It’s a strange feeling getting on a plane and not knowing what to expect when you land. As expats, this is something we do all the time. Land in a new country and then fumble with a new local currency in our hands. Walk nervously into a café for a coffee meeting to meet other expats we’ve never met before. Head into a grocery store and figure out what bread crumbs are called in a foreign language we don’t speak yet. This constant moving, reinvention, change and accumulation of new experiences helps to shape us and our global identities.
This week though I took an even bigger journey, and flew half way across the world to meet and learn from a group of people I had never met before. With sweaty palms, I boarded my flight from Dubai to Amsterdam, on my way to The Hague to to attend the Families in Global Transition’s (FIGT) annual conference. I was going to meet my international tribe: people and families living the globally mobile life, just like us. Thinkers, writers, authors, researchers and speakers who knew what it is like to grow up in the midst of different cultures, what it is like to land in a foreign country and not speak the local language, what it is like to grow up being different, what it is like to raise children in a cross-cultural environment and what it is like to look at a map of the world and feel your heart race with excitement as you look at all the places you call home.
I thought back to the day 15 years ago, when I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as a wide-eyed 19-year-old teenager, on my way from Pakistan to America. It was a journey that dramatically changed the course of my life. A journey that had started off with just me and one suitcase, had now turned into a full-blown adventure after 7 countries, a 40-foot container, an expat husband from the other corner of the world, two kids born in two different countries and an ever-changing sense of identity, home, passports, nationalities and languages.
This week, as Schiphol Airport greeted me like an old friend, I realized that I was on a similar life-altering journey. As I walked through the doors of FIGT’s annual conference, and was greeted by one person after another with incredible warmth and friendliness, I felt that familiar rush of excitement and adrenaline.
Here is why. Here is what FIGT taught me this week:
- The themes that stood out:
- Community building is essential: Community and its counterpart, a tribe – is the one thing we cannot afford to miss out. Naomi Hattaway, founder of the ‘I Am A Triangle’ group support group, helped to show that “not experiencing community, is not an option.” She herself realized the importance of community when she moved from the United States to India. She helped us define what a community is and why it is essential for all of us to have. She encouraged us to seek out the commonalities we have with others. Patience, a smile and an open mind are all that is needed to build a community. By turning “I” into ‘we’ we can help support each other and stand together like a “zazzle of zebras.” Like a zebra, we also have unique stripes, but when we they all stand together, predators can’t attack. Similarly, if we stand together as a community and a tribe it would be harder for depression and loneliness to find us. It was the perfect start to the conference – along with her advice to stay curious, ask questions and explore challenges, which set the tone for what was to come.
- Finding your language on the move is complex but vital: Language helps us to identify and name our experiences. Whether we identify as a third culture kid (TCK) or an expat, finding our language on the move was instrumental. Together Ruth van Reken, Ute Limacher-Riebold and Rita Rosenback showed us how language for globally mobile families was ever evolving. I was pleased to learn that the term “third culture kids” was now being used increasingly in other languages too. Ute pointed out “drittkulturkinder” in German and “ragazzi di terza cultura” in Italian were terms that had seeped into these languages as well. The biggest theme that stood out for me from this talk was Rita’s statement: “Languages don’t divide; they bring families together.” As a parent raising my kids in a multilingual environment (with 4 native languages + the local language of each country we move to), I have often wondered about the impact this will have on them. Hearing this helped me reaffirm that by teaching our kids our native languages, we weren’t dividing our family unit into Urdu speaking/German speaking/English speaking/Italian speaking/Arabic speaking – we were using all these languages to bring our family together.
- Fear is useless; it has no place in our lives: As someone who is from Karachi, Pakistan I (unfortunately) know fear first hand. I have lived through multiple bomb blasts, military coups, political strikes, nuclear proliferation blasts, the threat of war with our neighboring India, terrorist attacks, honor killings, car thefts and home burglaries. My childhood home has both burnt through flames after a nasty fire and seen armed robbers hold my mother at gunpoint in her bedroom. After that last incident, my heart filled with fear and I started to feel too scared to go back to the beloved city where I had grown up. Too scared to take my two young kids with me and put them in harm’s way. But Sebastien Bellin, in his captivating, inspiring and extremely emotional keynote address which had the audience in tears, reminded all of us that fear is a useless emotion and had no place in our lives. Sebastien, a Brazilian-Belgian professional basketball player faced life-threatening injuries when he was at the Brussels airport on March 22nd, 2016 when suicide bombs tore through the airport, a terrorist attack for which ISIS later claimed responsibility. Instead of focusing on fear or the dead woman who lay beside him as panic and confusion erupted all around, Sebastien focused all his energy on living, not dying. He focused on getting out of there alive. He encouraged us to remember the difference between fear and danger: “Danger is a reality. But fear is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. Our minds make it a reality.” He challenged us all to ask ourselves why we let fear become a part of our mindset and advised us to imagine a windshield wiper. When fear hits us, imagine a windshield wiper clearing it all away. It was a timely reminder that fear is never conducive to any situation. Sebastien’s story of survival, showed that he succeeded to recover from his injuries, because he rebuilt his recovery on positivity, instead of negativity. As an expat parent, I realize fear is not going to help me and in fact will limit any decisions I make. Fear is never a good emotion, to base any decision on.
- It’s important to connect your multicultural past to your present in a meaningful way: I really enjoyed the theme of this panel discussion, led by Marilyn Gardner. Sometimes, those of us who move countries a lot, try to tuck away our past, or brush it under the rug thinking the person standing in front of us is probably not interested in hearing about our previous life, in a different country. The advice and discussion that emerged from this panel discussion could not have been more different. Let’s use our multicultural past to our advantage; let’s use it to figure out our careers, life, love, relationships, parenthood and ambitions. Let’s use the skills we have learnt from an international childhood and apply them to our adult lives today. For me, it also tied into the fascinating research that Anne Copeland had shared with us on day two of the conference. She helped to show how the experience of being different helps you to develop certain life skills. It helps you to build resilience, it encourages adaptability and it fosters empathy for others. Sebastien Bellin touched upon this too when he explained “Every place that you live, adds quality to your life.” Using our past is not important, but crucial to finding our way in the present.
- The Moments That Stood Out:
- I loved catching oranges and arm wrestling in Dana Bachar Grossman’s talk on effective conflict mediation! The energy, vitality, passion and knowledge that she brought to the table in her presentation was truly inspirational.
- I personally loved meeting Marilyn Gardner and Monika Wal who had both grown up and lived in Pakistan. A true meeting of the hearts found us all together at the same time in the bookstore, each holding a copy of Marilyn’s new book ‘Passages Through Pakistan’ with a look of understanding and delight at the knowledge of what we held in common.
- The ignite speeches were quick and fast and had us laughing one minute and crying the next. From the experience of Muslim expats, to growing up in Africa, to facing loss, to finding joy abroad, the audience experienced a whole roller coaster of emotions every 6 minutes!
- The Lessons That Stood Out:
- TCK experiences are changing: My experience of growing up as a TCK in the mid 80’s with my Pakistani parents in the U.S always made us different. To this day, its effects can be seen in little things such as the fact that in a very anglicised fashion I call my father “daddy” as opposed to the normal Pakistani terms for father (baba/papa/abbu). My TCK experience though is very different from the experience that my own two kids are going through currently in Dubai. When you live in a country like the UAE where the majority of the population are expats and the locals are in the minority (locals make up only around 10-11% of the UAE’s population), your TCK kids are surrounded by other TCK kids. So, they grow up thinking its normal that everyone is like them, with multiple nationalities, speaking two or more languages, and with multiple homes. When or if they finally return to their passport country (Germany for my kids) they will be shocked to realize that not everyone grew up like they did. TCK experiences are changing, our kids may feel very differently than us when they are older.
- We all have “expat superpowers”: When Doreen Cumberford mentioned that we all have expat superpowers, I immediately sat up. 15 years as an expat, but no one had told me about any superpowers! Turns out I do have some superpowers too, but I just never thought of them or acknowledged them openly before. In a fresh, fun and new way, she helped each of us visualize our own unique vision and values. (My expat superpower must be getting out of tricky situations when abroad!)
- Whose voice wasn’t being represented at the table: It was during the Millennials Forum, that Amanda Bate and Amy Clare Tasker encouraged us to ask the most important question: “Who is not at the table? Whose voice is not being heard?” The answers were many. Ranging from the single expat experience to the black expat, from the “other expats”: the migrant workers in the Gulf countries, to the refugees on the move, it seemed a lot more voices could be included to talk about families in global transition.
- My Favorite Quotes:
- “We welcome you a stranger, send you back home a friend.” – Wilhelm Post, Opening address.
- “Life overseas is not always a warm hug and a kiss on both cheeks.” – Naomi Hattaway, Me Too! Lighting the Triangle Beacon -Why Finding Your Tribe Matters.
- “Languages don’t divide; they bring families together.” – Rita Rosenback, Finding Your Language on the Move.
- “Early Muslims used camels; but we use airplanes.” – Maryam Afnan Ahmad, The Muslim Expatriate Experience.
- “It’s not a matter of ambition or being greedy. It’s a matter of saying I have talent and I want to contribute.” – Alex Carnot, Managing Dual Careers Abroad.
- “You don’t have to move abroad to experience culture shock.” – Olga Mecking, Tribes: How and Where To Find Them?
- “Who’s not at the table?” – Amanda Bate, The Millennials Forum.
- “Fear is an illusion – it doesn’t exist. Our minds make it a reality. Why allow fear to be part of your mindset?” – Sebastien Bellin, Keynote address, I Should Fear, But I Don’t. Why Don’t You?
- “Do you rebuild yourself on negativity or positivity?” – Sebastien Bellin, I Should Fear, But I Don’t. Why Don’t You?
- “Once you lay out your needs, you can find options.” – Dana Bachar Grossman, Effective Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Globally Mobile Communities.
- “Volunteering gives people a chance to create community. Volunteering is not just about giving; it is also about receiving.” – Deborah Valentine, The ABC and XYZ of Finding Your Tribe on Arrival.
- “I recommend TCK’s to take a gap year.” – Cliff Gardner, Panel Discussion, Finding Your Niche: Connecting a Multicultural Past to a Meaningful Present.
- “Try the thing that has the greatest risk, because it also has the most potential.” – Killian Kroll – Panel Discussion, Finding Your Niche.
What were the themes, moments, speeches or quotes that stood out for you? In the coming weeks, I will attempt to delve deeper into some of the emerging themes and topics from this year’s FIGT conference and try to focus on sharing practical information, resources and tools that can help other expats in navigating through their globally mobile lives. You can follow more on ‘And Then We Moved To’ on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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