Reproduced from FOCUS News—the information resource for expatriates and their families in the UK since 1982. December 2001/January 2002. Volume 50 Issue 1. Pages 10-11.
Barbara Schaetti moved internationally 12 times before the age of 23 and has worked in the intercultural field, with expatriates and repatriates, for much of her adult life. She talks to Carol Grose about what she’s learned from her years living and working across cultures
Work. Education. Relationships. Crossing cultures. Chances are that at least one of the featured tracks of the 2002 Global Living Conference is on the forefront of every expatriate’s mind. Conference attendees will explore in greater detail the juggling act that goes along with dual careers, portable careers, working in multi-cultural teams, special needs in international education, the third culture kid, long distance elder care, building communities, living in your partner’s home country, family safety and security, networking strategies and tools, and food! Bringing it all together in her keynote speech will be Barbara Schaetti, a Principal at Transition-Dynamics with a Ph.D. in Intercultural Communication. Ms. Schaetti is also a life-long expat.
I know this is a complicated question but where are you from?
The question is complicated in part because the answer is lengthy. When people ask me where I’m from, I usually respond that I live in Seattle (Washington, USA). My father is originally Swiss, my mother US American; both were born in India and lived international childhoods themselves. I was born in the US, moved to South America when I was 14 months old, and then proceeded to live in ten countries on five continents by the time I was eighteen, moving internationally twelve times by the age of twenty-three. Most of my earliest years were in Francophone countries in North and West Africa and in Europe, so there’s very much a part of me that is only truly ‘at home’ when I’m in a French-influenced environment. There was also a lot of ‘British-ness’ to my family because of my parents’ childhoods in colonial India and the Middle East, and because I lived in England and went to grammar school there for two years when I was eight and nine. Without discounting Asia—Singapore was a very important coming-of-age place for me—or the strong draw that I have for West Africa, I usually think of myself as a second-generation dual-national global nomad with a strong European influence.
Do you consider where you live now home? If so, what makes it home for you?
I do consider Seattle home. A great deal of that is simply about length of time: I’ve lived in Seattle now for almost twenty years, an unfathomable number of years to live in one place . I know the history of the city—that before this building housed a restaurant it was a bank and before the bank it was a shoe store. I know the issues facing the city and the political players; where to look for the best sunsets given the time of year; and what route to take across town given the time of day. There are communities of people here with whom I have mutual relationships of care and affection, some friendships dating back across two or three professional iterations.
What sparked your interest in the issues of expatriation and repatriation?
At first I was just trying to make sense of my own life experience. Eventually, over the years of working with expatriates, repatriates, and the intercultural field more broadly, what became most interesting to me was the transformative potential inherent in moving and living among cultures. When people don’t leave their own milieus, they don’t have to think about who they are and how they operate in the world. There’s safety and simplicity in that I suppose, yet so much potential is gained when we’re forced to confront ourselves in new ways each time our cultural environment changes. As expatriates and repatriates, we’re given the opportunity to become fully present to our daily lived experience. I find that rich, exciting, and immensely valuable to the process of self-actualization.
For people who move frequently, is it important to settle in each place—getting to know the neighbors, sourcing supplies locally, etc.—or is that a waste of energy?
It is never a waste of energy for multimover families to get to know their host country, although even the most interested expatriates can reach a point where they experience what I call ‘transition fatigue.’
Years ago, I read a book by Isabel Allende called Of Love and Shadows. In it, one of the characters, Professor Leal, is giving advice to his daughter and son-in-law who have to leave the city, perhaps forever. He says: ‘All you will have is the present. Waste no energy crying over yesterday or dreaming of tomorrow. Nostalgia is fatiguing and destructive, it is the vice of the expatriate. You must put down roots as if they were forever, you must have a sense of permanence.’
I like this because it speaks so eloquently to a fundamental truth: we have to live in the present and bring our full spirits and commitment into each moment. That doesn’t mean to refuse friendships with other expatriates, nor to refuse favorite foods from home. It does mean to take every opportunity to also seek out your neighbors from your host country and to use the local shops.
Why is repatriation an issue? Isn’t it just going home?
Anyone asking this question probably hasn’t ever repatriated! There’s a lot of anecdotal and empirical evidence now documenting that repatriation is much more than ‘just going home’ and that in many ways it’s a more psychologically complicated phase of the expatriate lifecycle than moving abroad. What most intrigues me about repatriation is how to combat the very nature of the word itself—the implied sense of going back rather than of moving forward. Again, that’s both the challenge and the opportunity of repatriation: to repatriate in such a way that we continue to stay present in each moment and to move forward into the full possibility of our lives.
It can be disorienting to live in another culture. Is it possible to distinguish between personal differences and cultural differences? How should that be sorted out within oneself?
It’s precisely because living in another culture can be so disorienting that it can also be transformative. Our habitual ways of thinking and behaving don’t work; we have to come fully awake to the present moment, mindfully and creatively engaged in each moment of intercultural interaction. While this can be exhausting at times, it also lets us know we’re fully alive! Gary Fontaine’s research with expatriate executives labeled this the expatriate ‘sense of presence’ and suggested that it’s why people typically come to love the expatriate experience.
As to whether it’s possible to distinguish between personal differences and cultural differences, there are certainly a lot of culture-specific books and training programs to help us learn about the cultural patterns of specific cultural groups. Within that framework, and as we come to know individuals of that culture, we can begin to distinguish personal differences. A good place to begin sorting that out for oneself is by reading something about the culture-specific patterns of the culture(s) to which we belong, and then thinking through some of the ways in which our own personalities differ from those broader patterns. We can then apply those insights about ourselves as cultural beings —that while we may be part of a given culture, not all members of that culture will always think and feel the same way—to those we meet abroad. This brings us to the importance of taking a learning orientation in each moment of intercultural interaction.
What skills are most valuable for living in a different culture?
There are many skills that prove to be valuable for living in a different culture—among these are cultural self-awareness, the ability to learn languages, flexibility and adaptability, persistence, listening and observation skills, and communication skills. Underlying such skills as these, however, is what I call ‘intercultural capacity,’ which is the degree to which we are able to live mindfully and creatively in each moment of intercultural interaction. Unless we focus on cultivating our intercultural capacity, our skills and knowledge will only take us so far – perhaps to a place where we can survive living in a different culture but not to a place where we can actually thrive.
What most supports us in cultivating our intercultural capacity is a learning orientation—a way of being in the world that takes every new experience, every joy and every sorrow, as an opportunity to learn more about self and other. I find that the most exciting work in expatriate and repatriate coaching and training today is specifically directed to this—helping people engage those life practices which cultivate their learning orientation, cultivate their intercultural capacity, and thereby support them in living and working successfully among cultures.