The places you leave behind

We were expats together in Poland - and even though this experience concluded several years ago, it left an imprint on our hearts and continues to shape our lives. Here is a reflection by Melissa about going away and coming home, just as we prepare to return to Poland for the SIETAR Polska conference this fall.

Shadows from the past

Every September, memories of a life I once lived drift up from the mist.

After months of not giving Kraków a thought, I will be hit by flashes of Europe’s largest medieval square with its graceful churches, lonely tower, weathered cloth hall, beckoning arcades, and bustling cafes. I will suddenly see the aggressive salespeople on touristy Ulica Floriańska trying to tempt us to dine at their restaurants. The lody café at the Galleria near the train station, where we savored ice cream flavors like green apple, nut, cinnamon, and “autumnal splendor.” The rickety tram that passed our flat every night, rattling the armoires in the living room that doubled as a sleeping area. My university department, housed on the second floor of a hotel, above a restaurant and across from gray apartments and a mechanic shop.

Bitter and sweet

I bristle recalling the things I did not like, such as the lines and bartering for exact change even at international chain stores, getting pushed in front of trams by aggressive babci, and nearly losing a leg in a pothole. I bask in remembrance of the things I did like, such as the intellectual and artistic atmosphere that seemed to permeate everything.  I think of our friends who came to our rescue in a crisis. University colleagues who demonstrated the infamous Polish skill for bending the rules. And the humanity and patience with which every day life flowed along in a landscape nearly untouched by freeways, big box stores, or any concern for time being “like money.”

For the first few years, I found my inclination to reflect and remember surprising, because I did not enjoy living in Poland all that much.  Yet what I have since realized is that, much like going through high school, enjoyment is rather beside the point when it comes to the impact that the experience has on your life. When you live abroad, you are shaped by it like iron is forged in fire. And it is only when it is over that you can fully appreciate what it meant, and where to go from there.

Relocation Relevance

If you have never moved somewhere dramatically different from your hometown, or if you never had to find your way in a foreign culture to the point where some of it rubbed off on you, then you probably cannot relate to my seasonal fit of nostalgia (appropriately timed to the month I arrived in Poland). You might grasp, on a cognitive level, that my sojourn continues to follow me many years on, but it is unlikely that you can relate, empathically, with what it means, on a psychological, spiritual, emotional, and even physical level to reflect on a chapter of your life which is not only over, but which also lacks geographical, cultural, and relational continuity with your current one.

Similarly, organizations overlook the tremendous impact that an international assignment can have on a person. Each individual’s response will be unique to them. But on the whole, these common points need to be taken into account when someone returns “home.”

1. Meaning-making.  Quite simply, the global nomad must determine for herself what the experience meant in the continuum of her life.  This is important, because if it not somehow resolved, there will be a chasm in her understanding of herself – like a missing chapter.  Failure to do this will also hamper her ability to translate what she learned from the experience into her next assignment, and can make it difficult for her to communicate those experiences to others.

2. Approach the return home like a new assignment.  Many people errantly assume that “going home” should be the easy part, but soon discover that they have changed so much during their experience abroad that they no longer fit in their old box.  Particularly if he is going back to his old job with the same employer, an individual needs to communicate expectations about the transition up front.  Just as important is to start thinking about the cultural differences he will encounter, such as communication style, physical space, and time-orientation.  (Real-life example: as hard as it was for me to slow down to the Polish pace of life, I found myself resisting speeding back up to a US pace.  And don’t get me started about how alarming it was to have overly-friendly waiters in the syrupy South after coming from a much more reserved culture!)

3. Prepare an elevator speech to tell people about your experience.  When asked about Poland, I used to feel like I faced a stark choice between responding with the pat “it was great” response or launching into full presentation.  Neither of these was satisfying for me or the listener.  Instead, say something like, “Memorable! I learned a lot about different leadership styles and got to experience a new perspective. Of course, the cafes were great, too.” This gives the person asking a better and more digestible grasp about what it is you did while you were abroad, and can help them begin to see you as an employee who has accumulated advanced skills.

4. Create space to honor the experience.  If you paid attention to your surroundings, established relationships, and engaged in the experience at all, chances are that your time in a different culture left some souvenirs in your heart. Just as alumni check in with their alma maters, global professionals can find ways to remain connected to their old locations.  This can be via social media, through films, by following the news, by tracking down international food, or even just by flipping through photos every once in awhile. Giving your time in another country space will help you to honor what it meant while also acknowledging that it is in the past.

I have heard that in Russia, a wedding toast is “bitter half, sweet half,” in recognition that life is a balance of both. In this same vein, with time and mindful effort, you will soon find yourself celebrating what worked, accepting what didn’t, and, if you are like me, enjoying an occasional local treat while you connect with your old colleagues. 

Are you or your employees going abroad or coming home? Training and coaching can make this process better - just ask!

Melissa Hahn