8 Lifeskills Gained From Ten Years Abroad
This coming winter marks ten years since I left my cushy government job in the U.S. to move to South Korea, where I’d studied for six months in the course of earning my Master’s in Public Administration, to live. In that time I’ve built a career, started a family, and developed a set of core skills that I would not have gained otherwise.
1. Cultural Intelligence
My first year abroad I was young and naive. I was simultaneously dazzled by the bright lights of Seoul, and arrogant in dealing with the cultural aspects.
Thankfully I quickly saw the error in my ways and righted course. For several years after that I was a die-hard cultural relativist. In fact, I’d swung too far in the opposite direction, and found myself doing ornate verbal gymnastics to avoid criticizing a workplace practice or government policy for fear of offending someone.
The past several years I’ve learned to strike a balance between the two. Perhaps it was becoming a father and realizing that there are some things that are absolutely non-negotiable (specifically when it comes to safety) that has lead to this change.
Whatever the reason, now I can (and do) talk politics on the radio, teach classes about the US political system in a region known for it’s anti-Americanism, and have totally and completely won over my in-laws, who weren’t very enthusiastic about their daughter marrying a Yankee to say the least.
With a little humility and a lot of respect, I manage to do all of this without compromising my own values. Now I can work on projects with people from any culture and value system while keeping the focus on the task at hand.
2. Communication Skills
Every resume in the world has “Excellent Communication Skills,” somewhere on it. When it’s coming from someone with significant overseas experience, however, you know it’s legit. Allow me to explain.
For English-speaking expats working in an English-speaking job environment (as opposed to working in the local language of the place they live), there are communication challenges every day that go way beyond what you might think of as “cultural differences” or “language barriers.”
Picture, if you will, a boss, whom you know to be exceedingly proud of his or her own English ability, asking you to critique a piece of his writing. Couching the criticism in soft language is easy enough, but there’s no way to soften the harshness of the red ink marks streaked all over the paper.
You find a way. In time I’ve learned that “fluency” isn’t so much about how well you can talk in a language; it’s about what you do when there’s a breakdown in communication. Do you dam up, or do you flow around it by being flexible and adaptive?
I would argue that Korea is one of the most difficult places for westerners to work in terms of communication. Expectations are often the exact opposite of what they are in the west. Still, being able to read between the lines when a partner is, under the guise of small talk, dancing circles around the elephant in the room, and identify the real problem at hand that may never get mentioned, has sharpened my communication skills at all levels.
The best moments of my life have been on Korean soil. But so have the worst.
Experiencing both good and bad times in a foreign country is a whole new ball game when you arrive with only a basic understanding of the language and find yourself having to deal with an unfamiliar transportation, medical, or, God forbid, legal system.
Some days it feels like you’ve spent the entire day working on something that would have take fifteen minutes “back home.” It doesn’t help that the objective of the day may be a critical document that no one told you you needed until just this morning.
Still, you learn to buck up and pull through. I’ve seen expat friends prove resilient through monumental personal and professional struggles while enmeshed in a foreign linguistic/cultural/legal bureaucracy of some sort.
Rare is the case where things don’t work out if the person just never gives up.
4. Expert at giving (and receiving) constructive criticism
Weird things happen as an ethnic foreigner in a country that is 99% homogenous. My theory is that people that are social outcasts for some reason (religious zealots, the mentally ill, or even just those lacking any kind of social graces), feel an affinity for other social outsiders. Seeing a white (or black, or brown) face in a crowded subway might feel like a breath of fresh air from their perspective.
Verbal sparring with the religious zealots in a way that is respectful, challenging, and sincerely enjoyable for all involved has become a favorite past time of mine. But I’ve also been assaulted by a random stranger on the street in broad daylight, groped by a (male) taxi driver that stopped directing traffic at a bumper-to-bumper intersection in order to caress my chest, and had my girlfriend (now wife) scolded by strangers on the subway for being with a foreigner.
All this means that I’ve had some pretty strong inoculations against taking things too seriously.
Additionally, I’ve learned to default to transparency, rather than getting defensive when asked to ‘show my work,’ so to speak, on the job. Thinking of all work as a form of collaboration from the get-go has proven to be more efficient and lead to better quality finished products.
5. Public Speaking
Put yourself in this situation: you’re about to take the stage in front of an audience of several hundreds of students and professors at an internationally-ranked university (one of the top three in the country) to make a presentation. You know the material, but you’re still understandably nervous.
Now someone whispers in your ear that they are all non-native English speakers.
Does this help or hurt your nerves?
It’s true that the speaking I have done at universities, corporations, and research institutes around the country are for audiences whose first language is not English, but I’ve worked hard to develop my public speaking skills by studying it on my own, as well as with Toastmasters, International.
There are obvious benefits to my presence in the classroom, but I find the straightforward and organized model of communication advocated by Toastmasters has had tangible benefits in my side projects as well.
6. Resourceful with Tech
I’ve always had an affinity for computers and have enjoyed playing around with BBSing, making my own websites, and being an early adopter in general. That’s all well and good, but try having to edit a document typed by a colleague in a country-specific word processor format that only seems to work on a language-specific Operating System.
Then, when you get home from handling that mess, break out the DVD collection you lugged from halfway around the world only to discover the regional encoding conflicts with the DVD player you got. And then the tablet you brought, unopened, from North America turns out to be locked in to an app store that is only available while physically in North America.
These types of headaches are the norm for expats. Sitting around with any random group of expats, none of which work in the tech industry, you might hear terms like VPN, Raspberry Pi, and Active-X (yeah, they still use it where I live) without skipping a beat. I find that when I’m visiting my hometown, however, unconsciously dropping one of these into a conversation with friends and family that have never had to deal with the kind of routine technical headaches I have faced has been awkward.
On the other hand, when someone is looking for a way to get their presentation file saved in .pages format to display via a Windows PC, I can probably solve the problem in 30 seconds flat.
You know all of that stuff you have to do that you hate in your daily life like paying bills, dealing with the student loan servicing companies, and filing your taxes?
Yeah, all of it -I mean ALL OF IT- is WAY more complicated living abroad.
Getting my daughter’s birth certificate acknowledged by the U.S. embassy? Two days in Seoul which also meant finding a place to stay as well as managing the transportation for the four hour trip each way for two brand new parents and their baby daughter.
Filing my taxes?
Not that big of a deal except for when there was a minor problem that lead to a letter in the mail trying to clear it up (along with a warning about thousands of dollars owed plus an audit if I didn’t respond within thirty days). Naturally, the letter didn’t arrive in Korea until several weeks after the deadline. Not that it mattered because it was sent to a former address which delayed it by a further three months or so.
It was all eventually cleared up… almost a year later.
I started my life as an expat about as far as one can get from being ‘detail oriented.’ Now, I rely extensively on calendars and to-do lists to make sure things are done right and on-time.
8. Positive Outlook
I’ve fallen into the negativity trap from time to time. Every culture has double standards and hypocrisy, but if you keep going in for a closer and closer look, then guess what? Those cracks appear bigger and bigger.
With time comes the wisdom to know that you have to keep the big picture in perspective. You can’t get bogged down fixing the unfixable. You choose your battles, and start to nurture the idea that the world is never going to shape itself around your idea of what it should be, so you’d better be a little bit flexible.
I haven’t always been smart enough to realize on the job that you can’t win every battle.
But I am now. I have learned not to make any assumptions about other peoples’ motivations and to always treat them with sympathy. Yeah, Bill in the accounting department was rude to me, but maybe he’s going through a hard time in his marriage. You never know what hidden struggles other people are having, so just focus on your own work and don’t worry about it.
Do I think that the world would be a better place if everyone lived abroad for ten years?
Oh God, no.
While I’m sure everyone would benefit from taking a year to travel between High School and college, or even working abroad for a year after graduation, there are some strong down sides to long term expatriation.
Being away from friends and family has been a pretty big one in my case. I come from a large, close-knit, midwestern family. I haven’t seen most of them in almost three years now. Skype and Google Voice do make things easier, but no technology can allow my girls can’t run in the grass barefoot with their cousins from half a world away.
Having kids has changed my outlook more than I could have ever imagined.
Now the dream that I yearn for isn’t ‘location independence’ so I can “work” from the beach. No, my dream is to use my experience and skills gained abroad to get back home.