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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Like in a Foreign Country

I love living abroad, even though the term ‘abroad’ has become a strange one.  The song “Where ever I lay my head, that’s my home” suddenly pops up.
It’s only been two countries, the U.K. and the U.S. The easier ones, of course.  I’ve lived in the U.K. twice. Once a little North of London when I had just turned 18 after finishing high school and the second time when I was 24, at Hull University for a postgraduate year of Industrial Psychology. From there it was back to my home country to live in Amsterdam for four years after which my husband and I moved to the U.S. Three years in Polk County, the Southern state of Florida, one of the poorer counties, where I worked as a psychologist and therapist, followed by another three years in the most Northern state bordering Canada: Minnesota, that state with the collapsed bridge which even made headline news in the Netherlands. Minnesota, so much less diverse, healthier, more prosperous, and politically (and otherwise) a great deal more correct than Florida. After seven years in yet another new province in the Netherlands (yes, that small country has several provinces and we even like to think that they’re very different from each other) we moved back to Minnesota, this time with three children who were well aware of what was going on. And before, in between, and after these years abroad we have loved and still love to travel through Europe, the U.S. and Asia with especially the latter providing us with so many different colors, fragrances, tastes, customs, and surprises, mostly about our own preconceived notions, our limited vision, our judgments, and our sometimes (or often?) fixed ways of seeing and doing things.
Don’t worry, this blog isn’t suddenly turning into a life story. There is a reason for all this. Even though our travels and our years abroad have been relatively easy and safe, it has taught me to question, to wonder, to look with different eyes, and above all, to take time to look, observe, and really see rather than quickly categorize, form an opinion, and judge. And of course, I’m human, and still do the latter regularly.
I have asked myself more and more questions as time goes on. Is our Dutch welfare system, to many Americans way too socialized, really that much better than that of the U.S.? What does it do to perseverance, loyalty, determination, and moral? Is charity and volunteering so much more common and ‘just what you do’ in the U.S. because of the big gap between rich and poor or is it more complicated and more honorable than that? What to make of the indigenous people that we visited in Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, who are increasingly wearing western clothes and watches, worrying about their children who are abandoning their ancestors’ traditional ways of living and healing? What has waiting in vain for public transportation taught me or staying at an ex-prison-turned-motel in Mexico without running water and just a blanket that reeked of sinister stories and crimes? And what are we ‘giving’ our children by having to answer them that ‘no’, we do not know where we’ll be staying tonight while still hiking in the jungle?
Every time we moved back to the Netherlands, it made the familiar feel foreign and the foreign and unknown increasingly familiar. Running on autopilot often isn’t doing the job and I don’t want it to. Everything that I always, and unknowingly, took for granted in my home country like the sick leave arrangements, decent roads and lighting, great maternity and father leave policies, running water and so much more, is not so ‘normal’ anymore. Everywhere, people adjust, and in many times it’s not even adjusting: they just deal with whatever is handed to them. It’s called adaptation and survival. If life hands you lemons you make lemonade even though you might prefer orange juice. Whether you call it adaption, survival, or anything else, the fact remains that you learn to see things from different perspectives, from a helicopter, and less clouded. You learn to see again.
Of course, I fully realize how easy all this is for me to say and do because I’ve always had more certainties, or near certainties, than uncertainties. We’ve always been free from war, brutality, intimidation, natural disasters, and personal poverty where ever we went and lived. We’ve always been able to trust that our main needs (food, water, and shelter) would be met, at the worst with delay.  Having said this, I try and remind myself, which is less necessary as the years go by, how different countries, politics, climates, customs, histories, people, and of course companies can be. And how valuable it is to take less things for granted, to see the beauty in small, to look with new and different eyes at something all too familiar and still see something new, differently, or from someone else’s perspective.
Like in a foreign country, I try to wonder about what’s familiar and look at it as if it were foreign. Like in a foreign country, I make myself look at organizations and their needs with different eyes, like with the eyes of a scientist, an artist, a child, or a foreigner. I invite employees to really see their organizations and their role in it. I invite them to question the often unquestioned, not for the sake of questioning, but to shed a different light on their customs, unwritten rules, visions, values, and on needs often gone unseen. I strive to be of real value. I strive to unravel the unseen and unquestioned and to help people see one and the same thing from different perspectives
Wishing you an exciting, revealing journey to foreign destinations, whether far away or just around the corner and in your own company.  

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