How do we change and what do we keep?

Living abroad and using two or more languages on a daily basis has become a way of life for many of us today. Whether we became expatriates by choice or need, temporarily or permanently, alone or with family, we all share and keep the new skills and experiences acquired along the way. An experience as an expatriate, however short or long, forever changes our life perspective and our way of being. When we find ourselves in a new environment, away from the usual and familiar, we become more alert and receptive to changes. Of course, it is different for people who fled their war-affected home countries, their trauma and loss can also be transgenerational, and their interpersonal skills forcibly changed in many different – and not always positive – ways. Because of the complexity of that issue, this article will rather focus on people who simply moved abroad because they had that opportunity.

When talking about interpersonal skills, we usually think about work or business environment, and how having great interpersonal skills can make us better in the workplace. This is certainly correct, but interpersonal skills also include the ability to effectively communicate, socialise, connect and cooperate with people outside the professional context. This means that we also use our interpersonal skills in everyday life. Some of everyday interpersonal skills include empathising, active listening and problem solving, which can all be very culture specific.

When writing this article, I conducted a short survey among my friends and acquaintances on social networks. While creating a list of people to contact about expatriation, I was surprised to discover how many of my contacts actually were, or have been, expats. The responses I received have been very interesting.

The word “expatriate”. comes from the Latin words ex (out of) and patria (home country, fatherland). Some respondents were not at all comfortable being called expats, possibly because they have integrated so much into their new society and culture that they no longer felt foreign. Others said that their expat life made them more open-minded, extroverted, empathic, and facilitated their relationships with people they have only just met. It also greatly helped them to develop their problem-solving skills because they discovered that there is always another perspective, and developed the skill of balancing between their old, usual ways and the newly acquired ones. Nearly all of my subjects mentioned that they became more tolerant to different languages, races, cultures and subcultures. Most of them said that knowing or learning the language of the new country made their transition easier, and their integration smoother. There was also a discussion of why the word “expats” is used predominantly for White people from Western cultures while the word “immigrants” is reserved for others. This goes to show that even when we think we are at our most tolerant self, we nonetheless harbour some tacit prejudices as we observe people differently.

Finally, there is one theme that really seemed important particularly since I have experienced it myself, and believed that it was my own.

Although the initial question was about the interpersonal skills, or about the way we interact with others, when asked about how life abroad changed them, my subjects often talk about how they changed their regard to self.

They said that the new culture, the new environment, sometimes the new language as well, made them more aware of their own cultural identity. In reality, when you live abroad, “Where do you come from?” becomes like “Hello”, like a greeting, a question that arises nearly every day. In order to answer it, you need to know, not only what your flag looks like or where your country stands on the map, but also to recognise the similarities and the differences with the country where you immigrated. When we think about our cultural identity and we define it, verbalise it, we take a completely different often more objective perspective to explain it to others. This is the perspective that does not naturally occur when people never leave their home country.

I found that we often become more patriotic and appreciative of our own culture more, when we have feedback about it from others. In order to explain some custom or cultural trait, we make an extra effort to understand it ourselves, while if we live with it every day there is no need for that. Once we understand it, we are more likely to keep it, even if it does not entirely belong to our new country. We then get a privilege to pick and choose, to take what we like from our own culture but also from the new country. This can take years and there is a great variety of ways we can feel integrated in the new country. Sometimes, we do not even notice how integrated we have become until we go back to our own country and compare. It is a matter of comparison, duality and bifurcation, some traits come together, others go apart.

When we have children in a foreign country, it becomes even more complex, we start thinking about our own childhood, the way we were raised, and again how different or similar it might be for our children’s’. For example, things like nursery rhymes, I was really surprised to discover that most of them are actually exactly the same in England and Serbia, only in a different language.

Once we absorb all the differences and accept all the similarities, we become someone else, we learn to cherish our new identity and be the proud owners of multiple cultural identities. We become kinder and more patient to others, because we have acquired the skills of empathy and we are able to share our new experiences with others back home.

However, despite how well we accept the new language and the new culture, when we do the much-appreciated work on ourselves in psychotherapy, it is much more welcoming to have a therapist that comes from our home country, or at least speaks the language. This is important because of the initial forming of the therapeutic, healing relationship but also because we can skip the ”Where do you come from?” question, at least in this setting.