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Expat: to be or not to be?

Beginning a new life in a different country and culture, is to work out how to get the balance right between keeping a connection with your own background and how much to expose yourself to the new culture. Susan Hall shares her own personal experience.

Susan Hall with friends next to the Great Wall of China

Taking risks or playing it safe?

One of the challenges to be faced when you are beginning a new life in a different country and culture, is to work out how to get the balance right between keeping a connection with your own background and how much to expose yourself to the new culture. There are very many ways to do this and many degrees of immersion in a different culture. Some people take their shell with them and never leave them, other exchange the old one for a new one, more adapted to the new life.
"Paguro" website, which means hermit crab in Italian, implies that you should do just that. The expatriates takes the shell of their own culture with them when they moves to a new location, for protection and comfort. Some people when they move to a new country , they stay inside it and never come out of the shell to see what’s happening around them.

Taking risks and looking out for a new shell is easier in some countries than in others. Some cultures welcome foreigners more than others, and sometimes the welcome is there but you can’t see it because of language barriers and cultural differences.

Culture awareness, the key to a good life

I remember how hard it was for me when we went to Japan 12 years ago. Life in Japan is interesting and stimulating, but full of traps for the culturally unaware. Something as simple as entering a room is boxed around with rules.
Rule number one is take off your shoes when you enter a home.

That’s simple enough right?

But you may have to remove your outdoor shoes in a tiny area called the genkan just inside the front door and step up into the next room, at the same time putting your feet into the indoor slippers your hostess has provided for you to wear. This manoeuvre must be performed without letting your feet touch the floor.

Easy for the graceful, agile Japanese but hard for a big clumsy, foreigner. You manage as best you can, but this is not the end of the slipper saga.

More rules abound. For instance, if you go into a room in the house that is covered in tatami (woven straw) mats then you must take those indoor slippers off. On top of that if you go to use the bathroom you should exchange your indoor slippers for a pair of bathroom slippers, in another complicated manoeuvre at the entrance to the bathroom. Then you must be very careful to take the bathroom slippers off again as you leave the bathroom. Otherwise you will feel ashamed and embarrassed when you see the look of horror on your Japanese host’s face.

More than one culture at a time

Sometimes you can be exposed to several new cultures at once and this can be overwhelming. As an Australian living in Japan with my son attending an American school, I found adapting to the American education system and culture nearly as difficult as coming to grips with Japan. Then there was the other cultural difference that occurs when you move from being a career professional with a challenging job to an at home person. How we see ourselves as a person is often tied up with our job, and without a job we feel lost. In Japan, I filled this gap by studying Japanese, teaching English and eventually finding a new career as a writer. Along the way I also studied Ikebana (Japanese-style flower arranging) and became a patchwork quilter.

In China, I had my first experience of living in a developing country. There you have the big cultural difference of living in a huge, new ultra-modern city that is in great contrast to the millions of people still living in rural poverty. Highlights of three years in China were walking on the Great Wall, visiting Hangzhou, the home of the best green tea, and eating out in Guangzhou, the gourmet capital. Singapore is a tiny country in area, but culturally is extremely interesting. It has four official languages – Chinese, Malay, English and Tamil (from Southern India) and is the great Asian melting pot where you can meet people from all over the region.

In Singapore, for the first time, I visited Hindu and Sikh temples, ate dosa and other Southern Indian delicacies and attended festival occasions in the home of Indian friends. I also enjoyed the lanterns, lion dances and parades at Chinese New Year and visited a colourful night market at the Malay festival of Hari Raya. As an expatriate in Asia, I valued the help and companionship of friends in expatriate groups, clubs and organisations.

In Kobe, Japan I was a member of CHIC (Community House International Centre) that ran classes in the Japanese language and culture. In Guangzhou, China I was a member of an expatriate women’s group that provided invaluable information and social get together.

In Singapore there is a huge expatriate population and many clubs and organizations for different national groups. The American Association membership is open to all nationalities. This group has set up the Career Resource Centre for Expatriates (CRCE) which helps trailing spouses find employment. CRCE’s coffee mornings and seminars have helped me to understand the value of networking, to update my resume and to really get my writing career going. Expatriate women in Singapore over the years have set up the ‘Friends of the Museums’ organization which trains volunteer guides for Singapore’s art and history museums and helps members get to know more about Asian cultures with tours and seminars.

Children and expatriation,
the real challenge

The challenges of the expatriate life are many, none bigger than how to make sure your children are enjoying and benefiting from living in a different culture. My son spent his first seven years in the north-west of England and then we moved back to Australia. Fortunately, for the important formative years of seven to fourteen, we were living in our home country. Even though he went to high school in Japan, university in the USA and now lives and works in New York, he still retains a keen sense of what it means to be Australian. In this respect he is luckier than many other “Global Souls” – a term used by Pico Iyer in his book of that name. Global Souls grow up in a culture that is different from their parents and they have usually lived in several different countries. Global Souls feel at home everywhere and nowhere. They are part of the generation who maintain contact with their group with computers, mobile phones and the internet.

Paguro website is part of this internet world which helps us all stay connected as we move around the world.