Moving back home after living overseas

Moving back home after living overseas

As expatriate life draws to a close and the final phase in the expat cycle is about to begin, it’s normal to struggle with mixed feelings. Some expats dread the return to a “normal” life, while others are relieved their itinerant days will soon be behind them. Both groups are at risk for reverse culture shock: the disorienting feeling of being a foreigner in your homeland. The good news? You can lessen the effects of reverse culture shock with a two-pronged line of attack: preparing for re-entry while still in your host country, and following up with some practical steps once you’re back home.

The first few weeks back can feel like a typical home leave, especially if you’re not yet able to settle into a house of your own: the days may pass in a whirlwind of visiting, shopping, and fighting jetlag. But watch out — once this period of frantic activity passes, the reality of re-entry will start to sink in. It’s at this stage that you may begin to notice differences between the idealized “home” of memory and the not-so-ideal real life you’re actually living.

The lull before your household goods shipment arrives is the perfect time to begin the process of relearning your home culture. While you’re in this state of limbo — before the establishment of a permanent home makes the repatriation seem “official” — it’s also a good idea to revisit the strategies for re-entry you worked out before leaving your host country. (You did come up with a plan, didn’t you?)

Feathering your nest
Once your house is ready and your shipment has arrived, the hard work of creating a home can begin. Feathering the family nest is the first step in making everyone feel settled in the home culture. It signals that you’re starting to put down roots — a major change from the sometimes nomadic existence of many expat families.

Setting up a new home is an overwhelming job that can drag on for weeks (or longer.) According to Graebel International, however, faster is definitely better. In a 2005 Study of How to Help International Transferees Relocate, the international removals company reported that completing certain tasks made repats happier, faster.

Those who hung family photos early in the relocation process, for example,

“felt more settled, settled more quickly, and felt less stressed. Displaying photos seems to be an important component of feeling settled (along with the rather nuts and bolts tasks of unpacking boxes and arranging the furniture and kitchen.)”

Having visitors and engaging in hobbies soon after moving were also related to positive outcomes.

How to reintegrate into your home culture
A few more simple ideas for settling in:

  • Don’t rush. Are you a stay-at-home mom who’s considering returning to the workforce? Did you have to put your own career on hold while you were out there supporting your spouse’s? You might want to allow some time — at least a month or two — before jumping into a job search. Depending on the length of your career hiatus, you may need retraining, career counselling, or job search support. If you’re lucky, these services will be provided as part of your  organization’s relocation assistance policy. If not, consider them an investment in your future.
  • Keep well. The stress of re-entry can take a toll on your family’s wellbeing. Maintaining healthy habits — eating properly, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly — are especially critical at this time.
  • Help the little ones. Kids need guidance throughout their reintegration journey. Establishing routines early in the process is particularly important for young children. Because school-aged kids face their own challenges, I recommend having a little chat with teachers and school administrators about your child’s expat history. A brief discussion about the issues surrounding Third Culture Kids should ensure everyone involved has realistic expectations, but you might want to follow up a few weeks down the road just to make sure the message got through. I tell you this from experience: all the good intentions in the world don’t amount to much if the information doesn’t trickle down to the people who need it.
  • Get engaged. If you’re not feeling as “at home” as you thought you would, get out into the community and see what transpires. Encourage everyone in your family to choose a leisure activity or hobby that connects them to your home culture in some way. Many returnees get so caught up in the logistics of settling in that they forget to make time for fun.

Maintaining ties with your former host culture
Reintegrating into your home culture and actively honouring the memory of your former host culture(s) are not mutually exclusive. Just because no-one wants to hear about your life abroad (sorry, but it’s true) doesn’t mean you have to erase all traces of it from your memory. Embracing your overseas experience adds richness to your life, and it’s easily done:

  • Stay connected. Eating food, watching movies, celebrating festivals, and above all, socializing with people from the host culture keeps it relevant.
  • Keep learning. Continuing to study the local language (or engaging in another activity that reflects your host culture) will keep that association alive.
  • Don’t forget to write. Making the effort to stay in touch with the friends you left behind strengthens those relationships and reinforces happy memories of expatriate life.

Rediscovering the culture of home — and your place in it — isn’t as effortless as you may expect. It’s a process, and like so many things in life, it can’t be rushed. You may not believe me, but I swear it’s true: if you give it time, there really is such a thing as a happy post-expat life.

A version of this article originally appeared on on May 11, 2010 © Maria Foley.
Posted in Adjustment, Repatriation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

7 tips on surviving home leave

7 tips on surviving home leaveIt’s almost that time again: the start of the annual expat migration back home. Some of you will be going home to stay… but we’ll talk about that another day. Today I’d like to focus on home leave instead.

Home leave is a divisive topic in the expat community. Some people love going back home; others hate it. My best friend Deb lived in Belfast for seven years, and relished the intensity of her visits back to Toronto.

“I packed in everything I could,” she says. “Everybody wants to see you, and it’s vibrant and exciting, because you’re cramming all the visiting and running around into three weeks. I never felt like it was too much.”

Another friend, Alyson, simply can’t relate. She confesses to being overwhelmed by her hectic home leave routine, which involves “sixteen flights in three weeks (most in the US), sleeping on relatives’ and friends’ couches, [and] getting the kids over jet lag twice (Asia to US, then East to West coast).” Organizing each year’s expedition is a Herculean task she would rather avoid.

Avoiding home leave disaster is all in the planning. Here are four do’s and three don’ts for ensuring a more satisfying and relaxing trip back home:

Book a hotel room. Home leave isn’t cheap, and staying with family or friends may seem like an attractive alternative to the added expense of a hotel room. But oh, how this strategy can backfire, especially if children are involved.

Fatigue and overexcitement lead to meltdowns, jetlag leads to erratic sleep schedules, and sharing living quarters may very well lead to damaged relationships. At some point in the trip, every expat needs a little space; the privacy afforded by a room of your own is well worth the hotel bill.

Spend quality time with loved ones. Expats often feel that they’ve “moved on” while everyone back home has “stayed still.” Simply asking friends and relatives about their lives will reveal that this isn’t true.

Yeah, there might be some initial awkwardness as people figure out how to relate to you, but taking the time to nurture significant relationships is too important to skip.

Treat home leave as a family vacation. “There is no balance of everyone’s needs,” says Alyson. “We have to see everyone or our parents complain that we don’t love them enough.”

Trying to please everybody has been the undoing of many an expat. When stress levels starts to mount, you’re better off withdrawing from the fray until things cool down again. Hang out with your spouse and kids and enjoy your holiday, just like normal families do.

Reconnect with your home culture. Doing things that can’t be done in your host country — whether it’s eating certain foods, playing popular sports, or some other culture-specific activity — is a big part of what home leave is all about. Cultivating that bond with your home culture is important in maintaining a strong cultural identity, especially for the kids.

Alyson leapt at the chance to put her sons in a baseball day camp in Washington, DC; not only did it give her some precious time to herself, but “the kids had a great time doing something they can’t do in Singapore.”

Don’t do too much. Many expats spend their entire home leave running themselves ragged. “It’s insane,” agrees Alyson, who spends three weeks criss-crossing the country, trying to fit everybody in.“I’m not that keen on my relatives, so wasting my summer holiday shuttling around visiting them is not my idea of fun.” (I’m not sure if she’s kidding about her relatives, but she makes a good point.)

A less stressful alternative is throwing a party (or several) to reduce the number of visits and cut down on the amount of travelling. Even better is planning these gatherings before arriving back home.

Alyson has opted to start skipping some family members altogether, noting (tongue firmly in cheek) that she doesn’t want to “add another stop on the Pain Train.”

Don’t be a braggart. Relocating overseas is a life-changing experience, and every expat has stories to share. Too bad not everyone wants to hear them. Returning expats often don’t realize that their enthusiasm for their new lifestyle can sound like bragging — especially if that new lifestyle involves exotic travel.

The list of things to avoid includes showing endless photos of you riding elephants, dancing the Flamenco, or doing anything that smacks of privilege; using expat-speak; and starting sentences with “As I said to the ambassador down at the club….”

But don’t complain, either. If life abroad is less than ideal, any complaints are best saved for the therapist’s couch. Friends and family likely won’t sympathize about your hassles with the maid — they’ll be too busy thinking how pretentious you’ve become.

A version of this article originally appeared on on April 30, 2010 © Maria Foley.
Posted in Adjustment | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Everything you ever wanted to know about expat support, but were afraid to ask

Everything you ever wanted to know about expat supportNorman Viss and Carol Van Dyken at the Expat Everyday Support Center have put together an Intercultural Blog Carnival with the theme Expat Support: What We Need, and How to Deliver It. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about expat support, all in one convenient place. Check out these posts:

Third Culture Kids
Cecilia Haynes, an ATCK who was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Calcutta, Taiwan, Beijing, New Delhi, Chennai, and Manila, writes movingly about the challenges of her (re)entry to the United States as child, and again as a teenager. That experience prompted her to get involved with Sea Change Mentoring, an organization that addresses the needs of repatriating Third Culture Kids and helps ease their transition to their passport culture.

Supporting your Children During Your Move
From Spain, Lisa Sadleir writes “Three Tips for Successfully Moving Abroad with Children,” and she gives great value for the money: not only are they awesome tips, but Lisa has tossed in a few bonus gems for free. As someone who moved her kids to a new country in the middle of the school year — twice — 
I love what she has to say about the importance of timing.

Why Trailing Spouses Can’t be Happy, and What International Companies Can Do About It
Anne Gillme writes a fascinating post about the challenges facing trailing spouses, and offers an unconventional and controversial solution. Whether you agree with her or not, there’s no denying her passion for the cause. You’ve got to read this one.

Sponsored Expat Support Groups
My coffee buddy Judy Rickatson looks at the trailing spouse issue from a slightly different angle, based on her experiences with sponsored support groups in Cairo and the UAE. She argues that corporate sponsorship of these groups is a win-win situation that makes a lot of sense for everyone involved. When I see what companies like Shell do for their expat families, I can’t help but agree. (While simultaneously gnashing my teeth with envy.)

Legal Issues to Consider When Moving Abroad
I’m thankful I never had to consider legal issues when I lived overseas, but those expats who aren’t sponsored by a multinational corporation will appreciate Wendy Newington’s post about the need for legal support in their host country. Most of the stuff she touches on would never cross my mind, but I’m going to file this away in case my next move doesn’t come courtesy of The Firm and its corporate safety net.

Overview of a Comprehensive Expat Support System
I’m a huge fan of the Cultural Detective Blog and Dianne Hofner Saphiere, creator of the Cultural Detective® series, is my hero. Here she offers an excellent overview of an expat support system, as well as a nifty little piece that explains the concept of intercultural competence through the metaphor of an athlete striving for peak fitness. What Dianne doesn’t know about the subject isn’t worth knowing.

Language Learning Is A Support Tool for Expats
I almost fainted when I read that Amanda speaks six languages, four of them fluently. When someone who’s accomplished that amazing feat gives advice on language learning, we should all stop what we’re doing and listen. Amanda believes that language is the key to understanding a culture. “It’s not just the words,” she writes, “it’s the philosophy, the cosmovision, the way of seeing life that you slowly start to understand, all of which are incredibly helpful in the process of adapting to a new country.”

The Minimalist Guide to Online Expat Support Podcast
Norman Viss, one of our hosts for this blog carnival, teamed up with Steffen Henkel of the to present a webinar on the value of online expat support for HR managers as well as expats and their families. What’s not to love? Online support is convenient, economical, and most important, effective. The link to the webinar is at Expat Everyday Support Center.

Cross-cultural Training vs. Coaching: What are the Differences? How Can Both Be Used to Support Expats?
Claudia Landini had me nodding my head so much when I read her post, I’m actually a little dizzy. It’s beautifully written and full of nuggets like this: “Whereas cross-culture training courses start from the concept of a collective culture and address to individuals, coaching begins the journey focusing on personal histories and situations, and harmonizes them across the various cultures they get in contact with.”

Wait! Before Signing That Expat Contract, Ask What The Spouse Needs
This one’s mine. Thanks so much to Norman and Carol for putting me in such good company!

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Do you have expat DNA?

I found this infographic this morning — what do you think?

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Bringing home the TCKs

Bringing home the TCKs


Third Culture Kids are resilient creatures, but like adults, many find the move back to their passport country especially difficult. As parents, it’s our job to help them readjust. It takes preparation, patience and sensitivity, and I know from experience that it’s not always easy.

(While it’s normal for children to struggle with this final relocation, kids who have a worrying amount of trouble adjusting might benefit from professional counselling, preferably with a therapist familiar with Third Culture Kids.)

Grief is common among repatriating TCKs

Children aren’t always able to express their grief in ways that adults understand — they may not understand it themselves — but they have a right to mourn the end of the familiar. By not acknowledging children’s grief, parents send the message that their feelings aren’t important.

Sixteen-year-old Tarek has experienced eight international moves in the past decade. He fought bitterly with his mother when she announced they were moving back “home” to Egypt. “My home is Canada,” he told me emphatically. “I was angry that she was willing to let me be stranded where I didn’t want to be.”

In “Growing Up with a World View,” TCK expert Norma McCaig advises parents to deal with TCKs’ sadness and anger as it unfolds; allowing it to fester may lead to bitterness and depression down the road. Simply validating their feelings and allowing them to talk about the hurt is often enough.

Megan, a thirteen-year-old TCK, was initially distraught about her upcoming re-entry. “I felt that France was becoming my home instead of Canada, and it felt difficult to leave,” she says. “My parents let me be sad, but when we talked about it they reminded me we were moving back to where I spent the first six years of my life. And that made me feel better.”

Saying goodbye is crucial

McCaig writes about the significance of closure, calling it “a critical part of the journey” that many parents, caught up in their own emotions about leaving, fail to fully appreciate. The simple act of saying goodbye is a powerful first step toward healing. Allowing TCKs a final visit to take photos of beloved restaurants, parks, and other meaningful places is just as important as letting them say goodbye to cherished friends.

Megan produces a scrapbook bulging with photos, explaining, “My parents took us to the places we loved so we’d always have memories.” Tarek, however, defiantly rejected any such rituals before leaving Canada, because “there was no need to say goodbye — I knew I’d be coming back.”

As necessary as it is to discuss the pain of leaving, emotions can run high in the weeks leading up to the move. Taking part in a favourite family activity provides a welcome respite from pre-departure stress. Many parents plan a holiday as a bridge between the old life and the new: a time to relax and process all that’s happened before plunging into life as a repatriate.

It’s in the final days of expatriate life that “differences in cultures and expectations between parent and child become most apparent,” writes McCaig. “Parents returning to their country of origin are coming home; their children are leaving home.” Whatever parents are experiencing — happiness, dread, or a mixture of the two — they must recognize that it’s unlikely their children’s feelings will be an exact match.

Fitting in after moving back home isn’t easy

Once TCKs are back “home,” it soon becomes apparent they’re not like the other kids. McCaig refers to them as “hidden immigrants,” because although they look like their peers, their thought processes and values are often different. They don’t dress the “right” way, or pepper their speech with the “right” slang. They don’t understand pop culture references. Teenagers are particularly harsh judges, and for these failings, TCKs may be ridiculed or ostracized.

This is what happened to Tarek. “I got hassled a lot because I didn’t think like an Egyptian. They thought I’d been brainwashed and wanted to sort me out,” he says. “If I talked to a girl, her brother would give me a hard time. In Canada I have lots of friends who are girls, and it’s no big deal.”

Megan’s problems fitting in centred mostly around language usage. “I forgot some of the words we use here,” she confesses. “When I talked about getting my fringe cut, everyone asked ‘what’s that?’ because I didn’t use the word bangs. When I asked for a rubber in class, everyone was kind of puzzled because they say eraser.”

Repatriation is a difficult process, especially for teenagers. Living overseas changes their values and behaviours, and marks them as “different” when they return home. Parents can help by giving them time to integrate at their own pace, and by accepting that adjustment struggles and reverse culture shock are normal, especially in the early days.

Tarek wasn’t able to readjust to Egyptian life, and is happily living in Canada again. Megan, on the other hand, reacculturated with ease. “Now I’m glad I’m back,” she smiles, “because this is my home.”

This article originally appeared on on July 2, 2010 © Maria Foley.
Posted in Repatriation, Third Culture Kids | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

On expat blogging

I have dedicated my entire life to avoiding the horror of public speaking. When Judy Rickatson asked me to be part of a panel discussion on “Blogging for Expat Success” at this year’s FIGT conference, I was relieved to have a rock-solid excuse for saying no: a scheduling conflict meant I wasn’t able to attend.

I should’ve known that wouldn’t stop Judy. “No problem!” she replied briskly. “We’ll just pipe you in via Skype.”

Rats! Outmanoeuvred by someone smart enough to have a Plan B. “Hurray,” I said weakly.

So this past Friday there I was, sitting at my computer and straining to hear the wisdom of Linda A. Janssen of Adventures in Expat Land, Rachel Yates of Defining Moves, Norman Viss of Expat Everyday Support Center, and Judy of Expatriate Life.

I wanted to post a clip or two of each panellist, but unfortunately the setup in the conference room proved too awkward for my Skype recorder to handle. So, my friends, aside from one fleeting glimpse of my fellow bloggers, you’re stuck with me prattling on about how easy it is to set up a blog, why blogging is good for the soul, and how I Was An Expat Wife saved me from a trip to The Big House.

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Easter for expats

Easter for expatsDo you ever feel like you’re living on a roller coaster? When I was an expat I careened from exhilarating highs to disheartening lows — sometimes in the same day.  And especially around the holidays, when heightened expectations and the ache of missing family and friends made for some stressful moments.

I’ve written before about the ingenuity required to recreate family traditions during St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and Christmas. Of course it’s comforting to observe the familiar rituals you remember from back home, but that’s not always possible. It’s funny, though — it’s often what you do to fill in the gaps that make these times so special, not what you’ve been forced to leave out.

Doing Easter the fusion way

Although it might seem that time-honoured traditions are carved in stone, they actually evolve and adapt to new circumstances, much like successful expats do. Easter is a case in point. It’s observed in much of the the world, but probably not exactly the way you’re used to. Even minor differences can come as a shock if you’re not prepared for them.

When Easter bears little resemblance to the holiday you know and love — or isn’t acknowledged at all in your host country — you may feel as though it’s lost its meaning. You might even decide to skip it entirely, but that would be a mistake. When you celebrate occasions like this together, you’re cementing your bond as a family. These holiday traditions are too important to turn your back on, even when your changed circumstances mean they’ve been stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

The key to creating a fusion here/there Easter celebration is to incorporate whatever time-honoured customs you can, and improvise the rest. For example, if a turkey dinner is a significant part of Easter for you but turkeys are scarce where you live, there’s a simple solution: eat something else.

It might feel like sacrilege, but I promise it won’t matter as much as you think it will. Although tradition is a wonderful thing, we sometimes get so caught up in honouring it that we lose sight of what really matters. Let’s put it this way — what’s more important: the turkey, or sharing a special meal with loved ones?


The two sides of Easter 

If you’re hesitant to worship in your new country because the language or customs are unfamiliar, I urge you to take a deep breath, put on your Sunday best, and get yourself to church. Attending an Easter service or mass is a good idea for two reasons: it allows you to express your religious identity, and it helps you integrate into the local Christian community. Letting differences keep you from sharing the most joyous day of the year with fellow Christians would be a shame, don’t you think?

It’s not just the religious side of Easter that can be disorienting; the secular side may be a little dissimilar as well. Either way, it’s a good idea to make your children aware of any changes ahead of time. The younger they are, the more time they’ll need to adjust their expectations.

My kids worried that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t know where to find them after we moved to Singapore. This is a pretty common concern, especially with a first move. A little parental reassurance (and in my case, some last-minute scrambling) goes a long way toward calming their fears.

Easter is a celebration of new beginnings

Easter is a holiday that rejoices in the symbolism of new beginnings. For expats — whose lives are a series of new beginnings — it’s an ideal time to reflect on the present and look ahead to the future.

Even though a measure of creativity may be required to pull it off, a special family Easter can be yours no matter where in the world you are. It may be observed differently (or not at all) in your host country, but like all flexible expats, you’ll figure out how to adapt your traditions to the circumstances — perhaps mixing in some local customs to create a unique hybrid version of the holiday. These new Easter traditions might even become so entrenched in your family’s psyche that they endure for generations to come.

And if this is your first Easter, I hope you’ll try to experience some of this wonderful holiday and perhaps create some new traditions of your own. May they all involve chocolate.

A version of this article originally appeared on on March 18, 2010 © Maria Foley.
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Wait! Before signing that expat contract, ask what the spouse needs

Wait! Before signing that expat contract, ask what the spouse needs

Can we talk?

When Benjamin Franklin remarked that nothing is certain in life but death and taxes, he clearly wasn’t thinking ahead to 21st century global mobility. I hope I’m not stepping on BFrank’s toes when I point out another certainty he failed to mention:  Sending a manager on an overseas assignment ain’t cheap.

Mindful of the costs associated with assignment failure and hoping to increase their return on investment, firms are being much more selective these days about who they send. They’re priming their expats for success by pre-screening candidates using psychological assessment tools, offering cross-cultural training, and providing attractive (but no longer crazy-extravagant) expat packages.

What’s missing from this picture? The spouses, of course. It’s mind-boggling that many companies don’t ask for their input into a process that will forever change their lives and those of their families. In fact, far too many firms still don’t communicate directly with the spouse at all.

Keeping them out of the loop is just plain dumb. We all know the statistics: spousal dissatisfaction is way up there on the list of reasons assignments end early. It doesn’t have to be this way. Most expat spouses aren’t asking for the moon; they just want a few basic needs to be met:

Clear and direct communication from HR. Expat expert Robin Pascoe, who partnered with AMJ Campbell International to conduct the relocation survey “Family Matters!” found a “desperate need” among expat spouses for clear, regular communication from HR regarding all aspects of the international assignment. Not content to be the silent partner of yesteryear, spouses are insisting on a direct line to HR, bypassing the traditional chain of command which involves the manager as the go-between.

Input into the decisions that will affect their life abroad. Despite all those studies reaffirming that the spouse’s satisfaction can make or break the assignment, most are never asked by HR if they’re happy about the move. Big mistake, according to Dr. Anne P. Copeland of The Interchange Institute. In the “Many Women Many Voices” Study of Accompanying Spouses Around the World (conducted by Dr. Copeland and commissioned by Prudential Financial), she urges sponsoring organizations to consult spouses before the offer is made. Makes sense, right? No point having a chat about expectations six months into the assignment, by which time the spouse may already be BFFs with Ben & Jerry and Jack Daniels. You can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube, people.

Help with employment (or alternatives). Enlightened organizations know it’s in their best interests to support the accompanying spouse in this new role, whatever form it may take. If the spouse is able to work in the foreign location, this support may extend to assistance getting a work permit, translating relevant documentation, updating a CV, and providing guidance during a job search. If work isn’t an option, how about an educational allowance, or assistance starting a business? Spending a little $£¥€ now could save a bundle later.

A look-see visit. No amount of online research can take the place of a trip to the host country. A look-see isn’t a sightseeing jaunt; it’s an opportunity to assess the fit between the candidates and the host country. Smart organizations view it as a necessary expense. Why? Because it leads to an informed decision about something that will significantly affect the lives of the expat family and the company’s bottom line.

I haven’t mentioned such things as house-hunting assistance, language lessons, and school tuition because these are generally included in expat packages. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few spousal needs, though. What would be on your list?

A longer version of this article appeared on on May 23, 2010 © Maria Foley.

Posted in Predeparture | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

The illusion of the “similar culture”

The illusion of the similar cultureThe weirdest thing about moving to France was the culture shock. Not the fact that it existed — I was prepared for that.  No, what floored me was how intense it was, especially in comparison to my previous move. Who would have thought that adjusting to a Western culture would be more difficult than adjusting to an Asian one?

(The culprit was cockiness: I wildly overestimated my expat abilities because this was my fourth move and I thought I’d already made all my mistakes. One word: hubris.)

During those first challenging weeks in Bordeaux, the target of my wrath became the Internet café, where all the keyboards were — quite naturally — French. I’d never used a different keyboard layout before, and as a touch typist, it was discouraging to glance over a lengthy email I’d just written only to find a screen full of gibberish staring back at me. I was inadvertently signing my name “?qriq” instead of “Maria,” which seemed fitting in light of my brand-new identity crisis.

I was trudging back to my crappy temporary housing after another frustrating keyboard experience one day when Blaine called. Blaine and I have been good friends since high school, so I had no problem whining to him that I felt like a total loser who couldn’t seem to figure out how things worked in Bordeaux. Like the sweetheart he is, he started telling me how much he struggled when he moved to England twenty-plus years ago.

“Are you kidding me?” I snapped. “You think that’s hard? At least you didn’t have to learn a different #@*&$ language.” (For the record, yes, he’s still my friend. The man is a saint.)

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I think there are three broad areas that trip up expats who move to a culture they think is similar to their own:

Language (vocabulary, syntax, accent)

George Bernard Shaw (or Oscar Wilde — take your pick) once observed, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an immigrant kid I have some experience in this matter, and I can say with utter certainty that you don’t know what mortification is until your English/Irish parents send you out to “buy some fags for us” in the presence of your snickering Canadian schoolmates.

“There are some amusing differences such as pants, which you quickly learn means something different,” agrees Blaine. “Also, I had a fanny pack….”

Well, I never said he was cool.

Let’s turn for a moment to another brave voyager, Aisha Ashraf. (You might know her from her excellent blog, Expatlogue.) Aisha moved in the opposite direction, from England to Canada, and has had similar issues understanding Canadian English.

“I had a cut on my finger so I asked at the hotel reception for a plaster,” she told me in an email.  “The woman at the desk gave me a blank look, shifted uncomfortably, then gave a little cough and asked if I’d like an elastic band. After I explained about the cut, she got the picture and her face lit up as she triumphantly iterated, ‘aaahhhh, a Band-aid!’ That was my first experience of speaking the same language yet appearing incomprehensible, and it was a really odd and unexpected feeling.”

Procedural/logistical matters

These are the practical aspects of daily life — those routines that are so mundane, you’ve never given them a second thought.

“It can be just minor things,” Blaine says, “but because you’ve grown up with only one way of doing something, you may have not have developed your flexibility bone* enough to consider that there might be another way. I can give you a trivial example: knowing the difference between a taxi and a private hire car. In Canada there’s only one kind of taxi. In England there are the more expensive official taxis, there are private hire cars — the mini cabs — and then there are the unlicensed mini cabs, which are another breed altogether. When you have to learn 20 new things like that a day, it makes you crazy.”


People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

So apologies to my dear friend Blaine for discounting the very real culture shock he experienced when he moved to Blighty. Scratching the surface reveals that Canadians and Brits aren’t so similar after all: they speak different Englishes, have different behaviours, and even — as I learned while writing this post — type with different keyboard layouts.

* * *


Fags: British English for cigarettes
Pants: British English for underpants; also, adjective that means “really bad”
Fanny pack: Canadian English for bum bag
Plaster: British English for Band-aid
Band-aid: Canadian English for plaster

* “Flexibility bone” — LOL! See why I love this guy? 🙂

Posted in Adjustment, Canada, Culture Shock, Language | Tagged , , , , , , | 159 Comments

Beauty and elegance: the cheongsam in Singapore

Beauty and elegance the cheongsam in Singapore

Me in a cheongsam

Last year I attended an intriguing exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore titled “In the Mood for Cheongsam: Modernity & Singapore Women.”

Cheongsam is the word commonly used in Singapore for the modern qípáo, the form-fitting dress worn by Chinese women. Its evolution is fascinating. Originally, the qípáo worn on the mainland consisted of two roughly-made pieces — a far cry from the elegant gown we know today. That now-familiar style debuted in 1920s Shanghai and was popularized by the A-listers of the day: upper class women and courtesans. The revolution of 1949 sent the cheongsam into hiding in China, but the style thrived and continued to evolve in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Several things happened in Singapore during the 1950s that allowed the cheongsam to blossom. Darts, for one. As this dressmaking technique became commonplace, the dresses became even more body-hugging. And being a bustling port city, Singapore was awash in textiles from all over the world, allowing for greater experimentation in materials and design.

The rise of synthetics made the cheongsam more accessible to women who couldn’t afford to have one made to measure, and the coterie of artisans who painstakingly crafted them by hand quickly became a relic of the past. Working women started wearing the cheongsam in businesslike fabrics with a matching jacket. Other Western influences changed its look, altering the cut and introducing non-traditional fabrics and patterns. (I saw some groovy paisley numbers from that era that were actually pretty hideous.)

By the 1970s, the cheongsam had become an old lady dress, rejected by the young for being too constrictive. Nowadays it lives on as a special occasion outfit or wedding gown. It was wonderful to see most of the girls at the international school (including my own daughters) wearing them for the Chinese New Year celebrations. I can’t think of anything more beautiful than an elegant silk cheongsam in a traditional pattern. Take a look at the photos below and see for yourself.

Posted in Singapore | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments