In the Silence, I Found My Voice
They say repatriating is harder than moving abroad and this has definitely been my experience. I have been back from Singapore for a year, and I still don’t feel like I have settled in.
I recall speaking to my repatriation coach when I first moved back to the US. She said, “Well, you must feel like you don’t belong now that you’ve moved back home.” I replied, “No, I feel great. I feel like my friends and family understand me and the areas in which I have grown.” I could tell that she was thinking, “Just you wait”. Sure enough, as the weeks went by, the cracks started to show… my relationships with my closest friends, and even with my parents, were really strained. No one understood me. They felt I had changed, and the truth is: I did change. I moved to a new part of the world, with a completely different culture, and to top it off lived through very long COVID lockdowns ALONE (as in not seeing even one other person). It was incredibly hard and at times so sad and anxiety inducing, but the experience blessed me with several unexpected surprises.
If I got quiet enough and still enough, I knew exactly what to do.
For one, I had to learn how to process information and situations on my own. I should note that I am a very social and outgoing person. When living in the US, I would call my friends about everything. For example, if I went on a date, I would immediately call my best friends after to tell them everything and how he was definitely “the one” 😉, but this meant opening myself up to their opinions, expectations, and fears. Similarly, if I had a challenge at work, I would call my brother to get his advice. I didn’t realize how much externally processing things with my community impeded me from coming to my own conclusions. The filter through which they saw my circumstances was helpful, but at times, it was probably not the best because they couldn’t possibly know more about a situation than me. Well, when you’re living on the other side of the world with a 12-hour time difference, you sort of get your security blanket stripped away. When I encountered a difficulty, I would count the hours until I knew someone would be awake back home, but a funny thing happened. I had to sit with myself and think during that time. In the silence, I found my voice. I had a big realization. If I got quiet enough and still enough, I knew exactly what to do. When I move from that place, a place where I feel centered and clear, I make better decisions. With this newfound centeredness, I then decide if I want my friends’ advice, I want to inform them, or if I will tell them about a particular situation at all. I am still very open to counsel in certain instances, but I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to come to my own conclusions.
You cannot take clear communication for granted when working cross culturally or really in any professional or personal settings.
Working abroad also made me improve at having tough conversations. When I first arrived in Singapore, I had difficulty with a colleague, and I felt disrespected by their words. I assumed the person should know how I felt, but to be sure, I sought counsel from another trusted colleague. She said, “I don’t know what it is with Americans and their communication style, but until you clearly tell the person how you feel about their behavior, you can’t assume anything. You don’t know where people come from or their cultural upbringing, and how that influences their thinking.” I was stunned at her perspective because it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe my colleague genuinely didn’t know how I felt. It gave me pause about how you can’t take clear communication for granted when working cross culturally or really in any professional or personal settings. With this in mind, I spoke with the person and it turned out they had no idea how I was impacted by their words. This greatly improved our working relationship, which I know would have deteriorated if I hadn’t acted on it. As a matter of fact, they went on to thank me several months later for being honest because it was a blind spot for them. This was a major lesson for me and one that I gladly share when my mentees call me for advice. These days, I find that my advice 99% of the time is, “Did you specifically speak to the person about this and share how it’s impacting you?” I hear silence on the other side of the phone. I totally get it. It is really uncomfortable to have these difficult, vulnerable conversations, but trust me. You will be better served by assuming the best of people and having a clear conversation than by allowing things to fester.
You don't have to like me, but you do have to respect me.
The final surprise has been such a treasure. I speak up for myself now - a lot. Living in a new culture, as I mentioned prior, means you can’t lean on societal norms or values, so you must be clear on your expectations and your standards. Women are often socialized to be passive, cordial, polite, but I am done with letting people mistreat or disrespect me. Being Latina, female, and relatively young for my role in my company, I get this a lot. The mispronunciation of my name (by the way, it’s pronounced eh-lee-sah), the jokes about being Latina and looking so young that I clearly must not be capable. It can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening, but I realized that if I don’t speak up, nothing changes. Except sometimes I wasn’t speaking up because I was worried that I wouldn’t be liked. It can be second nature to want to be liked and not want to be perceived as difficult, which is a word people like to use when describing strong women. But worrying about what people think of me has cost me a lot. One of my close friends, an executive in fintech, has a saying which I recall when I need to be strong, “You don’t have to like me, but you do have to respect me.” As a leader and in my personal life, I want to be respected, I want to be valued, and esteemed and I have every right to expect and request that in my life. I feel that I deserve to love and care for myself in this way.
I now speak up for myself in my personal and work life. For example, I was spending time away with friends recently, but I realized that I desperately needed some alone time. In the past, I would have said nothing, and I would have left feeling exhausted and perhaps even a bit resentful. I chose to share how I was feeling. They were so appreciative of my honesty, and actually, I think they were glad to have the time back too. I know you’re thinking, “This is too hard. I can’t do it”. I always say, “success begets success”. Once you try it, it will keep getting easier. When it’s time to have a conversation, if my nerves are getting the best of me, I practice with a friend, or I write down what I want to say and then I take a deep breath and take the plunge! I can’t think of an instance where this didn’t pay off, but I can think of countless times where I didn’t speak up and the situation persisted and snowballed into a bigger issue. Nip things when they start, and they won’t have the opportunity to turn into overwhelming situations.
Get Quiet. Think About What You Really Want. Go Get It!
So, while my move abroad was hard and my repatriation process continues to challenge me, I learned a lot and it has changed me for the better. You might not have the opportunity or desire to move away, but I hope you can glean some insights from my journey. Get quiet, think about what you really want to accomplish in your career and your life, and go get it!
I believe in you!
P.S. Tell me! How do you handle difficult situations with colleagues or family members?