April 24, 2013

How To Be a (Successful) Expat

I'm not sure the title of this post is quite right.

Because what makes an expat "successful?"

If you set the bar low enough, you could argue that anyone coming back alive from an expat assignment can claim success. Which in our case, if you want to believe all the fearmongers about life in South Africa, was quite the miracle.

I guess what I really mean to discuss is how you can thrive as an expat, way beyond mere survival. Where you enjoy your overseas assignment, go out and make new friends, take in the wonders of the country you live in, and live life to the fullest so that when you leave you have no regrets (other than the fact that you're having to leave).

Because I'm guessing you don't want to be the other kind of expat. The kind that goes to a new country with the idea of basically transposing their old life to the new place, come hell or high water. That is determined to make the new place bend to their will and their idea of how things should be. And that spends most of their days in a miserable and grumpy state of mind when they find out they can't. 

You can transport your stuff to a new place, but not your life.

So if you want to be "successful expat" rather than "grumpy expat," what can you do? Or is it predetermined by your personality?

I think it is a combination of factors. Having an adaptable and adventurous spirit definitely helps, but you can actually develop that by being an expat. Serial expats will tell you that leaving a place and starting over in a new country is hard every single time, no matter how often you've done it. But the experience of having not only survived it but come to love it will go a long way towards making the next assignment easier.

When I think back to our days in Singapore, circa 1998, I have to admit that I often dwelled more on the grumpy side.

That Asian habit of plastering a smile on your face even when bad news was being delivered, and of never being quite able, or willing, to actually make a decision, grated on my nerves. Why couldn't I  have my salad dressing on the side, even if the menu didn't specify it?

Oh, and the infrastructure. Why did the escalator only go up but not down in the shopping center I frequented, forcing me to carry child plus stroller plus bags down several flights of stairs at the end of each outing?

Not to even mention all the taxi drivers who'd slow down when I'd wave from the curb, only to speed up again and leaving me stranded when spotting that bothersome double stroller next to me.

And don't even get me started on that strangest of dialects, Singlish, where every sentence is delivered in a rapid-fire, machine-gun like staccato, words brutally maimed with chopped-off endings, made-up for, perhaps in an effort to deliver the same number of syllables, with an inexplicable '-lah' at the end.

What I should have done back then, I realize now, is start a blog. Except I don't think I'd even heard of such a thing in 1998. Nothing makes you appreciate the quirky experiences of expat life as much as the prospect of taking good notes and writing an entertaining story for your readers.

And nothing contributes towards making you a "successful expat" as much as appreciating the quirky experiences of expat life.

It's not what happens to you. It's the kinds of thoughts you choose to think when something happens to you. Everyone knows that, right?

I admit this resolve will be stretched to its limits when you stand in line at Vodacom for the third time in a week, armed with yet more paperwork and no closer to scoring that elusive cellphone contract than the first day you arrived, oh, months ago.

But that is what happened to me. Seemingly spending my entire life at the Vodashop in Fourways Mall with nothing to do, I allowed myself to be drawn into the cricket match silently flashing past on the TV, and wondering how on Earth anybody could comprehend the rules. A blogpost about cricket began to form in my mind, and some time (and one book) later, Cricket for Expats was born.

And that's just one. I have countless such stories from our time in Joburg.

I think on the whole I did a much better job at being an expat in South Africa than I did in Singapore. Even though many more hurdles seemed to be thrown into my way early on. I had learned to go with the flow and adjust to a different mindset instead of trying to wage battle against it. I remember early on, when I was sitting in the principal's office at Dainfern College, complaining about the fact that our daughters were not allowed to play soccer. "Do as the Romans do," he eventually advised, perhaps somewhat haughtily, and it was exactly the right path to embark on. The girls swam and played netball and field hockey like all the other girls, and our life was perfectly fine without soccer.

This doesn't mean, however, that being a successful expat doesn't come at a cost. Because the more "successful" you are abroad by adopting your new lifestyle, it seems to me, the more frustrated you're bound to feel coming back. Going back to the same old life you had before, with the same kind of people in it, and the same convenience.

Yes, convenience. As much as I dreamed of Amazon.com and efficient customer service while I was gone, I can't quite yet bring myself to appreciate the miracle of someone calling you back just like they told you they would. Your garbage being picked up with mind-boggling regularity. Your phones working, day and night, and weeks on end. A president pushing for meaningful immigration reform rather than being outraged at a picture someone painted of his, ahem, penis. Not a single traffic light out of operation, ever. I see those things and I think that I should be grateful, but instead I miss the excitement of our African life. Of never quite knowing what might happen. Of always finding reason to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. And of interesting story material falling into my lap on a daily basis.

When you repatriate back home, all you're left with is the mountain of work that accompanies any move, without that sense of wonder and thrill you feel when everything around you is new.

But again, there is a solution to that. I'm not sure where I read about it, but it might have been on I Was an Expat Wife which has wonderful advice on all things expat, including repatriation: You might "only" be returning home, but if you view it as yet another expat assignment, opening yourself to that same sense of awe and freshness you felt as a newly-minted expat and resolving to undertake as many excursions and meet as many new people as abroad, then it will be so much more rewarding.

At least that's what I'm working on these days. So that I can be a successful repat.

Once again, it's just a matter of mindset.