The hunger pangs subside and the bleariness of the morning-after-a-long-travel-day fade into uncontrollable laughter as I listen to the hilariously honest opening keynote narrated by Christopher O’Shaughnessy. I’m sitting next to Jodie Hopkins, a woman I had only met two hours earlier but yet we instantly connected, and I keep glancing over at her as we laugh at the ridiculousness of this situational comedy. We’ve all been in that fish-out-of-water, cultural nakedness scenario that Chris is so fluently describing.
“Expats arrive at their destinations culturally naked.”

Or in Chris’ case, physically naked. The self-deprecating nature of the opening keynote grants us permission to humbly acknowledge that we’ve all experienced unbelievably embarrassing moments that we mortals would prefer to forget let alone share with 200 strangers through a microphone. However, as the laughs dissipate through the crowd, a more important topic is introduced—empathy—the theme of this conference.

 

We have become a community of digital nomads and in the quest to build communities without geographical limitations, we have forgotten how to build communities in our backyard. Our social media screens have turned us inward when our world needs us to look outward and make as many in-person connections as we do virtual. The reason we all hopped on planes and trains to attend this conference instead of watching virtually through a webinar, is because as human beings, nothing, absolutely nothing can possibly match the benefits of those crucial in-person interactions. The eye contact and the handshakes. The hugs and the tears. Those are all real and we need them in order to build empathy in our modernized, technologically advanced and therefore, increasingly physically isolated worlds.

We must forcibly introduce empathy into our lives as we would an iron supplement into a nutrient-poor diet. 

Empathy was only the beginning. At the #FIGT16NL, I learned about connections, communication, loss, and survival. There is a large group of people who have dedicated their lives to helping others—coaches, therapists, writers, friends, people. Everyone there was focused on improving the lives of others and what could be more noble than that? The energy in the room felt electric. Buzzing. Motivational. Families in Global Transition conferences are considered, “a reunion of strangers” and it had that positive, enthusiastic, and welcoming feel to a homecoming.
I could write 20 pages from the notes I took during the three days at the conference, but instead, I will provide my top 10 takeaways from the #FIGT16NL and add links to the Resources tab on the website.

 

1. “We are simply not built to be alone.”

Christopher O’Shaughnessy emphasized the power of “giving a little breath” to someone to let them know that they are not alone. To walk up to someone you see struggling and offer to help. To say “hello” when passing someone on the street or ask someone if they are “okay.” Young adults today are at the highest risk for loneliness in our society. Increased loneliness is directly linked with decreased empathy. Narcissism has decreased empathy and through social media and with our ability to promote ourselves, we have a world that has turned inward.  The majority of young people prefer faceless communication as the preferred method of connecting. We are no longer dependent on each other for survival and while it is nice being independent, we are missing factors of community that we need to add back into our environment to be a healthy community of people.
We must supplement human interaction and empathy into our faceless communication driven worlds. Radicalization appeals to the need to belong. Today, we are seeing that our world has become a perfect storm for increased radicalization as we have decreasing empathy and an increasingly vulnerable population. “Every interaction gives or takes life. There is no such thing as a neutral interaction.”

2. Understanding the “Four Pillars of Self” Can Help Identify Real Solutions to Improving Life Stability

In her session, “Thriving Beyond Culture,” Ilaria Vilkelis describes a portion of the Thriving Cycle Accelerator that she developed called the Four Pillars of Self. Expats are provided logistical support for relocation but nobody warns anyone of the emotional changes that are involved during a massive upheaval in life. Walking through these Pillars of Self is something that can benefit everyone, not only those who are highly mobile.
As you go through each pillar, think about what fulfills these items that help you feel stable in your life. They will continue to change over time, sometimes even week to week.
Pillars of Self:
1. Safe and secure (emotional safety, physical security)
2. Seen and heard
3. Appreciated and rewarded
4. Invited and included
Ilaria’s Thriving Cycle Accelerator takes individuals through 28 lessons to uncover, discover, and provide solutions for understanding and rebuilding your sense of self. This tool helps create awareness within yourself and can be found at thrivingbeyondcultures.com.

3. Belonging is Overrated

“Is Belonging Overrated?” was the title of  a panel discussion featuring Trisha Carter who has worked for over 15 years with expats and their families to help them through the process of adaptation, Ryan Haynes an international school counselor who has worked with thousands of expat teens and their families to adjust to the new school environment, and Dr. Marian van Bakel who has conducted groundbreaking research linking local contact with expat success. The resounding conclusion was Yes! Belonging is indeed, quite overrated.

“Understanding that we won’t always belong is part of the global journey.”
Dr. van Bakel’s research shows that a local host changes an expat’s success so you should adopt a local host! Expats who did not have a local host still felt a decrease in their open-mindedness. Those expats with hosts maintained the same level of open-mindedness and social initiative.
Advice was given to lean into living in the discomfort on the outside. Know yourself so completely that you know what is core to yourself and what is flexible. Be open to all possibilities. You never know what life will throw at you. Be open to getting lost (we are in Amsterdam, after all) Except now, our world is becoming more mobile and it will be rare where communities aren’t open to new people.

4. How to Write Your Story in a Personal Essay

As someone who just published an anthology of personal essays, Knocked Up Abroad, I was very interested to hear what Marilyn Gardener had to share. Her writing is so powerfully moving and I would love to have her as a writing mentor. Her website, Communicating Across Boundaries, features her beautiful prose.
1. Start with the hook—introduction, one to two sentences
2. Main section—three paragraphs of five sentences each
      —Dialogue
—Descriptions
—Travel back in time and give chronology
3. Summary—must have adequate closure
Write your essay to have emotional impact and think about the scene, thoughts, and smells of your story. Take your readers on a journey with you. Make them care about you and what happens to the people within your story. Writing is a present we can give to certain people. Write about your childhood as a gift to your parents. When you write about a special time in your life and write it for a specific person, not the general public. Our writing only means something when we tailor it to someone specific and in the end, it will always touch more people than we imagine. To read more about tips and rules for writing a personal essay, click here.

5. We Have a World of People Who Don’t Know Who They Are

Back to Chris’ point that radicalization feeds on isolation, Ruth Van Reken at www.crossculturalkid.org also reiterates that we have an ever-increasing group of people who have no idea how to discover who they are: third culture kids, cross-cultural kids, children of immigrants, international adoptees, border land children and children of refugees—all of these people are growing up in a world with either voluntary or forced cultural mixing. Defining your home, when it is a shapeless tent that moves with you wherever you go, leads to a nomadic shape-shifting existence. The charge was put out to all expats, immigrants, and those who understand the challenges faced by those in foreign cultures to help this growing population of people connect and discover who they are. We are not alone and we can help one another. We must.

6. Nobody Will Open Up If They Don’t Feel Safe

In the session, “Essential Connections for Cross-Cultural Millenials Through Story,” Michael Pollock describes how we need to build comfort and trust before people will share and open up to us. He described people as sea anemones that pull in when frightened or uncomfortable—without being open, they cannot take in nutrients or grow in that closed state.
“Third Culture Kids often have more moves and losses before they are 20 years old
than others have in their entire lifetime.” —David C. Pollock
7. Our Lives Are Messy But Beautiful 
if you play this song
“Often our lives are like the backs of tapestries—they look like a confused mess until we turn it around and see them for their beauty.”
Think about that for a moment. Think about all of the mistakes, missteps, and bumbles along the way as only the backside of this gorgeous tapestry that you can hang on the wall at the end of your life. We may not see the beauty in it at the time, but those difficult moments are weaving the threads of our life’s tapestry.

8. Integrating Into the Local Culture Isn’t Easy

As a family who has decided to put down roots in Sweden, I was very interested in breaking out of the “expat bubble” and start the integration process. Ute Limacher-Riebold shared her expertise and tools to help us learn what makes for a successful integration.

If you would like to thrive during your life abroad, there are eight basic things you may consider. They will help you to “dig deeper”, even “immerse into the local culture”, and get in contact with locals:

  • Intercultural training: learning about the host culture.
  • Fluency in the local language: some knowledge of the right language to talk with locals will open many doors!
  • Making mistakes: making mistakes is an important part of every learning process!
  • Flexibility: if things don’t work how we expect, having a plan B or C is the key.
  • Inner distance: don’t take things too personally. It will help you to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Open Mindedness: “different” doesn’t mean “worse”…
  • Proactiveness: nothing happens if we don’t take the first step.
  • Have fun! With the right mindset, you’ll be able to embrace your life. (and this applies to everyone!

9. Loss is a Part of Life

Me and Melissa Dalton-Bradford discussing childbirth in foreign countries.Photo courtesy by Olga Mecking
When I first met Melissa Dalton-Bradford, she grabbed my arm and pulled me into her personal space—the American side of me tried to increase our distance but she wasn’t having it. We were going to have this intimate conversation in an intimate space. Due to our close proximity, our words were soft and quiet, despite the noisy din of the expat bookshop echoing off of the granite floors. Her gaze was as unwavering as her attention and when I mentioned we live in Sweden, she instantly flowed from English to Norwegian and my ears prickled at the foreign-yet-familiar sentences that came pouring out of her mouth.
When she gave the closing keynote of the conference, I was anxious to hear her tell her life story. I had purchased her book, Global Mom, the night before and was already tearing through the pages. That morning, she asked the audience members to stand if they had done X or Y. If they spoke different languages at work than they did at home. If they had lost anyone or anything…well, we all have. Loss is what unifies us as a human race. It is a part of life.
“Grief is its own country.”
“Suffering is the modest price of real friendship.” —Wayne Brickey

After hearing her keynote and reading the story of her life, I am more committed to not only integrating into our community, as that strengthens it, but also being a source of lasting comfort for those who are grieving.

10. There is Always More to Learn

Quite possibly the biggest takeaway from this entire experience is that there is always more to learn. We heal when we share our stories and we can learn so much from one hearing another’s experiences. There were many more sessions that deserve mentioning and so many people who are working with a passion unrivaled by other industries. The passion within the FIGT community comes from an authentic place and it shows during hallway conversations.
Everyone is invested in the community and as a result, it is a lovely reunion of strangers who all define home differently and yet, all feel at home with each other. I hope to see you at the next FIGT Conference in 2017!
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