Articles abound in the last few years about expats returning home after so many years overseas. Said articles often focus on the difficulty of readjusting to reverse culture shock and not offering much in the way of solutions. I can attest that going back home (or elsewhere) is feasible with some discipline, a game plan, and patience. Having seen many changes in employment worldwide, it is possible for you to stay within the field you worked in overseas or begin an entire new career using the very same skills you developed there.
Instructional design, Project Management, UX, and UI are just a few of the fields that are hot right now. Any knowledge-based job (which is most these days) is looking for people who strive to continually learn and adapt to shifting digital landscapes; being able to teach others what they learn along the way. Even if tech isn’t your forte, many non-tech remote careers are at your fingertips, using your strengths developed overseas. You now have skills coveted by employers who care about having a competent 21st-century workforce.
Having lived overseas for more than a quarter of my life and as an admin for the Facebook group Repat Network, helping hundreds of expatriates repatriate successfully, I have come to the realization that as a teacher, trainer or business person, you have what is necessary to reintegrate successfully.Cultural Intelligence
In 2002, I signed a ten-month contract in a city located “close” to Shanghai. My salary was 3,000 RMB ($360) per month and my one bedroom apartment was Spartan. I loved it. I quickly discovered that I was nowhere near the bright lights of Shanghai and that I would need to learn to at least speak Mandarin if I was to survive. I loved being a pseudo-celebrity in small-town China. After extending my contract into the second year, I began to fall out of love with China and its love affair with development at the expense of the environment.
Korea was the next step; different and although I did not experience the initial rush of a new and foreign culture, I noticed a deeper appreciation of nature and a strict adherence to politeness. Yes, there are things in Korean culture I cannot understand but over the years I have learned to distinguish between what is possible and things beyond my control. In every culture there are certain things that are simply non-negotiable and realizing this has led to a greater cultural intelligence. I now feel confident working with people from any culture and/or value system focusing on the project, not our perceived differences.
Every job applicant claims to have has excellent communication skills. While most people have communication struggles every now and then at the office, for expats working in a foreign language environment these difficulties increase exponentially as ordinarily normal exchanges can go far beyond “cultural differences” or “language barriers.”
Thus, living and working abroad requires you to become an effective and thoughtful communicator and negotiator. Working with administrators, learners and other stakeholders while navigating linguistic and cultural differences forces you to develop great listening skills. When there is a mismatch between any of them, you learn to identify with all parties to find a comfortable compromise.
Also, fluency isn’t how well you use language to communicate, but how well you communicate when the language just isn’t there. One could argue that East Asia contains some of the most difficult places for westerners to work in terms of communication. Expectations are quite distinct as either Confucianism, deference to elders, or sometimes just plain abruptness far outweigh the norms of meritocracy you might be accustomed to. Being able to identify real problems in a foreign place of business that are never mentioned directly (strictly based on cultural cues) is a skill that cannot be acquired elsewhere.
Taking the stage in front of an audience of several hundreds of students and professors at a university to make a presentation would make almost anyone nervous. Try doing that with little or no time to prepare. The work we do at universities, corporations and schools for audiences whose first language is not English directly translates into marketable skills as a corporate trainer. Experience at schools and businesses in foreign countries is proof of your expertise; years in the classroom? It should speak volumes to any employer looking for someone with effective communication skills and public speaking ability.
The best moments of my life have been overseas, as have some of the worst.
Experiencing the birth of my children was at once beautiful and terrifying. As my wife’s anesthesia failed to work, she writhed in pain as I was helpless in helping her and I was then told I would be unable to hold my own daughter for another two days only to see her behind a glass screen. Additionally, not a broken arm, SARS, MERS, typhoons, earthquakes (as scary as those may be) nor food poisoning ever strayed me from my course. Resilience and sheer will helped me navigate through major personal and professional struggles despite sometimes feeling trapped in a foreign cultural bureaucracy.
Attention to Detail
The lengthy and complicated spousal visa process, which can only be handled at the U.S. embassy in Seoul is a perfect example of attention to detail. For a couple with two young children in tow, finding a place to stay, managing the transportation for the four-hour trip each way, completing the forms accurately and completely, obtaining all the necessary documents and translations of some of those documents all required extensive research and fastidiousness.
All the other things we do in our lives like paying bills, establishing residency, and filing taxes among others become much more complicated living abroad. Most arrive in a foreign land without a basic understanding of the language (or any), have to deal with unfamiliar transportation, medical, or legal systems and when I started my life as an expat, I was as far as one could get from being detail oriented. Now I rely heavily on calendars and to-do lists to make sure things are done accurately and timely.
When I moved to China in 2002, there were no books, no grading system, nor any curricula so everything had to be designed by some of the other teachers and me. This led to early adoption of knowing how software programs worked in different languages. Imagine using a Chinese or Korean-specific word processor with no English menus that only work inside their language-specific operating systems. This is where the learning curve for editing and creating documents becomes steep. Only through trial and error and some guesswork are you able to navigate and complete your work on time.
Due to the variety of teaching and business areas we work in, we have to continually find ways to deliver meaningful content to clients and students using up to date and effective mediums. This should inspire us to test and become skilled at using new technology. Do you need a PPT and a presentation created an hour before the meeting because your software crashed? Ask a former teacher and they’ll whip up a cloud-based Prezi or create a Kahoot to inspire your attendees with a little a gameshow-inspired competition at the end of a training session.
In foreign language teaching circles, teachers might start out at private language schools and either transition into the public school system, get a prized university job, or become freelancers. For those of us with experience in freelancing, one day can be vastly different from the next. I spent three years working freelance while finishing an online masters at a British university (no they won’t get any free press here). One of my workdays would start at 5:50 AM teaching Business English to engineers at a factory, then off to a different city at an elementary school for three or four hours and ending with a corporate training class for executives after their day ended at 7 or 8PM in yet another city. This meant having two changes of clothes, four to six different lesson plans, and skills at keeping times tightly organized. This was but one day out of five with wildly varying schedules, where keeping the days straight, making appointments and holding meetings was especially challenging.
This is one of those words that everyone pretends to know. Most people imagine themselves being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes but don’t actually know how to do it. We all have our distractions, but setting down our iPhones to have a chat with a colleague or a student is an act of humility. It’s showing the other person that “yes, your time is valuable to me” and “I value you enough to give you my full attention”.
Those with humility can look outside their own experiences. As expats we ventured abroad to learn and to discover how other cultures might strengthen us: opening our eyes to seeing the world and valuing what other cultures have to offer. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and empathizing with people from vastly different backgrounds and languages is no simple task. We put ourselves in the shoes of our learners because we are learners ourselves.
You left your home country, you moved to another one halfway around the world with a new language, culture, sets of rules and faux pas. Yet you thrived and saw every challenge as a learning opportunity. Try telling your colleagues or friends who have not lived abroad what it’s like haggling in a fish market with a woman hunched over due to a life of farming. I usually get blank stares from friends who are quick to move on to a different topic of conversation.
You’ve seen, done and eaten things most people wouldn’t dream of and yet you shrug it off as life in foreign country. Life overseas is different and often inexplicable to the uninitiated. I cannot reiterate enough just how challenging moving across the world is. That alone should show recruiters and hiring managers that you are not afraid of change and that you can handle just about any curveball thrown at you.
I hope that this article helps you, gives you hope, or just gets you thinking. These skills will help you on the resume and in the interview. They are essential in today’s workforce and as time goes on, employers will see the value in taking on repatriates with many of these skills in their arsenal. You can tell colleagues and clients alike that you were a teacher in a past life, and that you continue to use classroom skills all the time: reading a room, observing group dynamics, listening, organizing ‘lesson’ plans, helping people break down complex things into simple elements, and communicating clearly.
Now, go out, translate those skills and repatriate!