Far Away And Further Back
Patrick BurnsPaperback: 194 pages
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (
May 3, 2018)
What advice would you have for parents educating their children overseas?
Always put their needs first but don't be overprotective in terms of insisting that they only experience one education system - especially when they are younger.
I think we were very lucky in that we often had employers who subsidized schooling costs. The two older children bore the brunt of several country changes in their early years. Holly, the eldest, had been to seven schools in six different countries by the time she was eight. That was probably too much and with the expectation that our peripatetic life would continue, we made the decision when she was eleven to send her to boarding school in UK. That was very difficult but she survived and thrived and did brilliantly educationally and with life generally. Tom, our second eldest was very similar and also went to boarding school where he really came into his own.
The two younger children, twins, started secondary school when we were in a much more settled period in Singapore and part of the decision to find another, more locally-based job in that country was so that we could stay for a few more years and they would be able to finish school locally at the excellent United World College there.
Our children's needs were paramount but we were not averse to them experiencing different schooling systems - especially when they were younger. We tried to adjust our plans so that each had the kind of education that best suited them but we didn't let it override everything we did. All of them benefited hugely from experiencing life in so many different cultures.
What’s it like returning “home” after a long stint?
Not easy is the short answer - and the fact that we never stayed very long when we tried underscores that!
We had three attempts at returning "home". The first was after an initial assignment to the US in 1978 and that lasted three years. The second was in 1986 for just six months and we were off again. The last was in 1993 and lasted two years. We still make annual visits but it's now twenty-three years since we last re-expatriated and the chances of us going home again are close to zero.
The biggest difficulty is obviously fitting in again. Old friends have lived their lives while you've been gone and they're generally content with what they've been doing. However hard you try, conversationally, not to be a "When I" (as in, for example, "When I went camping with the family in the Sahara Desert last Christmas...") it's often very difficult to have a social exchange where you don't sound like you're boasting - or just appear boring - and their sense of contentment is somehow threatened. The points of reference change so much.
It's also difficult to admit this but, when you're overseas, however hard you try not to be, you do see yourself as a bit different; somehow a little "out of the ordinary". Some people actually change their persona since the opportunity allows them to...Coming home ends all that; whatever your self-perception while in another country, you're like everybody else when you get back and it's not easy. Reverse culture shock on return can be more difficult to cope with than adjusting to a new culture when you go overseas.
What skills do you need to become an expatriate?
The most obvious one relates to work. Unless you have unlimited money from a family trust fund you need to be able to offer work skills that are easily transferable or in short supply in other countries. This may sound like a statement of the obvious but many people don't appreciate this basic need.
Beyond that, you really have to be ready to sacrifice a lot of stuff that you take for granted in the home country. There are obvious things like certain foods and material comforts but it's also the community that you've built up around yourself and the ties to family. (The latter is much easier to accommodate these days with the advent of social media and easy telecommunications. When I started you had to book an overseas telephone call and make sure you had enough money to pay for it.)
To be a successful expat, you also need to try to balance your interaction with fellow expatriates and with people from the host country. There are many expats who live exclusively in a bubble, associating only with other expatriates. (They also seem to be the ones who constantly complain about the locals and how rubbish life is in country xxxx...) Then there are others who try to go completely native and become frustrated both with their hosts and other expats. The best path is often to try to embrace both equally.
There are other fairly obvious things like a facility for languages, and patience, resilience and a sense of humour to manage the endless change in circumstances...and a basic curiosity to find about more about other cultures and mindsets.