I recently shared an article titled 5 Depressing Side Effects No One Tells You About Moving Abroad. For those who have moved or lived abroad, it provides some interesting insights about this life-changing event. While this article did an effective job highlighting the negatives, there are also positive aspects to a big decision like this. My colleague and friend, Dr. Dustin Knutson, read this post and wrote a personal response to it. One year ago he moved his family to the Middle East and has firsthand experience about living abroad – the good and the bad. In our global economy, this type of experience is becoming more common. Understanding the implications of a global lifestyle is helpful for all of us. Next month I begin teaching a doctoral course on Global Leadership and I will be sharing this content with my students soon! I know you will enjoy Dustin’s guest post today.
Many expatriates (expats) know that contrary to popular opinion, moving abroad is not necessarily a selfish choice. Expats are people who like to live life-outside-the-box. And they can love like no one else if you let them.
I want to tell you about five uplifting benefits that no one tells you about living abroad. To really understand, you need to experience it for yourself, even if for just a week on a visit. But for those who have not or cannot do so, I’ll try to give you an insight into the good side of expat life.
1. You learn to coach your own mind about how to think. This empowers you.
You learn the power of your own attitude and how it determines your longevity and survival. Well, almost. After you stay long enough in another country, you’ll find there are two types of people. Let’s call this a “desert experience” because it draws every last bit of water out of you and tests you, accentuating your strengths and flaws, leaving you emptied. That’s when you choose with whom, how, and what you’ll surround yourself with to fill the void.
The first type includes the survivors who go abroad and have survived because they have developed an unwavering commitment to see life optimistically. They are so passionate about their perspective that if you hang around them and start complaining, you’ll find that they will suddenly disappear, almost without warning.
They might smile out of the corner of their mouth, bite their tongue, and nod at your first complaint. They may even respond politely with a subtle difference in opinion or another way to look at the situation. They may say something like, “At least…” and then make a comparison to something worse that makes you regret complaining. These people are subtle encouragers and life-givers. They will bring joy to being abroad, if you let them. They will become your best friends.
The second type is a group filled with perpetual whiners. They attract each other and feed on each other like cannibals.
They live from the perspective that life is all about them. They believe they deserve all sorts of things just because they exist. These are the people who typically move abroad to find something better for themselves. They are often unsatisfied by their past and seek to make their journey all about themselves. These are the few that give expats a bad rap.
Ironically, they sometimes stick around even though you would think it would be easier to leave. Those who stay, continually find newbie complainers that have just arrived. They are excellent at proselytizing. Even those who begin optimistically find it easy to latch onto the complainer’s addictive ways of viewing the world while they are in their “discovery phase” in a new country. This is very hard to watch.
If you want to survive and grow, you must quickly choose which camp you will associate with when living and working abroad. You must set reminders to coach yourself into positive ways of thinking. You must learn to create exit strategies to avoid long conversations with complainers. After all, no matter where you live, the grass can always be greener somewhere else.
2. You will face many choices which will permanently change you and you will also be permanently changed without choice. This enlightens you.
You have countless opportunities to see others as equals or better than you are. When you make the difficult decision to deny yourself and choose to serve others, you will embrace a perspective which provides fulfillment and purpose. One way to do this is by seeking to learn or re-learn what you thought you knew.
Discovering new ways to eat, cook, clean, dress, drive, work, play, dance, and converse is intriguing. You find that you put off your old self in some ways in favor of a newer, different self. Some of it happens out of necessity, some of it by choice. In either case, you adapt. As you do, your mind realizes that “my way” isn’t the highway but only one way. Furthermore, you learn that there are many who view “my way” as the odd choice.
Expat life means you will end up in a different place, defined by your convictions but also flavored by your experiences. We live in a world full of unique spices. And there are many of them which can season a steak to perfection.
3. Opportunities to serve using skills you have (but didn’t know were rare or valuable) are often brought to light. This encourages you.
What may have been taken for granted previously can be cherished in a new land and new context. Skills and processes are transferable, but only to an extent. You will be required to adapt them. Many times, being flexible and adapting old ideas to new cultures is appreciated. However, if it is done incorrectly or without cultural sensitivity, it isn’t appreciated.
There’s almost nothing as great as finding something you do well to be valued like a precious commodity in a new place. As a result, you feel valued. Your spirits are lifted. You see that you were made for such a time as this.
However, this experience need not be limited to new countries or foreign lands. The same concept also applies to a new organization or business. When it is used in the proper context and made practical, it can reinvigorate your life.
4. The way you live your life will speak more than the words you say – and it will be noticed by others. This surprises you.
People often quote Ghandi who said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and Jesus who taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31, NIV).
When I am thirsty, I want a drink. However, offering a bottle of water to a parched, hard-working man who looks exhausted in the desert sun during the day during Ramadan isn’t a gift. To a Muslim, it could be considered offensive and a temptation to sin by breaking a mandated fast. It could even be considered cruel. What’s my point? Seek to understand first and then act. I do not want to be tempted to do something that is against my beliefs either. It takes time to learn that you need to offer that water after sundown.
On the other hand, offering a simple “hello” can brighten someone’s day. It is a simple way to show that you are interested in more than yourself. I’ve found this to be a pleasant experience that starts friendships with people from all over the world. It has become a simple gateway that enables me to give and bless others in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.
Any expat will tell you that things which seem to be common sense in your culture can be unacceptable in another. One thing remains certain. The way you live your life will be noticed, whether you want it to or not. The key is to be respectful. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything or changing your convictions. It simply means loving someone else enough to give them the freedom to believe as they choose.
5. You can overcome distance. This helps you to know that you’re never alone.
Long distances make you fight to keep relationships intact. You learn who your true friends are and who you really care about. Relationships anywhere, whether near or far, require time and attention. While some relationships and some people demand more attention than others to maintain a relationship, you will find that your true friends are not those who become bitter or angry and hold grudges at you leaving for long periods of time. Your true friends are the ones who can pick up right where you left off regardless of how long you’ve been apart or where you’ve been. I’m so thankful for these people. They help me to realize as an expat that there are times when I’m lonely but I’m never truly alone.
If you think of a friend, just let them know, in that moment. In doesn’t matter if the time zone is different and they don’t see it until the next morning. At least then they will wake up to a message from a friend rather than nothing. This simple gesture can literally make a world of difference.
Sometimes, simple notes can be all that’s needed to maintain a true friend for years. For others, much more is required. There is no magic formula. But it always requires the ingredient of intentionality.
Overcoming distance is a test of a relationship, just like the daily decision to love someone you’ve promised to love even when they act in a way that isn’t likable. Expats aren’t always likable but they will love you like no one else can love you if you let them.
Returning “Home” Again
Expats are excellent escape artists. That makes loving an expat a constant decision. So when they escape your mind, or your home, let them. When they can’t define home anymore, it doesn’t mean that you are not home to them, wherever you are.
When they leave, it doesn’t mean that they are gone forever or that they don’t love you. Sure, they will miss some events that seem important to you and some that are important to you. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. In fact, the opposite is true. There is likely no one in the world that wishes they could be in two places at the same time more often than an expat.
Most care so deeply that they are willing to change their life for the pursuit of something better – for them, for you. Hopefully, it ends up being for both. Their pursuit is their attempt.
When the Boeing 777 cabin door closes, there are more than five things that no one tells you about moving abroad or being an expatriate. There are many more than five things that those left behind could tell as well.
Expats trade a physical single home for the idea of home anywhere and everywhere. Coming home is neither a coming nor a going for an expat. Instead, it’s just part of the process of a life in between.
Wheels up, remember to tread gently, love deeply, and keep picking up the pieces. Though at times we cut, we’re all just broken pieces trying to shine more light in the world.
After all, this world is not our home.
About the author:
Dustin J. Knutson holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University (VA) and lives and works with his wife and two daughters as an expatriate in the Middle East.
Note: If you enjoyed this you may be interested in reading some of my previous blog posts on global leadership; The Problem with the Wrong Side of the Road, Gender Equality, Assertiveness, Future Orientation, Power Distance, Performance Orientation, Humane Orientation and Individualism.
Jeff Suderman is a global-leader-in-process, a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman