When I was a child the phrase, "like a fish out of water" was a commonly used to describe the feeling of being lost in a new environment. Flopping around and gasping for breath and hoping that a benevolent surf might wash over you and take you home again. Little chance for the stranded Medusa or beached starfish. It's dry and die in the noonday sun of an alien environment. Both are suitable metaphors for the experience of those going abroad as expatriates or those forced abroad seeking asylum. They speak to the needs they have for assisted acculturation beyond daily survival.
As interculturalists, we often face the challenge not only of making ourselves to home in unfamiliar places, but it's frequently part of our job to assist others with the traumas of dislocation. We can make a difference. We are like the young man in the following tale that my buddy Walt Hopkins cited in our recent book, a story that originated with Loren Eiseley. The task may seem enormous, but remains meaningful:
A young man is standing on a beach looking at the starfish left behind by the receding tide. He leans down, picks up a starfish, and throws it into the water. He moves on to the next starfish and throws it into the water too. Then an older man says to him, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!” The young man picks up another starfish, throws it out into the water, and says, “I made a difference for that one.”
It's often our unpleasant duty to tell clients, "You may have been a star back home, but but discover that no one recognizes you washed up on this new shore." We can offer them some of the insights and tools they need to start, but a most important element is often missing. We may be the quick fix, but beyond this we need to assist them to put in place the opportunities and connections needed for longer term survival. Fortunately, there is much to be found on the Internet, but most important are the relationships, the cultural intermediaries, the cultural informants, the real flesh-and-blood contacts, who can be close by and provide ongoing awareness and support.
When we ourselves are locals and responsible for part of the acculturation training of newcomers, we can often connect them with someone we know, with similar interests, who knows both the local culture and has some experience of the culture of the new arrival. There may also be local expat organizations or groups like Internations, for example, that may offer opportunities for good connections.
At the same time, we need to advise them against limiting their contacts to expats much like themselves, and missing the experience of the culture around them. Failure to develop this can mean failure in an assignment. It is also a grand temptation, especially for expat family members nowadays, to spend most of their social time networking online with the folks they left back home instead of acquainting themselves with the environment and mixing locally. Of course, stay in touch! They are our close relationships and from a pragmatic point of view, steady connection will likely benefit us when we return from an overseas stint.
Photo by Laura Kortelainen. Jellyfish stranded on Agay Beach