Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Author Spotlight Patrick Burns, Far Away And Further Back

After his first overseas assignment to the USA in 1975 – just twenty-three with a suitcase and a guitar – corporate nomad, Patrick Burns, kept on moving from country to country rarely declining a fresh challenge in a new location. In these stories from four decades of living and working around the world, he relives some of his most memorable experiences: from dangerous pyrotechnic liaisons in the Algerian desert to a quest to find the Archbishop of Rangoon after a chance meeting in an English village church. The locations and circumstances run the gamut of the quotidian to the exotic; context and time are less relevant than who is met, what transpires and how the experience says something about the human condition. This exploration of the personal landscape of expatriate life is interwoven with a navigation of some of the ties that have bound his unusual Anglo-German family during the past century; a mixture of hardcore Yorkshire eccentricity (including a grandfather whose obsession with installing indoor toilets inadvertently led to a twenty-five year family rift) and a liberal academic, Hanoverian heritage disoriented by Hitler, the events of 1939-45 and Cold War detente.

Patrick Burns
Paperback: 194 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (May 3, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1986213870
ISBN-13: 978-1986213875

My Thoughts
This lovely collection is placed together by historic events. Burns tells us readers, "History is constantly being created and new manifestations will eventually be looked at with the same sentimentality and wistfulness as those that happened to precede them."  With this in mind, Burns relays his adventures. As we tag along, we're reminded that ever-changing human growth happens in the blink of an eye.  
We begin this read in a land known for its biodiverse rainforest. Here, we find two people, with the same employer, are looking over a sentimental timepiece. From there we descend and ascend. Each movement is of a refreshing and complex structure with evocative descriptions that stir excitement for a time both Far Away and Further Back.

Patrick Burns

In 2009, after more than thirty-five years of climbing, clinging onto, and occasionally sliding down the corporate ladder, Patrick Burns retired from an international business career in Human Resources. An opportunity to work on regional and global projects led to an early specialization in international HR and the chance to live and work all over the world. This included four assignments to Asia, where he spent a total of eighteen years, as well as other regional roles covering Europe-Africa, the Middle East and North and South America. Patrick was born in Yorkshire in the UK and now lives just outside San Francisco. He is married with four children
Patrick graciously agreed to allow me to bombard him with questions regarding his years abroad.

How did you come about the concept of writing Far and Away And Further Back?

The idea for writing a book came gradually from realizing that, with hindsight, I’d probably retired from corporate life too soon and too quickly. I struggled with not having responsibilities and with the absence of a sense of self-worth – status definers that I had taken completely for granted for many years and too casually given up.
Writing for publication seemed like a possible substitute. Since I'd had a lot business experience in that part of the world, I first tried my hand at writing a book on how best to set up an HR function in Asia but it was dull and I couldn't find a way forward that was engaging or relevant.
Casting around for other ideas I had a go at writing a story about a memorable incident that happened early in my expatriate life: a curious event that occurred when I worked in the oil industry and found myself helping with a pipeline pressure-testing job deep in the Algerian desert. My colleague and I were standing in the shade of a water tank in the blistering heat, waiting for the test to complete. We gradually became aware of a large black bird repeatedly flapping up from behind a nearby sand dune and then dropping down again out of view. Our curiosity got the better of us so we went to see what was happening and this led to a remarkable discovery and a very frightening experience…
I won’t give any more away but the point was that I enjoyed putting this down on paper and it didn't take me long to realize I had a number of other potentially interesting tales arising from where my work took me and from my family history - enough to make a kind of travel memoir. The topics and the style of writing I adopted gave me the voice I’d been searching for and a formula for writing that was fulfilling – one that allowed me to shake off the dissatisfaction I still felt from dropping out of corporate life so suddenly and terminally…

Can you speak to the different dynamics of living abroad?

I think you first have to make a distinction between going to another country for a couple of years to work then returning home and spending the vast majority of your life away from where you were born and grew up. The first can change you and broaden your view of the world; the second - which is what I did - changes you far more radically. 
The biggest impact is on the way you see your home country. It increasingly becomes an abstract concept and the idea of actually having a 'home country' gradually disappears. You become what the French call deraciné. I was born in the UK but have finally settled in the USA. The reasons for settling there are largely practical and pragmatic. It's wasn't an emotional or sentimental decision. I still enjoy visiting the UK but I no longer feel I have any strong ties with the country.
It sounds a bit pompous, and also a bit of a cliché, but living nomadically around the world does give you a more global mindset and outlook. That's a positive in some ways since I think you can often keep a more open mind about things like politics and how the world should be. It can also be negative in the sense that you don't develop deep roots and relationships in a community. The sense of belonging - a valuable commodity - is largely lost. 
Family relationships are often made stronger through expatriation but they can also suffer. I'd say my relationship with Alison, my wife, and my four children has definitely been strengthened by the life we have led. We are a very close-knit family unit and we go to great lengths to get together as often as we can. However, I've seen an uncomfortable number of separations and problems with children along the expatriate route I've traveled. I always say to people don't expect a spell overseas to help a marriage if it's already ailing. The chances are it will get worse. 

There appears to be a strong influence of family in your writing did you ever have the feeling of not belonging?

Not at all. I try to convey in my writing the strong attachment I have to both the family I come from and the one that Alison and I created. My nomadic life is in some ways in my DNA -, especially on my mother's side. The Löwensen tribe, her family, wandered from Scandinavia to Germany in the 17th century. She made the difficult move in 1947 from Germany to England as a post-war bride. As a family, we traveled all over Europe in the fifties and early sixties. In later life, after my father died, my mother traveled everywhere on her own. We were in fact bound together by this sense of comfort in experiencing what different countries have to offer. 

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.

Is there anything you'd like to tell readers?

While my book is written through my eyes, it not really about me in the way some biographies and memoirs are. My aim was to describe the unusual, even eccentric, people I came across on my travels (and within my own family) and the odd circumstances I sometimes found myself in. It was a conscious attempt not to be self-indulgent but rather to share the experience - possibly with a few observations and reflections thrown in for good measure. A couple of people have told me that reading the book was a bit like sitting in the pub with an old friend you haven't seen for a while and catching up on the more interesting news about what's been doing - and I like that description.

No comments:

Post a Comment