You know what your IQ is, right? But have you ever wondered how you might rate on a Cultural Intelligence test? According to Riana van den Bergh, a South African expatriate living in the Netherlands, “Cultural intelligence is the ability to successfully adjust to different cultures through picking up on the finer nuances and cultural cues of that culture.”
Riana’s many achievements include having been a counselor, lecturer, trainer, consultant, researcher. But she is really an academic at heart who is working toward her PhD, aspiring to become a Cultural Intelligence Expert. Her thesis is aimed at developing a Cultural Intelligence Development Model for women on international assignments. In the course of her experience as an expatriate adjusting to a new culture, country, and workplace (let alone an intercultural marriage), she has wondered why “some of us walk into a new culture and immediately fit in and feel at home, whereas others cry themselves to sleep every night?”
Sadly, for the first few years of my expatriation (I followed my new husband from South Africa to the United States so he could take advantage of professional opportunities), I was one of those aliens who cried a lot—day and night. I missed my family and friends and suffered woeful withdrawal symptoms due to an empty nest. Not only was I distressed by the absence of a work permit but being classified as “just a spouse” felt deeply humiliating. On top of that, we arrived at JFK International Airport on the day of the World Trade Center attack, the aftermath of which complicated our adjustment even more. Ten years later, now an American citizen, I feel twinges of cultural discomfort when I visit South Africa (a phenomenon known as reversed culture shock). Like Riana, I am fascinated by the process of expatriation and the impact of globalization. I have written a book plotting my experiences, titled Out of Sync. You can read an excerpt from my manuscript below.
You can also read more about Riana’s journey and research on her website: http://expatlady.webs.com/. She is inviting expatriate women from all over the world to take part in her study, so if you’re interested, you’ll find an online questionnaire on her “Getting involved” page. I encourage you to assist her. As Riana says, “your contribution will help to pave the way for women in the future.”
The excerpt from my memoir that I’ve chosen to share (below) was only one aspect of my expatriate experience. In the course of ten years, my husband and I have had many ups and downs (and never well synchronized at that), some as a result of being aliens in a foreign land and others due to our own making. What about you – have you ever wondered what had possessed you to relocate to a strange country? Did you want to go back home ASAP soon after arriving in your host country? Do you still miss your friends and families? Or have you taken expatriation in your stride sailing through the adaptation phase, making new friends easily, and settling in as if you’ve never been away from home? If you’re so inclined, please share some of your expatriate experiences and/or observations in the “Leave a Reply” section.
Out of Sync
by Belinda Nicoll
DISTRESS, RAGE, and grief clouded the atmosphere in the country. The cruel hijackings had penetrated America’s naive self-assurance, raping their taken-for-granted national well being. Health officials predicted the event’s impact on mind and body would last for many years. I worried about the overdose of traumatic TV images across the globe tormenting us forever, awake and in our dreams. Arriving in San Francisco, we found our inbox full of e-mails.
I pray you’re safe. Phone when you get home. We’re all desperately worried.
Mom, I’m panicking! Are you okay? My God, they said one of the flights was meant to go to San Francisco. Please e-mail soon.
I’ve just heard from auntie Veronica that you’ve gone missing. Where are you? Are you okay? I had no idea you were in that area at the time of the attack. Phone or e-mail immediately when you get this.
09/13/01—my cousin, Mia:
I finally got hold of Bruce’s office in San Francisco, so now we know you didn’t make it back there. I’ll stay in touch with them until we hear from you. We trust you’re safely cooped up somewhere.
We’ve discovered your connecting flight was booked with Delta Airlines, not United Airlines. I know this means you’re alive, but it’s driving us crazy not knowing what’s happened to you. Please phone!
There were many more from our families, friends, and ex-colleagues. I cried every time I read them. In the meantime Homeland Security had raised the national terrorism advisory level to Code Orange (high), while the media hyped the government’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. The public’s fear was fast escalating to paranoia—they wanted to know: “How is this possible? Will it happen again?”
The flag-waving solidarity unnerved us, reinforcing our sense of alienation. To cap it all, official statements about increased immigration-control abounded. I worried about the jingoism, at having expatriate status in a country that did not readily tolerate anyone outside its ranks. In the past, even as a tourist applying for a visa, I’d been on the receiving end of embassy officials’ grim faces and relentless questioning, their inherent suspicion aimed at everyone who showed an interest in the United States.
“What will I do without a work permit? What if it takes forever to get green cards?”
“It’ll all work out; and if it doesn’t, we’ll go home,” said Bruce. “We’re here on an adventure—let’s enjoy it.”
It was easier for him to get on with life. He was getting insanely busy, his progress somewhat thwarted by the unfamiliarity of the American workplace, by systems and procedures he described as nonsensical. “For instance,” he’d explain, “they employ researchers to determine the best creative solution, but then they over-examine the research findings and end up even more clueless.”
While I reveled in together time, it was his difficulty that comforted me most, that reassured me of our mutual cultural adaptation. But I hated my alone time. Wherever I turned, I was confronted by national pride, national solidarity, national patriotism. National this, national that. National them and un-national me. The Stars and Stripes wagged its tongue at me from official locations, public spaces, private homes, vehicles, and human bodies. The American flag was the artistic creation of the moment, the Band-Aid of the nation’s wounds; it denoted shock and sorrow, compassion and defiance; it said: “We will rise again.”
In South Africa, national identity has always come second to being seen as English or Afrikaans or white or black or Jewish or Zulu or gay or whatever else. I got my first sense of patriotic rapture when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, though my country’s cohesion didn’t last long.
I couldn’t help it—in the midst of the post-9/11 American superglue, I began to sense the fragmentation of my own life.