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.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Living overseas changes a person...

This much is self-evident when you consider the ways that experiencing the culture, society and workplace of another country expand's one's perspective on the world. Having lived and worked in four very different countries outside Australia over the past five years, my attitudes towards my life and work have substantially changed.

However, in this case, I'm talking about the physical impact that moving to a new country has had on me - as these are aspects that we so often overlook, but can so often have a huge impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Food - For me, food is an integral part of travelling and experiencing other cultures. However, moving countries can also mean a huge change in diet, which the body can take time to adjust to. When I moved to Papua New Guinea, there were weeks during which my diet consisted mostly of dry biscuits, tinned beans and fresh fruit (which varied, depending on the season). It was depressing, and I certainly lost my appetite for a while. On the flip-side, living in Viet Nam was foodie heaven, and like many expats who move there, I certainly put on a couple of kilos. And whilst there were plenty of leafy greens in the food, there was also a lot of sugar and fatty meat involved. Now that I'm living in the Balkans, I have to confess that I'm much less inspired, and most food options around here involve bread, pastry, processed meat and cheese. Fortunately, there's a fantastic greengrocer just up the road from my house, but the other reality is that cooking at home generally costs 2-3 times as much as eating out. And it can be tempting to lapse into a regular diet of burek, pizza or kebabs - but it's not exactly a healthy option, which leads me to...

Exercise - I've come to realise how much I've taken for granted having an active lifestyle. Back in Melbourne, two of my favourite things were swing dancing and riding my bike - both of which I'd be doing most evenings in the week. And whilst I could always work more on my fitness, it's been enough to keep me active enough to not feel like a completely unhealthy blob of a person. Unfortunately, I have yet to live in another place that has had a regular swing dance scene, and whilst I'd love to get a bicycle and zoom around the city streets like I did in Melbourne and Hanoi, I fear that in doing so, I may meet an unfortunate sticky end. The roads here aren't great, and the traffic is generally unaccommodating of non-automobile commuters on the road. After a few months, it's become apparent that I need to start doing that thing that I really, really dislike - going to the gym. On the plus side, it's given me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with my old favourite podcasts, and discover some new ones.

Alcohol - The expat life can be a somewhat alcoholic one - certainly compared to being back in Melbourne where I'd maybe have a couple of drinks on the weekend. Maybe it's the stress of dealing with cultural challenges, or just the lifestyle that goes with forcing oneself to go out and socialise with others, despite wanting to stay home and be a hermit with a book in a nest of pillows and quilts. But inevitably, there's alcohol involved. It can also help make the experience of mingling with people that I don't have much in common with more bearable. I certainly don't have a drinking problem, but whilst it's still possibly mostly taboo to talk about, I think it's fair to say that it can be a slippery slope to alcoholism if the overseas living experience isn't exactly going to play.

Cigarettes - Again, coming from Australia, it's generally accepted that smoking is bad, and will inevitably lead to lung cancer, so you shouldn't do it, nor should you smoke around others, especially not indoors. And yet, overseas, they are so cheap and plentiful. I've never worked in a place with so many smokers as I have now, nor have I walked out of so many restaurants where it was impossible to escape the smoke.

Coffee - Melbourne is very much a coffee city, and over my many years there I have to confess to having become something of a coffee snob. I've also gone through varying levels of caffeine addiction. Living in PNG and Vietnam, I have been lucky to have been able to access quality coffee from local producers. Strangely enough, Kosovo also has excellent coffee, at a quarter of the price, and for the first few months I'd be drinking 3-4 coffees a day. However, I've now reduced my caffeine intake to an espresso in the morning before work, and then switch to tea for the rest of the day.  I dread the day that I move to a place where the best available option is Nescafe, but maybe one day I'll have to face the option of going caffeine-free.

Sleep - I had the worst insomnia when I first arrived here in Kosovo. Apparently this is common for newly-arrived expats, and there are various theories ranging from the usual jet lag to the pollution and diet. Of course, all of the factors that I've mentioned above can influence sleep. It's something that I try to regulate as much as possible - getting to sleep before midnight, and waking up at 7am every day. But sometimes, like tonight, it's just not going to happen.

These past six months have been a difficult transition in my life, and whilst it's often easiest just to focus on the work and address cultural and social challenges, these other aspects certainly sneak up on me. As the saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano - and just as I need to remain mindful of my emotional wellbeing, I also need to be aware of the physical influences and changes that are happening in my life, and adjust my habits accordingly.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Letting go of Thinking We Know Best

Recently, on the 13th of October, the winners of the Inky Awards were announced. I've been a fan of this initiative of the State Library of Victoria for many years, since I was a judge back in 2008. These awards recognise the best YA fiction from the previous year, in two categories: the Gold (Australian) and the Silver (International). Every year, I try to read as many of the long/shortlisted books, and then tune in to see what the outcome is. And whilst it's not always my first pick, it's often in my top 2 or 3 in each category.

So, when the awards were announced this year, I have to confess that was disappointed. Whilst most of the shortlisted novels were deserving works, the winners were far from my favourite of the bunch.

This shouldn't be such a big deal, but one thing that makes this programme unique is that the outcomes are decided by teenagers - four out of the six judges who decide the shortlist are teenagers, and the final verdict is decided through a vote by teenagers. Not librarians, or teachers, or publishers - as is the case with most YA literature awards - but teenage readers.

As a librarian and a YA literature specialist, I stake my professional reputation on maintaining an awareness of the industry, and understanding the needs of teenage readers.

But at the end of the day, the inescapable truth is that I'm not a teenager. I graduated from high school more than half my lifetime ago. Sure, I read a lot, and I can recognise a well-crafted, engaging story that has depth and balance in its themes and characters, but at the end of the day, I only know what I like.

And yet, so often, we librarians and teachers take up the role of definitive authority on what teenagers should read. When parents come to us with advise for what to give their child to read, we use our knowledge based on the books that we've read - or on reviews written by other adult readers.

And though I wasn't there, many of the moments from the awards ceremony were tweeted - this one says it all:

Just because we're the adult experts in the field, doesn't mean we should always assume that we know best. We need to spend more time actively engaging with our clients, and listen to them - even if it means having to accept truths that we don't agree with. Because it's not about us.

Of course, there is also an apt parallel to working in development. If we want to help people, we need to do things on their terms, not ours. Just because we're from a developed country, doesn't mean that we know best. We need to let go of this egocentric attitude, and listen.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Volunteering is not a dirty word...

I've been volunteering for most of my life.

I supposed the seeds must have been sown when I was a boy, taking part in various community service activities through groups like the scouts or through the Duke of Edinburgh Award program.

During my university years, I dedicated many of my summers breaks volunteering with a Summer School for high school students from disadvantaged and underprivileged backgrounds. I eventually took leadership roles, and spent some of my later uni years as a director of the program. Every year around September or October, I'd start checking with my friends, "Are you volunteering for Summer School this year?" Most of my social circle would be involved - or maybe it was just that most of those involved became my social circle.

I took on organising roles in theatre groups and university clubs, like the Melbourne University Choral Society. I worked with volunteer committees in managing rehearsal venues, hiring professional musicians to support rehearsals, planning camps, and producing performances in major venues to critical acclaim in mainstream media.

Once I started working full-time, I suddenly had less time for that kind of commitment, but nevertheless I found myself volunteering for the Australian Library and Information Association, working on a number of committees over the years for groups, conferences, and board advisory.

And then I started working as an international volunteer, of which I've already discussed the pros and cons. The difference is that this was full-time volunteering, with a living allowance in lieu of a salary. Effectively, volunteering became my job.

At the heart of all these examples are a number of factors:
- being a change agent and making a contribution
- embracing new experiences and the learning that comes with it
- sharing and developing professional skills with others to achieve outcomes
- creating meaningful connections through collaboration and social interaction

Throughout my life, volunteering has expanded my horizons in so many ways, geographically, professionally, socially, and experientially.

However, it was when I tried to return to a job in Australia that I started to realise the stigma of being a volunteer.

I almost wrote real job just then.

That's how ingrained this issue is in our society. Through time, I noticed a number of attitudes emerge about volunteering:

1. "Good for you. I wish I could just quit my job and volunteer, but I've got a career to worry about." Everybody knows somebody who's spent time teaching English to orphans in India, planting trees in Nepal or digging wells in Ghana. So they assume that all international volunteering must be mostly like that - unpaid, unqualified labour, and whilst arguably noble and worthwhile venture, it's not a real job.

2. "It must have been hard to get anything done, especially with the lack of technology." Development work and First World Professional work just don't exist on the same scale. What represents a simple achievement in my job back in Australia could be a task of seemingly Sisyphean proportions, and so just establishing a basic understanding of a professional concept amongst staff can be a far greater achievement. And without context, employers back home might look at my list of achievements, and not appreciate the challenges overcome to achieve the most fundamentals of outcomes.

3. "Did you have a good holiday? It looked like you were having an amazing time." I feel that this is partially my fault, because most of my social media interaction involved a trip somewhere new and exotic at least once a month. But it doesn't really create a balanced view of the reality of volunteering overseas, and there are aspects that only those closest to me would be aware of.

4. "You don't have current experience." Because my last two years of work doesn't translate directly into the tasks at hand in the job that I'm applying for. Never mind the 12 years of experience before that. Honestly, if you want to recruit somebody who's been doing the same job for the last five years, then I'm not going to be that person. But if you want somebody who has developed the kinds of soft skills that can only come from working across half a dozen industries in four different countries, with a solid professional foundation, then that's me. The reality is that whomever you recruit is going to need to adapt their skills, attitudes, and knowledge for the new workplace, regardless of whether they come from overseas, or just down the road.

Of course, there are a few attitudes that are often left unsaid. The main one is the idea that volunteering isn't real work - because if it were real work, then I would be valued for it and paid accordingly. In Australia, we often have quite strict labour laws that state that volunteers must not perform core duties that would otherwise be performed by a paid professional. In the context of the Australian workplace, I agree with this. To do otherwise would imply that the work isn't worth paying for, and both diminishes the role of the volunteer, and the value of the other professional staff who are effectively being replaced.

It's a completely different matter when the organisation is based in a developing country, and either can't afford to hire professional staff, or there aren't any professional staff located in the region.

A research paper from Australian Volunteers International found that, despite volunteers developing strong are rare skills, "the term ‘volunteer’ itself diminishes the value of their experience in the eyes of prospective employers, leading them to regard the volunteer assignment as irrelevant to paid employment back in Australia." Some returnees avoided using the term "volunteer", instead focusing on the professional work that they did. Others highlighted the recruitment process for the volunteer program - that it was a competitive process, and participants generally needed 3-5 years of professional experience.

Finally, the reality is that our society is full of unpaid workers, who are developing valuable skills, doing work that is important to them and contributes to their immediate and wider communities. Whether they are stay-at-home mothers and fathers, charity volunteers, special interest community groups, parent volunteers at schools, full-time disability carers, community arts organisers, and so on. And then there are teachers, whose paid hours are in no way aligned to the amount of work that they do.

I know that there aren't always the available resources to pay everybody for their work, but that doesn't make it any less professional. Let's recognise people for their hard work and achievements, and stop focusing on how much they make.

Sunday 11 October 2015

The pros and cons of international volunteering.

So, I was looking at my resume recently, and I realised that I have accumulated a total of two years of international volunteer work. Whilst I have absolutely no regrets about my life choices in recent years, I do have mixed feelings about Being A Volunteer.

Just to clarify, I have been a international volunteer in the sense that I've worked in a range of government-funded assignments, posted within organisations, sharing my professional skills and knowledge in the delivery of information services and cultural heritage programs, where I've been provided with return flights and a living allowance, which, whilst generous, is far below the professional salary that I'd otherwise earn. That said, I haven't spent a cent of my own money, nor have I done any unqualified labour (i.e. digging wells or building schools).

So, based on my personal experience, here are some reflections on the pros and cons of international volunteering. (Disclaimer: Every volunteer's experience is different, depending on their field and location.)

Pro - I'm Doing A Good Thing. The first agency that I was deployed through states that "Altruism is the driving force behind everything we do." For me, I wanted to use my professional skills to help people. By volunteering, I could use my perspective to evaluate practices and procedures, and through interacting with staff, I could identify ways that they could grow professionally. Furthermore, the volunteer programs that I was involved with had a strong focus on sustainable capacity building as best practice, rather than just going in and doing things for them.

Con - At best, I'm perpetuating a cycle of dependence. Capacity-building is all great in theory, but for most NGOs, the bottom line is "What can we get for free?" There are definitely times as a volunteer when I've thought, "I'm the best person that they could get for free, but if they had the money instead, they could hire national / local staff with a similar level of professional skill, plus local language fluency." Furthermore, information and knowledge management is a difficult beast, where cultural context is everything. Managers expect me to be able to come in and deliver a product that would work back in Australia, but information seeking behaviour and knowledge systems vary from place to place, and resources are limited. International aid just isn't as simple as sending in professionals with solutions, and recipient organisations often don't share the same strategic values and goals as their donors.

Pro - It's a great cultural experience. I've been to places that I would never have otherwise visited in my lifetime. I've visited some pretty remote locations in the world, and learnt first-hand of the issues faced by some of the world's most disadvantaged minorities. These are important life experiences to bring back to Australia. To be able to empathise with others in a multicultural and multi-ethnic context is an important trait in a professional that can't be taught in theory. Plus the food in South-East Asia is the best I'll ever eat.

Con - That sounds suspiciously like volun-tourism. I'll be honest - it is, to an extent. As a volunteer, I've had some of the best tourist experiences of my life. And whilst the isolation has definitely been challenging from time to time, I've hardly been living in impoverished conditions. As easy as it is to play the "I've taken a huge pay-cut to volunteer" card, the reality is that (a) even as a volunteer, I'll still be earning much more than a local worker, and (b) at the end of the day, I can always just leave go back to Australia. It seems a little wrong that the aid industry, to some extent, exists to support what are, essentially, lifestyle choices.

Pro - Okay, altruism aside, at least it's real work. I'm probably not the only librarian who's wondered if I really needed a Masters Degree in order to spend the majority of my time taking books on and off shelves and dealing with disputes about overdue library book fines. As an international volunteer, I've dealt with a wide range of scenarios that have required me to use my professional skills in identifying the information needs of stakeholders, and designing products that deliver that information and knowledge.

Con - It's much HARDER work. My time working as an international volunteer has made me come to appreciate the comfort and convenience of working within an established library organisation in the Western world. For most professionals within their first ten years in the industry, it's about following procedures and strategic goals set by those in far, far higher positions than me. However, as an international volunteer, I've been expected to be a change agent. And as exciting as that opportunity is, it is hard - especially given the cultural aspects involved, and not wanting to perpetuate the flaws of a more colonialist approach, which is often already endemic in the system. And even when I think I'm doing everything right, it can always fall into a frustrating heap, and I'm back to square one.

Pro - I've developed unique professional skills. As much of my work has been under unique cultural situations, I've developed professional skills which I would never have developed back in Australia. Every situation is different, and in each role I've applied my professional skills to evaluate organisations and their staff, identify their information and knowledge needs, and developed products, services and programs to help them meet these needs.

Con - These skills are often seen as irrelevant. When applying for roles back in Australia after spending a substantial amount of time as an international volunteer, I've often received the feedback that I didn't have "recent Australian experience" or that they we unable to determine that I had "current experience". I am certainly concerned that the longer I spend outside the world of Australian libraries, the harder it will be for me to return - a sentiment expressed by some of those who I interviewed for the paper that I delivered at the ALIA National Conference last year. What remains to be seen is whether I've yet crossed that point of no return - or whether it really matters.

However, when all's said and done, being an international volunteer has made my career more diverse and interesting, and provided more scope for using my professional skills where they are most needed, but it's also meant that I've had to live with a life of more career insecurity and uncertainty.

That seems like a fair trade-off.