Monthly Archives: June 2011

Have We Already Missed The Boat?

I usually spend an hour in the morning checking out interesting articles online. I have a number of “go-to” English, German and Dutch sites that I check, and often share my most interesting finds on Facebook or Twitter.

Today’s hot topic seems to be the American education system: how it ranks internationally and compares to what it used to be.

I hope all of you have heard of Ursula Burns.

She is the 1st African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company in America. “Xerox CEO Ursula Burns Is ‘Panic Stricken’ About U.S. Students’ Ability to Compete” outlines how Burns – using her signature no-holds-barred style of communication – sat down for an interview with  CNN’s Soledad O’Brien to talk about the ever-widening gap between the qualifications corporations are looking for in new hires and the skills and experience graduates actually bring to the table.

There are two quotes that jumped right out at me. First:

In John Stossel‘s “Stupid in America” feature, Stossel states that 76 percent of American parents are not happy with their child’s school.  When Stossel compared the kids at an above-average high school in New Jersey with kids in Belgium, the American children were handily dismantled and even referred to as “stupid” by the Belgium children.  When 15-year-old American children were tested against 40 other nations, American kids ranked 25th.

Even the better American high schools are not positioned to academically challenge foreign exchange students. The quality of the schools in Germany, for example, has suffered considerably between the time I was an exchange student here (1972), and when my own children were in school (the 1990’s). However, my daughter still experienced the same phenomenon the year she spent at a suburban Pennsylvania high school. It’s also something I heard  time and time again during the hundreds of interviews I conducted with young applicants as Head of Human Resources Development for a top Germany advertising agency network.

Despite the additional burden of taking classes in a foreign language, when it comes to the actual school work, exchange students often consider their year in the States to be a veritable academic breeze compared to the rigorous curriculum to which they are accustomed. Many German schools don’t recognize that high school year abroad academically. However, young people are still encouraged (and eager) to participate just to broaden their intercultural horizons and add an additional highlight to their burgeoning resumès.

Although international scholastic rankings are published regularly, am I wrong to think that many American students – and their parents – may still not understand the implications  status quo can have on their future? Now that the world functions as a global marketplace, Americans are being forced to deal with a situation where they are no longer in the driver’s seat job-wise:

“We can find better candidates in other nations and other places than we can here.”

THEN: Increased mechanization in many sectors has already cost American workers the bulk of the well-paid production-related “blue collar” jobs. These have gone to workers in developing countries where labor costs (among other things) are considerably lower!

NOW: Our students don’t excel academically in international comparison. Therefore, in a world where corporations are no longer limited to only hiring local staff, ever more “white collar” jobs will also be migrating to where employees are both better educated and cheaper to employ!

How can more African-American student safeguard against being caught in the grip of this job drain? By being more aware of developments on a global level and positioning themselves to take up the challenge that this expanded playing field presents!

~~

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Black Women Working Abroad – Germany

In an effort to maintain some control over my personal brand, I admit that I will “google” my own name (as well as the name of my company and projects) at regular intervals. It’s interesting to see how some of my activities rank online, but even more interesting to see where unexpected – or “unauthorized” – mentions pop up.

It was during one such search today, that I came upon an interview I had forgotten I’d given Carolyn Vines for her blog, Black and (A)Broad. In this interview – which focuses on my experiences as a black American woman working abroad – this particular question and my answer reflect some of the intercultural difference you must be aware of if you are planning to work abroad:

What are two main differences between the German work ethic and the American? What about differences in the work setting? What about salaries?

I think both countries have a similar work ethic, but it’s manifested in different ways.

Americans are quicker to get things done, and take into stride more easily that there might well need to be course corrections along the way. Germans focus more on getting things done right, which often means they are slower out of the starting block than their American colleagues.

Americans believe in working a lot. With the loosely meshed social support system, Americans work more hours/multiple jobs in order to achieve more (bigger homes, number of automobiles, etc.), but with comparatively less security. Germans, on the other hand, believe in working hard and playing hard, which explains the relatively long vacation time here (and other parts of Europe) compared to in the States. Though things are changing, they also profit from a tighter social support system.

American office culture is generally more informal. People tend to address each other by their first names and are more collegial. In contrast, the office culture in Germany (still) tends to be more formal. People more often refer to one another as Mr./Mrs., and use the formal “Sie” as opposed to the informal “du” to address people.

More American women work outside the home. In many cases it’s a necessity, but there is also a social trend that encourages mothers to work. As a result, there are also more women in high(er) positions. Significantly fewer German mothers work. The availability of decent childcare is limited, making full-time employment difficult if a good support network is lacking. Although the number of women who (have to) work is rising, there is still a strong belief that it’s better for the development of (small) children if there is one parent in the home as primary caregiver.

It’s hard to compare salaries, simply because different industries have different standards. Overall I would say that Americans have a greater sense (also: need) of job mobility and therefore – in some areas – greater chances to increase their income. Germans in general have more benefits (healthcare, job contracts, etc.).

Click to read the complete interview on Carolyn’s blog!


Tecla Robinson: London, UK, via Little Rock, AR

Living abroad was always a dream Tecla Robinson had…

Once her degree program was complete, the thought of turning that dream of studying abroad into a reality became her first priority. Despite an initial disappointment, Tecla has just completed her M.A. in Media & Communications in one of London’s most prestigious programs.

Listen to my lively interview with Tecla, who shares

  • what motivated her to embrace the challenge of studying abroad
  • how friends and family reacted to her decision
  • how she turned her dream into a viable financial reality

Interview: Tecla Robinson: London, UK, via Little Rock, AK!


Tickets, Please!

I can’t begin to tell you how many times people I know back in the States have “threatened” to come visit me here in Europe. Although I have been here for more than 30 years, I can count the number of family members, friends and acquaintances who’ve actually made the trip across the “Big Pond” to see me on two hands.

One of the prevailing reasons some people hesitate booking a trip to Europe is what they perceive to be the exorbitant price of air fare. And that’s something that impacts people thinking about studying in Europe, too.

The first two times I came to Europe, I flew with charter airlines.

I don’t even remember the name of the airline I took when I was a summer exchange student back in 1972. All I remember is that my parents, sister and I drove from Willow Grove to New York City (my 1st time there) to stay at the Roosevelt Hotel, where all the student exchange groups met up. Early the next morning we kids were taken by bus to Vermont, and flew (my 1st flight!) to Frankfurt.  There we boarded another bus that took us along the German Autobahn (another 1st) to the village where we were staying in the Black Forest.

When I started college in France in 1974, my dad and I made the trip to JFK alone. My mother had just had surgery on her foot, and wasn’t allowed to walk. That year (and the following one as well) I flew to Luxembourg – via Keflavik – with Icelandair. It was one of the least expensive ways to get back and forth to Europe, and a lot of people I knew back then flew with them regularly as well.

But with the dollar taking a pummeling on the international currency market – and in an ecology-conscious, post-9/11 world – the days of the super-cheap flights from JFK to Heathrow or Charles-de-Gaulle or Frankfurt are gone. With careful planning and savvy as a comparison shopper, though, good prices on international flights are still to be had!

This morning, for example, I discovered a new blog totally by accident. It’s called I’m Black and I Travel! Although the author of this blog is not a student, because he and his wife are passionate travelers they seem to have some great tips on getting the most bang for your buck in a lot of relevant areas, including airfare. The post from 6th June 2011, called

AIRFARE ALERT: Europe, cheap or easy

is a great recent example.

So, before you disregard travel outside of the U.S. as being too expensive, spend some time not only checking out the various travel sites. Also have a look at relevant travel blogs for the kind of tips and insights experienced travelers are more than happy to share with like-minded people.

Because as Greg Gross, the author of “I’m Black and I Travel!” says:

The world is a global village. It’s time you met the neighbors.


Viva España?

I’ve unfortunately only had the occasion to travel to Spain once. A major international pharmaceutical company hired me to conduct two 1-day workshops for them in Madrid. That meant I flew down the day before my first workshop and flew home the day following my last one with only a couple of hours to spare for sightseeing and people-watching.

I had always heard conflicting stories about Spain and the Spanish where race issues are concerned. Their “racially insensitive” welcome of  black British Formula 1 race car driver, Lewis Hamilton has been widely reported.

One of my biggest reservations was that – for the 1st time in a very long time – I would be on territory where I didn’t really speak the language. At all! (Funny, though, how those little bits of Spanish learned during childhood actually did kick in once I hit the ground…) Although I know I how to hold my own in English, I know from experience that it’s sometimes necessary to be glib in someone else’s native language to let them know you don’t suffer fools gladly.

On my 2nd evening in Madrid I grabbed a book and wandered over to a little snack shop around the corner from my hotel for a quick meal. While I was there, I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between one of the shop’s Spanish owners and an African man, who was apparently a regular. Both of them had spent time in German, so they spoke to one another in Germany (otherwise I wouldn’t have known what the heck they were talking about).

Their topic: Racism in Spain.

The Spanish shop owner professed his own openness to all peoples. While living in Germany he has experienced first-hand what it feels like to sometimes be treated with disrespect and disdain simply because you – obviously – aren’t a member of the majority. However, he also readily admitted that not all of his Spanish compatriots had the same openness of attitude to non-Spaniards.

The African gentleman gave a very nuanced account of his own experiences in both countries. He was obviously still a little ill at ease with some of the very overt racism he’d encountered in Spain. Racism that was triggered by the color of his skin and magnified by his (perceived) class, as well as his lack of total fluency in Spanish.

I had to remember this overheard conversation today when I surfed over to one of my favorite blogs, Afro-Europe. Written by a black Belgian, yesterday’s post recounts a conversation with another black Belgian who now lives in Spain:

“…My friend’s perspective on racism is that it is a universal thing. People just express it in very different ways. According to him, while there is racism in Belgium, people hide it more than in Spain. In Spain people who don’t like you for your appearance will show you their contempt. In Spain, they rather see you leave their shop than sell you something…”

You can read the rest of this post – which goes on to contract his experience with Northern versus Southern European racism – here.

One very enlightening aspect of one of my workshops was the conversation between its participants on the subject of acceptance. Although some of the ladies were Madrileñas, others were from Spanish-speaking countries in South and Central America, and one was from Japan. This wasn’t a conversation about race, per se, though it showed very clearly that even small things – like a very different accent or different vocabulary – can mark you as an outsider. And, unfortunately, that’s enough for some people to view you as “other” and treat you accordingly.

~~

Interested in knowing more about what it’s like to be  “living in Spain while black”? Check out Ieishah’s blog, Fat Juicy Oyster!

And for more info about Spain and Lewis Hamilton, have a look at this post over on My American Meltingpot.


Carolyn Vines is “Black and (A)Broad”*

Carolyn Vines is – among other things – an editor and avid blogger. When she first approached publishers with her idea of writing a book about being black in Europe, she was encouraged to write a kind of travel guide for black women. As she got deeper into her project, however, Carolyn realized that what she needed to write was something much more personal.

Instead of a black women’s version of “If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium“, her resulting book, Black and (A)Broad (Subtitled “Traveling beyond the limitations of identity”), became a memoir with an intensely personal message without losing an iota of its universal appeal. Carolyn not only tells us about her initial experiences living in Mexico and Spain. She also shares with the the circumstances that triggered her move to Europe, as well as the – both internal and external – hurdles she had to take to before making that decision. She talks candidly about her experiences as a Black American abroad, and how that change in perspective gave her unexpected insight into her own identity, enabling her to better face the many new challenges she faced.

Listen to my interview with Caroline for Uncaged Birds™ On the Radio!

Most compelling about Carolyn’s story is its ordinariness. She’s an “every woman” who also happens to be black.

Despite ist universal character, Carolyn hopes her book will inspire especially black women to venture out  beyond the immediate circumstances of their biology, nationality and socio-economic circumstances. Because – as Carolyn’s own life shows – there is a wealth of beauty and possibilities available to us all, if we only have the courage and faith to pursue them!

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(*reposted from http://www.uncagedbirds.wordpress.com)


Black Expats: Having Our Say

Although the number of African-Americans living and working abroad has increased over the years, our stories don’t seem to be really penetrating the collective consciousness back home in the States. Sure, most people in the Black community have an uncle/cousin/neighbor who was stationed in Germany/Korea/England at one time, but what about the stories of those black people who have settled outside US borders and live and work amongst the locals?

One great source of information about the experience of black people outside of the USA is Black Expat Magazine, the “baby” of (former) expats Reginald Smith, Adrianne George and Derek McCullough. These three have pooled their talents, insights and personal expat experiences to create an informative and inspirational platform for potential (not only American) black travelers worldwide!

If you are curious about what it’s like to be “living while black” in places as diverse as the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Cambodia, add this url to your personal blog roll.

Or better yet: subscribe to get the latest issue delivered directly to your inbox!


Jo Gan’s Take on Racism in China

My cyber-friend Jo Gan* lives in Yuyao, China, with her Chinese husband, where she works as Head of Foreign Teachers for a language school. Jo writes about her adventures and impressions of China with a lot of insight and humor in her blog, Life Behind the Wall.

I asked Jo’s permission to quote her latest entry, which deals with the question of  an African-American student – interested in possibly teaching English in China after he graduates – about the racism he can expect to encounter there. Here’s an excerpt from what she had to say based on her experiences; for example about her specific situation:

I live in a small city…. by Chinese standards…(1 million people) there are very few foreigners here… as a whole… some travel in and out… but only about 20 stay here all the time… (6 months to a year) …I am one of about 10 full-time foreigners in my town…. and I am the only Black American for miles …. and miles.

The Chinese image of who and what is American:

In China education is number one, so the parents spend a lot of time and money on educating their children.   However, they are not quite as educated themselves on many things… one is (…) race.   In their mind, Americans are white, blue-eyed, blonde haired people…. they just recently figured out there are other races… when Obama became president.    So, one problem is them believing you are really American….

Overt racism she’s experienced:

I have had parents… not want black people to teach their students… students that claimed they are afraid of the teachers because they are too black…. and I even had a teacher that had to move because… the neighbors were afraid of her in the dark.  It can get pretty bad  in some places sometimes.  It is a big lack of education and knowledge, what you don’t know you are afraid of in a lot of cases here.

Her take on the overall situation for black people living and working  in China:

This is the truth…. it is hard in China for Black people… but .. not impossible.… I know many Black Americans that have lived in China for 10 years or more…. and don’t plan on leaving any time soon… you just have to have patience with their ignorances.. and blend as much as possible…learn the language… learn the customs…. and accept that somethings you just can’t change.…

Jo ends this post by noting:

“Nothing is easy… but who wants to have nothing?”

A sentiment with which I heartily agree!

~~

* If you’d like to know more about Jo and her life in China, listen to my recorded interview with her from my Uncaged Birds On the Radio series!


International Experience: What’s in it for you?

Since I’ve begun sharing the ideas behind this program with people I have gotten several types of reaction. One thing that’s not clear to some people is what mid- to long-term benefit young (not only African-American) people gain from tapping into and better qualifying themselves for the global market place.

Because my own experience as a school leaver is several decades past, I looked for a more current take on how being internationally oriented can increase your professional marketability. This is how one blogger summed up her experience coupled with my take on the issue:

  1. It can turbo-boost your career. At a time when the US economy still hasn’t recovered, being able to expand your job search into regions that are still emerging economically can mean the difference between writing endless applications or being forced to take a dead-end job you’re over-qualified for and successfully segueing into a challenging position where your background is seen as a valuable asset.
  2. It changes your perception and perspective. Having to find your footing in a new environment allows you to be aware of things that you’ve come to take for granted. You’ll be challenged to see the world through new eyes and make decisions based on a partially new set of values, a different historical development and unfamiliar attitudes. Life will suddenly be full of surprises! Instead of simply exchanging one viewpoint for another, you’ll find yourself discovering what you really believe versus what you’ve been taught to believe.
  3. It allows you to expand your personal horizons. You won’t get a chance to re-invent yourself, you’ll finally be able to fully invent yourself! What does it mean to be “black”? What does it mean to be “American”? Although I’m sure you already have an answer for both of those questions, I can assure you that your answers will evolve in a way you never imagined possible once you step outside the comfort zone of your familiar American context. Yes, people you encounter will still have stereotypes and (maybe) prejudices that pertain to you, but you’ll quickly come to realize that certain “truths” about race and nationality you’ve always believed are more fluid when viewed through someone else’s eyes.
  4. It lets you better reap the benefits of being a member of the global community. Make no mistake: Globalization is here to stay! Whether we experience it as an empowering challenge or a frightening threat depends on how proactively we participate and co-create. Learning to interact with people from different backgrounds on equal footing – on their turf –  and understanding how to navigate gracefully and purposely within their cultures gives us added control over our own lives. It also increases our chances for both personal and professional success.

Is international study/work for everyone? In a nutshell: NO!

In addition to everything else, you’ll need to be able to pack an ample portion of the following in your backpack:

  • Sensitivity to other cultures and other ways of doing things
  • Curiosity about people, their history, their values and their attitudes
  • Willingness to cooperate
  • A sense of adventure
  • Good interpersonal communication skill
  • Ability – or willingness – to gain proficiency in another language

Top 4 Reasons For More Black Americans to be “International Players”

After giving this program some time to gel in my own thoughts and mind, I’ve begun sending out information to key people I would like to help me promote the it. I immediately received this response from someone I have reached out to:

“…most today have it hard finishing high school, and (…) most won’t make or finish college. (W)e are in reverse in education and the numbers are blinding!…”

While that is undeniably true, I strongly believe we have got to get back to the business of being our own tangible rôle models! Although I know for a fact that there are a lot more African-Americans studying abroad and/or living as expats in a foreign country, that news doesn’t seem to trickle down. If it does, the significance that alternative can offer doesn’t seem to really take hold.

That’s why I’m here – to magnify the message!

From experience, I believe the following to be  four key reasons  for African-Americans – be they students or young professionals – to consider spending time outside of the United States:

  1. To better position yourself to take advantage of career opportunities available abroad. At a time when the US economy is coming down hardest on blacks, more black people need to be aware of – and qualify themselves for – opportunities elsewhere in the world. Even if it’s a limited stint, you will gain invaluable – marketable! – experience that goes far beyond simply keeping a paycheck coming in regularly.
  2. To deal more effectively with the international diversity of (both American and foreign) companies based in the US. Some blacks may not have noticed, but the issue of diversity is shifting focus from being an “African-Americans within America issue” to being an issue of how well African-Americans are able to connect and work well with people from other very diverse backgrounds. That paradigm is already reality, so (future) young Black professionals need to shed “American provincialism” and adopt a more “cosmopolitan” mindset. It will be that broader sense of belonging to a global community that will allow you to be on more equal intercultural and educational footing with your global counterparts.
  3. (Future) young Black professionals must come to understand how other cultures and their business communities “tick”. Once that’s been accomplished,  you can take better advantage of the way those differences can be applied to positively impact your own professional development. Every culture has it’s “not invented here” syndrome, but – as marketplaces become more and more closely entwined with one another – the person who chooses to maintain a death grip on “the way things have always been done” will be the first to be made obsolete.
  4. Better leveraging global reach could become a decisive motor for more progress and development in our own neighborhoods. The Black economic community in America is still a “sleeping giant”.  If  more of our (young) professionals were savvy in developing and efficiently utilizing  our talents and financial clout globally some of the past economic stability and growth present in legendary black communities of the past could be re- created and expanded!

Which of those four reasons resonates most strongly with you?