Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Defining Home

The issue of ‘home’ is a regular topic for discussion among expats, recently raised by Telegraph Expat blogger Chris Marshall’s article on the dilemma for expats in choosing to stay in their expat ‘home’ for the holidays or head ‘home’ to one’s country of origin. I also guest posted on Expatria, Baby about being unsure of where my 'home' really is.

The dictionary definition of ‘home’ is a place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. It is also defined as the country where one was born or has settled on a long-term basis. And this last point goes right to heart of this curious expat conundrum: Where exactly is ‘home’? Is it the country of birth, is it where one has chosen to settle longer-term, or is it both? ‘Home’ is certainly one of those loaded terms we grapple with as expatriates.

Photo credit: phanlop88 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Previously the idea of home was much more simplistic. Those from an older generation may have left home for migrant countries, such as Canada or Australia, with a one-way move in mind. My wife’s grandmother was one such person, leaving the south coast of England in the late 1950s in search of opportunity and a new life in Australia. She remains here to this day. Australia was her home the moment she boarded the ship in Southampton docks and embarked on that arduous voyage. She remembers her birthplace fondly but her home firmly remains where her family are now – her children and her grandchildren, nearly all Australian by birth. Home is the country she has spent the majority of her life in. She has just one home and it is the country where she now lives.

More recent generations of expats appear to view the notion of home differently, particularly those coined as ‘transplant young professionals’ who will make a number of international moves in their lifetimes. According to Christie Cruz, a San Francisco-based career advisor and talent management professional who grew up as a Third Culture Kid and works with global young professionals, the term ‘home’ has become more complex for expats and transplant young professionals who have moved away from their families to pursue their careers.

“Young professional expats and transplants move around every few years and have several homes,” says Christie. “Home could be the current city and country whete they moved away from their families to pursue their career. It's where they go through the ups and downs, and fun but confusing years of their 20s and 30s. It's that place where they spend time with their other family - friends and colleagues - when they can't physically visit their real families during the holidays.”

“However, home can also be where they go to when they visit their parents, siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews,” adds Christie. “Emotionally, home can be any of those cities and countries where they grew up and a constant place that they can return to."

So does the idea of having several different homes create issues for the typical expat or global professional?

A friend of mine who lives in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and has been there for almost a decade may be a case in point. Born in the English Midlands and having spent a decent period of time in South America, she now calls Australia home. Or at least she does when she chooses.

The problem is that she suffers incredible bouts of homesickness at being away from her English home, even though she hasn’t lived there since the late 1990’s. Her Sydney life is where her husband’s business is, where their two children were born, and where they have an established and valued network of family and friends. She acknowledges that Sydney is a home to her family but she cannot give up the notion of England also being her home. She has one foot in and one foot out, and her life is an unsettled one as a result.

Some experts argue that the issue is not about where home is for an expat, but what it is. Gabriela Whitehead, a PhD student in Global Nomadism at the Aberdeen Business School, believes that expats are now questioning the concept of home and are redefining the idea of what a home is.

What does home look like?  Photo credit: m_bartosch / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Gabriela’s research is of ‘professional nomads’ and she is of the view that these global professionals are adopting more highly mobile lifestyles than ever before, often remaining as ‘permanent’ expatriates or professional nomads rather than returning to their homelands This is due to their increasingly 'portable’ careers and it is this changing behaviour that is challenging the traditional concepts of home.

“Home has always been a complex concept, comprising physical belongings and emotional attachments to people, places and traditions,” says Gabriela. “Nowadays, ‘cultural homelessness’ has become a desirable life project whereas, traditionally, nomadic lifestyles usually had negative connotations.” She believes that global professionals are creating homes and lifestyles according to the extent to which their professional and cultural skills can be moved from country to country. The concept of home, in the opinion of academics such as Gabriela, has become as portable as the people it applies to.

As for this expat, I consider myself fortunate to have had several homes in my lifetime – in the UK, Canada, and now in Australia. Over the years, I’ve realised that I can never give up – or want to give up - the emotional and cultural attachment to the country of my birth, the land where my parents and sibling are, and where I spent a large part of my life.

However, home for me is where I feel happiest - be it where my immediate family us, where my work is, and where good friends and cherished weekend rituals co-exist. In my opinion, home is where a person feels happiest and, as with love itself, when you find the one that is right for you, you'll know where home is too.

So where is 'home' for you? And does it keep changing?

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Sydney's Telltale Signs of Summer

The rhythms and eddies of Sydney's seasons come and go, as regular as the tides that sweep the beaches around the harbour city.

After several years here, I think I have finally grown accustomed to the signals that a new season is approaching. Whilst the onset of spring is much less pronounced than in the flowering southern counties of my family home in England, the arrival of a Sydney summer is heralded by a number of telling signs throughout the city, the first being the start of the fun running season.

Photo credit: Flick Creative Commons Calebo

Beginning in August with the world's largest fun run, the City2Surf, before moving to the Northern Beaches' Pub2Pub charity race, the amateur runner then heads back to the city for the Harbour Bridge run and half marathon in late September. These races typically occur under a late winter sun and have come to symbolise a seasonal transformation in Sydney as winter jackets are removed and lightweight running vests adorned.

The 14km City2Surf follows a tortuous route from the centre of the city to the world famous Bondi Beach. More than 60,000 runners participate and the race often starts on a cold early morning before finishing on a characteristically sunny climax next to the beach. The race typifies Sydney's farewell to winter and transition through to summer as the kilometres wind down.

Sport reveals another telltale sign of summer's arrival in Sydney with the rugby seasons coming to a close and the sporting chatter turning to all-things cricket and watersports. With the rugby union and league finals on the near horizon, footy fever will die off in the many beach suburbs of Sydney and attention will turn to a number of ocean-based activities, from the surf ironman series to openwater kayak ocean racing plus twilight sail competitions on the harbour.

A change of a more gentile nature and pace will also take place across the city over the coming days and weeks, and one which is a personal favourite of mine. The beautiful frangipani bushes, after lying dormant and leafless for the past few months, will begin to bud and develop the most beautiful scented flowers. As the shrub metamorphises into an irridescent beauty, the air around Sydney's streets and walkways will fill with the delicious, heady smell of these photogenic little wonders.

The jacaranda trees will also flower, first shedding their yellowing leaves before sprouting a stunning display of purple that will appear in every nook and cranny of the city for the next month before carpeting the streets with millions of little purple flowers. At this time of year, it is a perfectly pleasant surprise to look out my office window at a sea of purple trees spreading across Sydney's inner west as far as the eye can see and it is a constant reminder that summer is just around the corner.

Jacarandas in Sydney.  Flickr Creative Commons Chillitpv

Before I know it the clocks will change, daylight savings will begin, and summer will be knocking at my front door. Sydneysiders will happily peel off their clothing in favour of a much smaller, more revealing attire. Meanwhile, the repetitive drone of the cicadas will commence. The spiders will make my garden their home. My pup, Milo, will hide away in a dark corner of the house. The oppressive heat will arrive and settle in for the duration. 

It's not so bad. Summer, after all, is what attracts many of us to this fair land. I have enjoyed this year's brief Sydney winter and the welcome respite from that persistently hot summer sun, but now it's time to take out my trusted coconut oil, dust off those manly black Speedos, don my little straw sombrero, and head down to the local beach because, summer, here I come.

Are you ready for Sydney's summer sun? Would you like to borrow a little coconut oil?

Or are the long, desperate, drawn-out, dark and bitterly cold winter months fast approaching in your neck of the woods?

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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Lost in Nonverbal Translation

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

This is the second of our four-way guest posts on NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches, where I and three other expat bloggers join together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other's blogs. We expat bloggers are Linda at adventuresinexpatland.com (North - Netherlands), myself at mylifelessordinary.com (South - Australia), Erica at expatriababy.com (East - Japan), and Maria at Iwasanexpatwife.com (West - Canada).

The theme for this month's round of guest posting is how different cultures physically interact and today's guest post is by Maria, who is a Canadian repatriate living back in Canada and guest blogging on her non-verbal experiences as an expat in Singapore and France. You also read my own NSEW guest post over at Maria's site, titled Separated by more than just water, which looks at my experiences of moving from Canada to Australia, and the differences in physical interaction that I found upon arriving in Sydney.

Without further ado, here's Maria's guest post where she gets Lost in Nonverbal Translation...

The man behind the counter glared at me as he took my money, muttering something in a language I’m glad I didn’t understand. I’d only been in Singapore a week and I’d already learned that customer service varied wildly from obsequious to nonexistent, depending on the store. This was the first time a salesperson had looked like he wanted to spit at me though.

“Nice guy,” I commented once we were outside the store.

My 6-year-old shook her head at me in despair. “Mommy,” she said sorrowfully, “you did it again.”

As a very wise man once said: “d’oh!” Despite clear instructions from my cross-cultural trainer and repeated reminders by my children, I’d once again committed the inexcusable faux pas of handing money to someone with my left hand.

Overcoming four decades of social conditioning in a week is no easy task. I’d spent my entire life using whichever hand was more convenient, blissfully unaware that in many parts of the world, the left is reserved for post-toilet hygiene. Touching people or handing them objects with the “unclean” hand is simply not done. Except, it seemed, by me.

Behaviours such as gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions are known as kinesics, and I was shocked to discover they aren’t universal. In fact, body language is greatly influenced by culture. Not knowing the norms (or in my case, knowing them but not internalising them) can lead to a whole lotta grief.

Gestures are particularly problematic, since what is commonplace in one culture can be wickedly obscene in another. I’ll give you an example that led to shocked headlines in Norway back in 2005. At the inauguration celebration of US President George W. Bush, first daughter Jenna Bush gave a shout-out to her Texan roots by flashing the University of Texas “Hook ‘em horns” sign: folding the middle two fingers into the palm and extending the thumb, index and pinkie fingers. It’s an innocent gesture in the US, but not in Norway, where it’s interpreted as the sign of Satan. But there’s more: In Italy, it’s the symbol for a cuckolded husband; in various parts of Africa, it’s a curse. Not quite the carefree gesture of collegial support Ms. Bush had intended!

When I left Singapore and moved to France, I thought learning French would be my biggest issue. I soon found out that spoken language is only part of the puzzle. The nonverbal aspects of communication tripped me up time and time again.

On my first visit to the local patisserie (pastry shop), I was overwhelmed by the wanton display of artery-clogging deliciousness for sale. The lady behind the counter good-naturedly taught me the name of each confection, and when she got to le pain chocolat (literally, “chocolate bread”), I held up my hands in surrender (Hello, my name is Maria, and I’m a chocoholic).

“That’s what I want,” I said, surreptitiously wiping away a bit of runaway drool.

“How many?” she asked. I absently held up my index and middle fingers, my attention already wandering to the tarte aux pommes that was begging me to take it home.

When I opened the bag later I was surprised to find three pains instead of two, but shrugged philosophically. We’re talking about French pastries filled with chocolate - there’s really no such thing as “too many.” Still, the next time I got my fix (and yes, it very quickly became a habit), I stopped the nice lady before she could put the third pain au chocolat in the bag. “I only want two,” I said apologetically. She gave me one of those “why didn’t you say so?” looks, which mystified me completely. I’d held up two fingers, after all.

“The third was implied,” my friend Sylvie told me when I asked her, in my halting French, why the good people of Bordeaux were unable to count. It turns out that counting - or at least, counting on one’s fingers - isn’t as straightforward as I’d assumed. In fact, it varies widely around the world. Whereas I count to five by holding up my index finger, middle finger, ring finger, pinkie, and thumb, the French begin with the thumb and end with the pinkie. In a classic case of miscommunication, the woman at the patisserie assumed I was asking for three pastries because the fingers I held up were #2 and #3 on the French finger-counting scale. My pastry order was lost in nonverbal translation.

Since repatriating four years ago, I’ve reverted to Canadian-style counting. I’d love to return to France for a visit, and if I do find myself in a French patisserie some day, I won’t bother worrying about which finger to start counting with: One look at those exquisite pains au chocolat, and you can bet all ten fingers will be standing to attention.

What differences in physical interaction have you experienced during life overseas?

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches
Image: digitalart portfolio 2280 freedigitalphotos.net

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

My London's Burning

The sadness I feel at watching London burn is immense.

Surprisingly so because I've worked and spent large periods of time in my home country's capital. I've seen bombings, carnage and chaos rip through this magnificent city to the point where it has almost become normal to see such things. I've even worked on projects in government formed as a result of London's troubles yet this recent episode of violence and mayhem has disturbed me more than most.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons ian_fromblighty

The events seem sinister and orchestrated. Images of shady figures clad in oversized hoodies, their faces wrapped in dark scarves are unsettling. The robbery and looting of shops and pedestrians in broad daylight is upsetting. At once, I am disappointed, angry and frightened for those innocent people on the street, in their shops, and hidden in their homes.

I'm relieved to be away from the wanton destruction and lawlessness spreading through the UK, safe in my beachside haven on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. But even Sydney hasn't always been a safe place and this is what I find equally distressing.

As I watch the influx of videos, pictures and narrative from the UK, I remember having seen this thuggery before, in cities you'd never think would experience such criminality, and two places I have called, and now call, home.

In Vancouver two months ago, riot police were called in to disperse hundreds of angry hockey fans following a defeat by the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup play-offs. Angry rioters set cars on fire, looted stores and taunted police officers in downtown Vancouver. Riot police fired tear gas, pepper spray and flash bombs in retaliation.

Officials reported that dozens of people were injured, most were being treated for tear gas or pepper spray exposure, but that there were several major traumas, a number of stabbing victims, and a serious head injury or two. This was not the Vancouver I knew and loved. I was ashamed and amazed that such a thing could happen in this beautiful setting.

Back in 2005 in Sydney, a series of clashes and mob violence spread through the beach suburb of Cronulla and neighbouring areas resulting in extensive property damage and a significant number of assaults, including one stabbing and even some attacks against ambulance and police officers. The riots were triggered by an assault on a group of surf lifesavers by a gang of Middle Eastern men.

What then started as a peaceful gathering on the morning of 11 December to protest against a recent spate of violence against local people quickly turned into an alcohol-fuelled rampage through the local area and was followed by retaliatory riots thereafter. Watching the events unfold from my home at that time in Ottawa, I didn't recognise this racist, ugly side to Sydney that I would come to know more intimately over the days that followed.

The riots in Sydney and Vancouver showed that no place is immune to the thuggery and mob mentality of a certain segment of the population hellbent on destruction and, in some instances, injury or death. A new home and new country could be chosen on the basis of 'wow' factor, lifestyle, health and cost of living factors, but the negative side of human nature could never be truly avoided.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons rommy ghaly

As the riots in London broke out, a Canadian acquaintance commented that the Vancouver (and Sydney) riots were in no way similar to events taking place in London. She argued it was like comparing apples to oranges, that the Vancouver riot was isolated, intense, but a one-off, and something which shouldn't be placed in the same league as the UK riots.

I agreed that the rationale and extent of the Vancouver and Sydney riots were quite different, but the lawlessness and hurt were exactly the same.

After all, a riot is a riot is a riot. And we should all be afraid of that.

Have you witnessed recent events in London and the UK? Were you there when the riots in Sydney and/or Vancouver broke out?

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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Month for Milestones and Reflections

July has been something of a month for milestones.

It was the month in which Milo, our intrepid black lab and travelling companion from the UK to here, turned nine. Well on the way to becoming an old man, he has grown a chin full of white whiskers and an increasing paunch to boot. He has excelled in the Aussie environment, even after the passing of old man Murph, and I am ever happy that he came with us to this far-flung land.

It was the month which saw my wife and I celebrate eleven years since our first date. Set in my hometown of Basingstoke, England, the date included a 'no expense spared' meal of lamb shanks straight out of the freezer bag followed by a lively pub quiz - and all hosted at my 'local'. Those were extravagant days.

It was also the month in which I reached a personal expat milestone. I have now lived overseas for more than eight years. If I'm honest, the time has flown and, in no small part, due to the number of moves we've made at different stages in the adventure. But it is a significant milestone and one which has been hard won and high on the emotional stakes.

Photo credit: Ross Haddow / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Much has changed since I left the UK in 2003 but one of the things that has transformed my expat life over this period has been the technological advance in communications, allowing me vastly improved contact with loved ones back in the UK and around the globe.

One of the most impressive of these changes has been the arrival of Skype. Telephone calls were previously made using the exorbitantly priced national operator or through the purchase of an often unreliable and confusing international phone card. Making calls to England over the holiday periods was particularly frustrating. Lines out of the country were not always available. When they were available, they would be riddled with static and, more often than not, the call would unexpectedly end due to a poor connection.

Skype has revolutionised the way expats can communicate with those at home and is (for now) completely free. It also helps that Internet connection speeds have vastly increased enabling the Skype platform to deliver a fairly reliable service.
Social media applications, such as Facebook and Twitter, have also altered the technological landscape for us expats. Friends and family at home are able to keep up-to-date with my whereabouts and activities through regular tweets and the frequent posting of pictures online. The reverse is also true and I feel more connected with my peers than eight years previously when occasional emailing or letter writing was the norm.

I've also recently discovered another technological innovation called ADTelly. This handy little online subscription allows me to watch the live streaming of UK and North American television shows over the Internet and, with a little technical jiggery pokery, through the flat screen television in my living room. The time difference is always going to be an issue but at least I can enjoy my fill of English morning programming, albeit at dinnertime in Sydney, and whet my appetite with the odd Coronation Street omnibus or the occasional Eastenders double header (sad, I know).

For this expat, the world has become a smaller place over a relatively short period of time and I no longer feel quite so disconnected from my homeland or as detached from friends and family as before. Improvements in technology have transformed my expat living and strengthened relationships with loved ones left behind.

These advances have also given me a new found respect and admiration for those expat pioneers of a time long past who left their homelands not knowing when, or how, they would communicate again with family and friends.

While we may complain about poor Internet speed or whine about ropey Skype connectivity, we'll never have to deal with the lengthy Kangaroo Route facing 1950s immigrants to Australia or uncertain ship crossings endured by post-WWII war brides to Canada. And, for that alone, I am grateful.

Has technology improved your life abroad? Do you remember when the telephone and letter writing was the only way to communicate with loved ones?

Are you aware of new technologies on the horizon that may further improve an expat's deal?

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