View from the Other Side

Ok. I admit it.  I’m jealous.

Our dearest friends just accepted an assignment to Hong Kong, and I find myself wishing I could go on another expat adventure.  Logically, I know that I’m looking through rose colored glasses. I can only see the fun of living in another culture: the opportunities for meeting new and interesting people, the chance to develop new skills, the desire to challenge what I think of myself and those around me. And most of all, the travel.  “Oh, the places they’ll go.”  In my mind, I see all of these on a big billboard flashing “FUN! FUN! FUN!”  She gets to be an expat, and I’ll be the one getting the postcards. “It’s not fair. I want that,” I’d like to yell as I smile and listen to her talk about the upcoming “Look, See” trip to find an apartment.

I’ve been where she is.  I know the complex thoughts racing through the soon to be expat brain, considering the move, thinking about how your lives will change, questioning if you want the change, excited and scared by the opportunity for your partner, yourself and your children, worried about the impact on friends and the distance from family, etc. 

Yet, I’m still envious. 

I do have moments when I can avert my eyes from the bright lights and glitter. And then I see the anguish on my friend’s face as she considers leaving the place she has called home for the last 24 years, the place she has raised her 3 children and developed a thriving therapy practice.  She and her husband are deeply ensconced in our community; and while he is an ardent traveler and former expat and she a willing go-along on tame and less tame adventures.  They wonder if this is the time in their lives for this particular experience.

“GO!” I shouted with enthusiasm, when she told me of the job possibility.

“If the children were younger, it would be easier,” she said. “Leaving 3 children in the US in college, while we are so far away, doesn’t seem right.”

To which I replied, “Going with younger children would have meant pulling five people away from their lives, worrying about schooling and new friends. That wouldn’t be easier. Now it’s just the two of you.”

I tried to show her the view through my rosy-Google lenses. And while she could see some of the excitement and fun, her eyes stayed focused on what leaving would mean; endings of chapters of her life and her family’s, loss of the daily glue that binds and supports her, erosion of the professional commitments that have come to create a large piece of her identity.

I watch her think this through, consider different options for how it could work, talk to people who have been where she finds herself now.  I begin to recognize that I am choosing to avoid and put in small print a huge piece of the expat experience, the one that I have built my own professional life around addressing: feelings. Messy, uncomfortable, oft changing, sometimes debilitating emotions that need to be looked at, taken out and sorted, either as part of the decision to stay or go, or to understand their role and place in making such a big transition. 

So now my own eyes are focused on my friend and I see clearly the difficulty she is facing. I ask myself, “If this were my choice, would I just jump up and say, GO, without hesitation or thought?” I think back on the 10 years I have spent in the US building my own personal and professional life, the struggle and mistakes, the happy life I have built. And one part of me says, “Oh, indeed, that would be a tough choice.” And another part slips on the rose-colored lenses and realizes; I’m still envious.

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Your Expat Child

Question: When is the best time to relocate with children?
Answer: Before they are born.

Unfortunately, life is often unplanned, and as time travel isn’t yet an option, we may find ourselves moving abroad with children. Here’s a guide for those of us who didn’t have the good-sense to relocate prior to the birth of our children.

There are four concepts to keep in mind.

1. Moving is an emotional process.

Expatriation can be divided into four general stages. The first stage is the honeymoon period – everything is wonderful, the let-down period – everything is awful, acceptance – Ok, I’m here, how can I make the best of it, and resolution – for more information on these, see my post on Being New http://transitionallearning.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/being-new/).
Every family member, regardless of age, will move through theses stages at different paces. Children (and grownups) often deal with struggles through negative and regressive behavior. This is quite natural. As we feel more stressed, unhappy, overloaded and/or overwhelmed, we become less able to deal with the events and feelings that are troubling us. In practise, this means that children may become clingier, more aggressive, more withdrawn. Leaving one’s home community involves separation and loss. Moving to a new community raises fears about being accepted. Older children can feel each of these strongly, but younger children also understand who and what has been left behind. All children pick up on the adult stress and tension around them.

2. You know your child.

As a parent you know, better than anyone else, what makes your child happy, sad, angry or frustrated. You also know, perhaps more importantly, what calms these moods and what exacerbates them.
Make use of what you know about your children. Awareness of where children are developmentally, understanding their typical ways of dealing with new situations and knowing how they were pre-move will help you fine-tune any general recommendations made for helping children cope. For example, does your child need time to cool down, mull things over? Or is your child best helped by a practical discussion followed by quickly moving on to something else. Or would your child benefit from being held (even teens can need this) and shedding tears? When entering a new environment, does your child prefer to stand back and observe or jump right in? Knowing your child goes a long way to knowing how to best offer help that will be accepted.

3. Figure out the best way to communicate with your child.

Children frequently communicate through action. It is through their behavior that you can get clues as to how they are dealing with the adjustment process. Recognizing that their negative, obnoxious behaviour may be the only way they are able to say, ‘I’m having a hard time with this,’ can go a long way to helping
them navigate the transition.
So, listen to what is being said and to what is being done; both are efforts at communicating. Acknowledge that something is troubling your child. Make a connection between the behavior displayed and a possible feeling about moving. Moving related emotions can still be occurring many months after the move. See if your child can verbalise what may be troubling him. Suggest what you think might be behind the behavior. Sometimes children need to hear you talk. Other times they may want to talk and at other times still, you may need to set up a time to talk. Here is when knowing your particular child can be beneficial.
Family meetings can be another helpful means of sharing and dealing with move-related concerns. Basically, the more open families can be to their own reactions and those of those other family members through talk, acceptance, acknowledgement and sharing of feelings, the easier and more quickly the adjustment process will proceed.

4. Go easy on yourselves and on your children.

A lot of thinking, planning, organising and doing have gone into preparation for the physical move, but there has also been a lot of emotional work. Anticipation, excitement, agonizing, and sadness have been, and will continue to be, part of the post-move transition adjustment which will last for the next 4 to 6 months. So, allow for awareness and acceptance of all the challenges you have had and will continue to face in relocating and building new lives. Be gentle to each other, do things that you and your family enjoy together, lower your expectations of your kids and yourselves. Look back once you feel settled and pat yourselves on the back for what you’ve accomplished! Most of all, have a wonderful experience, wherever relocation with your children takes you.

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Weather Wise

It finally feels like spring in New York. The days are getting longer, the daffodils are starting to bloom, and everyone is slowly emerging from their hibernation. As much as I love spring, though, I am slightly saddened by the end of winter.

It’s been a long, cold, snowy season, and I loved it.

I’m a fan of snow. I like shoveling snow. I like playing in snow. I like trudging through big heaps of the stuff. I like the crisp air that surrounds it. When others complain of the winter and the possibility of snow, I say, “Bring it on.” As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to have cold, you might as well have lots of snow. Otherwise, it’s just cold…and grey.

I think a large part of my love of snow is that I didn’t grow up in a cold, wintry land. I’m an Arizona girl at my core: Desert, dry heat that envelops you entirely, endless blue skies, backyard swimming pools, car door handles that burned to the touch, car seats and seatbelt s that required careful maneuvering to avoid coming in contact with shorts and tank-top laden skin. And then there was air conditioning – the blast of cold air that hit the moment you entered through any door, as your eyes flung you into darkness while making the switch from the brightness of the sun to indoor lighting effects.

Moving to Boston for college from Phoenix was a huge transition, and not simply because I had left my family and was living on my own for the first time. The biggest adjustment for me was weather related. I had never seen an outdoor event listed with a “rain location.” A cousin (a transplant from Florida) took me to buy winter gear: heavy coat, gloves, boots, scarf, hat, warm socks. I started to realize then that I was clueless about what I was getting into.

But beyond the cold, the rain, and the snow, the real surprise was the color; it was the GREY. Grey skies day after day after day after day, all day, every day. The lack of sun for this Arizona girl was oppressive. However, it took moving to London to know what REAL grey was all about: constant Grey, constant rain and constant cold. Seemingly a single season that ran from mid-October until I boarded the plane for our home leave trip in mid-July. I recall shivering at my son’s mid-June baseball game despite being clad in undershirt/turtle-neck/winter sweater/coat/hat/scarf and gloves. While I LOVE London and for many reasons would move back in a heartbeat given the chance, having to deal with that weather again would really give me pause.

It’s impossible to separate my memories of a place with my memories of the weather. My childhood in Arizona is inextricably linked with intense heat and bright light. Boston is autumn, the phenomenal colors display put on by the trees where I first frolicked in huge piles of leaves. Boston is where my love of snow started, mixed with memories of stealing food trays from the cafeteria and sledding down hills. Sure, London is GREY and rain and a personal pact to put stop wearing “roll” necks in June, despite the cold. But it is also the place of “puddle hopper” boots in the form of frogs and ducks on my children’s little feet. It is endless opportunities to jump and splash. It is daffodils blooming in early February bringing the hope of spring. It is a sunny day here and there that WOULD be greatly appreciated.

And New York, for me, is snow that makes me happy and humidity that doesn’t. It is also a trip down memory lane as autumn’s changing colors transport me to my years in Boston. February’s lack of daffodils and April’s arrival of them bring me London. And summer’s hot but non-humid days? They lead to big jars of tea brewing on the driveway-Phoenix.

Weather: Love it, hate it, but live it-it’s part of our experience and, therefore, part of us.

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Talking About Talking

As you may have gathered from this blog, a large part of dealing with transitions is talking about them. Talking about your feelings.  Talking about what the change will mean, both the positives and the negatives.

You know this.  So you sit down with your family to talk about your upcoming move, your fears and your expectations, and instead you get into an argument about whether or not you need to bring the ugly salad bowl your husband’s mother gave you, or if your daughter can come back home by herself for spring break, or if your son really needs his rock collection in the new house.  Or maybe you just sit around the table and stare silently at each other.

Sometimes talking is hard.

So what do you do? Here are 7 suggestions for how to get the conversation started, and how to keep it going.

1. It’s ok to impose a little structure, especially if you’re having trouble even starting the discussion.  Lists of things you will miss, lists of things you’re looking forward to, lists of things you want to do before you leave, can be a good way to organize the conversation.  You can make them as a family or individually and then discuss them together.

2.  Your Move. Your move is a card game designed to help with the conversation about moving.  Each card has a question or statement on it, such as “Name one thing you will be glad to leave behind,” or “Who in our family is most excited about the move? Why?” It’s a great jumping off point, as well as a great way to keep the conversation flowing. Available at transitionallearning.com

3. Set a good example for your kids.  If they see that you are openly sharing your emotions, they will be more likely to reciprocate.  It’s a good time to show them that you are sad/angry/anxious etc. about the move, as well as excited, and that it’s all ok.

4. My Move Calendar. With stickers and a calendar, you can really do anything.  Designed for 3-10 year olds, there are stickers picturing packing days, birthdays, last days, moving day, to place on a calendar, giving your child a visual representation of the when, where and how of moving.  And who knows, it might help you keep track of everything too. Available at transitionallearning.com.

5. Look Who’s Moving to a New Home, a personalized keepsake book. This is a great way for your child to create a “moving story” all his/her own.  Each page has instructions and photo guidelines, created to help your child work through the excitement, anxiety and limited understanding of what it means to move somewhere new.  This book allows your child to understand the move in a way that he/she only can, while giving you something concrete to discuss with him/her. For 2-5 year olds. Available at transitionallearning.com.

6. Talk to someone else about it.  It’s important to leave lines of communication open in your family, but speaking to a coach who specializes in this might help you better understand where you are in your transition process.  You might even find it’s easier to speak to your family about it, after a little guidance.  Contact Dr. Jill Kristal at jill@transitionallearning.com

7. Give yourself a break.  Remember that this is difficult for everyone.  Talking may be difficult now, but it does get easier.

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Partners Apart and Together Again: The Dance of the Reunited

One evening, over a glass of wine, a friend of mine said to me, “My husband comes back from London tonight. We’ll spend the next few days doing the ‘Getting to Know You Again Dance.’  There’s a certain amount of stepping on each other’s toes and then we’re fine by the end of the weekend.”

This got me thinking about the adjustment and re-adjustment that accompanies relationships that include a traveling partner.  This could be for work or because you’re in a long-distance relationship. Each time one member of a couple heads out of town and the other stays back, a mini-transition ensues; one that brings with it all the steps of a major relocation – separation, loss, dread,  anticipation, freedom, times that are ‘great’ , others that are ‘awful’ and those that ‘just are what they are.’ Because these occur on a smaller scale, and in some cases, happen with such frequency, they are often ignored, without either partner realizing the ‘dance’ they are dancing.

However, conscious or not, you still perform the ‘Dance of the Absent Partner’ and the ’Dance of the Back Together.’  So, 2-step, merengue, waltz, swing…what’s your style?  What happens when one of you is dancing a beautiful solo, gliding along, rhythm intact, the music flowing through your head and the other decides to break in? And what if your partner has been on another part of the dance floor, also dancing solo?  How do you come back together? Change your step? Speed up or slow down? How do you get back in sync and resume the partnership that makes you more than you were before?  Do you move in close while your partner backs away? Are you in sync from the moment you hit the reunited floor?  And then, when you’ve regained your dance together, the shared steps that make you one, what happens when the music changes and you find yourself, once again, dancing alone?

This is the dance of the business traveler, the home-front hold out and the long-distance lovers.  Together and apart and together and apart.  It is, often, a complicated dance.  It requires steps that work for you by yourself, both of you together, and that allows each of you to move in and out as needed.

Adding to the complexity of this dance, it often involves not only the couple, but the whole family.  In one family I know, the father traveled so frequently on business or worked such long hours at his job that the children, at times, didn’t note his absence until he wasn’t there to help them with math homework. In response to this, the family made a ritual of escaping together en famille and closed the ring around them in order to reconnect and dance together.

It’s worthwhile to take some time to look at how you and your loved one manage this dance. And by loved one, we can also be talking about a child coming home and then heading back to university, grandparents coming to town for a visit and leaving.  Each scenario involves a dance that requires learning to separate, dance alone and rejoin, and not necessarily in that order. And, the more frequently you need to make the transition, the more thought you ought to give it to help make it as smooth as possible.

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Welcome Back, Expat

2013-09-01 19.26.23

Coming ‘home’ from being home. Heading back. Returning.  Whatever you call it, going back to your expat homeland after time away can evoke a lot of feelings, both good and bad.  Many of those old transition adjustment feelings, the ones you thought you had finally gotten over, can resurface. Facing the reality of what you are missing when you are not home can be a gut wrenching experience, especially because you’re slightly removed from the good in your expat life. You might feel sad as you say goodbye, once again, to those you love and care about.  As you travel back to your expat life, even good memories can bring on a sense of loss.  On top of that, once you arrive to ‘expat home’, you will be expected to gear up, put on your ‘I’m fine’ face and head out to school, work and accomplish the daily tasks of your expat life. You feel the need to quickly remember the customs, behaviors learned (perhaps fairly recently) to navigate successfully in this still new land. It can leave you feeling sad, mad, frustrated all within the span of a few minutes.

Returning to your expat life after a break can be a bumpy ride.

Welcome to re-entry.  We tend to think of re-entry as occurring when we return to our native land after we’re done with our expat stay (repatriation).  However, a form of re-entry occurs each and every time we leave and come back, be it a return from country to country, or from vacation to back to work or school. Getting back into the routine takes time for everyone and involves the same stages of adjustment as the initial relocation, just on a smaller scale: I love it. I hate it. I can make a life here. Even if you’ve gone on numerous home-leaves, school holidays or vacations, coming back involves an adjustment, a transition back into routines, expectations, and the demands of life.

So what do you do?

Acknowledge it.  That means giving yourself and your family T-I-M-E to be a bit slower moving, grumpier, and out of sorts, even if you’re not entirely sure why you are feeling this way. Again, talk about it.  Just because it’s a common experience, doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult, or real or important.

If this was your first trip home, coming back to your expat life can be a useful gauge in which to evaluate your experience thus far. It can be really helpful in letting you see how much you’ve learned, the ways you’ve adapted and how you’ve connected since arriving in the country.  This is a great time to sit down as a family and evaluate.  Let everyone talk about their lives and how they have changed since setting foot in this new ‘homeland.’ Take time to pat yourself and each other on the back for what you have accomplished.

Give yourself a few weeks. If things aren’t better then, it may be worth talking to someone.  Most likely, though, your holiday memories will be just that, memories of a time that now seems far away and long ago. You will soon find yourself back in the middle of your wild, and hopefully wonderful expat experience.

Speaking of holidays, how were yours?  Great? Awful? Somewhere in-between? Do you feel like you now need a vacation? Did you follow any of the suggestions from the Home for the Holidays ‘Course Book’?  If so, let us know how it went.  We’d love to hear from you!

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Home for the Holidays

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays,
For no matter how far away you roam -
When you long for the sunshine of a friendly gaze,
For the holidays – you can’t beat home, sweet home!

                                                                   NEVIL, ROBERT S. / GERRARD, MATTHEW

For many, the holidays are a time of return- to childhood homes, to the loving embrace of family and friends, a time to eat large meals, recall fond memories and build new ones.  The holidays, though, can also include time with relatives you don’t feel so close to or who don’t get along, demands on your time, and gifts you may not appreciate.  Whether you look forward to the holidays with great anticipation or wish you could skip to Jan 2nd, it can be hard to view this as a carefree and calming time of year.

For expats returning ‘home’ for the holidays, the pressure is on to have fun, be fun and be available for each cookie decorating, gift-wrapping, drink-downing, celebration, get-together and time-honored tradition.  It can feel like entering a maze with different doors – some of which lead to ‘comfort and joy;’ and others that leave you with a stocking full of coal. It’s a race that begins the moment your feet touch native soil. So many choices, so how do you choose?  Do you go to your college friend’s annual cookie decorating party, knowing that you might not see her again for another year or, do you attend dinner with your husband’s Aunt Betty who will be offended if you don’t show up?  And what about your son Thomas who has been invited to his best buddy for a sleep-over and your daughter Ellie who feels left out because cousin Britany has a party to go to?

From the distance of far-away expat existence, holiday trips home often shimmer like ornaments on a tree – all shiny and bright. It’s not until you are in the middle of it feeling worn out, pulled in 100 directions with Ellie now sick in bed from the bug she most likely caught on the airplane, that you see the tangled cords, faltering lights and broken ornaments craftily stored behind the otherwise glowing pine. ‘We’ll just figure it out when we get there;’ ‘It’ll be better this year because the kids are older;’ ‘It’s too hard to plan from afar;’ are all common approaches to dealing with this potentially fraught-filled situation, tactics gleaned from Holiday Management 101.

So here it is, Holiday Management 404, an upper level course for those wanting a different wrap on this holiday season.

Course requirements:

  • The ability to hold 2 ideas simultaneously- what you imagine WILL happen and what you would like to HAVE happen
  • Capacity for advance planning that includes some event/activity from each category of Must Do, Should Do, Need to Do, Want to DO for each family member
  • Willingness to communicate with partners, kids, family and friends your intentions for this visit home
  • Recognition of the need for down-time so that you don’t return to expat location in desperate need of a vacation
  • Acceptance that you can’t and won’t please everyone and it doesn’t feel good but it’s ok
  • Ability to create a goal for the future that allows you to plan for today

Arranging specifics of your holiday trip home should begin BEFORE you go home. And, you can begin by considering the ending.  How would you like to be feeling as the holidays are over and you and your family head back to the airport/train station for the return to expat life?  Answering the following questions about ENDING can then be used to guide planning for the time DURING. Do you want to have had a jam-packed holiday filled with as much activity and people as possible? Do you want to have had time to hang out and relax sipping hot chocolate by the fire?  Did you spend time with the people who mattered most to you, your partner, your kids?  Will you leave having fulfilled your needs, those of others or a combination?

Once you have an idea for how you want to return, start thinking about what needs to be done to make that happen.  Lists are always useful. Make a list that everyone gets to contribute to. Jot down each person’s Musts, Shoulds, Wants and Needs.  See where they overlap and where they don’t. Prioritize and begin to determine what is possible and what isn’t. Sometimes a side trip to see a child’s best friend who moved away last summer will take priority over Aunt Betty’s dinner party. Other times visiting

Grandpa Lou will trump the visit to a dear friend. In this scenario, everyone gets some of what they want and it’s an opportunity to establish realistic expectations of the time ahead.  When developing your plan, schedule in extra time for getting to and from different places. Schedule in blank time for the unexpected because you know the unexpected will occur.

Accepting in advance that YOU won’t be able to please everyone during this visit home is the first step in letting THEM know that you’re not going to be able to do that. As hard as it is, most people respond better when they know what to expect.  And if they can’t expect you for as much as, as long, as often as they want, you’ll be setting their expectations by letting them know in advance.  Only others who are returning home for the holidays know how hard it is to manage competing and sometimes conflicting demands and desires on your time. Those who don’t get it may not understand, regardless of your efforts to explain. This is your holiday too and you and your family are allowed to do some things that work for you, even if that doesn’t work for someone else.  

So, as you head home for the holidays, ‘may your days be merry and bright’ and may your memories of THIS holiday truly shine thanks to your well-polished preparations.   

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