Tag Archives: intercultural

12 Things I Learnt at the Washington Conference

Just back from the wonderful FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC http://www.figt.org/2011_conference and I am sitting in groggy but rapt contemplation of all that I have seen, heard, encountered and learnt.   I feel somewhat like a boa constrictor who has just swallowed a very large animal and now needs a bit of time to digest.

Conference logo

Washington DC. March 17-19

Here are just a few of the small and big revelations of the past five days, in no particular order:

1) American conferences are slick, well-organised and colour-coordinated, even when run by volunteers.  But yes, the air conditioning is fierce…

2) With concurrent sessions, there will always be clashes between two or even three or four sessions that you really, really want to attend.  Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot possibly see them all.  Or, even better, go with a friend, divide up the sessions and ensure both take copious notes.

3) Interculturalists love to talk and meet people!  It was the friendliest atmosphere I have ever experienced at a conference.  The emphasis seemed to be upon collaboration rather than competition (which, having been to some academic conferences, is not always the case).

4) Despite your good intentions, you will come home loaded with books.  Yes, I could have bought them afterwards on Amazon and had them delivered to my house, but what would I have read on the plane?  And how else would I have got the authors to sign them?  Expect some book reviews shortly.

5) You’ll get a lifetime’s worth of memorable quotes.

6) Everyone hates the term ‘trailing spouse’.  Thanks to Jo Parfitt, writer,  publisher and global nomad http://www.joparfitt.com/ ,who suggested that maybe we should refer to this category as STARs (spouses travelling and relocating) and STUDs (spouses transitioning under duress).

Now, excuse me while I settle back to digest some more….

Ah, I hear you say, but where are the remaining 6 things you have learnt?  There will be another blog post later this week about this, I promise!


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Where did our trust go?

When I first moved to the UK, I could not believe how trusting people were here about your identity.  How delightfully simple it was to do most bureaucratic things!  Things which in other countries would take several weeks, lots of additional documents and several trips involving queuing at counters staffed by surly robots who made you feel like a criminal before you had even opened your mouth.  Here in the UK, everyone was unfailingly polite, even though I was a non-EU citizen on a student visa who had to go each year to review my status at the dreaded Lunar House in Croydon.

Nowadays I am a British citizen and how things have changed…

Yesterday at passport control at Heathrow I was asked why I had a different surname to my children and that next time I should travel with their birth certificates to prove that I have the right to be with them.  I tried to joke that they were welcome to keep the kids, but that didn’t go down very well.

This morning, I entered a shop with my own reusable bag and put a couple of items inside to take to the check-out.  As I was paying for them, I was sternly told that I shouldn’t do that, because I might be accused of shoplifting.  Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

Whilst on holiday in Geneva, I booked plane tickets online and my husband was called by our credit card company (they refused to speak to me, because I am only the secondary cardholder, so a lesser mortal) and asked about this possibly fraudulent transaction.

I no longer dare to furtively adjust my tights on the street because there’s a good chance that my every move is being captured by CCTV.  I have to hurry  my children along when supermarket shopping, instead of enjoying a leisurely afternoon tea together, because the licence plate recognition software will not allow me to park for longer than two hours.  My olive-skinned husband has also on occasion been extensively questioned about his Greek ID card (which he can use to travel anywhere else in the EU instead of a passport).

All small things in themselves, tiny personal mosaics in the bigger picture of the UK’s gradual transformation into a surveillance society.   I, for one, mourn the loss of trust and amiability which made me appreciate British society in the first place.  Am I imagining this decline in human empathy and trust?  Is it inevitable in complex societies?  And why is this change particularly evident in Britain – is September 11th the cause of all this?

Happy New Year!

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Blog to Survive

To begin with a sentence that has become notorious over the past few weeks, I met a man yesterday who…  is an expert blogger and Internet psychologist.  His name is Graham Jones and he said that businesses that do not blog will most likely not survive over the next few years.

So there I sat smugly, sipping elegantly from my glass of wine, thinking, ‘Well, I’ll be all right then… ‘, until he quoted a very recent survey showing that you really need to blog daily to attract customers.  Daily!  And I thought I was doing quite well with the ‘once a week when I get round to it and feel I have something important to share, otherwise it’s whenever an idea crops up’!

I won’t steal Graham’s thunder by reproducing his very funny and useful speech about how to find ideas and blog more successfully.  You can find some of those ideas on his website at www.grahamjones.co.uk (and no, I am not an affiliate, I just like talking about people who impress me). 

But I was also wondering if anyone really wanted to hear from me every day, no matter how passionate they are about intercultural issues?  I mean, I have Seth Godin pop up on iGoogle for me every day (or even several times a day, so accomodating an acrobat is he!), but I have to admit I don’t read every entry.

On the other hand, perhaps I should focus on writing shorter, snappier blogs more frequently, rather than infrequent, really long ones that few people can be bothered to read to the end.  I may feel that I am sacrificing quality for quantity, but perhaps it’s not really quality that I am currently providing.  Just rare waffle.

What do you think?

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The delight and pain of coming home

‘Why did no one warn us how hard it would be, coming home?’  my friends moaned.  They have just returned to Romania after a long stint in the US.  While out there in Washington DC, they could barely find a kind word about America.  They hated the food, the schools, driving everywhere, the ignorance about Europe, the superficial cheerfulness, the lack of hospitality…  The list went on and on.  They idealised their home land, played its music, read its stories to the children, met to swap recipes for traditional dishes. 

Now they are back in the motherland, they are being reminded every day of the good things that they miss about the States.   They struggle through the small and great frustrations of Romanian society that they had somehow lost sight of during their stay in America.

‘Reverse culture shock’ is a very common phenomenon for expats when they do finally return home.  You might expect it if you had a wonderful time abroad (perhaps you were studying or enjoying a prolonged vacation or starting a completely different lifestyle).  But for people who were not particularly happy abroad, it often comes as a complete surprise.  They were so looking forward to returning home, but home has changed and moved on, and so have they.

After nearly two years in France (well, one leg in France, one in Switzerland, straddling the border as we were in Geneva), we were relieved to exchange rented accommodation for our lovely house and garden in the UK.  The children and I hadn’t found it easy to adapt initially to our lives there (I couldn’t work because of childcare issues, and the children spoke no French at first).  And yet, it was funny to see the little things that each of us missed most about our lives abroad.  My elder son missed the croissants and frites.  My younger (who could not remember a pre-France life) missed the sandpit and was surprised that everybody spoke English around here.  Both of them missed the lifts in our block of flats.  Personally, I didn’t miss that one a bit, as it was the smallest lift in the world, not even designed for a mother, a toddler and two shopping bags!  I missed hiking in the mountains and the winter sports, all just 15 minutes away by car. 

And my husband, for whom we all m0ved out there?  Well, he had lived in the perfect expat bubble, with everyone at work quite international and able to communicate in English (and if they couldn’t, dear wife would handle that).  So no,  he doesn’t miss anything at all about Geneva.  Except maybe the occasional fondue.

And I got to thinking that perhaps for some expats there is no such thing as ‘reverse culture shock’, because they never actually went beneath the surface of the society they were living in.  They are just ‘long-term tourists’ perhaps.  And they can move happily from one posting to the next, as long as they have their immediate creature comforts.  It’s debatable whether that is good for them or for the organisation they serve in the long run.  Perhaps progress and true understanding of other cultures is only possible when we experience some discomfort.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock?  If yes, what was most challenging:  the small everyday matters or the major differences?  What do you wish you had known before going back home?

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So… where do you come from?

How I dreaded this question when I was younger! It always meant going into far too much detail or turning the question around: ‘Do you mean where I was born or where I am living now or…?’

But now I relish it, as I find that more and more of my friends are in a similar position. We are what is known as ‘third culture kids.’

Personally, I don’t like that phrase. First of all, many of us are no longer kids (although we probably were when we first got exposed to foreign cultures). Secondly, many of the people I know are actually fifth or sixth culture individuals, that is, they operate within more than just two cultures (their parents’ culture and the culture of the country they are growing up in). I much prefer the term ‘global nomads’ (although that makes us sound a bit shifty and feckless) or ‘global citizens’.

James Gannon, 13, who has personal experience of growing up in several cultures, argues that it is a very different experience from growing up in a multicultural environment. There has to be more than just some influence from other cultures, it has to be complete immersion in one culture after another to the point where ‘the differences don’t matter any more and what becomes most important are the similarities’.

As I look around at the growing number of second-generation nomads that I am meeting, I think the definition needs to be expanded. First of all, many of these children are growing up in households where the parents were exposed later to different cultures, but have nevertheless wholeheartedly embraced them and can never go back to being monocultural.

What do I mean?

Well, a lot of us went to study abroad and met our life partners there (who were also from a different country). So we got married, settled in the country where we met or perhaps yet another country, and had children who belonged to perhaps 3-4 cultures simply by virtue of their birth.

What do I call the daughter of a French father, Chinese mother, who is growing up in England but spending her summers in France? What about the children of the half-Spanish, half-Australian mother and German father, whose household language is English, but are now living in Greece?  Maybe these children are even more immersed in the local culture than the children of diplomats and other expats, because they do not attend expensive international schools and grow up in gated communities. They have that immediate relationship with the local society, warts and all, that only having relatives and friends in that society can confer you.  And they spend quite a good portion of the year in other countries as well.

Perhaps the best way to test if someone is a global nomad is by asking the question: ‘Where are you from?’.  If they hesitate and launch into lengthy and complicated explanations, then they probably are.

So I tested this on my own children.  OK, they are only 4 and 6, but they weren’t sure what to answer, other than their current street and house number. I know they will never view Greece or Romania as tourists, but as insiders. They also feel a special attachment to France and Switzerland, where we lived for nearly two years. They are British citizens and speak English among themselves.

Oh, they may be restless and footloose later on in life… (Then again, they may crave stability and become really conservative.) But they will have choices. They will love several countries and be able to mediate between different cultures. They may be a bit stumped as to which national football team to support in the World Cup.  Then again – more choice, less chances of going out in the first round!. But I am pretty sure they won’t be brainwashed by nationalistic rhetoric and will always be able to see the other side in an argument.

That’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?


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