Friday, November 07, 2014

In praise of being an expatriate

There is a curious piece in The Times today by Sathnam Sanghera rubbishing the world of the Ex-Pat.

I am reluctant to praise the benefits of living outside your home country too highly because I realise that it is a privilege not available to all. I was lucky, very lucky. In 1980 I was "posted" (as we used to call it) by my employer, Shell, to The Netherlands - not to The Hague but to the local company based in Rotterdam. I had to learn and work in Dutch. I had to learn about a culture quite different from my own. I lived in a city, Leiden, utterly different from anywhere I had lived before. For three years I rode the waves of that Dutch culture. It wasn't easy, I'm a fairly gregarious sort of chap and initially not speaking the language was quite stressful. But my colleagues, neighbours and business contacts were helpful and gradually I came not just to appreciate the country, but even to love it. But more importantly I changed. Shell was I think clever enough to see that I needed to be outside my comfort zone and my time in Holland was just that. Every year in The Netherlands counted at least double in my personal development.

My reward for a reasonably successful time in Holland was a posting to Scotland! Now you might not think that was an expatriate posting and technically it wasn't ! But in the same way that The Netherlands told me a bit about Europe, or one small part of it, Scotland told me about my own country. The three years I spent North of the border made me British, very different to the Englishness of my upbringing. They do things differently there. Not THAT differently perhaps, but differently. In that job, at the time of the miners' strike, I was close to events and people outwith my previous experience. And that's lies at the core of the expat benefit - you are challenged more and in different ways than if you stay at home. You will never be the same again.

Following Scotland I rode those cultural waves again for four years in Hong Kong. This amazing place invades all your senses in a unique way. Every day you smell it, hear it, feel it, touch it - there is no escape! As if, in my case, you would want to escape. I was there at a lucky time. I worked with expatriate colleagues but also, and crucially, with some brilliant local staff. Is managing a team of Hong Kong Chinese the same as managing a team of Brits? Of course not. Is it valuable experience - indeed, and not just that. You learn as much from the locals as (hopefully) they do from you. This is another big Expatriate gain. It's a two-way learning process.

At the end of my Shell career I spent seven years in the Middle East. Based in Dubai I worked across the region and visited every country. Take Yemen. I doubt that I should ever have gone to that extraordinary country had I not had a business reason to do so. Yemen was like time travel. But the business priorities and the opportunities were the same, though the solutions were very different. And that is yet another benefit. The cliche "Think Global, Act Local" may be over familiar, but it is true. And if sensitively applied it works.

To denigrate the benefits of being an expatriate is ignorant and trite. If you only measure them by the banalities of what you earn or whether the sun shines perhaps you should indeed have stayed at home. But if you see the challenge, the opportunity and the rewards as they can be then you will regard your expat years as the privilege they are. The more you ride the waves of culture the broader, and I think better, you will be as a person. I don't know any "Little Englanders" who were expatriates. Nor any petty nationalists nor faux patriots either.


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