Expat qualities

After living in Hong Kong for so many years (15+ and counting), and continuing to enjoy life here very much, I started thinking about qualities or characteristics it takes to be a ‘successful’ expatriate.

Allow me to preface my list by explaining what I mean by ‘successful’. I don’t mean financial success. Many expats who make lots of money in overseas posts are never the less extremely unhappy, and vice versa. What I mean is simply that the successful expatriate has the ability to find life in a foreign country congenial, and even pleasant.

So, let’s get started.

Adaptability. Clearly, adaptability is the cornerstone of expat success. But what does the word really mean when you must put it into practice? In essence, I think it means being able to find contentment in unfamiliar circumstances. It means being able to accept a certain degree of discomfort and internal disequilibrium, and say, ‘That’s all right. I might not like this all that much, but I’m not going to let it rule my life’. I can’t overstate how important this is. It’s sad to watch an expat who’s determined to recreate his home country life in his new foreign situation. No matter how many steps he’s able to take, there’s always going to be something that isn’t right. His employment terms might allow him to rent a house that’s just as nice as his house back home, with a yard or garden that’s just as big, with a car that’s just as powerful – but he will inevitably find a whole mess of worms in the apple. The grass in the yard will be spiky instead of smooth. The car will have a great sound system, but all his favorite radio stations will of course be inaccessible. The house might be beautiful and well-furnished, but the fridge won’t have an automatic ice maker. You might think this sounds like a lot of petty rubbish, but you’d be surprised at what gets people worked up when they’re outside their comfort zones.

My Achilles' heel in this area is the weather. I'm interested in weather, and I'm more aware of how weather works than most other people, although I'm just an amateur enthusiast. But that's also a nice way of saying that I am prone to allowing unpleasant weather (i.e. the entire summer in Hong Kong) to bother me far more than I should. Over the years Mrs Tall has had her patience frayed repeatedly by my incessant commentary on matters meteorological. Finally, a couple of years ago, she turned to me and said something along the lines of: 'Why do you let something as petty as the weather rule your life? It's only your temporary physical comfort that's affected. Why do you let this obsession affect your mood and your enjoyment of all the other things going on in your life?' And I thought about that for a while, and I've been a lot better since.

Unconcerned obliviousness. What adaptability doesn’t mean is the ability to understand everything that’s going on around you. Although being curious is great for expats in general, it doesn't work well in many specific situations. That is, expats often find themselves in situations in which they simply don’t know what is going on, and it’s inconvenient or impossible to find out. Many of these little moments of cluelessness are language-related, but certainly not all of them. All cultures have mores and traditions that are opaque to the uninitiated. As an expat who’s looking to adjust, you of course want to start learning about these little cultural foibles, but you often can’t do so right at the moment you’re encountering one. You’re often much better off, and a much more pleasant person to be around, if you can simply cultivate a state of ‘unconcerned obliviousness’ from time to time: you don’t know what’s going on around you, and you can just live with that for the time being – without getting upset. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land, you should remember and cherish an alien experience, but refrain from trying to 'grok' it until you have time to savor it in repose.

I find this quality hard to cultivate. I suffer from a beady-eyed curiosity that often makes me impatient – I want to understand now. And there are still lots of things I don't understand at all.

Optipessimism. You might think that bright-eyed optimists make the most successful expats, but I’m not really sure that’s true. Yes, it’s helpful to wake up every morning and think ‘Today’s going to be a fabulous day!’ But it’s also difficult to prop up a high state of enthusiasm after the initial rush of moving overseas wears off. I wonder if sometimes people who are determined to see the bright side of everything are more likely to ‘snap’ the most violently and end up really hating their expat lives. The disappointments are too frequent and too profound.

On the other hand, a confirmed pessimist will always find plenty of grist for the complaint mill when living overseas, and this can become a self-feeding spiral of discontent.

This is one area, then, in which the via media is really the right way. Allow yourself to enjoy new and unexpected enthusiasms; equally, allow yourself the occasional sulk; but don’t let either get hold of you. Easier said than done, I know.

So, expat readers: am I on the mark here? Any tips from your experience? Do leave us a comment or visit our forum to tell us what you think.


A couple more expat qualities

A couple more qualities to add to your list:

Have a sense of humour. You are going to make a fool of yourself, whether you want to or not. You'll meet people that you find are rude to you - sometimes they are doing it deliberately, more often it's just a clash of customs - 'the way we do things' is different. There will be stuff that irritates you. And some days it'll get you down, or you'll get angry, but the more you can laugh it off, the better you'll feel.

Have realistic expectations. An article about new arrivals to Japan talked about how the first few months were spent extolling the virtues of the cleanliness, the politeness, the history. Then at around six months the story changed to frustration with the lack of flexibility, the difficulty in making friends, and the feeling of being an outsider. The author carried on that many people gave up and left at that point, but the ones who stayed and enjoyed themselves found the middle way that MrT noted.

So I think it helps if you arrive overseas expecting to lurch between that enthusiasm and sulking, understanding that it is quite natural and settles down over time.

Cultivate a mix of friends. After I'd been here a year or so, I realised my friends were all single, and a similar age. It was good fun, and they are still good friends, so there was nothing wrong with them! But I found I felt better somehow when I also got to know some families with kids, and older people. Somehow it all seemed more balanced and healthy for me.

Hopefully that mix will include people from different countries, and the country you are living in as an expat. Surely one of the benefits of living overseas is the chance to break down a few of our prejudices and sterotypes. That can be hard to do if our life revolves around work, pubs and clubs, all surrounded by other expats.


'Expats', the do's and donts

I spent my whole life living in other countries...so much so that I feel I don't really belong anywhere. I consider myself a professional foreigner, as it were.. :-)

But I think you make a good point. You have to be flexible and a bit thick-skinned to get through the beginning. A sense of humour is a must. You will make mistakes in custom/language and you will inevitably fall into some kind of stereotype-joke for a moment. But don't sweat it. There is always tons of prejudice and misconception (from both one's self and people who one may meet) but that eventually balances out with time, usually.

The biggest snag most expats run into is the unvaried experience. You see a few places, you like those places, you hang at those places. There are people who hang at these places, usually other expats, and you hang with them. It's a good start but quickly loses its flavour. Most of the time this lot stay moaning about the host country and what they miss about 'home'. Fair enough, but this kind of group can get to be a real downer. I have been there. A group of you just smashing the place with criticisms and complaints. We all need to vent sometimes but there is a 'healthy' limit. Makes you wonder why you left in the first place. I think it ties in with MrB's cultivating a mix of friends. Varying and exploring new experiences, even if you are in your own country(!) can be rewarding and fulfilling.

I would add language too your list too. Not saying that you HAVE TO enroll in intensive language courses or be fluent to the point of outdoing the locals but usually a few phrases here and there help you blend easier (or at least that's my feeling). Obviously it opens up more of the new society you are in, thus enabling your experience to be more varied and therefore more comfortable. However, as I am sure many readers who are multi-lingual expats will agree, this can potentially open up more problems too as you become more of a participant in society. But I feel the benefits outweigh the negatives.

Bad experiences should never put you off. Enough soapboxin' for me...hehe. Just go with it! Good job on the site guys!

But How?

I thought this article was wonderful. But my question is how? I used to live in Discovery Bay and hated the fact that it was overrun by expats, so we moved to Central to integrate and to avoid the torturous ferry ride to HK. DB was like the Club Tropicana or something (complete unreality with golf carts to boot)and I felt like I was missing out on the big picture.
I do try, and I'm not interested in going to clubs or pubs and meeting other people who have complaints about HK and the Chinese. Whenever I move I know I ALWAYS complain about something, although with each move I compromise a little more so the settling down process becomes easier. So my complaints since I moved here have never been about HK or the people, my main complaint is usually missing the flipping change of the escalator - can anyone confirm the EXACT time it changes? Seems it's an ever changing schedule.... I digress, the how question is how do I integrate? How do I meet people while trying to avoid the 'stuck out sore thumbs' that are some expats who refuse to integrate and who sometimes make me cringe with embarassment as I try to blend in with the locals? I'm an agnostic, so church is out. So where do I find like minded people to make friends with and have 'real' conversations and not 'Corrr the golf clubs are cheap here' 'Corr those flippin' mozzies are eatin' me alive'?
I do feel the locals can be friendly, but very private. So any suggestions? (will be taking Mandarin lessons with my son when he turns 3 in a few months, is Mandarin becoming more prominent than Cantonese now?)

bursting the expat bubble

The YWCA has a new course called "bursting the expat bubble" to be held on 31 oct and 14 nov.  run by Cecilie Gamst Berg.  I"ve not been (obviously) but it sounds interesting.  Their website is www.esmdywca.org.hk

 They have a couple of other things that I think may help - like chinese communication, etiquette, language and behaviour and courses run by the Hk chinese orchestra.  

Then the Royal Asiatic society http://www.royalasiaticsociety.org.hk/  has quite a few local members, as does the Royal geographic society: http://www.rgshk.org.hk/final.asp?page=hkbranch

 There are a lot of local ladies member of the Helena May   http://www.helenamay.com/

who attend their activities / lectures.

 What about tennis or another sport?  The tennis class I went to had about a 50/50 mix of locals and expats (I wouldn't recommend the teacher so I won't mention where I went), and often the 'locals' were part of a 'mixed marriage' or educated abroad and therefore very ameneable to friendship with non-locals.


Making friends

To add to gweipo's good suggestions, there are a few more ideas here.

'I do feel the locals can be friendly, but very private.' Yes, after about 3 months in my first job here I found it strange that I hadn't had anything but the most superficial conversation with my colleagues. I just decided it wasn't going to happen, and left it at that. Then 4 or 5 months later I was surprised to look back after an evening out and think 'that was the type of conversation I've been missing'. Not sure if that is the usual way of things, or just my experience?

Good choice to learn Chinese, in fact several of my friends today were met in Cantonese or Mandarin classes years ago. The time when I met most local people was when learning chinese exercise in a local park. The advantage was that we had a reason to spend an hour together each day, but as it was all about movement it didn't matter too much that we didn't speak much of each other's language.

Cantonese or Mandarin? If you're learning for business in China, Mandarin is the obvious choice. If you're more interested in getting more out of life in Hong Kong, Cantonese is still clearly the local language.

Have fun, MrB