"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Global Bookshelf : The Expat Arc, by Danielle Barkhouse

Today, I want to talk about another book by a fellow blogger and expatriate.

Before India, Danielle Barkhouse was a trailing spouse in the US and in the UK. Upon hearing the news that her husband’s work was taking them to Chennai, formerly known as Madras, in Southern India, she started writing a blog which she refers to as her "free therapy" outlet. It begins before she leaves the US, and continues throughout the whole first year of the family's life in India (and the family includes a much-loved golden retriever,) allowing the reader a glimpse into the various stages of culture shock. She has now published the blog content, after some editing, and the book is titled: The Expat Arc. An expat's journey over culture shock.

Danielle Barkhouse is a Canadian with a no-non-sense, down-to-earth approach to life - now that I think about it, I realize that most Canadians I know seem to share that quality. She has a good, often very funny voice, spunky and full of personality, and most of all, I found her to be unwaveringly and refreshingly honest, and that is the thing that impresses me the most about her blog, and now, her book.

As an expat who’s lived outside of her birth country practically half her life -yuck, imagine being old enough to be able to say something like that! - I’m quite familiar with said stages of culture shock (they have been assimilated to the stages of grief), even though I only recently acquired the vocabulary and knowledge to recognize the symptoms for what they are. I’ve also witnessed other people experiencing them. I don’t believe it is ever easy to analyze one’s emotions with the clarity and honesty that Danie Barkhouse displays throughout her book. It is often more convenient to either shut out the world just outside the door and become totally negative about it, or to fall into the other extreme, which is to make the conscious decision that you will like it, whether you really do or not. Danie candidly admits to having fallen into the first negative category while living in England, and recognizes what a waste of time and energy it is and decides she will not experience India in the same way. And she doesn’t.

“The difference between me and most other people is that I say the stuff most people think but don’t say aloud,” she declares, at some stage. To illustrate that point, here is her undiluted take about the way political correctness is transforming Christmas in the US:

"The day that we left Chennai, JB walked through the factory and about 60 people wished him a Merry Christmas. Or, as they say, Happy Christmas. We’ve received cards and gifts from many non-Christmas-celebrating people. We're talking about Indian Hindus. As we journeyed through the Dubai airport, we were in awe of the Christmas decorations. It was so beautiful. When we were there in November, several people had wished us a Merry Christmas. We're talking about Middle Eastern Muslims." She goes on to describe their arrival in New York, a primarily Christian country, where only two people wish them "Happy holidays." And she adds: "What the heck is our problem? We're so concerned about being "politically correct" that we've become anti-Christmas. [...] I've got to tell you, in case you’re missing the tone here, I'm beyond appalled. I resent America placing a big fat censorship on Christmas. [...] I have every respect for other cultures and faiths. We can have it all. I wonder what Hindus in Asia and Muslims in the Middle East would think if they knew the controversy over Christmas in America."

How is that for going straight to the point? It is entirely true that most people, in India, acknowledge, and even celebrate each other's religious holidays with a true spirit of tolerance. And there should indeed be room for everyone to freely celebrate their faith.

Another post is aptly titled “Miss Communications,” and I could have written it myself.

“You can't stick a girl in India with no way of communicating with the outside world. […] People have been relocating to and living in other countries all around the world for many years. How on earth did they survive before the Internet?”

Well, they survived the way we all do when we have to - and of course, they couldn't pine after our ultra fast ways of doing things, nowadays, since these didn't exist. But for having experienced it, I can tell you that it's enough to drive any girl outside of the boundaries of sanity.

Now, one may argue that Danie’s experience is that of the corporate expatriate, and not all expats work for corporations which provide their staff and their family with cultural trainings, shipment entitlements every three or four months, etc, etc. So, when she touches the potentially sensitive subject of the differences between expats (“There seems to be a growing attitude among expats of whether you're 'expat enough.' Twelve years as an expat is 'less expat' than 25 years with the kids being born all around the world. You might also be 'more expat' than someone else if your posts have been tougher. A post in India would make us 'more expat' than our England or US posts? Seriously. Expat is expat. You're still away from home”) she might find that some people want to push the discussion a little further. And "some people" is going to be me, for now.

First of all, there are those who don’t even know what “home” means, anymore. They may belong to a family with the father being from one place, the mother from another – or even two, as in my own case – with kids born in yet another place, or more, and so, where is home? For me, home is where my bubble, containing my daughters, my husband, and my books are. It’s not a country. I’m tremendously helped in that by the fact that my mother, who left Franco’s Spain in her mid-twenties to go in search of a better, freer future in France, always told us kids as we grew up: “My country is the country that feeds me, the country that allows me to work and where I can eat and not starve.”

Secondly, being an expatriate in a place where you find practically everything, where there are no power supply or communication problems to speak of is not the same as being in a place where you have to deal with this kind of problem practically on a daily basis; there may be power cuts, and the Internet may not work from time to time in India, especially when it rains, but as someone who spent over three years in Nigeria, where I routinely had to go entire weeks without phone or the Internet, I have found India to be quite all right in that regard. And I’m not even mentioning security problems, again like the ones we had in Nigeria, where the UNICEF office could be attacked by men holding Kalashnikovs, one of them beating an office driver so he would hand over the 4x4 car keys, and my husband, who was the primary target of one of the mentioned Kalashnikovs shouting at them to just take the bloody car and leave the driver alone (which they did, thank Goodness!), and yours truly only a few feet behind said husband. Now, this may be a rather dramatic example, but I’ve gathered so many others from other expats having lived in difficult places, not always that spectacular, yet harrowing enough to render life very difficult indeed. Of course, some might respond that UN people know what they're getting themselves into when they choose such career. Maybe. Their families don't always, though. And so, I would argue (gently) with Danie that in light of all that, well, perhaps it is easier to understand why some people may feel that they're "a little more expats" than others. I don't believe it is ever done in a spirit of spiteful competition, but rather coming from a place of experience where you can't help but compare situations and draw obvious conclusions. The reason I mention this is that I do, at times, get a bit annoyed at some expats when I hear them complaining endlessly about not finding a particular brand of cereals, or some such.

That said, I want to add that going through the stages of culture shock means that people may find their buttons pushed where, in any other circumstances - like back home where they don't have to adjust to so many new things and ways of doing them - they would have remained pretty much unruffled. Expats recently landed in a new place need to keep that reality in mind, and cut themselves some slack. It takes time - anywhere from a few months to a whole year. And this is where having a book like Danie's can prove invaluable, if only to provide reassurance that it is all normal.

In another insightful post, the author ponders the opinion that "living in India reveals your true character." And she goes on to say, with her usual honesty, that she's not so sure she likes what India is revealing about her own character. I would venture to add that getting out of one's comfort zone to go and live in another country, whether that new country is a hard duty station or not, is likely to help a person build their character, as long as they're willing to take a hard look at their own self. And Danie certainly is.

I totally recommend this book to any expatriate preparing to move to India, but not only. Anyone about to relocate in a new country, especially for the first time, anyone interested in the subjects of life in India, life abroad and culture shock, will find it instructive and interesting. Not to mention that you’ll get to laugh very often.


Danie said...

Katia, thank you for the lovely review.

As I had admitted to you privately in an email, I'll now admit to everyone...I had not thought of "expatness" in that way until you had brought it to my attention. Mainly because it was not at all in the context of the strange conversation I'd had with another expat which had led me to write that particular post.

I think that's why I've enjoyed communicating with you (and other expats) via email and blog posts. I feel like we're able to discuss meatier topics than the usual face-to-face expat conversations of...

"Where are you from?"

"Where else have you lived?"

"...insert other typical banal expat opening liners here..."

I'm looking forward to discussing more of those topics with you in the future.

Katia said...

Danie, I know you had not thought about the "expatness" issue, as you mention, in that way. I just felt it was important to point that aspect out, as these types of expats are also out there. That said, and I hope I make it clear, many experiences remain eerily similar, and this one point should not deter anyone interested in those topics to read your book. :)

Linda Austin said...

Well, after having lived in the UK for a mere year I am the first to admit that some expats ARE more expat! (Does one year even qualify as an expat?) My family loved being in England and we had a great life there...no language barrier or custom confusion (except we did not push the July 4th holiday) - we had it easy even though we did find out how spoiled we are in the U.S. By the way, we discovered Indian food there and are forever in love with it.

Sue said...

Fascinating post, Katia!
And I'm not even an expat.

Katia said...

Linda, that's another of the many advantages of leaving one's home and comfort zone to go explore another part of the world. It puts things back into perspective. I, for one, often get quite angry at the French, forever complaining - I like to say that it is a national sport, and let me add that I'm not immune to that tendency :) - because really, the quality of life in France - generally speaking - is way above what you can find most anywhere else, but in order to discover that little fact, it is necessary to get out !

And, Sue, you're always so kind to me. Thanks for being one of my faithful visitors. :)

valentina acava mmaka said...

I totally agree with you Katia, I've been an expat for almost 24 years ... through my experience,most in difficult countries as well( South Africa under apartheid regime, Mauritania, Somalia, Etiopia, Kenya,Udgana)I realized that what usually people call "homeland", for me is not just a geographical data but a "place" inside me made of feelings, knowledges, experiences, emotions, thoughts, ideas.... Also the idea of "citizenship" is too limited to represent a specific culture to belong to. I was asked many times where my roots are? I answer that my roots are inside me, and I bring them everywhere I go, and collecting experiences these roots become always much longer and stronger, I share them and contaminate them in a very creative way.
I recognize that this awareness has grown much inside me thank's also to writing. The writing process is a metaphora of the journey we first do from and towards ourselves before then from and to places. I feel a very strong identity that I've built through my many migrations. I think that the problem is that most of the poeple define their identity as a static experience, instead of considering that is a metamorphic process, indipendently from being an expat or not.
I also met those expats who find themselves lost! Who totally ignore the meaning of confronting with other cultures.
Maybe we can say that being an expat is a choice, a style of life. Those who feel unconfortable with the "new" and the "different"
are those who will never be free.

Ah!!!! I'm going to be soon an expat again .... within November I'll be in India with my girls! Very excited to deal again with a life where you don't have to expect anything!!!! After few years of Europe I was getting tired!

Katia said...

Valentina, good luck with the move and everything else, and thank you for visiting my blog.
Where will you go, in India, do you know already? We're still waiting to hear about a possible relocation, so I don't know if we'll still be in India in November, but if we are, we'll have to talk, and maybe even meet, shall we ? Do keep in touch,

valentina acava mmaka said...

Thank's Katia, well I 'll first approach South Goa where a friend of mine lives then from there I belive I'll moove between Karnataka and Kerala, maybe Bangalore, maybe Cochin. I need to be there to know to feel what will be the right place for us. Definetly I'll let you know, would be lovely to meet and have a talk. Good luck for your children's book, I've seen it has been published. Are you going to launch it in schools or bookstores somewhere? Will surely bring you lots of satisfactions.

Katia said...

Good luck, Valentina. South Goa is a good place to land. Minimal culture shock, really :) Cochin and Bangalore could not be more different. Cochin is like a small town. Bangalore is that over-congested city, pleasant climate, very big expat community, but a little cold. That was my feeling, anyway. Are you considering schools to help you make a decision? Anyway, don't hesitate to email me, OK?

valentina acava mmaka said...

Thank's Katia, I believe I will find good schools in the above mentioned places and around if I decide for a new place. My intention is to let the children attend a good public primary school not private of course. As they cannot speak properly English, they will start attending school just for practicing the language and starting following their age grade lessons. Anyway thank's I'll consider mailing you to ask you suggestions about school admission and so on. Thank's Katia.

Vijaya said...

Great review, Katia. I'm looking forward to picking up this book.

You hit the nail on the head about moving outside your comfort zone. It challenges you, makes you realize what you're made of.

I'm an ex-expat, and it's sweet to be home in the US. One thing is true: you can't get India out of you if you've spent any signficant length of time there. I still miss it.

Your blog a delight to read. Congratulations on your new book!

Katia said...

Vijaya, thanks for visiting, and thank you so much for your kind words about my blog.
As for getting India - or any other place, actually - out of you after spending a significant amount of time there, I totally agree. I carry all the countries I've lived in with me, even the hard duty station ones, and that has certainly be the biggest lesson I've learned. Always try to make the most of every place, because if will not leave you in peace, anyway. And always bring closure before you go, or again, no peace :) And of course, India IS a fascinating place.

rilla said...

Hey Katia,
interesting post. I had no idea that expatriatism (if indeed there is such a word) had levels to it! Wow! You learn something new everyday. I looked up the word and found the following meanings:vt. to banish oneself from one's native country, to withdraw from residence in one's native country, to withdraw from allegiance to one's country, to settle in another country.

What's interesting to me is that etymologically at least, that puts me in the category of being an expatriate. However, I have never felt I am one as I find more and more that the word has come to denote people who take postings in other countries while working for international organizations. I believe there is a huge difference in the psychological reaction to a foreign country when one moves there for a specified length of time that is generally known in advance and when one does not have to depend on their own resources in order to find a job in the new place. Generally housing is also provided.

It's quite different when you relocate to a new country without any notion of how long you will be there or whether you will sink or swim in terms of finding a place to live, a job, remuneration that will sustain you, how you will survive without any known support group in place.

But, at the end of the day, culture shock is culture shock. It is painful, lonely, depressing and can be ruinous. And by creating a support group of people who have been through it and know what you are going through the way you are doing with this blog, you are providing a service to all of us lost souls that is invaluable. Keep the discussion going!

I have to admit it's kind of funny to hear people discussing India as 'foreign' -- always great to hear what other people think of what you consider mundane and normal!

Katia said...

Hello, Rilla, good to see you here.
It's interesting to read the definition of expatriation. But of course, words have a life of their own and their meaning can evolve. And yes, going to a place for a few years - even if you don't always know how many - or forever is not the same thing. The latter would be immigrating, actually, but there, too, a lot of immigrants don't think they're leaving their country forever. Also, one can find support systems in the immigration experience, too. Often, immigrants first land at family members - remote or not - or friends' places before they move on to settle in their own place, and that is definitely a strong support system. Some expats don't have that much of such a support system - and definitely, not all expats have housing provided, we don't, so that's another proof that there are many levels and experiences in the expat experience.
BUT as you mention, culture shock is culture shock, and one needs to be aware of it.

valentina acava mmaka said...

Hi again Katia,
I think that Rilla has mentioned a point... it's much "easy" to migrate with a secure position. Different is to migrate on your own, without nobody waiting for you at the airport, without a house ready to welcome you and your stuff, dealing with issues like: need to extend a visa, finding a way to work without going against the local laws and so on...
For sure, meeting people who had similar experiences, in different levels, helps and let you feel you're not alon. Unfortunately not always is like that... I've met different expats around the world... most marvellous and warm and humble, but also some very "cold" and jelous of their expat staus in a foreign country not welcoming at all as if they belonged to an exclusive group. Maybe this conservative behaviour is a way to hide their incapacity of confronting with their new country and also a way to feel they are not loosing their "identity" !?!?