The emotional rollercoaster of living abroad
- 10 January 2012
- From the section Business
These four professionals have very different feelings about the countries they moved to for work:
"The State IS the religion. You cannot contradict the State. It's not that it is a crime, it is as though it's a sin."
"All of a sudden it was: 'What year is it?' Time becomes funny in perpetual summer. I've been used to marking my life in terms of 'Oh, it's winter again.'"
"The best thing is being abroad - to have the feeling that there is something buzzing here and you are in the middle of something happening."
"Our first impressions centred on how clean and modern the city is, the great hospitality and the multi-cultural aspects."
The comments are from people living in Abu Dhabi, India, Malaysia and Sweden - but not in that order.
Among the hundreds of thousands of professional people who are living away from their home country, part of the attraction for them was to experience something very different from home.
That is the reason at least that prompted Veronique Briquet-Laugier, a French-born scientist, to move to the French embassy in Delhi, trying to boost co-operation between French and Indian scientists.
"I wanted to get away from Old Europe. It is going to sleep. India is a dynamic economy and an exciting one."
At first the move went well: "My first impressions were above my expectations. I was expecting it to be less developed - not in science because they are very advanced - but the airport and shopping malls were far better than I was expecting.
"But then I found it chaotic. I thought: 'What IS this - I want to kill someone!"
US-born Chris Callahan, another Westerner who wanted a move to a fast-growing Asian country, found adjusting a simpler process. He moved from one dynamic economy - Hong Kong - to another - Malaysia.
An entrepreneur, he went to set up a TV production company: "I was fed up with Hong Kong. I found it very segregated. I had lived in China and found it strange to live in a predominately Chinese city where there was so much less effort to get to know each other."
His first impressions matched his expectations: "I loved it. I thought it was great. It bills itself as a multi-ethnic and multinational society and it was fantastic. You can see Indians, Chinese and Malay Muslims, truly an international melting pot - unlike Hong Kong everybody would sit around together - and the food was not bad!"
Alessandro Serio is another mover who found settling initially plain sailing. Italian by birth, he had lived in a number of countries, like Chris Callahan, before this move, in his case stretching across Europe and Africa. But he was not prepared for the move to Sweden.
"My first impression was what I was expecting it to be. Everyone was blond and good looking and it was easy to get a job. There appeared to be perfect social integration and no conflict. But after a while I started to notice things were a bit different.
"The first thing that happens is you start to get into the system. The permits, permission to stay, the work permit. In London no-one cares, in Paris even less - you really disappear. In Sweden, they come and look for you, with emails and all sorts of communication methods.
"You have to learn the language and lesson one was An Introduction To Sweden. The instructor was 10 minutes late, yet the first thing she said was: 'We in Sweden are very punctual.' They seem to have have a vision of themselves that they simply don't live by themselves."
'Delusions of grandeur'
He found the country far from the social melting pot enjoyed by Chris in Malaysia.
"No-one eats together. The all sit and eat their lunch at the school I work at, at the same time, at the same table - but they don't really talk to each other. Not even about the weather. I have no Swedish friends. Not one. Other countries, sure. Canadian, Maghreb, Iranian, but - apart from my wife - no-one from Sweden."
Sonia Middleditch, managing director of WorldNet Recruitment and Training, says adjusting to a new country can be a combination of euphoria and bewilderment: "It is crucial that whoever is going abroad is sufficiently prepared for what to embrace. We try to do this by bringing in experts to talk them through what to expect.
"A lot of people have delusions of grandeur, particularly the young, who think if they are going to Barbados they are going to be sitting on St James' beach drinking cocktails - and that's not the reality.
"People have chosen to go to their new countries, so there is an element of 'This is what I was hoping for; this is what I was expecting.' But after the early excitement, they settle in and start to see what is missing."
Veronique Briquet-Laugier's experience mirrors this. But she adjusted by embracing the system.
"I was more indulgent at the beginning. I was trying to find my way and I did lose patience once the novelty had worn off. But here one should not scream or shout at any point. People just look really helpless if you start doing that.
"Now I know better ways of holding my temper and expressing myself. Now I am more Indian and I feel more part of the country and people."
Steel executive Shannon Hore has worked hard to understand his new host city, Abu Dhabi, in a bid to avoid that uncomfortable junction.
He moved from Perth, Australia, with his wife: "Abu Dhabi is a Muslim country and as an expat we need to be very sensitive to their beliefs and cultures. This means being aware of prayer times during the working hours and providing time for Muslims to pray.
"This also means that during the holy month of Ramadan, we need to ensure that we do not drink or eat in public during their fast - even chewing gum is a no-no."
But even with understanding, religion can throw up some unexpected pitfalls.
Alessandro moved from one Christian country to another, but he did not find many parallels: "When you first move here, you are told that Sweden is highly secularised. But Sweden is one of the most religious countries I have ever been to.
"There is an orthodoxy of the system, a religion of the State based on blind faith. If you make your religion public - Catholic, Muslim or Buddhist - people get really irritated - a lot."
For Chris Callahan in Malaysia, the system remained bemusing, too: "One night a leaving party was arranged for someone, but the plan was to stitch him up. It was arranged with a massage parlour to give him a massage and when he was vulnerable a fake policeman would arrest him. But the parlour owner said 'What do you want to do that for? We'll get one of the ones I pay off to play the part.'
"But another time I went to the police to report a stolen wallet. I was surprised to find there was a fee - of 30p. But then the women working in the station weren't able to type so the report could not be filed. I offered to do it - and they said OK. So I typed my own police report."
Chris Callahan found his host country's view of him also verged on the bemused: "The locals see you as weird. You're fascinating to them. It means you can get away with anything.
"My dog was banned when the guards changed at my apartment - dogs are seen as unclean in certain Islamic cultures. I just told the guard it wasn't a dog - that it looked like a dog but it wasn't - they were too confused to do anything."
Alessandro Serio simply came up against a straightforward stereotype: "Italians face more or less the same prejudice everywhere. We get asked about the Mafia, how many times do you call your mother... They think we all hang our laundry out across the alleyway, all the things like that."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is thinking of leaving the country where he says the State is the religion.
Chris Callahan has left Malaysia, but for a new entrepreneurial venture, and he would have no qualms about returning, even though the seemingly eternal sunshine blurred his sense of time.
Shannon Hore is staying in multicultural, modern Abu Dhabi, for now: "This is a very friendly and hospitable part of the world with lots to see and do. There are so many opportunities to travel - after all, Australia is so isolated."
Veronique Briquet-Laugier is still in Delhi, where she is no longer so likely to feel homicidally annoyed.
She says she is enjoying the buzz and the "feeling of being part of something" more and more: "Indians are quite similar to French, they talk all the time. They are into politics and are interested in everything - I can see the Mediterranean in them!
"And practically, it is much better here. We have a maid and a driver and we can order whatever we want to eat."