Redefining a “successful” expat experience
There is article after article with advice on how to prepare for an overseas assignment. Headlines tout “The top 5 reasons why an assignment fails”. But, what do you do amidst a said “failure.” What if you’ve prepped and a loved one still doesn’t hit the satisfactory mark on the expat thriving meter? Unfortunately, the internet is not so helpful with this search.
I am not a family counselor; I don’t have the clinical answers. But I have lived through a year whereby a member of my family was not flourishing. Out of privacy and care for my loved one, I am using he/his pronoun in examples.
Last year, Richard Schiffman wrote about the orchid, the dandelion, and the tulip in the New York Times. The article is specific to sensitivity levels during childhood. However, I have seen grown adults as the three examples and believe it applies to all ages. The orchid child is delicate while the dandelion thrives anywhere, even in the most inhospitable of places. And the tulip is somewhere in between the two extremes. Those who are more emotional and tense in a new environment, an orchid, need to be approached with tender nurturing. If you have an orchid in your family, I highly recommend treating the situation with patience and the utmost gentleness.
As with all major life disruptions, an overseas move creates an emotional deficit. Responses may not match socially acceptable behavior; the unimportant become influential in his eyes. It’s like living in survival mode. Imagine him as a player in a video game, and his energy level is down to fumes, yet he is still going full speed. In real life, the emotional aspect of living on fumes looks a little different than the video game character. There could be mood swings, frustration flare-ups over minor issues, anger outbursts, tears over not finding batteries in the new city (ahem, my own true story). New expats learn to adjust to new expectations from the most important (like work/school) to the every day (like learning parking zones for bikes). This learning engulfs you on a minute-by-minute continuum without end. An exhausting situation if you are operating on fumes.
So the real question is, how do you help your loved one manage this emotional deficiency?
First, we need to acknowledge that there are layers. Recall the battery hunt mentioned above? I broke down into tears when I safely crossed the threshold of our apartment after spending hot and humid hours unsuccessfully searching for batteries in Tokyo. (Tears over not finding something? Yup, emotional deficit in full force.) It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t find batteries; it was the lack of ease. I had to recognize that the overseas move would come with more work and patience than expected. Finally finding the batteries was like sticking a landing of a complicated gymnastic routine. I was beyond proud that my hard work had netted me the desired result. (Pride over something small? Yup, emotional deficit works the other way too.) Resolving my issue proved I was going to be able to survive. Just as my meltdown had nothing to do with the batteries, the joy had nothing to do with them either. Accepting that wild emotional fluxes are rooted in much more profound levels will help you and your loved one move forward. Lack of self-sufficiency, distrust in ones capabilities, misunderstanding cultural queues, and so much more are all possible underlying layers of what may truly be at the heart of the struggle.
If the family member is still exhibiting troublesome behavior or moods after the adjustment period, that first dip in the expat lifecycle, it’s time to call in the professionals. Outside help is essential, especially if you’re in a city with a strong expat community whereby a specialist may be available. Workplaces and schools can be the first step. In our situation, my loved one didn’t feel comfortable starting there as it was too close to his pain point. He felt too vulnerable to see someone within the same environment where he was struggling the most. There were English-speaking and even American therapists in cities where we lived as alternatives. With the help of technology, you can also connect with anyone back home for help or use apps such as BetterHelp.
If therapy is the foundation, then finding a community is the framework on top. Identifying an out-of-the-home community will be his support unit. Did he love playing golf back home? Then help him replicate that in the new environment by finding his people, place, and tools. He may not have the desire or energy reservoir to do this independently. So often, the one struggling feels like a victim of the overseas agreement. He may need a little assistance finding his community to feel more self-reliant and assertive amongst peers. Seek out clubs, sports, and events as opportunities. Once he finds the right one, he may hop in and start thriving.
Transitions are busy times, and the inundation of tasks can make your head spin. But take the time to be mindful of the little breadcrumbs that he leaves behind unknowingly. These clues are keys to his state of mind. Listen and watch. For example, seemingly out of the blue, my family member requested some equipment that he had never shown any interest in before. I was prepared to help him find his community and quickly sourced this equipment. But had I stopped, I would have been able to see the equipment as a means to an end, not the equipment itself. Again, lots of layers. Had I been more attuned, I would have seen the connection. Instead, I was at the surface level and not digging in. Take time to explore.
Relocating can feel a bit lonely at times and if he is the one on the slower track to enjoying all the newness, it can feel even lonelier. But, he is not alone. As much as 40% of overseas assignments fail. The assignment may be adventurous and the rest of the family may be optimistic about it. This further isolates the one hurting and may encourage them to hide their true feelings. If he says things are difficult, remind him that he isn’t the only one who finds it challenging. It’s common to feel like a square peg in a round hole.
Companies may prep families for oversea assignments but few follow through on the maintenance. Create a maintenance plan that allows you to check in with your family often. Perhaps that is weekly dinners or individual text messages. It could mean scheduling vacations home to see friends and family more often than anticipated. However you best communicate, ratchet it up. Keep a pulse on non-verbal communication too. Mood shifts and changes in routine are non-verbal warning signs that things may be off.
I thought I could bear the responsibility of my family’s happiness on my own. I couldn’t. The final lesson is that you can’t do it on your own. It would be best if you had a supportive community and/or professional help too. Having a sounding board in transition or isolating times is extremely helpful.
And if after all the support is given and the assignment still isn’t working, don’t force it. Love for family and their emotional well-being is a lifelong journey. An overseas assignment is finite. Choosing the long-term path requires the family to let the adventure go. But there are plenty of adventures to be had later and elsewhere. Akin to Simone Biles putting her Olympic dreams aside, we too put mental health in front of everything associated to an overseas assignment: expectations, career promises, the thrill of the road. We cut our 3rd country assignment short and have no regrets. We saw an immediate improvement in mood and demeanor when we made the decision to return home.
I’m grateful for the time we are living in which is indirectly shining a light on the definition of success. From the isolating time during the pandemic which is reprioritizing the important aspects in life, to mainstream names that are normalizing mental health issues, we are all questioning what success means to us. I don’t see our family as a “failure” due to a shortened overseas assignment; I see our family having learned from it and thereby became stronger and closer. That sounds like success to me.