the Life of an expat child

I met the Managing Director of the Russian office today. Fascinating man! He is British man married to a Brazilian/Japanese woman. His work history is incredible. He worked in Shanghai (got bored with it), Beijing and Hong Kong pretty early in his career before starting up business in Sri Lanka and subsequently Pakistan. Finally, he took up an assignment in Russia two years. Enviable career and clearly a poster child for constant professional rejuvenation.

He has two kids, 10 and 12. I couldn’t help but feel some connection to their experience as children of an expatriate. There are many ways in which lives of expatriates and their families are privileged. While expat packages are not what they used to be (I’m in HR, I know), they still afford a far more comfortable lifestyle than the average person in that country. As an expat, your community is almost ready made: you travel with others with transient lifestyles. Expats are a breed of people who, for better or for worse, are addicted to the expat lifestyle.

But what does it really do to these kids who are uprooted every few years? I think I have some perspective on this given that I grew up all over the world. I left Mumbai, India when I was 11 (I moved there when I was six), lived in Singapore for three years during which I attended two schools, and then spent a year in Sydney, Australia before returning to Mumbai for three years. Just when I felt settled and committed to being a Mumbai-ite, my parents announced we were following the dream of every successful corporate stooge and relocating to Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. I had a fit. At sixteen, relocating was a much harder experience than it had ever been before. I hated every corner and color of the private college preparatory high school I attended in Raleigh for two years, with a graduating class of 85, most of whom had been part of the school since kindergarten.

Looking back, these constant changes have come to define me. I have developed stellar coping and assimilation skills. Within two weeks of working with the Russia team in the Moscow office, the HR Director commented that she feels like I have been part of the team forever and complimented me on my assimilation skills. Well, I said to her, it’s not hard for me. Moving around a lot, you learn to pick up cultural cues and nuances that others don’t. I can relate well to most people and make them feel comfortable around me. All great skills, of course, and certainly a resume booster; which global company today doesn’t want people with above average assimilation skills and cultural awareness?

But it’s not that simple. When you become so accustomed to and good at being an outsider, you don’t know what it takes to become an insider. Not just a temporary insider, but a truly invested insider. You feel comfortable at the fringes because you know you always have the option and desire to move on to something else. The thought of living anywhere for longer than a year or two is stifling. Routines get mundane very quickly, and even people start to suffocate you. You become committed to not committing. “Where are you from?” people ask me. I say, “I don’t know.” “Where do you see yourself settling down?” those same people ask. I give them the same answer without a hint of irony in my voice. I don’t know where I’m from and where I’m going. Shit.

I don’t mean to set up the expat lifestyle as one that breeds dysfunctional people or expat children as those who will go on to pay their shrinks a lot of money for therapy (I sure don’t). In fact, I think expat kids are incredibly lucky to grow up with a wider world view than others. The post-globalization world with shifting centers of axes needs people who speak multiple languages and aren’t afraid to go somewhere they have never been before. However, for expats with families who see no downside to their kids globe trotting with them, the headline is that when adapting to the new becomes formulaic, there is something lost in translation. It is important to find the right equilibrium between generalization and personalization, comfort and discomfort, balance and imbalance, chaos and order.

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