Saturday, January 2, 2010

To be an expat

Man is a territorial animal. His natural preference is to live with the group that he belongs to. But for two reasons, people choose to live away from their natural communities. The first, and the biggest, reason is economic. The second is political.

I would guess that 90% of migrants are economic – they move to earn more money; to have a better life. Even where people ascribe other reasons, the real underlying cause is economic. The Economist , my favourite magazine, put it beautifully. A journalist was covering the regular anti America rallies in Iran. Death to America, Death to America, the chants were going on. A protester paused in mid chant to ask the journalist – “can you get me a green card” !

Earlier in the week, I had posted about the The Economist’s brilliant article on “being foreign”, here. This post is my personal view on being an expat.

The sheer experience of being an expat is enormously enriching, both professionally and personally. Professionally, it is an experience, without which, you cannot grow beyond a point in today’s globalised world. It’s a virtual prerequisite for a successful career. Working with, and leading, teams of mixed cultures is a key skill to be acquired; you cannot grow above middle management without this skill.

But equally important is the impact personally, if you choose to gain the experience. And this is where people adopt widely varying positions. A new culture is by definition strange and resistance to something strange is in our DNA. Many expats therefore form their own ghettos – the Chinatowns, the Southalls, the Little Indias, the white Expat Clubs, and the like.

I have learnt enormously from the countries I have lived in, and travelled to, by being more social with the local community than with the expats. You learn about the good, and not so good, things about the culture. Without being judgmental, you can assimilate the experience the better. If you treat local practices with disdain and remain smugly superior, you are an ass. If you treat local practices as second only to God and deride your own culture, you are an ass too. Something in between, and you become a much richer person.

Invariably, when I have been an expat, I have come to appreciate my own country and culture better. At first, I found this strange, but later on I have accepted this as one of the wonderful benefits of expatriation. I see India and Indian culture better now. I appreciate its strengths better and I have learnt to bypass its weaknesses better.

One of the biggest decisions of an expat is the timing of the return home. For me personally, the ideal tenure is 3 years, at the end of which I would want to come back to India. And go back again, if possible to a different country, after a longish stretch back home.

People who stay beyond a certain period of time can never go back home. For home has changed to something they cannot relate to, or be comfortable in. And one which their children cannot relate to at all. If they have opened their experience to the local culture, they can be happy where they are. But if they have ghettoized themselves, then that is the real tragedy. They are nowhere and theirs is essentially a lost generation. Their descendants take a long time to find their identity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in South Africa, where “ghettoisation” was forced because of apartheid.

For me, being an expat has been an experience that has been worth its weight in gold. Living in China now, has been an eye opener. I have experienced one of the great cultures of the world in a way I could never otherwise have. I have built some great friendships. I have understood, at least a little, the good, and not so good, of China. Sure, lots of things were tough, especially as I still can’t speak the language. But, without a doubt, I am a wiser man, for the experience. Older, but wiser, I would like to think !

Oh, the joys, and pains, of being an expat !!