7 Ways Traditions Foster a Healthy Expat Identity

Sometimes you have a tradition that, despite the complexity of the task, you do it so frequently that it becomes like second nature. There are rituals to it, set ways of doing things, recipes for just the right amount of each fraction of the experience.

It’s a bit like that with our annual Christmas Eve Potluck. Yes – I’m totally talking about Christmas on the first of October. Eeek! I know, but keep reading as I get to my point…

This year will be our 7th time to host the party (9th if you count earlier, much smaller versions). And while we’re still a few months away, this is about the time I start thinking about the process. I know by now exactly what we need so I’ve long since learned how to minimize the potential stress and plan ahead. To be honest, even though it’s usually a huge party, it’s never in the least bit stressful. It’s a celebration of love and gratitude. Come December 24th, I don’t think I’d ever want to be anywhere else. It has become one of the defining traditions of our life as a family.

We often think of the importance of traditions and rituals in the context of creating a home space or in building family unity, but for expats, there’s even more to it. When we move frequently from place to place, creating rituals, adhering to traditions and enjoying celebrations makes a globally mobile life more than just the transitions, baggage, and upheaval. It helps us define the very nature of who we are in the midst of those things.

Traditions and rituals help us express ourselves fully in new spaces and remind us who we are in familiar ones. They can help us build community, learn new things about ourselves and create a sense of home no matter where we go. They are the medium through which we learn to simply be regardless of where we’re physically planted.

In short – committing to rituals and traditions and taking time to mark important milestones with celebrations shouldn’t be an after-thought. These aspects are key for living a healthy, connected and fulfilling life as an expat.

Here are some important reminders about what cultivating a spirit of tradition, ritual and celebration can do for your expat life.

Traditions, rituals and celebrations help you:

Claim your home space. When you move a lot, it can feel like the place you’ve landed is just a house. Creating rituals – like a family photo wall, or letting your kids choose which color they want to paint their rooms – allows you to fully turn a house into a home. They foster a sense of comfort with your new space.

Get creative. Anyone who’s tried to bake a family recipe in a country where half the ingredients don’t exist knows exactly what I’m talking about here. Committing to carrying on family traditions despite being in unfamiliar territory means we find completely new and unique ways to do things we love and that’s a really good way to stretch our brains outside our comfort zones.

Become the expert. Except for perhaps your extended family, who likely live very far away, no one but you understands the rituals unique to your family. This means you’re introducing a new custom from your home country to people who may have never experienced it before. You get to teach people about new and interesting ways traditions are practiced around the world. When you live a life where you’re often in the early stages of learning completely new things, it can feel really good to be the expert at something and to share that experience with others.

Set goals. Living outside your home culture means that it takes a lot more prep-work to do the things that would be easy if you were back home. Knowing you might have a longer way to go to follow through with a tradition or celebration helps you plan ahead and strategize how to reach your goals. When you reach your goals, the feeling of having accomplished something is a really nice boost to your self-confidence.

Foster group cohesion. Having regular traditions, rituals and celebrations can help you connect with other expats who share similar customs. This is a really great way to bring people together – even if they normally wouldn’t have much in common. We get to say, “Yes! I do that too!” That can be a nice feeling when you’re far from home and, at the transition phase, is an excellent way to begin to feel a part of something.

Create built-in pauses to be in the moment. This is so very important! Milestones are worth celebrating, but it can be tempting to blow them off whenever life gets hectic (as it always does when you’re living between worlds). By acknowledging the significance of meaningful life events (like birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries) with set rituals and traditions, we remind ourselves to slow down and observe the passage of time. They remind us that the only moment we really have is the one we’re in right now.

Build community. Celebrating and sharing in traditions brings people together! Whether it’s over a favorite traditional meal, through religious or cultural celebrations or simply by taking time to create new moments to mark important milestones – people enjoy connecting as a community! The people we encounter in our journey from home to home are, without question, what really make the world go round.

So, as you transition into a new season, one that often comes with a whole new array of opportunities for tradition, ritual and celebration – what will you be doing to mark this unique and special passage of time? And – how will those special moments help you feel more like yourself, no matter where you go?

Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 4

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Traditions, Rituals and Celebrations. Over our many years living overseas we’ve found great comfort, community and a sense of home through the traditions, rituals and celebrations we’ve made a part of our life around the world. I love it that our friends around in all corners of the globe get a glimpse into our favorite moments and habits and that we have the gift of learning about and sharing in their’s as well.

That’s why in this month’s interview, I am so honored and excited to sit down with Stacy Perry. Stacy is a mom to three kids, wife of an American diplomat and teacher. Stacy’s commitment to traditions, rituals and celebrations is one of the (many) things I admire about her the most. Even when the goin’ gets tough – she exudes a spirit of celebration. Her family is blessed to have her wisdom about why this commitment is so important for expats (and honestly, for everyone). And you, my friends, are so lucky to get to hear her talk about that all right here!

Read Stacy’s responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch her Everyday Expats interview for our conversation along with her top 3 reminders for how to bring traditions, rituals and celebrations into your expat life.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up on the shore in New Jersey, moved to South Carolina for college (Go Tigers!). I met my husband there and decided to stay and start our family. Beautiful Charleston, SC is our heart home. We have been posted in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Krakow, Poland. My husband is currently serving an unaccompanied assignment and I’m in the US with our three kids.

I am a teacher who is currently taking a “sabbatical” in the corporate world. So, I guess I’m a bit backwards compared to other expat spouses as I find that my career as a teacher has been better served me when we’re outside of the US. I adore international teaching and will get back to my craft once we’re back out as a family.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

Well, I realized on the plane on the way to Santo Domingo that it was really, actually happening – before then I actually didn’t give it much thought.

My father passed away suddenly – at least what felt like suddenly – from cancer at the age of 62.  One of the last conversations I had with him was sitting on the side of his hospital bed waiting for transport to bring him home on hospice.  He said (in the most quintessential salty old Irish guy way):

“Listen, don’t sit around feeling bad about this.  You have three kids at home who don’t need a mother who’s going to be sitting around crying and feeling bad for herself.  I’ve lived a great life. Would I have liked to have visited the Grand Canyon? Sure, but things didn’t go my way, and that’s ok.  I’ve lived a full life.”

My dad lived in Las Vegas.  He never went to the Grand Canyon.  I remember coming home and sitting at the fire pit late one night retelling that story to my husband.  It just resonated with the both of us; we wanted to show our kids the world. We wanted to make meaningful memories together as a family while we still could.  I also remember him calling me from work the following day to tell me about the Foreign Service…how he could take this test, and only 2% of the people who sign up actually make it, but if he did…we could take the kids to see the world.  That conversation was about 4 months before “flag day” where we found out we were headed for Santo Domingo. Then, the next thing I knew, I was on a plane.

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

Change.  I crave it when we’ve been in one place for longer than a couple of years.  I love the idea of having a fresh start, the adventure of learning the “lay of the land” and meeting new people.  A very close second to my absolute favorite part are all of the people I have collected from all over the world. It is an absolute gift to meet so many different people.  They have been my favorite souvenirs from everywhere we’ve been.

What’s your least favorite part?

“So, here you are too foreign for home; too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”  

The feeling of never quite fitting in; it’s hard as an adult, but it’s excruciating to watch your kids go through it.  We’ve come to expect it when we’re living overseas, but we didn’t quite expect the intensity of these feelings coming “home” back to the states.  Repatriating has been the hardest for the kids. They are all in the tween-teen years – the years that everyone just wants to blend in as much as possible – the years where different is sniffed out immediately.  All in all, my kids are rockstars when it comes to acclimating, but repatriating and fitting in to a small-ish community where everyone has been in school together since kindergarten is still a work in progress.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I have had so many things come together for me during our time in this lifestyle so it’s hard to say that it’s because of the life we’ve chosen to live or because I’m settling into my 40s, or it’s because death affected us so deeply, but during this time in my life I have done the most growing as a person.  I have learned I am enough; I have learned to trust myself; my abilities and my gut. Our experience is so unique in this lifestyle that I’ve learned to stop asking for advice – to force myself to stare down some hard choices and to figure it out on my own. I have learned that my intuition is always spot on and I should trust the whispers from the universe; to recognize opportunities when they are presented and to come from a place of yes. I have learned that I need connection in my life. Learning where to find or how to ask for deli meat in any particular language is not as important as making connections to the people around me.

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

This question has been so hard for me. I have been struggling with what’s so super about me – this question inspired some really amazing answers from my family when I told them I was stumped.  My husband said “well that’s exactly it…you have this amazing ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. You have constantly created this bubble of normal, constant normal for us wherever we are. Once we close those doors all of us know that inside of our home everything stays the same.  The address changes, but our home does not. Our routines change a bit, but our traditions stay; we eat an early Sunday supper every week, we have movie night or game night every week, we have family dinner every night, the kids look forward to taking turns in the kitchen with you. Christmas looks exactly the same every year – we all know you’re setting us up with matching pjs – every year.  We can wake up anywhere in the world and our normal life remains normal because you work hard to make sure that it does.”

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

ONE

Seek connection.  It’s immeasurably hard to make relationships that you know have an “expiration date,” but do it, and do it as soon as possible.  Once you have your first “You too?! I thought I was the only one” moment, HOME starts to build up around you. What’s nice about having traditions you really love is that you can use those to connect with and build your community. Those traditions are a piece of who you are that you share with others.

TWO

Stay connected to your tribe.  For me, I’ve found that “temperature” taking of my kids involves activity together more than a firing squad of questions every night, so I make a point of scheduling some sort of one-on-one time with each child as much as possible.  This ranges from going grocery shopping together to our to eat together – but it’s the time where I’m 100% focused on what they’re saying. These rituals – even the simplest thing like a dinner out – show my family members that some things never change and that’s really important to helping our family stay strong when we move from place to place.

THREE

Let the little stuff go.  This lifestyle is HARD, but life is also very short. Let the little (and sometimes medium sized things) GO.  Once I learned to accept that I cannot control the world, I can only control how I react to it; I became instantly “boosted!” This means you might have some things you really love or always do or “have to do,” but it’s also important to note when certain rituals or traditions need to change. It’s hard to keep everything, so it’s important to focus on the ones that most matter.

Expat Parenting: Learning to Leave it All on the Stage…and Teaching our TCKs to do the Same

I recently had the sweetest of bedtime conversations with my 12 year old. He’s starting 7th grade and he was talking about his impressions of 7th grade as a scary time. This is probably a combination of urban legend, YouTube and bits and snippets of conversations he’s overheard from adults (myself included).

I don’t particularly remember 7th grade as stressful. Actually, I don’t really remember 7th grade all that well at all. Perhaps it was simply uneventful – the middle years of middle school, stuck between the exciting newness of 6th grade and the grown-up feeling of 8th.

As the conversation continued and I attempted to reassure him that every year is different and one kid’s worst year could always be the best for the kid down the hall, I was reminded of the especially unique position that we as expat parents and our children as TCKs have when it comes to school, friendships and life in general.

We’re fortunate in the gift of being able to leave it all on the stage (or the field, the court, or the pitch). Each moment becomes about what’s most real and most important right now.

If we choose to see it this way, leaving it all on the stage means we’re free to release ourselves from the burden of “should” and “need to.” We can learn to reflect, to get deep-down and personal with what type of parent we really want to be and, distanced from the pressures of one set cultural norm, start to try new things. We get bolder, more creative and more flexible.

When we parent from this place we go from rote performance, to more fully engaged. We more frequently do things because we want to and because they feel right, not because it’s what’s expected of us.

When we leave it all on the stage, it becomes easier to return to what’s most important for our own families because we recognize (and it’s easy for our children to see) that each group of people – whether it’s a family or a culture – does things differently from the other. From this perspective, doing things differently becomes the norm, whether it’s the amount of money spent on a birthday party or the age at which children get a smart phone.

The freedom we gain here is a weight lifted from our shoulders and it can bring a heightened sense of confidence when it comes to guiding our children into flexible, thoughtful and compassionate people.

The gift of leaving it all on the stage extends to our children as well.

This was a big part of my conversation with my son at bedtime. We’ve lived in Japan for three years and he and his siblings are starting their final school year here.

I reminded him that this is the year to make the friendships, try the sports, engage in the creative projects and set the challenges that he may have put off in the past. Sure, he could have done these things before, but the unique privilege of moving every few years is that – whatever doesn’t work out – serves solely as a learning experience.

For kids, leaving it all on the stage means the freedom to turn every potential awkward moment into a full embrace of their true selves – whether they want to start a 7th grade D&D club or switch to a new sport they worry they might not be good at. Something turns out not to be what you anticipated? Who cares! Next year it’s a clean slate – new home, new friends, new school.

I also reminded my son that it’s important to remember that sometimes things will hurt. You might feel embarrassed or regret a choice you make. Leaving it all on the stage is not about creating a myth that everything will work out fine, it’s about seeing that challenges are a normal part of our existence (no matter where we go) and that our lifestyle, in it’s extreme flexibility, offers the opportunity (and maybe even the anonymity) to recover faster when things don’t go your way.

Leaving it all on the stage is the ultimate embrace of the inherent ambiguity and unpredictability of life – a reality that expats face over and over again, every day.

If you don’t know where you’ll be tomorrow, what will you jump into today with the full force of your complete and wonderful self? What will you leave on the stage?

Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 3

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Expat Parenting. It’s an incredible gift for my husband and I to be raising our children between worlds. As a child and adolescent, I used to lie on the trampoline in my backyard in small-town Texas and dream of traveling to far off lands. On a clear day, my kids get a view of Mt. Fuji on their way to school. They’ve played with lemurs in their natural habitat, Caribbean beaches have been their default playscape. Their lives are so different from they way mine was. So much about raising kids is the same no matter where you go. At the same time, expat parents do a lot without the standard road map (or support) that less mobile families may have.

In this month’s interview, I talk with Rob Newman about what parenting as an expat means to him. I decided to ask Rob to join me this month because as an expat partner and parent of 6 (!) I’ve come to know him as someone who turns toward creativity and exploration in his parenting. Even through challenge, he adopts an air of openness and clarity of purpose with his kids. He has certainly been a role-model for me since my earliest days as overseas.

Read Rob’s responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch his Everyday Expats interview for our conversation along with his top 3 reminders for expat parents.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. My Mom is from Bolivia so I grew up hearing a lot of Spanish and eating Bolivian food. My mom’s entire family immigrated to the United States, but she still managed to assimilate fairly quickly into American culture. The Bolivian cuisine we were exposed to was mostly prepared by my Aunt and Grandmother. My mom spoke Spanish with me before I started school, but switched to English when my Kindergarten teacher expressed concern about my language development. I mostly forgot Spanish and, as a result, understood very little during the dinner conversations at my grandmother’s house on Sunday nights.

My dad is from New York and never learned Spanish, so, despite my mom’s influence, I never really saw ours as an immigrant family. It wasn’t until after my sophomore year in college when I spent two years as a missionary in southern California working with Spanish speakers that I really started to identify with the Latino side of my cultural heritage.

Interestingly, since my wife joined the Foreign Service, we’ve had the chance to be posted in Latin America and Scandinavia, which is where my dad’s ancestors came from. Somehow these people who came from different parts of the world in many ways shape who I am today.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

I went to college in Baltimore. And then I met my wife, who is from Colorado. A year after we got married, we decided to move to Denver, both to be near her family and to be near the mountains. I was really excited and I wanted to move to the West, but I found the transition surprisingly difficult. This was my first real move away from the only home I had ever known. And it was incredibly stressful.

After living in Colorado for a few years, my wife started thinking about joining the Foreign Service. A few of her friends were diplomats and hearing their stories made her feel more and more like she wanted to work for the State Department. I liked the idea, but it seemed like a fantasy. I never really thought we would end up traveling the world. By that time, I had come to love Colorado and felt like there was still so much to explore there. Over the course of the application process, we often talked about and imagined moving abroad with our family, but in my mind it was still a dream. When the offer actually came, I was caught off guard and, frankly, shocked. In just two months, we sold our house and moved to Washington, D.C., knowing full well that we would be moving overseas within the year.

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

As much as I dread moving, I also love it. Change is exciting to me, although I know the temporary loss of routine is a also a source of great stress. My favorite part of living abroad has been discovering the history of the places in which we live. I love reading and going to museums. I find it fascinating to try to understand the present by learning about the past. I love to discover peoples’ routines, food, and pastimes. I feel like, no matter how far we travel or how different a place seems, there is a fundamental humanness that I recognize and to which I can connect.

What’s your least favorite part?

The worst part of this lifestyle is the disruption it causes to our family. We usually find out where will be moving next about a year before we depart, and, as hard as I try not to, I find myself pretty immediately starting to let go of our old home and getting ready for our new one. With a large family, the logistics are overwhelming. I start going to bed really late and waking up really early, making mental lists and scrambling to prioritize, organize, sort, or dispose of all our stuff.  The length of my mental “To Do” list makes it harder to focus on parenting and I often feel frustrated that things don’t get done as quickly as I had hoped. I struggle with anxiety. As I find myself so preoccupied with the practical aspects of moving, I am less patient and engaged with my kids, even though the stress they are experiencing means they need even more attention from me than normal. This cycle often leaves me feeling discouraged and inadequate. I’ve realized that most of my sense of identity and self-worth comes from my ability to be a good parent. I am also learning to be a little more forgiving of myself and to trust that the love I feel for my children will compensate for the mistakes I make along the way.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I’ve learned that stuff is just stuff, and, honestly, is more of a burden than it’s worth.

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

I’m one of four children. The family I grew up in was very close, and I always knew I wanted to be a father. I also knew I wanted to have a large family of my own. I got married when I was 24, and we had our first baby a year and a half after our wedding. Since then, my priority has been my children.  We now have six kids ages 14, 11, 10, 7, 5, and 1. I’ve stayed home full-time with them since my wife joined the State Department ten years ago. When we only had small children, I gave up a lot of my personal desires and interests. But, as they have gotten older, I’ve been able to figure out how to incorporate my passions and interests into my relationship with my children.

With their wide age ranges, it is very difficult to engage all six kids in an activity at the same time, but it’s not impossible. It is important to be flexible and patient, and to have realistic expectations. When I first started hiking with my oldest child, I had to figure out how long he would sleep in the baby carrier and anticipate everything he might need along the way. It took me a while to figure out how to quickly thaw frozen breast milk in the middle of a hiking trail. Once he started walking, the challenge became moving forward. At that age, everything is interesting, and he couldn’t take more than a step or two without stopping to look at a rock or pick up a leaf. When our second child was born, it was back to the baby carrier while simultaneously trying to motivate a toddler whose curiosity distracted him at every step. With the next baby, the older ones were getting better about expressing their feelings and opinions.

With each child, I had to adjust my routine – and my expectations – and look for ways that we could do something together that everyone would enjoy. Fourteen years after the birth of our first child, it felt like an amazing opportunity and accomplishment this summer to hike with him to the top of Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, above the Arctic Circle. If I hadn’t had the patience when he was young to make hiking fun for him, he might not have had any interest in climbing that mountain with me. If I had hiked by myself all those years, I might be a stronger hiker, but I would be hiking alone.

Two years ago, when we were living in Swaziland, I decided to take the kids hiking up a small mountain that had amazing views. I’d been considering doing it for a long time, but I didn’t think all of the kids would be able to reach the top. One day, on a whim, I suggested we try to hike that mountain. I made it very clear that I had no intention of reaching the top and that I mostly just wanted to enjoy the hike and the views. Surprisingly, the kids all agreed.

Since we had no expectation of reaching the top, we took our time and just enjoyed being there together. At about the halfway point, I realized that we had a good shot at actually reaching the top. When I mentioned the possibility to the kids, everyone got excited and wanted to go for it, except for one. I bribed him with ice cream and found him suddenly hiking at an unprecedented speed. He lead the pack until we reached the top. When I tried to imagine hiking to the top of the mountain with five kids (ages 2, 4, 6, 8, 11), it seemed impossible and I put it off. But when I decided on a smaller, more manageable hike, I was surprised and amazed by my children’s endurance and determination. Instead of worrying so much about reaching the top, we took our time and really enjoyed just being outside together, which ultimately made reaching the summit so much easier.

I love biking, camping, swimming, and rock climbing with my kids. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but I feel like the time we spend together and the experiences we have are an investment in my children. Parenting has taught me more than anything else how to love someone selflessly and unconditionally, which I think is ultimately our greatest source of joy.

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

Moving and living abroad will be stressful on a family.  I found these things helpful:

ONE

Children need more attention during and right after a move.  While it is impossible to give them one’s undivided attention, it is important to prioritize them, even if it means taking longer to get unpacked and settled. I think it’s important to prioritize children’s needs, even though it will take longer to take care of all the practical things.  Of course, you have to strike a balance; it’s hard to be at peace if you are living in a mess.  But I find it impossible to feel settled in a new environment if my kids aren’t settled first.

TWO

Saying goodbye to all of my friends does not make me feel super motivated to go and make new ones. In the beginning, my family members are the only friends I’ve got.  I think it’s important to guard against loneliness by doing things together.  I find that limiting screen time is helpful.  Although TVs and movies are cheap and effective babysitters, too much screen time makes my kids grumpy and more prone to fighting. It is not a substitute for human and family interaction.  Feeling a sense of connection and security with people you know is really important during transition.

THREE

Don’t be shy or too proud to accept help.  Expats bond quickly out of necessity, and the common experience of moving abroad makes them more empathetic and compassionate.  The people who offer help are usually very sincere about it because they’ve been in a similar position (and because, more often than not, someone helped them when they most needed it).  This system of paying it forward works pretty well, so don’t feel an obligation to somehow repay them for their kindness.  Rather, look for ways to help others once you are in a position to be able to.

6 Essential Practices for Hard-to-Reach Stressors

This summer we’ve decided not to go home. We’re here, in Tokyo, living out our sweltering summer amidst the asphalt and kakigoori (also known as the best thing made from ice ever invented).

My mom’s here visiting. That’s super nice. Occasionally she comes to see us and get a taste of our life between worlds. I’ve been talking to her quite a bit about the stress of this lifestyle. It feels particularly acute because we’re here and not in Austin. I always feel like the only place in the world I’m supposed to be in the summer is Austin. It makes the universe feel a bit off kilter to be here and not there.

I realize in talking with her that it’s not the everyday stressors of expat life that most get to me (although, of course, there are many), but rather what I think of as background stressors. The deeper, more intimate questions of – Will all this work out in the end? What does our retirement look like if we’ve never had a home? Will our kids wish they’d stayed in one place? Where will we be living this time next year? What does it mean to be an American overseas during times like these?

When we think about stress-management and self-care – we often think about the everyday skills and habits that help us deal with the surface stressors of life. Going for a nice long run, getting a massage or calling a friend largely helps us handle that sort of stress.

But background stress is different because it can be hard-to-reach and difficult to figure out what’s actually going on. It lurks under and behind everything we do. It nags – like losing your keys or forgetting the name of that girl you used to know in middle school, the one who moved to Hawaii. Those stressors are there whether we notice them or not and they pile up. Background stressors can leave us feeling unexpectedly down, lost, irritable or just plan weird.

While having positive self-care habits like exercise, sufficient sleep and healthy eating definitely help ease the intensity of background stressors, I’ve found that these stressors also take a separate and distinct type of engagement.

To deal with the challenges that hit at our egos, our values and our sense of purpose – it’s important to develop habits of self-reflection and insight. Taking the time to look more closely at who we are and how we fit in the world can be difficult. Sometimes the effort can feel daunting. We may not be sure we’ll like what we find there. On the other hand, deep down most of us know it’s important to do this type of inner work so that we can grow and develop into our full selves.

One way to cultivate a more reflective state is to develop practices that naturally foster paying attention to our experiences. These skills can help us turn towards what’s going on inside and around us, giving us more information about the source of background stress.

This can include practices like:

Attending to Judgment – Learning to become aware of our judgments and assumptions.

Attending to Emotions – Asking ourselves what we’re feeling.

Attending to Physical Sensation – Paying attention to our body and asking what it may be trying to tell us.

Cultivating Stillness – Spending time in “not doing” to see what insights might come.

Engaging Ambiguity – Learning to become more comfortable with what we don’t or can’t know.

Aligning with Vision – Asking, “Who do I want to be in this situation?”

These practices (from the Personal Leadership model for intercultural communication) are great for those moments when you feel that nagging sense of uncertainty. Those times when you sense something’s not quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it or those times when you feel like you’re just floating along – neither completely engaged nor disengaged.

Sure, you’ll still go for a run, call a friend, write in your journal or enjoy a little “me time,” but for all the stress that just keeps on giving learning to turn your attention towards what’s going on, just might be the key.

To hear a bit more about these practices in detail, check out this blog post from my 7-Part Facebook Live video series – What Does It Take to Practice Mindfulness? To learn how you can apply these practices in your own life, consider joining the fall session of Finding Your Way: Everyday Mindfulness for Critical Moments.

Everyday Expat Video Series – Episode 2

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Stress-Management and Self-Care. I’m sure I’m not alone in having faced some major ups and downs while living between homes, countries and cultures. I’m thankful that with each passing year I learn more about what it means to take care of myself, to recognize when I need a break and to see what it takes to step back and reevaluate how I can best thrive in this unpredictable life. I know I’m not alone in this experience.

In this month’s interview, I talk with Bego Lozano about what stress management and self-care mean to her. I decided to ask Bego to join me this month because she is, like all of us, someone who has faced significant ups and downs, stressors, set-backs and amazing highs while living around the world. Even with all those challenges, I’ve come to know her as someone who always comes back to a focused, thoughtful approach to caring for herself. And, I’ve seen how well those skills have served her in managing stress. I’m so happy to have her here to share those reflections and tips with you all.

Read her responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch her Everyday Expats interview for our conversation and her tips for how to handle stress in your life, no matter where you go.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up in Mexico City to Mexican parents with a big Spanish influence. Lived there all my life until I married. I have lived in Paris, Miami, Seattle, New York City, Mexico City, São Paulo, and now Burlingame, CA…and who knows where next? I’ve been happily married for almost 23 years and am a mother to two wonderful kids and a dog that responds to commands in three languages!

Currently my mind, head, and heart are occupied by tons of things. Our son is going off to college in the fall (to the Boston area), so there are many things to get ready – both physical and emotional. Our daughter will be a junior in high school. I’m busy planning my next professional reincarnation and thinking how to best manage and budget my time between family, volunteering, doing yoga, meditation, and now returning to running while doing business development and working.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

I’ve never really thought about this. Thinking back, I know when my now husband and I started dating we talked about wanting to live abroad for a while and when the opportunity came we immediately jumped for it. My Mom used to describe me as her “nomad daughter.” After a while of living in the US we decided to go back to Mexico City, so our kids would have a similar experience to the one we had growing up: family, friends, familiar places and routines. Probably the decision to move to Brazil was when we decided to intentionally live an international life and embrace it.

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

How your mind and your heart grow. Meeting new people, trying new foods, listening to new music, reading new books, experiencing new rituals, immersing in a new culture and taking what you like and making it yours. My life is richer and deeper thanks to these experiences. A part of me is from all the places I have lived, and I like to think I left a part of me as well. Understanding we are all interconnected, and seeing the world is bigger than just my little vision and comfortable corner AND understanding that I have a responsibility to the world.

What’s your least favorite part?

It is two-fold: leaving friends behind and all the administrative things required when leaving and starting over. I read somewhere that friends are either for a season, for a reason, or for a lifetime. It is very hard when you think you have made lifetime friends and you know your worlds will probably not intersect again.

Doing all the administrative things gets to be tiring and repetitive, and it is honestly hard work. Before leaving: paperwork for the movers and insurance, closing out accounts, cancelling services. Upon arrival: inspection of whatever broke or got lost during the move, new medical insurance, setting up all the services, bank accounts.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I have learned quite a bit about myself. I never knew I was so strong in the face of adversity, and how resilient I am. While living in Brazil I had cancer (thyroid) and my son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune condition that can be properly managed, but for which there is no cure). I read somewhere that the hardest things to do in a different language is get a haircut and go to the doctor, and yes, I can attest this is the truth. I still have a tough time distinguishing in English between a dull and a sharp pain – it hurts, that is all I know! I have also learned that I truly enjoy this lifestyle of opportunities, building, trying, trying again, learning from others and from past mistakes

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

This is a hard one! (Impostor syndrome, right?) I think my everyday expert superpower has something to do with remembering to build support systems and be part of somebody’s support system. I see support systems as both internal and external. By internal I mean finding what brings you joy and doing it often, have “me” time, taking care of the basics: exercise, sleep, quiet time, eating well. Living far from family and people I grew up with, it is important to build a support system: people you can celebrate and cry with, people who will give you their honest feedback, people who will get your car from a parking lot when you have to catch an airplane (true story!).

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

My 3 stress-management and self-care tips are:

ONE

Reach out and build a support system, ideally before moving. Don’t be shy about contacting the friend of a friend. You will get insight that only locals have -they did the legwork, take advantage of it. And keep tapping into it when you run into issues or unknowns – there is someone that has gone through what you are facing.

TWO

Remember to prioritize yourself and build your internal support system: if you do yoga, find a studio, if you like running, find a trail, sleep well, eat healthy, have quiet time.

THREE

If you don’t do anything for yourself or by yourself, find something. Try different things until you find what sparks joy for you: take a class, get a massage, meditate…figure out something for you and only for you. (Which in turn will benefit those around you).

And sneaking in a number FOUR

Be self-compassionate. Living an expat life can be hard: acknowledge what you feel, be kind to yourself, and remember you are not alone. This is all part of being human.

The Home That Lives Inside Us

I grew up in Central Texas. Every time I go home for the summer, there is a point at which the heat hits me.

I step out on to the back patio at my mom’s house and feel it burn under my feet. I open the car door and feel the steamy escape of 100+ temperatures even before I sit down and turn the air-conditioning up full blast. My poor, sad cup of Blue Bell melts all around the edges so the chocolate just kinda’ floats in the frothy soup of sea-green mint.

You’d think I’d hate it, but I don’t. In fact, I adore it. Sometimes I get a knot in my throat and I tear up with I think about the way the sun feels on my skin in August. That heat is full of a million tiny memories from a lifetime both in and out of the Hill Country. It’s the heat that calls to me – Welcome Home.

It’s not a given that every person who goes “home” for the summer (or winter) really wants to be there. There are people for whom the trip is fraught with anxiety, stress, conflict and discomfort. Maybe you have a place to stay or maybe you don’t. Maybe your friends and family welcome you with loving and open arms, but maybe you don’t even have anyone back there anymore. Maybe the unhappy memories are too numerous to count and the joyful past too fleeting to even bother to see. It’s not the same for all of us. I get that.

And yet, what we don’t get to escape is the fact that all the places we’ve lived take up residence inside of us. The storage of our memories, traumas, joyful occasions and traditions may be place-specific, but they become layers of what makes us, Us no matter where we go. Like…we’re the home and all that stuff is collecting there inside us.

And this is where it gets complicated. Even if we want to, there’s really no way to ignore all the baggage, the junk, the odds and ins, old snapshots and keepsakes piling up there because we carry it with us.

The challenge we face is figuring out how we sort through all of these experiences, memories and pieces of information so that we can begin to create a coherent sense of home.

Why do that?

Because it’s like a rarely entered attic, whether you tend to it or not the stuff is there whether you tend to it or not. Right now it’s probably just weighing you down. Paying attention to it now lets you see what you treasure as a piece of your home identity, what you can learn from but never want to repeat again and what you can simply let go.

Where do we begin?

Doing this takes learning to pay attention. We can do things like…

  • Noticing what emotions come up for us in a given situation
  • Paying attention to the physical sensations we experience when we engage in certain activities or traditions.
  • Tuning in to see which relationships we approach with joy and which ones we anticipate with dread.
  • Making a mental catalogue of the sites, sounds, smells and sensations that accompany certain places. What puts a smile on our faces? What brings tears to our eyes?
  • Asking lots of questions about what we notice in making these observations. We can get curious and engaged with who we are in the place we call home. We can approach each moment from a state of “This is interesting…” and ask “Hmmm, what’s here?”

I realize this might seem totally overwhelming from the place of kids and suitcases and parents and flights and all the many, many annoying or joyful things that go into a trip back home. But here’s the thing – this is part of our life’s work. It’s part of creating who we are so that we’re better for ourselves and for those around us. And it will feel good to grow in this way…I promise.

I’d love to help you out! Join my mailing list during the month of July 2018 and I’ll send you my free guided journaling exercise (The HOME Journal) for you to use right now! Gain new insight and perspective about what home really means, get clarity for how you might begin to clear out some of the baggage and discover what ingredients you need to carry that sense of home with you no matter where you go.

Are you already one of my subscribers? The HOME Journal is in this month’s mail out – coming July 4. Keep your eyes peeled and let me know if you don’t see it in your inbox.

Want even more guidance? Click here to schedule a 30-minute, free, no-obligation conversation to learn more about coaching.

 

Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 1

Home is perhaps my favorite expat theme and I’m so happy to be starting this new series with this important and often complex topic. I’m incredibly fascinated by the complicated nature of what makes one place feel like home and another place feel like somewhere we just briefly took our shoes off.

This month’s interview and blog post is with Angela Stewart. I chose Angie because she is without question one of those rare expats who can create a home space that immediately says – “I live here!”

Read her responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and be sure to check out her spot-on tips for finding home no matter where you go in our video interview – the first (woohoo!!) in my Everyday Expats Video Series.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up on military bases. I was born in Germany and then spent the rest of my childhood moving from base to base in the US, mostly between Kansas and California. I graduated from high school in Washington State and then attended university in Kansas. I married just after college and my husband was accepted into the Foreign Service just before we wed. The two of us then started moving around together. It felt very normal to begin that lifestyle again and I actually felt very relieved that we would travel and not have to make any permanent decisions about where we wanted to spend our life together. It was all I had ever known. Since then we have lived in DC, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Japan. I currently stay home raising our two children and creating and crafting. I enjoy drawing, sculpting, sewing, spinning and dying yarns, knitting, leatherwork and any other craft that catches my eye.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

Throughout university I imagined that I would probably move to a major city after graduation and live and work there indefinitely. It was a strange concept for me but I was willing to give it a try. Pursuing international work for myself never occurred to me. When my then-fiancé mentioned his interest in the Foreign Service I was excited. I love to travel, experience different cultures, and meet new people. After my husband started work and we began moving it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Now the thought of not moving every few years is a bit intimidating. I still haven’t had all my adventures yet!

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

My favorite part of living a globally mobile life is the experiences that, not only I, but my children have. I cannot overstate the value of sharing the world with my children. We worried at first that the constant moving would have a negative effect. I had experienced it myself and knew that it was wonderful for some kids but harder for others. As our children have grown however, we’ve seen what amazing, well-adjusted, creative, and compassionate human beings they are becoming. We are proud of them and they way in which they see the world and themselves in it. We have no doubt that this will be an asset to them in whatever they choose to do with their lives.

What’s your least favorite part?

My least favorite part of this lifestyle is being separated from my extended family. My family is very close-knit and only getting to see each other once a year or so is hard. Technology has made this a bit easier in the last few years. When we first started this lifestyle, 16 years ago, we had only e-mail and an occasional phone call. Now I am able to video chat with my mom and sister daily. My kids find it normal to say hi and wave to Grandma while making breakfast in the morning and it makes us feel less far away. Despite this however, and as my parents get older and my nephews and niece grow up, I still feel a loss at not being there.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I feel like I’m still constantly learning about myself and life in general. I think that moving globally however has shown me what I really value in life. When everything you own is packed up and gone, all your friendships are separated, your neighborhood changed, and your house left behind, it gives you a certain perspective on what matters and who you are. I’ve found that my life really boils down to two things; family and the love of creating. If I can be with my kids and husband and have a creative project, I am home. I think when you strip everything away and rebuild your life so often you must decide what makes the core of you and what you thrive on. Once I really identified that, it was easy, even enjoyable to start over and over and over again in new places. I had the keys to my happiness and the rest were just details to enrich my experiences and color my memories.

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

My “everyday expat” super power is having no expectations. I have never regretted my lack of expectation. It is a lesson I learned early on, the first time we moved to Japan. I was at the supermarket and saw a tub of cherry ice cream. I was feeling a bit nostalgic and was delighted to see something I loved. I brought it home and took a big bite only to discover it was red bean. I was terribly disappointed. Red bean ice cream is delicious, but because I was expecting cherry I was unable to really appreciate how great it was. I discovered that in life, as well as ice cream, it is best to set aside expectations and accept the very best from every situation.

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

My three tips for making a home are:

ONE

Find the core of your family and make it the core of your home. If your family thrives on activity, sports, travel, or friendships, make that central to how you arrange your home. The core of my family is our connection to each other and our creative pursuits. Our house, no matter where we live, has a room where we all spend most of our time together as a family, spaces for each of us to create and play, and is decorated with our handmade items.

TWO

Make sure each person has a place in the house where they feel valued. This has become increasingly important as the children have grown. We make sure that everyone has a place to be themselves. One of our kids has a drawing space, one has a space to display projects. My husband has a yoga space and a place for reading, and I have a dedicated space to sew and create. By prioritizing a place in our home for each person’s passions, we show that we place value on each other.

THREE

A home is not a place but the life you create, and you can take it with you when you go. This is something I learned as a child. Often my sister and I will be recalling a memory and really have to stop and think about which house we were living in at the time. Our family and the way we functioned were Home. My parents placed a lot of value on consistency and our family rituals, and my husband and I have done the same thing. No matter where we live we have Friday movie and pizza night, we keep to strict bedtimes, we decorate for Christmas with candy canes, we make crazy cool birthday cakes, we discuss the best, worst, and most surprising things from our day, we eat pancakes on Sundays, and we spend time together. My husband and I strive to be the steady and calm place at the center of our lives, the “home” our kids will hopefully come back to after they have grown.

Relocation Season

It’s May and that means a lot of things for those of us living between cultures.

If you have children, their school year is likely coming to an end.

If you’re an expat you may be planning travel or planning on staying put in your host country…both of which come with their unique challenges.

Or, perhaps you’re relocating. You may find yourself in that weird space of not yet leaving, but not quite still here either.

You may be (once again!) asking why you’ve chosen a globally mobile life. Perhaps you’re even wondering if you actually chose it. You might be feeling a little dragged along. You’re likely also reminding yourself of all the fabulous reasons you’ve chosen to do this.

It’s yo-yo mind and yo-yo heart.

This time of year is always a time in which I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to keep moving from place to place. For many years it felt like we moved almost as soon as we arrived in a new country. We would take six months to get settled, be comfortable for a year and then immediately move towards repacking and planning for our next assignment.

We’re fortunate to now be coming up on three years in Japan. We had one small move after the first year, but fifteen miles from Yokohama to Tokyo hardly felt like anything. Even the fact that the kids changed schools seemed less critical since they were able to visit their new school ahead of time and our middle son had even played a few soccer tournaments there.

Right now we’re at the place of being “stayers,” but we also have lots of stayer friends. Next year we’ll be leavers again. And so it goes, the cycle of expat life. Something comes up, we see it. Something comes up again and we’re right back where we left off. Learning to be wherever we are…while also learning to move through is part of the process.

So, no matter where you are in your international adventure, be sure to check out the tips and ideas I offer in the articles below (recently published on InDependent and I Am a Triangle) – they provide some really important reminders for maintaining balance during relocation season and beyond.

I often find an uptick in individuals seeking out coaching during this time period. Transition is a surprisingly good time to have a coach – the touchstone of someone to keep you focused on your priorities is important when you’re going through change. If that’s you and you’re ready for some gentle, but unfailing support, a space for thoughtful reflection, an opportunity to sort through what is most important to you and someone to hold you accountable to your goals – I’d be honored to work with you. Click here to learn more about how we can work together.

Five Ways Mindfulness Helps Me Find Home

It’s no secret that I’ve found a daily mindfulness practice to be a key ingredient in my ability to manage the ups and downs of our international life.

Despite common misunderstandings about mindfulness practice, it’s really not all that complicated. Mindfulness is quite simply the practice of paying attention and seeing clearly what’s happening while it’s happening.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that, in the unpredictability of expat life where pretty much everything can feel strange and unfamiliar, becoming more mindful can help us navigate our experiences with increased ease and resilience.

Here are just a few of the ways that’s played out for me.

Mindfulness allows me to practice feeling homesick…and also not homesick.

I make a point of reminding the people in both my personal and professional life that there are no “good” and “bad” emotions. Emotions are neither positive nor negative. Sure – some feel better than others, but ultimately, everything we feel comes from somewhere and serves a purpose in helping us navigate our experiences.

Mindfulness practice enables us to pay attention to what we’re feeling without trying to:

  • change it (what we often try to do when we’re feeling emotions we don’t like),
  • chase it (what we like to do when an emotion feels good) or
  • judge it (what we do when we feel our emotions don’t align with how we’re “supposed” to feel).

When it comes to living life around the world, practicing mindfulness by developing a more reflective and compassionate relationship with our emotions can support us in learning how to deal with whatever comes our way.

Mindfulness helps me see home as a state of being created in my own mind.

Another key element of mindfulness practice, is learning to see things as they really are, not simply as we want them to be. Mindfulness inspires us to ask questions about what we’re witnessing and examine what we find there. While this isn’t always easy, being able to tune in to life as it truly is is a huge benefit of mindfulness practice.

What does this mean practically speaking?

Imagine I’m telling myself, “I hate it here! I’m never going to fit in. There are no work opportunities. This is a disaster!” Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate our ability to feel lost or overwhelmed, but it does enable us to stop and examine our perceptions. I can then start to ask questions like:

  • How much of this is really true and how much of this is a story I’m telling myself?
  • Is there anything that is working right now?
  • What can I learn here?
  • Are there things that I don’t hate?
  • What previously unnoticed options do I have in this situation?

Now, that doesn’t mean you suddenly start loving a place that just isn’t working for you, but it does help you get more creative, offering you the opportunity to make decisions based on a clearer, more thoughtful way of seeing.

Mindfulness reminds me to notice the details.

One of my most treasured benefits of maintaining a daily mindfulness practice is the way in which it has deepened my ability to pay attention to the “small” things.

When we move from place to place, it’s so easy to think that we should be unfazed. It becomes common, I think, to feel that we’re able to adapt at a moments notice and that our unbelievable flexibility means we can make these shifts with little or no disruption to our body or our mental state.

When we develop basic, everyday mindfulness skills, we engage the practice of slowing down and seeing the little bumps in the road. Sometimes small disruptions – the noise outside your new apartment that causes you to sleep poorly, the times you spend hungry because you’ve yet to stock your pantry, the frustration of slow internet connection that means your calls to your best friend are mess of static, feedback and silence – can actually have a huge impact.

When we take a moment to be still and really pay attention, we may notice the physical sensations, the emotions, or the discomfort of uncertainty that live in that space. We learn from seeing those places of unease and becoming mindful of them enables us to make much-needed adjustments.

Mindfulness encourages me to practice ritual.

Before we started our international life, I wasn’t really someone who stuck to a routine. Sure, I attempted to create positive habits (going for a run, reading before bed, etc.), but I never felt much pressure to really keep up with them.

Moving from place to place has made my healthy habits all the more important and my mindfulness practice supports me in staying awake to their significance in my life.

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation inspire me to establish rituals and routines because the habits themselves (whether seated meditation or simply performing tasks with attention and care) foster dedication. In other words – by committing myself to being more mindful in my choices, actions, observations and interactions, I’m laying the foundation for commitment to other positive health habits as well.

Morning meditation, a daily jog, cooking healthy meals, taking frequent work breaks throughout the day and reading before bed are habits that I rely on during transition to create a sense of inner balance during upheaval. Additionally, when I notice these habits slipping, it’s my commitment to everyday mindfulness practice that helps me return to these supportive rituals.

Mindfulness supports me in building relationships.

A great deal of mindfulness practice is about developing an awareness of our inner dialogue – our thoughts, emotions, and judgments. However, it’s important in mindfulness practice to recognize the way in which our relationship with ourselves (and this internal dialogue) relates to how we connect with others.

Mindfulness helps me to take time with people. It supports me in active listening so that I can better understand how the moving experience affects my husband and children. It enables me to slow down and see better the ways in which those around me may be suffering or the ways in which they’re brought to life by something new in our world.

Moving is almost always a time of great stress. It’s a time when our tempers are short and we’re more likely to lash out at those around us. Mindfulness doesn’t always prevent that from happening (we’re all human after all!), but it can give us the skills to turn back to generosity and kindness when we realize we’ve behaved poorly towards others.

And, mindfulness helps us make friends. Research says that our ability to understand our own emotional experiences makes us better at understanding the experiences of others. That, in turn, makes us better friends – and that goes for the friends we’ve left behind and those we’ll make in our new home.

What about you?

Do you have an informal mindfulness, meditation, or spiritual practice or other ritual that supports you in practical ways as you move? If not, what would it take for you to start something like this?

Share with me in the comments what’s worked for you or what’s sparked your interest in reading this post. Click here to learn more about how I can help you bring these skills into your own life.