Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 2

IMG_0423Day 2 of the conference I decided on a slower start which unfortunately meant missing out on that day’s Early Bird discussions over breakfast.  I arrived just in time to grab a coffee and something to eat during the announcements before heading off to my first session.

As I chose Eva Lazslo-Herbert’s presentation entitled “Living Whilst Surviving.”  I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but I’d heard rave reviews of her keynote speech at the 2012 conference.  Born in Transylvania she has lived and worked her way across Europe acquiring languages, in the way most of us gather stamps in our passport.  Using her own family history, she spoke to us about their resilience (both emotional and moral) in living through wars, forced relocations and even prison camps.  It was very personal and very moving.  Just some of her wise words:

  • The only thing that defines you, is who you think you are
  • Live in the moment
  • Don’t forget, but do forgive
  • Be independent, think what can *I* do?
  • Give back
  • Love the child you have, not the child you want
  • Stop the glorification of busy

From there I moved on to a very hands-on session with Rachel Yates, entitled “Family Focused Assessment in Relocation Planning.”  I’m not a visual or artistic person and was at first a bit skeptical of her approach to needs assessment,  using posters, images, glue and scissors.  Divided into groups at large round tables, we quickly got over our inhibitions as we imagined ourselves as a family moving to Kenya.  As we put together our poster vision of what our lives would be like, we quickly realized we were having meaningful discussions over not just housing (would we live in a glamorous villa or a cramped high rise?) schooling but also what would day-to-day life look like and how much time would we really spend on safaris and lying on tropical beaches?  It was a useful and instructive exercise and a great tool for getting the whole family involved.

My last session of the day was with Elizabeth Liang, a TCK actress and actor on the creative process for writing memoirs.  She took us through a series of writing exercises, which I know worked for many in the room, but if I finding writing hard here on my own at home, doing it in a room full of strangers is totally impossible.  But she did provide is with a detailed hand out and one of these days (yes, really) I will try it all again.

All too soon we reassembled in the main hall for the closing of the Conference.  Ruth Van Reken introduced the closing keynote speaker Leila Buck, who was to speak on the topic of goodbyes.  She gave us an amazing performance, combining suspense, tragedy and humour, describing her hasty departure from Lebanon in 2006 when fighting broke out with Israel.

Having made my own goodbyes I reluctantly headed by metro to the airport.  Unlike many who attend, I don’t make my living working with expat families, but this organization feeds my soul, and I know I will keep returning.


An Insider’s Guide to the FIGT Conference

A recent blog post by Rachel Yates about her fear of attending an Families in Global Transition Conference got me thinking about the first one I went to in 2010.  Like Rachel I was daunted by my fellow FIGTers.  They all seemed so well qualified and successful and there was I, recently repatriated, unemployed and feeling pretty useless.  I’d never attended a professional conference before and had no idea what to expect.  So I have every sympathy for Rachel’s nerves and would like to share what I’ve learned since then.

It’s far friendlier than you’d expect.  At the last conference, Anne Copeland conducted an informal poll to determine our expatriate and intercultural experiences.  Everyone in the room stood up for something and one thing was clear, we all knew what it means to feel you don’t belong.  David Pollock described FIGT as the “biggest reunion of strangers”  and no matter who I sat next to, striking up a conversation was easy.   One tip, if you arrive the night before the conference begins, the early arrivals get together for dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Join us, it’s fun and by the time the conference starts you’ll already know a few people.

What the hell are Kitchen Table Conversations?  They’re a nod to the genesis of FIGT around the kitchen table of Ruth Van Reken.  For two one-hour periods a couple of rooms are set up with large round tables seating 8-12 people.  Each one is labelled with a topic and led by a presenter.  You pick one, and for 15 minutes listen to a short presentation and discuss the topic.  It’s then time to move to another table (and another topic) for the next 15 minutes.  Allowing time for all the moving around, you attend 3 Kitchen Table conversations in an hour.  They are fast, noisy and not everyone likes them for these reasons, but they’re a great way to get a quick overview of a topic, meet and hear a lot of presenters.  For those who’d rather not, there are Kitchen Table Alternatives – 2 one hour sessions – usually something creative and/or hands-on.

Dine-Around happens on the Friday night.  This is a free evening, not included in the conference program, but if you don’t know anyone well and don’t want to eat alone, sign up early in the day at the registration area.  There will be a selection of restaurants to choose from and at the appointed time each group with gather at the hotel and leave together, often on foot.  If the restaurant is willing, we ask for separate checks.

Early Bird Sessions are informal conversations over breakfast.  As you come downstairs in search of coffee you’ll see that the breakfast tables are labelled by topic.  The food is buffet style, so grab a plate, take a seat and join the discussion.  There is no formal presentation, but each table is moderated by a volunteer to ensure everyone stays on topic and gets a chance to speak.  There’s no need to stay at one table, so feel free to dip your toes into several conversations if you wish.

By now you’ve probably realized the schedule is VERY intense.  I’m usually flagging by the afternoon of the second day and by the end of the conference I’m exhausted.  It’s my own fault because I can’t bear to miss anything, but if you’re someone who needs quiet time to reflect, take some time out to be on your own and don’t feel you have to attend everything.  Browse the bookstore, take a walk or collapse in your room.

This year, I’m presenting for the first time – just a Kitchen Table conversation – so nothing too scary but already I’ve got butterflies.  It’s amazing to realize how far I’ve come in just two years, thanks in large part to support and knowledge I’ve gained by attending this unique conference.  And all because I replied to a tweet …

Research, Resiliency and Writing

Looking back on the Families in Global Transition Conference which I attended just over a week ago, 3 things struck me in particular:


I heard several attendees say that hard facts are what they need; both in their own work and in order to convince others of its value.  So it was good to see that there was a strong focus on research this year.  The opening keynote speech was given by Anne Copeland, a leader in the field of intercultural transitions (many of her research findings are freely available on her website).  There was a special workshop for members of the FIGT Research Network to discuss best practices and their current projects.  And on Friday the afternoon’s sessions were clustered around 5 different research presentations on various aspects of support for globally mobile families.


Resiliency is definitely the new buzz word.  I heard it over and over again.  The cynical side of me might say that this is code for “you’re on your own, buddy” when it comes to organizations supporting expats at a time when most are looking for ways to cut costs.  But in truth expats do need to be resilient, no matter how much assistance is provided.  Duncan Westwood described it as “the ability to bounce back” and that’s a life skill we could all use, expat or not.


We expats do seem to be compelled to write about our experiences whether it’s blogs, books or bylines, as Jo Parfitt’s presentation was entitled.  The bookstore did a brisk trade and many of the authors were there in person.  Over dinner, Tina Quick and I traded repatriation stories and when she mentioned that many tips in her book “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition” applied to adult repatriates too, I decided to buy it.  Having read excerpts of Alan Paul’s story of his life as an accompanying spouse, “Big in China,” I took advantage of having him sign a copy for me.  And I was so inspired by Joanne Huskey’s closing keynote that I also purchased her book “The Unofficial Diplomat.”  An exclusive pre-release copy of Expatwomen.com’s new book “Expat Women: Confessions” was a tucked inside our registration packs when we arrived.  And as if that wasn’t enough, I WON a Kindle from one of the sponsors, Clements International and am now anxiously waiting for it to arrive.

FIGT is something of a unique group in that most people who attend (including the service providers and representatives of sending organizations) are expats or former expats themselves.  As a result there is a common bond and instant sense of understanding between them.  As a first time attendee said to me “It is nice to feel there is a sector of the population that “gets it”, isn’t it?”

Photos of the 2011 FIGT Conference are available here and you’ll find video interviews with some of the attendees here.

The new expat reality

I’ve read quite a few articles over the past year about “alternative” expat assignments and other ways to do more with less when it comes to relocating international staff.  It’s not only about cutting costs but also a response to the increasing complications of expatriate life – dual career couples, children with special education needs, aging parents.  So I’m happy to see that several sessions at next month’s Families in Global Transition Conference will be addressing these new trends.

Diane Endo, who lives in both the US and Japan, will be talking about Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners.  Several of my friends have commuted while caring for elderly relatives in different countries, and I’ve also lived it, with my husband working away while I stayed home with my son who was finishing high school.  It’s not an easy, or cheap, option, but can be a solution for many families.

Expat Light Trend & Partner Support by Jacqueline Van Haaften will look at the trend toward less generous expat packages and how the need for partner support can still be met.  This will blend well with Doris Fuellgrabe’s talk on Choosing the right expat support services for every budget, which will be an opportunity to learn what kinds of support is available.  Participants will be encouraged to share their personal experiences.

Of course you can always start your own expat support service, just as Anne Copeland did with her International Writer’s Club and the Adjusting to Life in Brookline program run by Liliana Busconi, Andrew Miser and Mindy Paulo.  On a larger scale, Maaike Le Grand will explain how The World Bank Family Network provides support to over 500 families using volunteers to supplement minimal full-time staff.

In total there are over 70 (yes more than 70!) different sessions relevant to everyone from the senior corporate executive to the missionary kid, ranging from up-to-the minute academic research to the latest movie about Third Culture Kids.

It’s good to see that this year’s Conference will again be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the expat world, bringing together all the stakeholders to share what works best and pool their knowledge.  It’s a conference which is primarily educational and always inspirational to those who are, were or work with globally mobile families.  Why don’t you come and check it out?

The little school on the Caspian

Looking back, it seems incredibly rash, or perhaps just naive, but we accepted our first overseas assignment to Azerbaijan not knowing if there even was a school for our son, let alone what kind of school it would be.  The career opportunity for my husband and the adventure for our family were just too good to pass up.  “Heck, I can always home school,” I told myself; “he’s only 9.  How hard can it be?”

Fortunately a small international school had been operating in Baku for 18 months.  When we arrived we found there were a total of 12 students, ranging in age from 6 to 12, a mixture of expats and the children of wealthy locals.  It was located just outside the downtown area in a large walled compound used for training the national soccer team.  The school itself was housed in a couple of crumbling outbuildings and had access to a dilapidated gymnasium and a stagnant swimming pool.  But the jewel in the crown was a large grass playing field surrounded by trees which was the nicest outdoor space I ever saw while living in Baku for those 3 years.

What the school lacked in physical facilities was more than made up for by a dedicated staff of American expatriate teaching staff, supplemented by local staff who taught music, physical education and foreign languages.  Dr and Mr Davis were the school principal and head teacher and Ginger their dog accompanied them every day to school.  He’d lie patiently under the desks during class waiting for a mad half hour of running around excitedly when the children went out for recess.

Every September school arrived in a box, quite literally, in the form of a shipment of supplies from the States.  Not just brand new text books and multi media materials, but everything right down to binders, exercise books, pencils and erasers.  At that time Azerbaijan had only been independent from the Soviet Union for a couple of years, former trade had broken down and it was hard to find anything at all in the stores.

The toilets sometimes blocked and power failed frequently, often resulting in early dismissal in winter.  The science room (you really couldn’t have called it a lab) was nicknamed The Far Side Cafe as the older children had decorated the walls with Gary Larson cartoons.

Most of the children were dropped off and collected by drivers and every afternoon they would gather, chatting under the trees outside in good weather, but in winter they would wait inside in the reception area cum dining room, looking like big black crows perching uncomfortably on the small brightly coloured plastic chairs.

Looking back I realize how fortunate we were to find such a gem of a school.  The teachers and students quickly became our extended family and despite the grim surroundings my son blossomed in their care.  He arrived reading 2 years below his grade level, but within 6 months had completely overcome that and couldn’t wait to get to school on test days.  In the three years he spent there he learned how to learn and his self esteem soared.    I am forever grateful to that great little school.

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How Travel Can Change Your Life

Do you ever stumble around the internet, finding one great site after another?  I just did this morning and want to share a couple of websites I’ve found which demonstrate how being an expat can dramatically change your outlook and your life.

The first one is quite lighthearted, Where The Hell Is Matt? (which I came at through the website of a fellow Canadian expat, Susan Macaulay, Amazing Women Rock).  I had seen Matt’s “Dancing” video before but never read the full story.  He was a video game designer, working in Los Angeles who got an opportunity to move to Australia for his job.  Living there inspired him to start travelling and he took videos of himself dancing in various far flung spots as gag souvenirs of the places he’d visited.  When he posted them on his blog, they went viral and since then he’s been travelling all over the globe making more videos.  He’s an accomplished public speaker and who knows what kind of a career he’ll make from it.

The second, more serious one, is Greg Mortenson’s website, which I came across through reading his book Three Cups of  Tea.  He’s an Adult MK (Missionary Kid) who spent months living in a small village in Pakistan after a failed attempt to climb K2. In order to repay the help and friendship offered him he vowed to return and build a school.  Since then he’s built 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute.  His book is a combination of adventure story, travelogue and inspiration, I couldn’t put it down, and his second one, Stones Into Schools, is on my wish list.

These are very different stories but in both the experience of living in another country fundamentally changed not only the lives of these two people and but no doubt the lives of many others they have touched.

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Motivation, Right Brain Thinking and Expats

I almost didn’t write it down.  At the FIGT conference Diane Endo was giving a presentation on the challenges of Midlife Transition for accompanying spouses and partners – pretty much a custom-made topic for me at the moment.  She mentioned the name Daniel Pink and said he had a lot interesting stuff to say on motivation.  For some reason I made a note of his name, although at the time I thought “Oh no, another motivational guru!”  But yesterday I went to his website and this led me to this video of him speaking.  I was fascinated.  What he was talking about was the SCIENCE of motivation – cold, hard facts – not airy-fairy theories.  It’s quite a long presentation, in two parts, but don’t be put off – he’s an entertaining speaker and his subject matter is compelling.

You may wonder how this relates to expats.  Two ways occured to me. 

His main point that cash (above and beyond a fair amount) does not motivate employees should be food for thought for those involved in putting together expat packages.  Many of the “soft” benefits discussed at the FIGT conference – intercultural training, spousal career advice, educational counselling, for example, might actually be cheaper, or at least more effective in ensuring assignment success than hardship allowances, locational uplifts, annual bonuses, etc.

During this next presentation it occured to me that a lot of the skills he talks about encouraging, as they are so necessary in today’s business world, the right brain abilities of artistry, empathy, inventiveness and big picture thinking,  these are exactly the traits held by successful expats and commonly found in TCKs. 

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