Like many of you, I’m digitally connecting while socially distancing with friends during the global pandemic. There is a noticeable difference in comfort level during these uncertain times between those who have lived abroad and those who have not. My expat and former expat friends were the first to settle into the new norm and are now seemingly unfazed. Meanwhile, those who have not had an overseas experience were panicked at the start and are still resisting establishment in new routines. It made me pause and ask what is it that sets these groups apart? What skills have the expats mastered that are just now being learned by others?
The easiest answer is that we were at one point immersed in the hard lesson of resiliency. Those who are able to quickly adjust and adapt to change are the most successful in any relocation process. We know that with every unorthodox transition flows a pattern: preparation, honeymoon, culture shock and adjustment. It can feel like a foreign country when you move your life inside your home. New routines are needed, new learning habits, new rules … all feel familiar to those who have moved abroad. Those who have gone through the experience knew they had to prep first, then potentially felt like it was an extended vacation, and moved into understanding the new norm quicker than the average person with less panic.
We also know the importance of community. I might argue this is one of the top leading success indicators of an overseas assignment and of sheltering-in-place. When you feel incompetent and uninformed, it’s helpful to have a sense of community that can relate. When your super human power of self-reliance is eroded, the community that embraces you will strengthen you. Nobody is coming out of this pandemic without a little help from their family and friends. The sooner those in isolation find their network, the sooner they will feel less alone and scared.
Being alone and scared makes one feel out of control and very uncertain. But these are not new feelings to expats. To the general population, these feelings are sending many into a fearful state. Many expats have been here, in a mess like this, before. Stuff happens while overseas. In March 2011, we lived in Tokyo and held on while the 9.0 quake shook us. We watched as expats were evacuated from other nations out of fear of a nuclear meltdown while those who stayed stocked up on toilet paper (sound familiar?). Whether it’s day after day of purple Air Quality Index days in Shanghai or the daily threat of being carjacked in Sao Paulo, expats have developed survival skills that diffuses the terror of being out of control during uncertain times. We know the world is full of historical events and we are part of the story if we just hold on tight and ride it out.
We also know how to hunker down as a family or as a couple. This is where we have earned out stripes. We are a team that is bound tighter due to the hardships that come with living in a foreign country at times. Our family and marriages have been taken down to its studs and we are familiar with the essential needs. Sheltering-in-place feels a bit like landing in a new location where we are all that each other have for entertainment and companionship, for better or for worse. We know how to lean on each other heavily, and maybe even more importantly, we know when space is needed. Our family closeness has been one of the most beautiful benefits from our overseas experience and we are tapping into that advantage lately as if it’s our first week of immigration in a new location.
The compassion doesn’t stop in the family. We have more consideration for diversity since we have been the minority, the one with the thick accent, or the one who makes a cultural blunder. Some expats have lived where the outbreak began and our hearts are with our once host country. Some have visited where the country seems to be losing the battle on the virus and can recall the sites, smells and sounds of the cities now in isolation. These global citizens can reference locations with personal stories and feel more empathetic for those afflicted. We still have friends all around the world and are hearing first-hand how Spain or Korea is handling the situation. These aren’t faraway places with nameless faces; these are our communities and once upon time homes.
We have been stripped of all our creature comforts and made alternative adjustments as replacements or learned to live without. We are a resourceful lot. We can find replacements, substitutions, digital versions, homemade versions. We are a jack of all trades when it comes to ingenuity. No yeast available for bread? Okay, we’ll make tortillas. The gym is closed? Fine, we’ll download a new fitness app or stream our yoga teacher on Zoom. Expats typically know that a dead end doesn’t mean there is zero option; dead ends mean it’s time for Option B, C, or D.
And lastly, we’ve been communicating with family and old friends through devices for a decade. We stayed in contact with our family while in Japan via Skype when that was the only platform offering face-to-face, real-time communication in 2009. Online communication is nearly part of the starter guide for expat life. From Instagram to Zoom, FaceTime to HouseParty, expats are physically distancing but socially connected as if hardwired into our being.
We expats know how to push the reset button and for this I’m grateful. Pardon the gratitude but that’s just one more skill learned overseas. We tend to count our blessings because we have seen global poverty, crime, injustice, inequality. Let’s lead our local community in our optimism. To all the expats out there, keep leading by example with your sense of calm and ease during this time. The world needs your rare experience and global kindness more than ever right now.