Friday, 30 October 2015

The importance of feeling settled.

One of the most challenging parts of working abroad is trying to find reconciliation between the transitory nature of the work, and yet feeling connected and committed to it.

This is certainly the case working in development, where I've always known that I'm only there for a temporary period of time, and yet to be truly effective in my work, I've needed to find ways to engage with the organisation and with the wider community to understand their perspective and overcome cultural barriers. Which is not going to happen if I've only spent six months in the country, and already have one foot halfway out the door.

Of course, some would argue that, as outsiders, we certainly shouldn't get too comfortable. Ultimately, we're merely guests in another country, and shouldn't outstay our welcome.

At the same time, living a life of being constantly in transit can have its toll. The settled I feel in one place, the more anxious I am to keep moving. I love travelling, and taking in new experiences, but there can be a fine line between being free-spirited and being permanently adrift. I don't know if it's a matter of perspective or merely semantics, but it's there.

In preparation for heading overseas on assignment, I was advised to use the first few months after arrival to focus on "settling in". I believe that this is vital, both in terms of establishing good work practices and relations, but also maintaining my mental health. So, I've collated a number of personal considerations to remain mindful of when trying to feel more settled in a new place.

1. Don't try to change things all at once. Some excellent advice that I received early on in my career is that, when starting a new role, maintain the status quo for the first few months. Ask questions, make observations, but don't change anything - no matter how dysfunctional things may seem. This may fly in the face of my personal and professional intuition - not to mention a boss who expects me to change things straight away - but the reality is that things are the way they are for a reason. You can't fix things until you truly understand the reason that they are broken - and sometimes things aren't as broken as they seem. Trying to do otherwise straight away is a surefire way to burn out too quickly, resulting in disillusionment and motivation to fly out on the next plane.

2. Establish routines. Whether it's going to the gym on the same three evenings of the week, waking up at 6:50am sharp every morning, taking on weekly dance classes or watching The Walking Dead every Monday night, personal routines help me fall into a pattern that starts to normalise my experience of living abroad. I know how the next week is going to ensue, and I have a plan for getting through it.

3. Create my own space. Living in a new flat can feel a lot like living in a hotel. When I moved to Hanoi, one of the first things I purchased for my room was a rug. It really tied the room together. In my current apartment, I completely rearranged the furniture into a way that I felt most comfortable with. I bought art paper and crayons and made motivational posters to stick up around the room (and also remind me of personal schedules, as above). I stuck up various ephemerah - flyers, postcards, ticket stubs - from my experiences. It's important to be able to come back to a place that is distinctly my own home.

4. Establish social circles. This is one of the most essential parts of feeling settled in any context, whether abroad or at home, but it's perhaps one of the most difficult. I don't know if I'm becoming more misanthropic in my old age, or just more introverted, but I find it increasingly difficult to connect with strangers and make new friends. I think that it's perhaps that, in my younger years, I used to force myself to be regular friends with people I didn't necessarily like that much, and now I'm less inclined to spend my time with people who I'm not on the same wavelength with. However, living abroad, I find that the pool of socially-compatible people becomes minuscule, and I feel like it doesn't make much difference if I'm out with people, or at home with a book - I still often feel socially isolated and alone.

The other aspect of social life that makes a huge difference is the transitory nature of the people I encounter, both at work and socially. Most of the friends that I made in the first couple of months here have already left, and it's hit me hard not long ago, where I'd just stopped trying to meet new people unless I know that they're going to stick around. More recently, I've started to try to pull myself out of that funk, and actively make more new friends - reminding myself that even if they leave, there will still be opportunities to stay in touch if we really connect as friends. But ultimately, I need to be part of a stable social circle that I can feel connected and secure in.

5. Personal relationships. I've always felt more grounded in a place when I've had a partner. With a partner, I've had more of a responsibility to have conviction in my future plans, because they involve another person. And, of course, these overseas experiences can feel more satisfying when I have somebody special to share them with. Whereas being single, I have an infinite number of future timelines ahead of me, and as liberating as that can be, it is also unsettling. In the past, the potential for a stable relationship has meant saying no to opportunities overseas, and on the flip-side, a breakup - or just the seemingly complete absence of potential partners - has made me more inclined to run off and make a fresh start elsewhere. I know that this shouldn't be a deciding factor when it comes to one's personal and professional life, but it's impossible to avoid.

6. Appreciate the local things. This much is obvious - the more I get to know the local culture and places, the more settled I'm going to feel. And as tempting as it is to fly off to Vienna or Berlin or Istanbul every other month, I also make an effort to explore places in Kosovo, Albania and (the FYRO) Macedonia. It makes for a more authentic experience of living in the Balkans, and it's also less expensive. The rest of Europe will still be there in the future.

7. Focusing on the now, and not the next. Another common piece of advice is to know the next 2-3 jobs in my career path, and how I'm going to get there. Whilst this is definitely important, it's also important for me to remember that I'm currently in a job right now. I need to care about the work, respect the process, and support my employer and the community it serves to the best of my ability. Of course, my performance and achievements in my current role is what's going to lead to the next job, but it's not healthy to focus on the next thing until the opportunity actually presents itself. On the other hand, knowing where I want to move to next means that I need to focus on achieving results that facilitate that move. If my organisation shifts its focus - or the nature of my role - and the consequence is that I can no longer achieve or perform tasks on my career path, then it's time to seek out new opportunities.

Of course, all of these are easily said - or typed out into an orderly list - but life isn't as easy to plan out. Maybe feeling settled and secure is overrated, and the best thing I can do is to let go of trying to orchestrate my life, and rather experience life as it comes, be open to new things, and make decisions as they are presented to me. Ultimately, those decisions are the only thing I truly have any control over.