Category Archives: Facts of (Expat) Life

Four Stages of Life Abroad

A young lady on a social site I’m active on had a question about adapting to life abroad. I told her that I believe there are several distinct phases of living abroad, and – depending on your personality and circumstances – they can last for differing lengths of time.

Although she’s pondering a long-term move, what I wrote about the different phases of settling in a foreign country also applies to the experience of someone only intending to stay for a more limited period of time; e.g. an exchange student.

# 1 – Wonder

Everything is new and different – in a very positive way. You walk through life with your eyes wide open and try to take in all the many impressions and experiences your new life is offering. You love the museums and quaint shops, the art house films and outdoor cafès. You feel a rush as you begin learning the language (if that’s relevant), and are tickled to death whenever you can say “please” or “(no) thank you” or “where’s the rest room” at the right time, just like the “natives”.

Oh yea, you think the food, as well as the beer/wine, are marvelous!

 

#2 – Homesickness

Now you’re getting way too much “new” – and not in a good way. You miss the familiar things that used to be your life: your favorite foods, the TV shows you loved to watch, your favorite radio station…(big) closets!

Although you are busy trying to learn the language, it’s not nearly as easy as it was in the beginning (and it didn’t always seem easy then!), so you feel as though you only understand about 20 % of what’s being said around you.

Everything that’s done differently can be the source of yet another irritation:

  • Why are small shops closed at midday?
  • Why don’t they know what a “real” salad bar looks like?
  • Why do I need to have stamps/documentation/certificates for everything?
  • Why do I have to pay a government organization for the “privilege” of watching TV ?

That’s not the way we do it at home. And the way *we* did it was the right way!

You live for C.A.R.E. packages from home.

 

#3 – Going with the Flow

Now you are can maneuver pretty well through day-to-day life. Although you don’t speak the language fluently, you can get by in most normal situations and even dabble in a little innocent small talk when you encounter a neighbor while getting your mail.

You know how to read the subway schedule and work the ticket machine, what time your bank is open, and where to find peanut butter in your local supermarket. You don’t feel at home, though… You spend a lot of your time with other expats – often complaining about he way things are here.

You can’t wait till you can visit home again.

#4 – Settling In

You no longer feel drawn to every English book store and/or the American products in your local hypermarket as though by a high-powered magnet. You tune in to your favorite channel for the local nightly news, go to author readings at the city library, and maybe have a subscription to a sports or women’s or gardening magazine.

Still not perfect, you can now joke in your new language and understand more of the nuances when talking with your local friends. And yes, you’ve noticed real friendships developing with a few “locals”. You have a job or volunteer somewhere; meet a friend every week for tennis or to jog or for drinks on Friday night.

You appreciate the healthcare, the generous vacations and the relative safety of your neighborhood. You walk more and watch TV less. You realize that “quality-of-life” isn’t connected to material things, but to the experiences and opportunities for growth the journey has brought you.

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Have You Been Listening?

Now that the summer is over, I will be able to blog a bit more. Until then, though, I wanted to draw your attention to the three info call interviews in case you missed them. Here is a quick overview of the three fabulous young ladies I had the pleasure of talking with about their experiences and insights abroad:

Tecla Robinson

…is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and earned her M.A. in media and communications in London.

Sienna Scott

…is from Newark, New Jersey, where she studies English and urban education. Sienna spent a semester studying in South Africa.

Terra Robinson

…(no relation to Tecla) is originally from Georgia. Not only did she study for her Masters in international relations in Oxford, England, she spent time working and studying the language in Toulouse, France, and is currently working in Brussels, Belgium.

Click on the link to listen in as these young African-American scholars share their stories: http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/98493!

 

 


Studying Abroad: How Terra Did It

When I first came to Europe in the mid 70’s, the only way I had to chronicle my travels and experiences was to write letters or keep a journal. Thanks to the internet and blogging platforms like this, modern-day travelers have a much more convenient way to spontaneously record any and every aspect of their journey and share it with the world.

Fortunately, Terra – my 3rd special guest on the International Black Info Calls – has become an avid blogger. Her blog – “American Black Chick in Europe” – is a flavorful mix of travel guide, experiential companion, op-ed sheet, and so much more. A peek into her blog archive quickly yields a wealth of information for anyone doing more than just toying with the idea of studying abroad.

Hailing from “The Peach State” of Georgia, Terra set out to fulfill her dream of studying abroad after receiving her BA in her home state. In the meantime, she’s received her M.A. in International Relations in London, but she hasn’t stopped there!

Determined to learn French, Terra moved to France, where she successfully found a job and signed up for a language course. Now Terra is living and working in Brussels, Belgium – only the latest stop on her bid to see the world!

On travel as “the best education”:

“…it’s one thing to read about an event in history or a monument. It’s another to experience it, to see it, to touch it. That is the education in and of itself. I’ve been quite lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a bit of international travel and I highly encourage other folks, especially black folks, to do the same. Go forth eat your favourite [insert foreign food here] while in its country of origin. Go forth and experience those history lessons first hand. Go forth and challenge some of those negative stereotypes that persist about black folks in some countries, in part because we’re not around to dispel those myths.

In other words, get the best education you can: travel…”

On financing her studies:

“…how many of y’all have considered completing your degree abroad? I briefly thought about it when I was in high school, but I thought I would have to pay out of pocket (I assumed I could only use US federal loans in the US), which I couldn’t afford. With the help of my parents, scholarships and summers spent working at a country club, I finished my BA debt-free.

Knowing that, regardless of where I went to grad school, I would need student loans, before I applied for MA programs I did quite a bit of research on funding (grants, scholarships, loans, etc). Turns out you can use US federal loans at non-American schools. Once I had this lovely piece of information, I expanded my graduate school search outside of NYC and D.C. to include London and Paris…”

On circumventing the language barriers:

“…if you really want to study/get your degree in a non-English speaking country, but you’re not too confident in your foreign language skills, keep in mind there are several schools in other countries in which the language of instruction is English (off the top off my head I know there are a couple schools like that in Paris)…”

If you’d like to know more about Terra’s journey to date – and even ask her a direct question about her personal experiences and insights – tune in to our interview on 19 September at 12.30pm!


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!


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.

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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!


An Interview

(This is an internet protocol I filled in for blackexpat.com in 2008.)

Describe your first trip abroad.

I had my first opportunity to come to Germany in 1972 – the summer vacation between 9th and 10th grades. I stayed with a wonderful guest family in one of the most beautiful areas of the country – The Black Forest. I travelled with a group of about 25 other American kids and 2 adults. We all lived in different little villages in the area, but attended the same school (“Gymnasium”) in Hausach. Our free time was spent travelling either as a group or with our guest families.

The many positive experiences I had made a lasting impression on me, and I decided to return to Europe at the earliest possible date.


When did you realize that you had the Expat bug and wanted to live abroad?

When I got back to the States I went into total culture shock. Although I had stayed in an area of Germany that was much more provincial than the western Pennsylvania suburb where I grew up in the States, I was blown away by the realization that there was “a whole ‘nuther world” out there.

Although my trip to German had been a kind of reward from my parents for my academic performance, once I returned to the States my grades plummeted.

 I eventually persuaded my father to allow me to study in Europe if I could:

  • graduate from high school at the end of the 11th grade, and
  • maintain an “A” average for the entire year.

He probably thought I wouldn’t make it, but agreed to the deal. Anything to get me motivated again!

 In September 1974 I headed back to Europe to study in Strasbourg before (finally) transferring to Heidelberg in 1975.

Where were you born and in which countries have you lived?

I was born in New Jersey, but grew up in central and southwestern Pennsylvania.

I have lived in Strasbourg, France, as well as in Heidelberg, Göttingen, Mainz and Neuss/Düsseldorf, Germany. I now live in Erkelenz, which is about 25 minutes from the Dutch border. 

(Note: In the meantime I live in the Sauerland region of the country.)


What has been your most enlightening experience while living abroad?

 In a lot of ways it’s difficult to pin it down to a single experience. It is a conglomerate of the way (and quality) of life, the natural beauty of many areas, the impressive cities (Prague or Budapest, to name just two of my favorites), the wonderful and eclectic mix of people I’ve met, as well as the whole journey of self-discovery you embark on when you step outside your personal comfort zone in such an extreme way.

What has been your most disheartening experience while living abroad?

The realization that the ugliest of human frailties – racism, xenophobia, etc. – are truly global.

What customs have you adopted in your new country?

Being familiar with local customs is part of really living in a country. I certainly can’t say that I actively participate in everything that goes on here, but I do make a serious attempt to understand the significance and rituals of everything from “Karneval” to “Backfischfest” to “Schützenfest”! This includes for me an at least passing grasp of the local dialect, because you can’t always depend on people to speak so-called “High German”. Plus, if you are as interested in language as I am, deciphering dialects is fun!


Which customs from home do you miss the most?

Not so much a custom, per se, but I miss having access to the Black Church. I know God is everywhere, and I am sure I could find a friendly and welcoming church home here, but…it’s just not the same!

How important is knowing the local language? Do you have proficiency in the local language?

I believe knowing/learning the language is absolutely paramount! You can never operate successfully within a culture or ever really know and understand it, without some mastery of the language.

When I first visited Germany as an exchange student I had only had 2 years of junior high school-level German. Living in a small village where people spoke a very strong dialect was therefore a real challenge for me. Fortunately, I’m a talkative person by nature, so I didn’t let my almost non-existent grasp of German grammar get in the way of my trying to say what I needed to say. I simply tried to apply what I’d learned to what I wanted to say. To this day my guest family gets a good laugh remembering some of my more exotic linguistic concoctions!

In the meantime I am very fluent in spoken German and also have strong written language skills. Written proficiency became important when I entered the workforce and began to climb the corporate ladder, though I always depend on native speakers to double-check important documents that go out.

I believe it’s imperative to learn the language if you really want to say you “live” here, though the level of proficiency you need certainly depends on the type of life you lead. There are obviously employment sectors where English is the language of business. On the other hand, you’ll still have to do your own shopping and talk to civil servants and interact with people on the street.

And – from time to time – stand up for yourself.


How have you gone about making friends?

 My group of friends is a pretty eclectic mixture of other expats, people I have worked with, German neighbors and people I went to university with.

How do you keep in touch with family and friends from home?

 Things have gotten so much easier! Most people can’t even remember when the only way to stay in touch with the folks back home was via “snail mail” – and that a letter took at least a week to get from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Or when calling the States for three minutes used to cost you about DM 11/Euro 5.50.

Now it’s almost cheaper to call the States than it is to call just over the border to the Netherlands if you use the right discount prefix, and with e-mail I can be in touch with friends and relatives there just as quickly as I can with people here.

How hard is it to find a good place to live?

 I don’t find that very hard at all anymore. Obviously, it’s a question of finance and luck. You also have to be familiar with what is considered “normal” in terms of condition and features of the place you rent or buy.

In Germany, for example, many rental properties do not have any kitchen furnishings, so you have to be prepared to either

  • continue your search till you find a place with the kitchen fully outfitted or
  • get a kitchen (everything from the cabinetry to the appliances to the proverbial kitchen sink)

yourself!

 The issue of racism (for me, at least) isn’t as prevalent when looking for a place to live as it was – say – in the 70’s or early 80’s. It does still occur, of course, but in my recent experience it’s more the exception than the rule.

What goals have you achieved while living abroad?

 Since living abroad I have achieved most of the goals I would have probably been focused on if I had stayed in the States with reference to education, career, relationships, etc.  Doing all of this within a foreign context did, however, increase the level of difficulty – in some cases significantly.

I have also mastered one foreign language, gained decent proficiency in a second, and can do better than struggle in a third. I have travelled more than I would have if I had stayed in the States.

In some ways, too, I think that I (like all expats) have acted as an informal ambassador for my country, my race and my gender


What has living abroad taught you about yourself?

I grew up in a situation where I was most often known as “Mr. XX’s daughter”.  Living in Europe gave me the level of autonomy and anonymity I needed. It has certainly taught me that I can make it on my own! Oh sure, I have made the requisite mistakes in life, but I also have the strength and the tenacity to pick myself up and continue forward.

What would you say to a friend or relative who is considering moving abroad?

 Clearly define what you are looking for and what you are willing to pay for it. Living abroad – even in Western Europe – isn’t like living in a version of  America where the people just talk funny. You must be willing and open to knew customs and rituals, but also to another way of thinking.

Do you consider yourself a permanent expatriate?

Yes, though even after 30+ years I would never say “never”. On the other hand, I was really surprised when some people asked if I would be returning to the States when my husband and I separated. I didn’t come to Europe because of a man, and I certainly don’t plan to leave it because of one (or the lack thereof).  

 I built up a life for myself here. My children were born here and consider themselves at home here. If I decide to return to the States, it’ll be because my own unique life plan has changed. Not one day sooner.

How has your life as an expatriate changed who you are?

I don’t think it has. I think my life as an expat has allowed me to be who I authentically am with more ease. Or with more comfort and flexibility  in the places that would have been more restricting if I had chosen to stay in the State

Do Blacks (or foreigners in general) in your view have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?

Yes, racism and xenophobia are a global plague.

I think Americans will find racism (and racist assumptions) to simply be different to what they are used to. Sometimes more subtle. Sometimes based on totally different premises than you would find in the States.

As a black American you may also encounter behaviour that is more generated by curiosity than any type of racism.

And – if  you are open to it – you might learn that American attitudes about race aren’t univeral – or necessarily always correct.