Sunday, 3 January 2010

To be an expat

Man is a territorial animal. His natural preference is to live with the group that he belongs to. But for two reasons, people choose to live away from their natural communities. The first, and the biggest, reason is economic. The second is political.

I would guess that 90% of migrants are economic – they move to earn more money; to have a better life. Even where people ascribe other reasons, the real underlying cause is economic. The Economist , my favourite magazine, put it beautifully. A journalist was covering the regular anti America rallies in Iran. Death to America, Death to America, the chants were going on. A protester paused in mid chant to ask the journalist – “can you get me a green card” !

Earlier in the week, I had posted about the The Economist’s brilliant article on “being foreign”, here. This post is my personal view on being an expat.

The sheer experience of being an expat is enormously enriching, both professionally and personally. Professionally, it is an experience, without which, you cannot grow beyond a point in today’s globalised world. It’s a virtual prerequisite for a successful career. Working with, and leading, teams of mixed cultures is a key skill to be acquired; you cannot grow above middle management without this skill.

But equally important is the impact personally, if you choose to gain the experience. And this is where people adopt widely varying positions. A new culture is by definition strange and resistance to something strange is in our DNA. Many expats therefore form their own ghettos – the Chinatowns, the Southalls, the Little Indias, the white Expat Clubs, and the like.

I have learnt enormously from the countries I have lived in, and travelled to, by being more social with the local community than with the expats. You learn about the good, and not so good, things about the culture. Without being judgmental, you can assimilate the experience the better. If you treat local practices with disdain and remain smugly superior, you are an ass. If you treat local practices as second only to God and deride your own culture, you are an ass too. Something in between, and you become a much richer person.

Invariably, when I have been an expat, I have come to appreciate my own country and culture better. At first, I found this strange, but later on I have accepted this as one of the wonderful benefits of expatriation. I see India and Indian culture better now. I appreciate its strengths better and I have learnt to bypass its weaknesses better.

One of the biggest decisions of an expat is the timing of the return home. For me personally, the ideal tenure is 3 years, at the end of which I would want to come back to India. And go back again, if possible to a different country, after a longish stretch back home.

People who stay beyond a certain period of time can never go back home. For home has changed to something they cannot relate to, or be comfortable in. And one which their children cannot relate to at all. If they have opened their experience to the local culture, they can be happy where they are. But if they have ghettoized themselves, then that is the real tragedy. They are nowhere and theirs is essentially a lost generation. Their descendants take a long time to find their identity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in South Africa, where “ghettoisation” was forced because of apartheid.

For me, being an expat has been an experience that has been worth its weight in gold. Living in China now, has been an eye opener. I have experienced one of the great cultures of the world in a way I could never otherwise have. I have built some great friendships. I have understood, at least a little, the good, and not so good, of China. Sure, lots of things were tough, especially as I still can’t speak the language. But, without a doubt, I am a wiser man, for the experience. Older, but wiser, I would like to think !

Oh, the joys, and pains, of being an expat !!


Athivas said...

The much awaited post of the week!!

Living in a land of mixed-cultures, as in here, it is truly an enriching experience. How better we learn, does definitely depend on how open minded we are!! Of all, the thing that has raised many eyebrows, is our 'arranged marriages'. They still don't believe :P.

Athivas said...

I am awed at how much dimensions you can add on a single issue- personally, professionally, culturally!!

Sandhya Sriram said...

I agree with Athivas. You have summed it all.

This is an issue which has been bothering me for quite some time, as i am unable to decide whether the advantages of expatriation outweighs the disadvantage. but now, this post has given me a real perspective, more stronger that all the data points i am considering.

thanks again to my AI !!

gils said...

oru point hits rite in the head..beyond certain period of time..its hard to come back..we become outsiders in our native...i think our thoughts and beliefs are like reeds..which thrive on the water called time. in such a short while they grow so dense that we ourselves feel lost where we actually came from. the path back is lost in the wilderness of new found beliefs and comforts and wat used to be staple sounds outdated. i think it also helps in balancing the eco system. maybe its natures way of preserving banishing/spreading its own kids to other places so that the concentration is diluted!! avvvvvvvvv...inum avatar patha epectlenthu naan meelala nenakren :)

Ramesh said...

@athivas - Oh yes, the concept of an arranged marriage is extremely difficult for most other cultures to understand; but then that's one of the experiences others have when they get exposed to Indian culture. For some people in our culture, it does work !! Thanks for the very kind words

@Sandhya - Oh Ho - welcome to the ranks of the expats whenever you chooose to move !! "AI" ?? Well , well, my head is swelling too much - give it a knock !!

@gils - You are a philosopher too ?? Wow gils, you never cease to amaze. Wonderful perspective. I'll keep turning my mind on this excellent insight ! Now for half these words, I don't even know the Tamil equivalent; so please forgive my aangilam !!

Adam said...

Thank you very much for this musing. It has been almost a year since 1) you have invited me to read your Blog 2) I have moved to your home country. Both experiences were very rewarding.

Being an expat in India is one of the most valuable experiences I was privileged to enjoy. And I have learnt different things abroad...
- Germany thought me how to work even harder,
- Finland how to be humble,
- Australia how to sail a catamaran and celebrate Christmas on the beach,
- India how to be patient,
and the journey is hopefully not over...

Enjoy yet another expat afternoon and keep on musing!

A journey called Life said...

i like all the angles to this post and like how Gils say - the clincher in this post (for me atleast) is the part where u mention the ideal tenure to staying away from the home country.. its true how kids who have grown up in a different environment fail to connect to their actual land of origin..
lovely post Ramesh, you pack so much in such few lines.. it is so nice to read ur posts.. they are all so knowledgeable..

Ramesh said...

@Adam - Great to see your comment. As an expat across quite a few countries, interesting to read your take. As a Pole living in Bangalore, your experience must be quite unique. I hope your stay in India adds to your experience and you enjoy your stay

@AJCL - Thanks AJCL. You are so kind.

Deepa said...

One very important point you made was, 'the personal impact, is only if you choose to'!

Its a small difference in perspective. You can choose to call it 'living away from home' or 'living within new people'.

kiwibloke said...

There are three kinds of Expats (especially to the western world). The first is the student types who go for a masters, stay on and continue for ever to breed second and third generation NRIs. The second category is the 'foreign posted' expat who has a cushy life with the company taking care of every thing including settling down (and some/many of them do not necessarily move to the 'west') The third are the types like yours truly who get bitten by a mad dog and abandon every thing that they associate with for over three decades and start from scratch in one of the six countries (US/CA/AU/NZ/UK/IE, hoping to find a job, a home and a decent standard of life. Did I gain from my big OE (Overseas Experience as kiwis put it) Immensely! You said that once you go thru expatriation you tend to bypass the weaknesses in your own country - beg to differ. They get amplified much more when you are back in India. You wrote about the point of no return after 3-4 years. There is also a point of return back. The first 3 to 24 months after you finish with your expat terms and back in your own country, you are kinda undecided (month 1 to 3 is honeymoon). My fav topic any case. Do you come back owing allegiance to two countries (kind of contradiction) Perhaps so - atleast in my case

Ramesh said...

@Deepa - Very well said. It is actually a huge difference in perspective.

@kiwi - Knowing you, I can understand this comment very well. Being an expat is a very personal thing - everybody reacts differently. We also react differently at different stages in life. The third category, as you described, do it for the experience - in some ways I am in that category, although not as deeply as you. Only thing that foxed me in your comment was the list of six countries - IE ??? For God's sake, who wants to go there ???

LG said...

well written, great insights. Having spent more than a year in SIN, I could visualize the difference and co-relate with the things that you just said. Thanks so much for this nice post! Innum romba ethir paarkirom :-)

VA said...

Brilliantly summarized article and excellent perspective added to the earlier post on the same topic. In fact, it is great to read the way you say so many things in few lines as AJCL says.

"Without being judgmental, you can assimilate the experience the better" and "Something in between, and you become a much richer person." - gives a lot of insights. I think that this principle is applicable across the board for an enriching life. Thank you for this post, Ramesh! would be glad to read more on strengths of Indian and of course, Chinese culture as you see them now.

J said...

//People who stay beyond a certain period of time can never go back home. For home has changed to something they cannot relate to, or be comfortable in.//
I think the key is recognizing that "home" is changing all the time while you are away. Once you come to terms with that, I think it is fun to rediscover India every time you get back. Also the point you make about embracing the local culture is so true but tricky as well. How much do you assimilate versus your own unique identity - I think this is something Indians in the US struggle with especially since most families are here to stay, at least for the forseeable future. But it is definitely true that you do not want to live in a time warp.

//Oh, the joys, and pains, of being an expat !!//
Wishing you more of the joys and less of the pains!

Ramesh said...

@LG - Thanks. Yes, everyone who is an expat grapples with these things, don't we ?

@VA - Thanks. Much honoured by your kind comment.

@J - Great perspective. Its quite difficult to roll with the changes back home, when you are so far away. But if you can, then that's a great way to live as an expat. And yes, how much to assimilate and how much to retain - a very tough and personal decision. Usually the first generation seems to assimilate too less and the second generation completely the other end - a cause of friction if there is such a wide variation.

Priya Ganesh said...

open our minds, not just the eyes to enjoy the world. With the right perspective, an expat gets to enjoy the best of all the worlds that he embraces!

Thanks for a great post Ramesh.

Ramesh said...

@Priya - Yes, its an enormously enriching experience of being an expat. Xie xie Priya.

Preeti Shenoy said...

Superbly stated.I agree with everything you say here. BTW, happy new year!

Ramesh said...

@Preeti - Hey welcome back. Hope you had a nice trip to India. Very best wishes for 2010.

Mark said...

This is a great article, Ramesh.

I particularly like:

"If you treat local practices with disdain and remain smugly superior, you are an ass. If you treat local practices as second only to God and deride your own culture, you are an ass too. Something in between, and you become a much richer person."

Funny thing is that I've been an ass in both ways! I think such is understandable though. Wonder and amazement upon first arriving in China and anger and frustration when things weren't going as well.

The great balance that you espouse in this post is something I constantly think about.

Reflections said...

I have to agree with Athivas here[her 2nd comment].

"I see India and Indian culture better now. I appreciate its strengths better and I have learnt to bypass its weaknesses better."
Same here:-)

Enjoyed reading it!!!!!!

Ramesh said...

@Mark - Thanks for your kind comment Mark. We all strive for the balance , don't we. I thought you got it perfectly. With Qian, there couldn't have been a better example how brilliant an expat you were.

@reflections - Awww. You are so kind. You are a master expat and been for a longer time than I.

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