this differently: Secondly ‘remind’ them of the way we do things back home. While living in the U.S. My daughter, being six years at that time, got very used to having sleepover parties where all her friends had the habit of getting dressed and changed in her closet, not to been seen. I pictured her back home, where closets are so much smaller, wrestling / tussling in an effort to get dressed, while her friends all getting changed together at the same time laughing their heads of.

Tip: Refresh their memories of how we do things back home.

3.Repatriation is your next exiting post: Lastly, explain to your children that they made new friends while living abroad just like their friends back home have grown stronger in their friendships. It’s not about them at all.

The feeling of being a stranger at home is typically how most of the repatriating children as well as their parents feel. This pitfall can be avoided by creating awareness around this.

Together with your children help them to create lists what to pay attention to, what to take into consideration and what to be aware of. Follow the same schedule you would follow when you would go for your next move to a foreign country.

Tip: Prepare for the repatriation as if it were the next exiting post.

Now sit back and relax in your chair, peek through the narrow airplane window enjoying the view below you: silhouetted your tiny little homeland where nobody is waiting for you and where you, at the very same time, are happy to return to.

 

‘Kapsalon’ caught my eye last summer during my visit to Saint Petersburg – Russia, at the Potato & Mushroom Restaurant. The cause had nothing to do with these two veggies but rather that they offered ‘kapsalon’ on their menu. I couldn’t avoid noticing a sensation of national pride: an imported Dutch product being prepared so many miles from its original hometown , the city of Rotterdam.

The Dutch word ‘ kapsalon’ best translates as hairdresser, the place where both women and men go to for a haircut, hair coloring, etc. But it is also the name for a rectangular plastic container covered with foil loaded with fries and shawarma meat topped with a layer of Gouda cheese and a layer of greens floating in garlic sauce. When seeing ‘kapsalon’ on the menu, my Dutch pride instantly faded when I reminded myself of the 1800 calories this delicacy contains and that it ultimately serves as an intoxicating 3 a.m. delight especially among night crawlers.

Among Dutch youngsters ‘kapsalon’ soon became popular after Mr. Derius Bengu took the order from Mr. Nathaniël Gomes, a hairdresser – originating from Cape Verde Islands- three stores down from Mr. Derius’ eatery.

One day Mr. Nathaniël Gomes was starving and asked Mr. Derius Bengu to just send him a container filled with fries and shawarma meat topped with some salad. Mr. Nathaniël’s clients became rather curious about this dish, so he told them: ‘ Just go to Derius eatery and ask him for a ‘kapsalon’, and he knows what to prepare for you.’ Voilá the ‘kapsalon’ was born.

Here you can meet the ‘father’ of the ‘kapsalon’, Mr. Gomes. Although the video is in Dutch, it will enable you to see what the ‘kapsalon’ looks like.

What blows my mind about this ‘kapsalon’ phenomenon is how a rectangular foil container loaded with 1800 calories becomes so world famous. There has never been a marketing- research tool nor an intercultural assessment test applied to this dish. It has never been allocated a marketing budget. Meanwhile its popularity reaches from Russia to the United States of America, where everyone can try out this ‘exotic dish’, not only just those belonging to a small exclusive privileged group who usually can afford novelties. Moreover this makes ‘Kapsalon’ is an awesome example of intercultural success! It has crossed all borders and isn’t constrained by any intercultural hurdles: just like birds migrate and cross borders ‘kapsalon’ proves to be a culture savvy product.

Which of your products potentially also is culture savvy? Where lies your challenge to think out of the box and into the foil?

 

‘Kapsalon’

  • 1 portion Dutch fries
  • 200 gram shawarma meat
  • garlic sauce
  • hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 slice gouda cheese
  • 1 handful of iceberg lettuce

Put fries into aluminum container, add shawarma meat, drizzle with garlic sauce and hot sauce (optional). Top with gouda cheese and place under a hot grill for 2-3 minutes until cheese has melted. Finish off with a layer of iceberg lettuce and serve with a plastic fork and lots of napkins.

Three month after our first baby was born we moved from Brazil to the southern part of China. In a subtle way the local Chinese government orchestrated that all Wàiguó rén 外国人 /aliens (‘white noses’) be located in a handful of compounds scattered around the city of former Canton, now known as GuangZhou.We also rented at a compound, a beautiful ground floor apartment overlooking ‘the Greenery’ in the Tienhe business district. The local Chinese government was aware that most of the Wàiguó rén 外国人 /aliens rather preferred Western aspirin to traditional Chinese medicine, so as a result, they had set up small First Aid- and Pediatric Service Posts in some of the alien compounds. At our compound the post was managed by both a Chinese and Belgian doctor. The former spoke Dutch, my native language. Still until todays day I clearly remember what a relief it was to be able to express my concerns about our new born in my mother tongue instead of having to mentally scavenge for jargon.

How is it for you to try to find the right words for your and your families health care concerns, for financial or legal issues while you feel totally lost in all the local rules and regulations. Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to just blurt out whatever it is you have to say on all these issues in your native language instead of having to tease your brain during such visits?

I’m referring to these ‘soft factors’ which weigh in the decision for making the next career step. These so called ‘soft factors’ are subjects of the living and working environment of the international employee and their families and include the following: housing, education, healthcare, childcare, labor mobility for partners, public transport etc. Nowadays more and more cities hosting an international community as seeking ways to serve ‘their aliens’.

To improve their working and living environment, in the Greater The Hague area CheckNL is created where Chinese speaking dentists, Arab speaking counsellors and psychotherapists, Turkish and Polish speaking doctors, Spanish speaking midwives and Farsi speaking realtors offer their services.

In this sort of ‘TripAdvisor for Internationals’ these kind of services are made available to you so you are able to to discuss your concerns in your mother tongue even though you are far away from home.

Ideally your experience abroad would be as if you were visiting your local dentist just around the corner in your home town, in using these services. In sharing my own experience, I pretty much felt thit way during my second pregnancy and evenso when ‘I gained another pearl from an oyster’, a Chinese saying for giving birth to a son.

Many thanks to any and all of you, I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading my blog.

 

 

Culture cones with three scoops

 If you have ever experienced getting the local greeting wrong, don’t worry, you are not alone. It can be a minefield. This happened many times to me in several greeting situations when I thought they were going for the kiss but it was the hug and now I just drooled on their face then head-butted them in the nose.

I have also found myself on the receiving end of misplaced greetings, hugging a friend who slobbered a kiss into my ear. . It’s always that moment of hesitation, of indecision, that causes bashed heads and awkward embarrassment. Rings a bell?

All this and so much more has to do with cultural behaviors of which we become aware of and start questioning upon stumbling in a different culture. More often than not our own habits, rules, rituals, way of communicating, values, social norms those which we take for granted in our own culture, turn out to be the primary source for misunderstandings and awkward embarrassments in other cultural contexts.

Now how can your children’s curiosity benefit your transition and adaptation when moving to another country? We have all experienced how our children in fact at all ages, view the world different from us by asking questions and making surprising comments.

And it is exactly this curiosity which is so helpful to them as well as to you as a parent and can certainly smoothen the transition. A fun and playful way is pretending they are detectives discovering a new culture. When being in a new, unfamiliar culture there are several cultural scoops to be discovered.

 

 

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1st Scoop: Arts, money, food, music, transportation, mass media, fashion. Most easily seen in a new culture. Ask your children to search for the difference in the money you use back home and in your new country; what are the differences in transportation; and how does the local food taste differently? How are people dressed differently? You got it by now?

2nd Scoop: National heroes: artists, music stars, celebs, soccer, ice hockey heroes, ect. These are the unspoken rules. What kind of differences do your kids notice when watching the local tv – stations, which are the most famous nationals sports players/ music stars, what are different celebrations and national holidays other that yours?

3rd Scoop: Values and norms/ use of time and space. These are the unconscious rules. Everything which seems to be very natural and day-to-day in the host country while your kids wonder why these people do as they like bringing gifts to birthday parties what are the national ‘rules’ and even more interesting: ‘why?’, commercials, local jokes and sayings, and off course personal distance and ways of greeting among kids and their parents….

 

This game can be played everywhere, just imagine you put on your cultural detective hat and you bring your magnifying glass and you good to gooo: in a restaurant, at the grocery store, at a party, at the playground, in a car, at the movies, at ect.

We can only enjoy the taste of the second ice cream scoop after having finished the first one, same goes for the third scoop. The process for discovering a new culture is alike. Which unfortunately means just drooling on their face then head-butting them in the nose….

Now dear reader my question to you is: ’Did you ever ponder upon the ‘rather typical cultural’ behaviors in your country?’Maybe foreigners have brought this to your attention by asking you questions on local national behaviors and habits you would know how to answer other than: ’tis is just the way we do things’…

In case you have collected some I would love to receive them, so please feel free to share them by leaving a comment. Many thanks already in advance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When in Rome don’t do as the Romans

 

Would you agree with the following statement: ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’. Do you agree or don’t you agree? In an attempt to gain insight and deeper understanding of cultural differences, would you adapt to the local culture to reach your goals or would you lean towards a rather different approach. And what will these different approaches bring you in terms of opportunities or challenges in this globalized world where we seek our way to collaborate.

So here I’m finding myself on one of those typical grey and uninspiring iffy afternoons like one in a zillion over the winter in a likewise uninspiring building… Inside the building the contrast couldn’t be bigger because the setting is very inspiring, exited and colorful as over 700 participants representing over 40 nationalities surround me, how cool is that, for a typical grey and boring day at this time of year.

The workshop on Intercultural Competences just started and the air is filled with energy and diversity. At some point during the course of the afternoon the workshop facilitator now are asks us to change places and find a new partner for the next exercise. I’m ending up next to a young woman who happens to be Italian, she tells me that she is on an internship and stays in the Netherlands for a couple of month. She only just arrived some weeks ago and is exploring my tiny country. Than the workshop facilitator explains what to do for the upcoming exercise by setting the stage as follows: pretend you where to sit next to a new friend whom you’re going to invite over for a dinner party at your house. So far easy as can be. And as the facilitator continues: the one who receives the invite, you instruction is to decline the invitation.

And so obeying the facilitator in his instructions, the young Italian woman invites me over for a dinner party. I can hear myself replying to her explaining in a very indirect way by creating a broader context of how I would have loved to accept her lovely invite and for sure will make an effort to arrange another time and how I feel deeply sorry of unfortunately having to decline …… Anyway circling around the topic of actually declining and finding a tons of excuses why I would love to join her dinner but rather can’t make it tonight.

Now it’s time to switch our roles and something inter-culturally interesting starts to evolve…so as the exercise continues: I invite her over to my house for a dinner party. And with her half long brownish hair and her friendly hazelnut colored eyes she rather bluntly replies by saying that she already bought some fish for tonight’s dinner and for that reason can’t make it to accept my invite. I notice myself stumbling in a mixture of being confused of listening to this direct answer coming from someone of a Latin culture, who is supposed to reply in a very indirect and fussy way and at the same time acknowledging her for her smooth adaptation to the blunt and direct way, we Dutch tend to answer. Her reaction to my acknowledgement is as surprising as her reply during the exercise, when she tells me that in the event she would have been invited in Rome she would have given the exact same answer….

Now at this point, let’s return to the former statement: ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’. Do you agree or don’t you agree? In this attempt to gain insight and deeper understanding of cultural differences, would you still adapt to the local culture to reach your goals or would you lean towards a rather different approach. So to me it’s pretty clear now, based on the shared experience: When in Rome don’t do as the Romans.

Culture Clues for Dutch managers when working in a (virtual) team on dealing with Italians:

  • There’s a general need for achievement and to excel (Ego needs).
  • Status is important to show off success.
  • People tend to live in order to work.
  • Decisions may sometimes be arrived at by taking a vote just after a brief discussion has taken place; then buy-in must be achieved which might take some time before being able to start implementing.
  • People tend to overstate and expose their performances.
  • People want to discuss business anytime, even at social gatherings.
  • Expect people to live according to the motto “Let the best win”.
  • Anticipate competition to be seen as positive.
  • The work environment should give a chance to excel.
  • Expect strict accountability in work life to retrace the degree of achievement.
  • Reckon on the successful achiever to be well respected.
  • People tend to sympathize with the successful achiever and distain with the unfortunate.
  • ‘Time is money” – meetings should be “to the point” and with a clear objective.
  • Expect the team members to self-promote and spotlight their personal performance.

Culture Clues for Italian managers when working in a (virtual) team on dealing with Dutch:

  • People consider a good work-life balance important. They try to avoid working over time.
  • People value an enjoyable working environment.
  • Trying to be better than others is neither socially nor materially rewarded.
  • Decisions are made through reaching consensus; this takes a lot of meetings and time, but after consensus has been reached, the implementation will take place quickly.
  • Small talk and social (or business) functions will focus on an individual’s life and interests rather than just business.
  • Conflicts are avoided.
  • There’s a general need for affiliation and leveling.
  • People tend to strive for consensus.
  • Status is not so important to show off success.
  • Strict accountability in work life is perceived with distrust.
  • People sympathize with the unfortunate and are jealous of the successful achiever.

For further reading please visit Geert Hofstede

 

 

 

 

The Thesaurus teaches us that the expression to start from scratch means the following:’ start at the beginning with no advantage. The scratch line was a stripe across the ground where a race began. Starting from scratch had no advantage against other in that race’.

 

Reading the explanation of this expression seems to imply that there is no benefit to “starting from scratch”. In this first blog for expat partners at work I would like to explore another perspective of this expression. Having had the chance myself to start from scratch, I feel very grateful for it.

 

If you were to ask your friends, colleagues or family around you how often in their lives they were given the opportunity to start all over again, they would very likely answer not very often. Unlike you! You might be on the verge of moving abroad or maybe you just landed in this new place which you need to make your own. You get to start from scratch!

 

I still remember waking up in unfamiliar, unknown places where daily routine becomes challenging, where feeling completely lost and uncertain as well as being unable to speak the local language takes over. . It is from the bummers and misunderstandings that I learned so much about local culture and myself. They were as insightful as they were meaningful to me.

 

I still remember when first moving to Brazil, how I often felt completely exhausted and frustrated at the end of the day. It felt like I had to deliberately go the extra mile each and every day, over and over again. Something which I experienced again many years later when I relocated to the United States with three children.

 

My silver lining was becoming aware that I am at choice every day. In Brazil, I made the conscious choice to allow myself to play around in the unfamiliar new space of opportunities and challenges meanwhile trusting clarity would come. It was about balancing the ping-pong between polarities: the unexpected surprises and the unexpected frustrations, about good and bad days, about fun and loneliness and trying to find a harmony in all this.

 

The choice that most served me during the years I lived abroad was to volunteer my time to projects that were aiming to make a difference in local communities. While living in Brazil I worked at two not-for-profit organizations in the favelas of São Paulo; in China in a state owned child orphanage and during my time in the United States I contributed to a program which was designed to support those who lost their jobs due to the economic downturn. For me all these have been life changing experiences, all of which contributed to who I am today. I would never trade it in for the world.

 

boot

For the last 18 years I have moved around the world in various countries with three growing children. Besides this being an awesome experience I realized how children in transition adapt so differently from adults. In order for children and teens to ‘re-root’ in a balanced way in their new environment, it is important to have an understanding of where they come from.

  • In other words what their own cultural set of norms and values is. By creating this awareness they will be able to address new and different behaviors like:
  • Why are the math annotations at schools different in Brazil?
  • Why do American children change their clothes in a separate room? or
  • Why do the Italians kiss once when greeting you while the Dutch kiss three times?
  • Why do Japanese kids always agree with you? And how come Saint Nicolas is celebrated on December 5th in the Netherlands unlike Santa Claus who only just arrives late that month?
  • What freedom and restrictions is there for teens when living abroad and how does this impact them.

By addressing cultural awareness in trainings for youth and teens they will become increasingly curious about all these new behaviors instead of getting confused about them.

As they move around the world together with us, our children not only take their own culture set, their bag pack, filled with norms and values. Also they seem capable of seamlessly blending in the new local culture set having different norms and values. When children and teens are being facilitated in this process they, unlike we as adults, are capable of adopting new norms and values. They mix and mingle the new and local norms and values from their new environment as well and blend this with the previous set acquired at earlier stages in life. In doing so they create their new and unique culture set and that is why these children, your children are the so called ‘third culture kids’.

Let’s take color this concept by the following simple example. Suppose the culture set from your country has the color blue and you will be relocated abroad to another country with your family. And now suppose the local culture set over there  is the color red. What will happen to us, being adults, we will adapt to the red on top of our own blue color. So we will adapt and behave blue/redish. Your children, just like you also will take the blue culture set with them. Interesting enough, what will happen to them is quite differently, they will so to say adopt the local red color, they will mix the red with their blue and so as a result their new culture set will become purple.

What happens to our children is much more interesting when they move with us over the world is a very interesting process different from our process.  In their process of adaptaion, not only do they bring their own set of norms and values developed over the course of their lives, also they create their own unique cultural global set. They, so to speak create a their third unique culture.

This process I noticed with my own children over the years and how they, now all being teens, have their blended sets of perceiving the world.

Let’s continue our earlier example on colors, now suppose after a couple of years again you and your family will be relocated to a third country. You will take of the red culture set upon moving to this new country and bring your initial blue culture set. The culture set of this new country you are relocated to is white, so guess what happens to your own culture set….. It will become blue/ whitish. And to your children, what will their new unique culture set become?

In the country where the Salsa and Tango was born, they know exactly why it takes 2-2- Tango. The Argentinians lives are designed around the dance of Life.

This isnt always the case in Northern Hemispherical countries, as the following story reveals. Just the other day a cheerful, vividly and lively Latin- American woman, originally coming from such a smaller city close to Buenos Aires shared her experience of working in the Netherlands with Dutchies.

Your body language just can’t hide

Just the other day a cheerful, vividly and lively Latin- American woman, originally coming from such a smaller city close to Buenos Aires shared her experience of working in the Netherlands with Dutchies.

Eloisa is a young Argentinian woman who for the last couple of years is working in an international company located in a Dutch office building in the greater Rotterdam area. The majority of her her colleagues are Dutch and although she tries her very best to come up with positive impressions related to her colleagues, interesting enough her body language shows the exact opposite. In her bodily posture she takes us with her to her office where she just gets in and wishes everyone a very good morning. As she enters the office, some of her colleagues started off working already, siting up strait behind their desktops.

Now I can see how she straitens her back and easily imaginary her fingers quickly slide over the keyboard as they half-nodding and semi- interesting mixed politely reply to her ‘good morning’ – greeting. Eyes remain glued to the screen. This same ritual repeats itself while wrapping up the day, in starting to leave the office. Her Dutch colleagues collect their belongings and on their way out there is a little chitchat here and there about what to do this evening, over the weekend and for the upcoming Holiday Season. Wishing one another a pleasant evening as they grab their messenger-bags, their voices fade away in the chilled air of the dreary evening. Off they go. To me, it becomes really clear that our Dutch working attitude and ethic is horrifying to her. This is how people from Specific countries tend to work; It measures the differences in how people engage colleagues in specific or multiple or diffuse areas of their lives. People from Specific countries tend to keep private and business agendas separate, having a completely different relation of authority in each social group.

Salsa & Tango

So, what is it that makes this working attitude so hard for Eloisa? It’s obvious that where Eloisa comes from isn’t a country having a Specific working-attitude but a rather so-called Diffuse-working working attitude. Let’s see if we can picture it, so buckle up and let’s start the journey: on a sunny afternoon you find yourself wondering around the old city center of small town Northeast of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The temperatures moderate your walking speed and as you are slowing down in the small alleys of the city you notice how the Spanish influences at each and every street corner still are so remarkable. As you turn the corner your eyes feel attracted to the old buildings with its paint charged cast iron balconies, where cloths hang to dry in the breeze of spring. People from Diffuseworking countries the authority level at work can reflect into social areas, and employees can adopt a subordinated attitude when meeting their managers outside office hours.

In coming from the Diffuse – country of Salsa and Tango, where your friends are your colleagues and your colleagues are your friends, I noticed I couldn’t help feeling really sorry for her, in trying to import some of that Latin culture to her Dutch colleagues. In just picturing her in a concrete office building making an effort day after day to bring in some of that bright and colorful Latin sparks, and yet noticing all of them fading away and turning grey even before the first break at the coffee machine.

Party time during office hours in India

In answering my question in which country she has experienced party time during office hours she almost turned into a different personality. She rearranged her posture, at the rhythm of her arms moving lively her eyes brighten and in a high pitch of voice she starts shares her work experience in India. In admitting that the people from India – another Diffuse-country– firstly confused her in their work ethic and different way of coping with time (but this is for yet another blog) she quite quickly got the hang of their working ethic, which basically comes down to weeks and weeks of very long working days and extensive working hours. When the job just needs to be done, no matter what. Now her colleagues just keep on going and keep on working, long working weeks, after long working days, when morning turns into afternoon, into late afternoon, into early evening, into late evening, into mid night, into dawn. When working hours become leisure time, you work with your colleagues and you spent your off office hours with them as well. Your colleagues are your friends and therefor your friends are your colleagues, and the other way around.

And in this dawn when the project must be finalized I picture her again, this time in a dusty, damp brick office building in the Chennai Bay Area surrounded by Indian colleagues at aiming at the deadline of the project. In this Diffuse– managerial style each decision takes into account the entire process by which a product is conceived, each decision effects everything.

And all there is needed is one simple and effective rule to it all, the Indians even have a Hindi-Urdu colloquial word for this, which is the word ‘Jugaad’. This word means an innovative fix or a simple work-around, used to solutions that bend around rules, or a resource that can be used as such, or a person that can solve a complicated issue-. In the light of this project everyone stays until the work is done and office hours and off office hours seamlessly become one and the same; and yes there’s room for dancing the Tango.