Moving Abroad Will Fix All Your Issues. . . . and Other Lies

Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it. A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery.  That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years. Right?

The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now. The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like, “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.” The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT.  Keep dreaming chump.” And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “Yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”

I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home. But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.

(Just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you.)

I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis), and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:

    • Issues can fly
    • They expand when they land

The cross-cultural life can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure, and the newness can serve as a great cover-up for a good long time, but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.

Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:

If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems unavailable in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.

If your marriage is in the toilet —  You may very well need some time away with your spouse, and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.

If you have anger issues — That’s one place in your passport country where your life can be compartmentalized. Blow up at work, and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog, and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.

Whatever your issue is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).

Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.

Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out-of-control people, and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.

But this is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?). So hear me out.

If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be,” don’t freak out.

    • Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
    • Do everything you can to address them before you go. And set up a plan to keep addressing them.
    • Don’t be naive. Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are actually going to crush you abroad, it is MUCH better to discover that before you go.

If you’re a half-jaded “Been There,” there’s good news.

    • You’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
    • Say it with me: “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog).
    • Become a master of seeking wisdom.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are already crushing you, finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Then do whatever it takes.

And if you’ve been there, come through it, and learned something along the way, here are some requests for you.

    • Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
    • Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
    • Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
    • Sidenote — Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.


(Originally published at 

Oops, I Forgot Myself: How to Reclaim Your Identity in a Massive Transition

You know that feeling? It’s a sick one. In your gut. Sometimes you catch it early. Two minutes down the road on the way to the airport.

“Did you pack the swimsuits?”






“Boarding passes?”

“YES! I got everything ok?!”

“Sorry . . . (long pause) . . . passports?

“Shoot! Turn around.”

It’s nice when the light bulb goes on in time. Nothing hurt. We can still make it.

It’s not so nice when you’re sitting on the airplane, or unpacking your boxes, and it hits like a lightning bolt. That thing you really need in your new place is the thing you left in the old place.

But there is a whole other layer. A deeper one.

The one thing that almost all of us (at some level) forget to take with us in a massive life transition is . . . ourselves.

Who we were in the last place gets washed out in the new place. Our new life demands our attention. So we give it. The new people don’t know us yet. So we show them the surface. There is a language that we don’t speak (even if we’re “returning home”). So we get by. The systems, the patterns, the customs, the culture, the way of life are all radically different. So we scramble. We make do. We figure it out.

And then we wake up . . . weeks later — sometimes months — occasionally years — and the light bulb goes on . . . I forgot myself.

And it feels too late to turn around.

Transition challenges personality.

It attacks normalcy.

It assaults identity.

So if you’re waking up in the middle of a massive life transition, take heart, you’re not the only one who doesn’t feel like yourself.

But that helps nothing right?

“Great, everyone is screwed up but I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM!”

That’s fair.

Here are a few thoughts on reclaiming your identity when you wake up and realize you left it sitting on the kitchen table in a place you can’t get back to.

1. Learn the difference between inside and outside.
When you move from one place to another, you immediately start responding to outside things — the external forces that are pressing against your daily existence.

You have to. You’re supposed to. You’re not doing it wrong.


In your core, there is a pile of values that didn’t change when everything on the outside did. There are beliefs, passions, habits, dreams, joys, frustrations, and pet peeves that define who you really are.

You should know those.

Like really — know them.

Not just in response to a question but intimately — KNOW THEM.

List them out.

Spend time with them.

Pick them apart.

Deconstruct them.

Put them to the test.

See what gets cut — and what doesn’t.

You should be the top scholar of your own core — but maybe you never had to be until now. Maybe your inside has always been supported by the outside so that you didn’t have to think about it.

Now you do.

When you KNOW who you are in your core you can go ANYWHERE with confidence.

When you DON’T, you’ll be stuck in the anxiety of a missing identity because you’re relying on the outside stuff to define you.


2. Know what makes you, YOU.
Little y, big Y.

Just because you have moved doesn’t mean YOU have arrived. Not all of YOU.

What did you give up, for the sake of the move, that feels like it was actually a part of you?

What did you DO back there that you don’t do anymore?

What did you leave behind that feeds your soul?

This one might sting a bit . . . who are you blaming that on?

Here’s the kicker — it’s a REAL challenge to do life (as you know it) in a new place. It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t even smell the same.

I’ve known marathon runners who threw up on their first run in China because of air pollution.

I’ve known musicians who couldn’t find an outlet for their music in their new spot.

Chefs who can’t get baking powder.

Artists who can’t find art stores.

More often than not though, it comes down to the fact that their motivation just got kicked in the gut. They had to spend so much of their energy re-learning how to do regular life stuff that they really struggle to find the space for the things they love.

Again. Fair.


Transition is the process of becoming YOU again. Did you catch that? It’s a process. Movement from one highly functional place to another with a completely dysfunctional dip in the middle.


When the time is right, remember who YOU ARE.

Finish the sentence. I AM ___________________.

A runner?

An artist?

A writer?

An entrepreneur?

A designer?

A people person?

An introvert?

An encourager?

A party animal?

A reader?

A hiker?

A dreamer?

Then dig into the HEART of why YOU are who YOU are. What is it about that thing that makes you come alive? Maybe you can’t do it in the same way but maybe . . . just maybe . . . you can. Or you can find a substitute that recaptures some of it. Or you can create a space that hits the same mark in a different way. Or you might just discover something new about yourself while you’re digging around.

The point is that if a piece of YOU is missing in your new place, you don’t have to settle for it.

But we do.

We run the “I used to be so good at” or “I gave up so much to” or “I just can’t anymore” narratives in our head until we believe that there is no way around it.

Don’t give up that easily. This is YOU we’re talking about.


3. Postpone your expectations. Don’t forget them.
I HATE the phrase “lower your expectations.”

I get it. I understand the heart behind it. Going in expecting to be able to function at the same level as you did in the last place is a recipe for a letdown.

“So just expect it to be horrible. Then you won’t be disappointed.”

No. Just no. Stop saying that.

Expect delays. Expect challenges. Expect frustration. Expect hiccups, and speed bumps, and problems (big and small) ALONG THE WAY to a fully functional, thriving life where you are not only enjoying the best bits of who YOU are but you are pouring them out on the people around you.

Write this down – it’s important.

You should NEVER compare the beginning of the new thing to the end of the last thing.

That’s not fair.

That’s like a farmer planting seeds and coming back to harvest the next day.

“Why is there no corn here?! I PLANTED CORN YESTERDAY!!”

I’m not a farmer but even I know the answer to that. “Because you chopped it all down a few months ago.”

It took time in the last place. You had to figure it out. You had to meet the people. You had to build the relationships. You had to learn the systems. You had to set things in motion and find the rhythm.

None of that is in place when you move into a new thing.

None of it.

You chopped it down.

So plant the seed. Set the right environment. Put the right things in. Keep the wrong things out. Start with some tiny roots. Then give yourself the space and the grace to emerge in due time.

You’ll get there — even if you can’t get there yet.

If you are in the middle of a big move or a massive life transition, there is so much hope. There is hope in the collective groanings of “I am not alone.” There is hope in the process of transition. There is hope in the core of who YOU are.

If you have forgotten yourself — go get yourself back.

Originally published at The Culture Blend

Stop Thief! (how to take back what COVID-19 has stolen)

COVID 19 is a dirty, rotten criminal. Ironically, not even a smooth one.

It sneaked in and no one saw it coming, but it made a bunch of noise and stayed way too long. Got greedy. Got cocky. Thought it could take everything.

Got news for you COVID … you don’t get everything. Not even close.

And you’re a jerk. Nobody likes you.

Full disclosure: This post comes on the heels of weeks of self-pity and sorrow over the loss and confusion that this thief has created — head spinning and scrambling, trying to figure out what comes next. Days of feeling like all is lost.

Maybe you’re in the same boat. Like you’ve just walked in your front door and realized that your home has been ransacked.

You feel violated, vulnerable, angry, terrified.

Here are seven thoughts to help you get back what this no good, sneaky, spineless thief has taken.


1. “Less than” equals more than nothing.
It has been a painful realization, but I have to settle for less this year. Less connection. Less engagement. Less quality. Less certainty. Less of the people I love and want to be spending time with.

You feel it, too.

But less is NOT nothing.

Don’t settle for the lie of “all is lost.”

Unanticipated, unchosen, undefined, homeschool is less. But it’s not nothing.

A zoom call is less. But it’s not nothing.

Social distancing, self-isolation, and even quarantine are much, much less that what I want right now. So much less than what I am used to.

But they are not nothing.


2. List your losses.
Something magic happens when you get specific.

The pain gets real, but so does the beauty of what’s left.

It’s natural when you’ve been violated to focus entirely on the violation.

It demands your attention.

But taking the space to list the actual losses gives you the space to set those things aside and deal with them as they need to be dealt with.

What has actually been taken?

Connection with your people? Your job? Your graduation? Your retirement plan? Your dream wedding? An important funeral? Your summer plans? Your routine? Your plan? Your sanity?

Whatever it is. Call it out. Tag it. Set it apart from what hasn’t been taken.

Don’t give COVID credit for what it hasn’t accomplished.


3. Don’t play the victim.
Thieves love a victim. That’s the whole point.

Power preys on the powerless.

The victim waits helplessly for the hero to come and rescue them.

Newsflash — this thing has impacted EVERYONE. That means that everyone needs help and everyone has the potential to help someone else.

If your ONLY focus is on seeking help then you are draining the shallow pool of resources that other people need more desperately than you.

Look around. Find a need. Meet it.


4. Find your thankfuls.
Time for a full life inventory. What do you have to be thankful for? Focus your attention on that.

To be clear — finding thankuls is NOT the same as ignoring loss. It’s not looking on the bright side. It’s not simply happy-stamping this mess and pretending like nothing bad has happened.

But a thief would love nothing more than to steal your joy — and joy is all around you.

Pick three. What are you most thankful for, even in this mess? Start your days there and see what happens.


5. Box out
Sorry. Basketball reference.

Boxing out is what happens when the shot goes up and you are close to the basket. You anticipate the miss even though you have no clue what is about to happen, and you prepare yourself to grab the ball and run with it. You do everything you can to get in position for the next play.

COVID isn’t going to last forever. How are you preparing yourself for what comes next?


6. Stop with the superlatives
“COVID has changed EVERYTHING!”

“NOTHING will EVER be the same!”

Stop it. Just stop it.

Focus your attention on what hasn’t changed.

Your family. Your friendships. Your people. Your places. Your values. Your routines. Your pets. The pictures on your wall. The things that make you snortlaugh. Your addiction to Netflix.

Full disclosure: I caught myself on this one. COVID for me means a whole new chapter. New country, new work, new home, new school for my kids, new community, new friends, and a LOT of hard goodbyes. It was easy to say, “this changes everything.

But that’s a lie.

A lot has changed — but not EVERYTHING.


7. Find the gold
It may not feel like it at the moment, but there is very likely some beautiful bit that never would have been possible apart from this jacked-up tragedy.

Time with your family? When are you EVER going to get it like this again?

Life has come to a halt? Remember when your biggest frustration was “I’m too busy?”

Don’t minimize the loss — but don’t miss the gold nuggets.

There is no doubt that this virus has taken a lot from us. It has thrown the world into shock and the losses are huge.

But pause.

Just for a moment.

Gather your bearings. Take a realistic inventory. Find the help that you need. Help someone who needs you.

And go get your stuff back.

Originally appeared on The Culture Blend.

White Expat Privilege

So this happens. A lot. I get into a taxi and say “ni hao” (“hello” in Chinese).

The taxi driver’s eyes get wide and he says, “Waaahhh, your Chinese is SO good!”

My daughter, on the other hand, could get in the exact same car, with the exact same driver and say the exact same thing with much better pronunciation and get a much different response. Like “why don’t you speak Chinese?!”

Her experience. Her day to day. Her reality are radically different than mine solely because we look different.

She is ethnically Chinese. I am white.

Consequently, I have access to treatment that she does not.

That is just a small example of something called privilege . . . and I have it.

It’s a hot button topic (you may have noticed). It’s a significant piece of much deeper conversations around things like race, sexuality, gender, equality, appropriation and ultimately human value.

Those are hugely important topics for any culture to wrestle with, but in the heat of the mono-national or monocultural firefight, the nuances of cross-cultural privilege often get missed, overlooked or ignored.

From the perspective of an admittedly privileged, white, expat father who is raising a Chinese daughter and a black son in a foreign context, here are a few thoughts.


1. Privilege is a reality.
Stop. Before you cut loose with the preloaded, self-protective best one-liners, I am NOT calling you (and by default, me) a racist or a bigot or a Nazi. Privilege and racism are NOT the same thing. Racism is rooted in internal decay. Privilege is based on external realities.

(Read I Am Not a Racist: And other things I wish I knew were true.)

My statement is simply this — if you are white, your experience at home OR abroad may give you access to a different experience than people of color.

To dismiss, ignore or even to be unaware of that is to cut yourself off from the realities that other people face.


2. Privilege has nothing to do with your bank account and everything to do with access.
Speaking of preloaded, self-protective one-liners, have you ever heard this one?

“Privilege? Are you kidding? I have black friends who make three times as much as I do.”

Or how about “Hey, I’m white. I sure would like to see some of that privilege everyone keeps telling me I have.”

Singular thinking applied to a plural challenge is a logical fallacy. Privilege comes from the collective reaction of the people around you. So having less cash in your pocket doesn’t change the fact that you may be stereotyped as having more . . . and therefore treated differently.

And if you are treated differently, then the reality of your experience is different.


3. White is not the only privilege.
Every culture has people who have greater access. More influence, more voice, more power.

However, “oh yeah? Well so do you” is not a valid argument for less privilege.

That’s like saying, “I am not sunburned because you are too.”


4. The dials are turned up in a cross-cultural setting.
There are obviously far too many variables globally to make this universal, but in much of the world being Western is perceived as synonymous with being rich, and the clear indicator of being Western . . . is being white.

You may have been born and raised in London, but if you are a person of color the first filter you are perceived through is likely the local stereotype of the place you look like you are from.

Conversely, you may have grown up in poverty, but if you are white, you are also filtered through a stereotype. It’s just a different stereotype.

Every country (privileged or not) has prejudice (sorry UK and USA, you don’t own this one), and while that is clear in your home country, if you are living internationally, you are navigating the unseen prejudice of your host. You may see the impact clearly, but until you feel the history and the backstory, you’ll be in the dark.

Many cultures are unaware and unapologetic of their prejudice. White is Western, Western is rich, and rich is coveted. Everything else . . . not so much. That is simply accepted and communicated as a matter of fact which changes the narrative and ultimately the treatment of people (white and not).

(Read the eye-opening When Does a Person of Color Get to be an Expat?)


5. Relationship is key.
This is where it gets beautiful. Cultural stereotypes are crushed with relationship — and sometimes they are confirmed — but they are crushed or confirmed with real stories, real names, and real personalities instead of a skewed and shortsighted perspective.

Prejudice lives on the surface which, unfortunately, is where the huddled masses choose to hang out — but when you dare to connect deeply across a line, you can’t hold on to the luxury of your incomplete assumptions.


6. Conversation is critical.
Conversation is where truth is discovered.

Crazy truths like, not all French people are romantic,

and not all Chinese people are short,

and not all Americans carry guns,

and not all white people are rich,

and just because they’re nice to you doesn’t mean they like you,

and not all Africans are poor,

and Africa is not a country.

When you bother to build a relationship, you can no longer reduce a culture to a single story. Watch this.


Fair warning: The conversations are hard and awkward and filled with words like, “but I always thought” and “we don’t do it that way.”

The good ones though, end with, “wow, you just blew my mind” and “when can I hear more?”


7. It wouldn’t hurt us to shut up and listen.
Possibly the deepest pitfall of privilege is perceived respect. Culturally mandated hospitality gets mistranslated into admiration, and we are happy to sit on our throne and impart wisdom.

After all, if they just listened, we could fix them.

Stop that.

Ask a question that doesn’t start with, “don’t you always”. Then sit back and genuinely absorb the response. Dig into the heart of their story, what brings them joy and what causes them pain.

(Get a copy of 99 Questions for Global Friends: Quality Conversation Starters For Friends From Different Places.)

Whether you are listening to the people of your host country or other expats who are having a much different experience, you stand to gain and, ironically, have greater impact when you stop talking so much.

(Here is an amazing place to shut up and listen to the stories of expat people of color.)


8. With great privilege comes great responsibility.
Many expats march with the banner of responsibility. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard things like, “THEIR biggest dream is to be like us.”

On one hand that is a presumptuous, misguided arrogant premise. On the other hand, it is probably true.

It is flawed thinking to summarize the desire (or need) of an entire people group to one aspiration with words like “they” or “their.” That bias gets transferred from expat to expat and becomes the lens through which we view individuals. It dictates how we engage and how we interact.

Historically, that hasn’t gone well.

However, what if we broadened the parameters and stereotyped all of humanity?

It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest dreams of most humans to be respected, treated fairly, have opportunities to move forward, and enjoy political and financial security. It is the dream of humans NOT to be perceived and treated as less human than the other humans around them.

So yeah. Maybe they do want to be like you but YOU are not the dream — you are the poster child.

If you’ve never dreamed pessimistically about a world where you might be treated fairly — then you’re probably living in that world already.

And that is a privilege.

The responsibility of the privileged is NOT to show them how they can be more like you — it is to treat them like they already are.


9. I am privileged.
No question about it.

If you have a passport — you too have a privilege that the majority of the world has no access to.

If you are living by choice in a country that is not on your passport — you are privileged.

If you have a voice that is heard, anywhere — you are privileged.

If people look at you and wish that they could experience life the way you do — you are privileged.

That doesn’t make you richer, wiser, more honorable, more ethical, more important, or more human. It is just a reality.

You can spend your time denying your privilege because you feel attacked, or you can try to see yourself through the eyes of the people around you.

Seems like a simple choice.

What about you? Are you privileged and willing to acknowledge it?

Are there privileges that you are cut off from simply because of who you are? What’s your story?

(Originally published here.)

Stupid Expat Days and How to Love Them

There are days that expats have to live but normal people never do. I call them Stupid Expat Days. 

Where I come from you run to the post office to renew a passport IF you even need one. Not so where I live now. 

This time around it was my 8-year-old son who was up for renewal.

That means a big, inconvenient, miss work, skip school trip in the middle of the week to the embassy which is in a different part of the country and that’s just the travel day. By the time that day actually arrived, I had two painful weeks of prep already invested. Faulty websites that gave no confirmation of an actual appointment. Ridiculous phone calls to embassy staff who gave me the equivalent of  “go with your gut — if it feels like you’ve got an appointment then show up.” Traipsing across the city at the last minute to track down documents we thought were in our living room. Getting stuff filled out and notarized and searching for the dirt cheapest plane ticket because this was not a planned expense.

Found them. They were SO CHEAP . . . for about 20 seconds.

That’s when I realized I had the little toggle switch set on US Dollars and I was reading it in Chinese Yuan. My happy price got multiplied by 7.

We booked a train.

That meant five hours there and a 1 hour subway for a 30 minute meeting only to sprint back to the subway so we could ride another hour to get to the five hour train home — with an 8 year old who gets cranky when he’s tired.

I woke him up at 4:30 am. It was nearly 1 am when we returned home.

Normal people don’t have to do this stuff. This is a stupid expat day if there ever was one.

Here’s the thing. I’ve only got this kid for a little while and time is moving way too fast. 

Passports are the perfect pictoral, timeline reminder of that. Five years at a time we fill out the paperwork and catch ourselves saying how did that even happen? Where did that time go? Look how cute he was.

Looking at my son reframed the whole stupid day for me.

Normal people don’t GET to do this stuff. It was a holiday not a waste of time. Special expat father and expat son bonding, just me and him.

I became dead set on tattooing the phrase “PASSPORT DAY” on his brain so he will tell his kids about it years from now as if it were the pinnacle of his childhood.

“When I was your age we got to do PASSPORT DAYS and they were AMAZING!”

When am I ever going to have 20 straight hours to hang out with this kid and do NOTHING but eat total junk, ride on trains, take selfies and chase a little blue book?

I’ll tell you when . . . when he’s 13 and then NEVER AGAIN.

Great. Now I’m crying because passport days don’t come often enough.

Thanks Blog.

Loving Stupid Expat Days is not simply putting a happy stamp on the hard stuff and it runs far deeper than just “looking on the bright side”. It was a long, long, long day but we found the best bits and we chose to hang out there. I love passport days and my hope is that because I choose celebration, even in the context of the irritation my kids will too.

Judging by the pictures, we’re on the right path.

This was us at the beginning of the day.

And this was us at the end.

I clearly got beaten by my son at Passport Day.

But we both won.

Bring on the Stupid Expat Days.

originally posted on

Introverts on an Expat Team

Introverts are finally getting a LOT of attention.

That’s pretty ironic.

So many writers are addressing the challenges that introverts face in a world built for extraverts.  There is a trend . . .  a wave . . . some would even call it a revolution of information that is calling our attention to the fact that we have designed our systems to reward the outgoing and overlook the quietly reserved.

The dilemma is this . . . even if this is a true, game changing revolution it will likely take years to have a deep and lasting impact on the broader expat world which is generally at least two steps removed (he says generously) from the mainstream . . . and if it is just a trend then it will likely run it’s course and fizzle before the expats really get to taste it.

More irony — I don’t believe I have seen a social dynamic more blasted by the disparity between the outies and the innies than the expat world . . . specifically expat teams.

Groups of people gathered for a common purpose, living in community and sharing in the paradox of life as foreigners can be painfully, unequally stacked against the introvert.  Team building games, mandatory social events, round table decision making, professional development exercises — teams are built on obligatory social engagement from day one.

“Hey team . . . let’s do an ICE BREAKER.  You’re gonna’ love this!  Tie your shoelaces together, put two ping pong balls in your mouth, jump around the room and talk to EVERY SINGLE person until you find the three who have birthdays closest to yours.  Then you have five minutes to prepare a mock synchronized swimming routine to “Love Shack” which you will perform in front of the WHOLE team who will then judge you according to originality, enthusiasm and your weight.”

“Ready? Go!”

Even More irony — The rest of this post is specifically for introverts but they just broke into hives and quit reading.  We’ll get em’ next time.

I spend a lot of time with expat teams and this issue ALWAYS comes up.  Here are some thoughts from those conversations and from years of marriage to the most beautiful introvert on the planet:

1. Introverts add HUGE value to a team

Through all of the challenges, frustrations and hives — you bring tremendous worth to the team dynamic.  Someone needs to think before they speak.  Someone needs to say nothing when there is genuinely nothing to say.  Someone needs to NOT jockey for position, battle to be heard or chase rabbits around every single topic.  You are a support to the extravert, to be sure, but if the team is healthy the extravert will recognize your value and also be a support to you.

2.  Extraverts ALSO add HUGE value

Lest you get cocky.  Someone also needs to speak up.  Someone needs to say something . . . anything, even if it is stupid, so someone else can point out what a horrible idea it is and we can check it off the list.  Someone needs to say, “ENOUGH – we’re chasing rabbits, let’s get back on task.”  None of those people are likely to be you.  The extraverts are NOT your enemies.  In some ways they complete you (cue soft music) and you complete them.  When you’re connected . . . really connected . . . your extravert friend will bring the meeting to a screeching halt because they can see that you have something to say.  You need them as much as they need you.

3.  Being an Introvert does NOT mean you are a snob

You do run that risk though.  The scenario in your head that might go something like, “If I go, it’s going to suck the life out of me — but if I stay home, they’ll think I’m a snotty snot bag” . . . is probably not far from accurate.  Just because people are extraverted does not mean they aren’t also insecure. Neither does it mean that they are psychic.  Unfortunately people only know that you like them when you indicate, in some way, that you do.  Extraverts have got the verbal affirmation edge here but if you’re going to consistently bow out socially you should consider finding a safe, introvert friendly alternative for saying, “I really do like you people.”  Knowing that is not automatic.

4.  Being an Introvert does not mean you are NOT a snob

Sometimes it’s easy for introverts to find fault in other people because it grants them permission to not engage socially.  If you can rationalize that it is their fault then there is no reason to engage.  If you find yourself doing that more often than not . . . you may just be a snotty snot bag.  You should stop that.

5.  Initiate the conversation

If you’re living silently you’re leaving everything you do open for interpretation.  It’s easy, then, to judge the people who judge you.  “If they want to know they should come ask me.” But being an introvert is NOT a disability.  Have the discussion — with your close friends first, but spark the conversation among your team.  What does it even mean that you are an introvert?  What drains you?  What energizes you?  Point people to resources and engage.  If you take the lead you can choose the playing field.  If you ignore it, you’ll be playing on their field and you’ll start on defense.  Guaranteed.

6.  Make friends with an extravert

Some of the sweetest connections I have ever seen have been extreme innies and extreme outies.  They’re perfect at parties together.  The introvert can hide behind the extravert.  EX works the crowd just like she likes it and one by one brings her new friends over to the corner and introduces them to IN (just like she likes it).  IN doesn’t compete for attention and EX shields her from the crowds.  IN becomes a sounding board for EX and EX protects IN from disengaging completely.  It works.  Not automatically and not without intentionality but it works and sometimes it works brilliantly well.

7.  Adjust your plan

If the system is set up for extraverts you’re going to need to turn some knobs.  Language learning for example seems to come more naturally for extraverts because they like to  . . . well . . . talk to people.  However, hanging out in a crowded vegetable market or bouncing up and down in your seat and shouting “OOH OOH PICK ME TEACHER, PICK ME!!”  is not going to be your thing.  So find something different that works in your world.  Online study? Engaging one local friend and practicing over coffee at your place?  You have options.  Change your methods.  Change your paradigms.  Eventually you will change the team culture.  “Viva la Innies!”

8.  Be Proactively Digital

Introverts are finding their voice.  It’s just not out loud.  The world is rapidly becoming more and more introvert friendly.  I have seen extreme innies who have a completely different personality on in the blogosphere or on social media.  They are encouraging, engaging and would even seem to be outgoing — and then in person they might be timid and even borderline reclusive.  Run with that.  Be assured that the digital version of you is the real you.  We’re just on a different playing field.  This is your turf.  Own it and use it to be a part of the team.  Best part?  You can engage and energize at the same time . . . you’re practically a cyber-extravert.

9.  Withdraw to re-energize, not to hide

The more you know yourself the more you will function well even if the surrounding system is built for extraverts.  Being an introvert doesn’t mean you CAN’T engage people.  It does mean that when you do, it drains you.  Extraverts, on the other hand, actually get energy from it.  When you learn to read your own gauge you can foresee when you are going to hit empty.  While you might prefer to crawl into a hole and never come out it is rare that you will have that luxury on a team.  Sometimes you NEED to engage.

Withdraw.  Refuel.  Re-engage.  Repeat.

10.  You are not alone

Trust me.  You are not the only one who feels the pain of going to yet another team meeting.  You are not the only one who fears that they will be called on publicly to come up to the front to be stared at.  You are not the only one who goes home, crashes hard and vows to do bad things to anyone who dares break your silence.  You’re not the only one who has watched 8 years worth of a sit com series in 2 weeks.  You are everywhere.  On every team.  All over the world.

You are SO not alone which you probably find incredibly encouraging — even though — more than anything — you just want to be alone.

Oh the irony

Got some advice for the Innies or the Outies?  Please comment below.

originally posted on

Laughing in the Face of Transition

IMG_6808 (1)

Hey expat.  You too repat.  When was the last time you laughed?

Like really laughed.  Belly laughed until your ears hurt and you actually had to force yourself to think of something sad for fear that you might pull a muscle in your gut.  Laughed so hard that you had to fight to catch your breath even after you stopped laughing . . . and then you snorted and started laughing all over again.

I’m not talking “lol” here.  I mean “BWAAHAHA!”

How long has it been?  How often does it happen?

Too long?  Not often enough?

Why is that?

Let me guess.  Life happened.  Transition got real.  Culture shock or re-entry stress hit you like a ton of bricks and you can’t even remember what gut laughing feels like.

In the economy of major life transition, laughter sometimes feels like a luxury that you can’t afford.

I’m right with you . . . but we’re both wrong.

It’s hard to find a better value proposition than laughter.  Your investmentment is virtually nothing and the returns are astronomical.  Try to get that deal from stress . . . or worry . . . or anger . . . or complaining . . . or overthinking  . . . or even venting.

Bottom line?  You need to laugh.

Here’s why.

Laughing is healthier and tastes better than Kale

The only thing that disqualifies laughter from being classified as a superfood is that . . . well, technically it’s not a food (if you want to be all picky).  However, the studies are in (lots of them) and all of the data points to the same conclusion.  Laughing is actually crazy healthy.  Physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

Here are some of the benefits (not making this up).


  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase short-term memory
  • Lower stress hormones
  • Protect against heart disease
  • Defend against respiratory infections
  • Improve alertness and creativity
  • Increase oxygen levels in your blood
  • Increase pain tolerance
  • Improve metabolism
  • Make you blow milk out of your nose which makes other people laugh which resets the whole healthy cycle

Seriously.  Kale isn’t even funny.  At all.

Laughter is the opposite of everything that stresses you out

Important to note here.  Laughter doesn’t SOLVE all of your transition challenges.  It’s not going to magically infuse your brain with a foreign language or explain to your family why you’re crying in the cereal aisle.  Laughter is not the answer to all of your pain but it might be the break that you need to STOP being consumed by the hard stuff.  Even for a little bit.

A good laugh can be a great reset.

There are no Laughter Rehabs

People with issues (like you and me) want to detach.  It’s what we do.  Unfortunately the unhealthy options that offer a break from hard realities are as unlimited as the devastation that comes as a result of engaging with them.  Laughter is all natural with zero negative side effects.  So is kale but we’ve covered that.

A good laugh can give you a break without disconnecting or doing damage.

Laughter crosses cultural boundaries

Some of my most enjoyable laughs have been shared with people who speak about five words in my language (which is three more than I speak in theirs).  To be clear . . . HUMOR does NOT often cross cultural lines.

Like, hardly ever.

Your jokes are probably not funny to the rest of the world.  Sorry, but it’s better you find out here . . . from the guy who has learned the hard way.

HOWEVER — humor is not the only thing worth laughing at.  If and when you find that point of connection with someone who is on the other side of a cultural line, it is golden.  A good laugh not only crosses cultural barriers — it crushes them and builds a rapport that is hard to find elsewhere.

A note for repats — You’re crossing cultures too.

A good laugh can be a surprisingly great connector.

Laughing at yourself means you’re doing transition right

If you can’t laugh at yourself in the context of being a bumbling foreigner or returning “home” (and feeling like a bumbling foreigner) you are likely to do one of two things:  Explode or Implode.  Neither of those is good (just in case you were wondering).

There is only one reason you should laugh at yourself.  Ready?

Because you’re funny.

Not so much in the brilliant, well thought out comedic genius kind of way.  No no, you’re funny in the cat who falls off a ceiling fan kind of way.  You’re making mistakes and falling down even though you look and feel like you shouldn’t be.

Frustrating . . . but funny.

Bumbling and falling can be a shot to your pride for sure — but laughing at yourself can be an indicator that your pride isn’t controlling you.  I’m not talking about a self-loathing, self abusive, “I’m too stupid to do anything” laughter — but a healthy acknowledgement that you are not, in fact, the first person to do transition without falling down is a good sign.

A good laugh at yourself is a great gauge for transitional health.

Laughter is a good sign of things to come

Transition is a thief.  It temporarily robs you of the comfort and confidence that you enjoyed back when you were settled.  Remember those days?  You had it all figured out.  Now it’s just awkward.  You don’t laugh when things are awkward.

Ok you might “lol” . . . but you don’t “BWAAHAHA!!”

So finding a way to genuinely laugh, even before you’re resettled, gives you a glimpse of something good that is coming.

A good laugh can be a great reminder that it’s going to get better.

One important disclaimer that could change everything:

It matters what you laugh at

All of this is out the window if it takes ripping someone else (or yourself for that matter) to shreds for you to laugh.  You might still get the sugar rush but it’s not worth the damage you’ll leave behind (and carry with you).

So take some time and get intentional.  Try this — Write down five times you can remember laughing til it hurt.  Now start making connections.  What do they have in common?  Where were you?  What were you doing?  Who were you with?  What can you recreate now?  What can you not?

Even if transition has made it impossible to reproduce your most laughable moments, don’t give up on finding some new ones.

Expat . . . With a Drill — How Living Cross-Culturally Messes With Your Values

orignially posted on

I am an expat . . . AND . . . I own a drill.

Hold your applause until the end please.

It’s funny how the value of stuff changes when you live cross culturally.

This month we crammed the full sum of our belongings into eleven 52.0 pound (23.6 kg) suitcases and plastic tubs (not counting carry ons or the cat) and threw the whole heavy bit on an airplane so we could (once again) call ourselves expatriates.  Two years ago we took a strikingly similar trip in an airplane going the other direction so we could call ourselves repatriates.

We spent the last two years “restocking” our lives with American piles of stuff (mostly made in China) only to sell it or give it back to Americans on our way out.  Now that we are back in China we are restocking again and  I am noticing that there is a vast difference between America restocking and  China restocking.

When I moved back to America I wanted tools.  Lots of tools.  Tools for fixing things and for breaking things.  Tools for banging and smashing and tightening and straightening and loosening and scraping and sanding and cutting and fastening and climbing and nailing and setting things on fire and putting out the fires that I start.  Tools for putting holes in stuff.  Tools for lifting up heavy things.  Tools that you could shoot electricity through and chop things in half.  I wanted tools that would hold my other tools and more tools that would help me pick those other tools up off the ground without bending over.  I wanted tool boxes and tool bags and tool buckets and tool cabinets and tool hooks and tool hangers and tool shelves and (just imagine it) a whole, entire tool wall  . . . that would glow just from being awesome.

I wanted to be THAT guy.  The one whose friends would know that no matter what job they needed to do — I would have a tool for it and they were welcome to use it.

I gave it my best shot.

I spent every Saturday morning driving to the yard sales of other men who were upgrading to better tools and selling their old ones.  I would come home like a cave man dragging a wooly mammoth for the entire village to feast on.  Spreading my bounty across the living room floor I would beat my chest and grunt . . .



My wife tried to reason at first:

“Jerry, when are you ever going to use this?”


“How much did this cost?”


“You don’t even know what this tool does.”

“Do too.”  

“What does it do?

“Doesn’t matter.”

She eventually recognized the futility of rational thought and just started patting me on the head.

Why fight it?  There was clearly a hardware store shaped hole in me that needed to be filled and I was determined.  Each time I got to add to my collection was a victory and victories are for celebration . . . not common sense.

Then we moved back to China . . . and I bought a drill.

That’s it.  One drill.  The cheapest one they had.

And I gotta’ tell ya’ — I’m walking high this week.  Victorious all over again.

It’s the strangest thing.  Just weeks ago I gave away three drills exactly like my new one as well as two other drills that were much nicer.  I sold saws and hammers and bags full of screwdrivers and wrenches and I wept quietly as other men walked away with my two years worth of plunder.

Then I replaced it all with a drill.

Life is different in the expatosphere.  I rarely have an occasion which demands tools beyond those you can find in the Fisher Price starter set and I’m not sure where I would put them if I had them.  Most of the people around here have a screwdriver or two.  Maybe a tape measure and  possibly the half sized hammer that comes in the same plastic box.  There are zero glowing tool walls around us and quite honestly I would feel ridiculous even pursuing one.

I do have my drill though which is pretty much all it takes to be THAT guy.

Tools are just one example of things that would be considered gratuitous  luxuries in my new world and base essentials in my old.

I have three friends here who own a car.  Three.  That’s it.

Where I come from it’s nothing for ONE person to own three cars but unthinkable to have none.

Here — there is a sense of, “waah — you got a car?”

There — the sense would be, “Waah — you don’t have a car?!”

Don’t get me wrong.  We don’t get all judgy here.  It’s not like “well WOOTEEE DOO DOO.  Look at Mister Flashy Cash driving his fancy new car all around the town.  Must be nice!  Dirty joker.” It’s more like, “Wow.  You passed the driver’s license test AND you don’t mind driving in Chinese traffic?  Cool.”

It’s a bonus — BUT there is nothing pitiable about NOT having a car.

Or a dishwasher.

Or a garbage disposal.

Or a television.

Or a dryer.

Or a vacuum.

Or a full sized refrigerator.

Or an oven.

Or a bathtub

Or a lawn mower.

Or an Xbox.

Or gluten free pizza dough.

Or a drill.

Here’s the kicker.

Many (if not most) of our friends have a paid house helper.  Usually a middle aged woman who comes to their home during the day to clean the apartment and do the dishes.  Some of them cook meals and watch the children.  They might even do the shopping AND when the expats aren’t careful . . . they become a part of their family.

It’s how people live here.  It’s common and there is no stigma around it.

However, it’s almost embarrassing to share with our three car, glowing tool wall having friends back home.

“Well WOOOTEEE DOO DOO — Must be nice to have a maid!  You got a butler too? Tough life over there huh?!!”

It’s funny how we set our parameters around what’s essential and what’s extravagant based on the people around us.  It’s even funnier to see it from two sides.

Now you’ll excuse me . . . I have holes to drill.

Leaving Well: 10 Tips for Repatriating With Dignity

originally posted on The Culture Blend

It’s that time of year again.  Leaving time.

This is the time when thousands of individuals and families who have spent time living in a foreign country, will pack it up and call it a day.  If you’ve never been that person you may be surprised that there is a specific high season for leaving but if you call yourself a foreigner I probably just struck a chord.  Even if you’re staying right where you are the annual Expat Exodus is a tough time.

Click here to see why expats hate June

Here are ten tips for repatriating with dignity.

Tip #1:  Make a Plan

Seriously.  The last days of your expat experience are inevitably going to be chaotic.  Your schedule will get crammed with unexpected details and all of the things you really want to do run the risk of being pushed out.  The day you wanted to spend with your closest friends will get squeezed by your well meaning 15th closest friends who “need” to take you out to dinner.  You get stuck regretting that you missed a lost opportunity with your #1’s or feeling like an absolute jerk to your #15’s.

It all works better with a plan.  Start as early as you can.  Include appropriate time for your 15’s but reserve your best time for your 1’s.

Take an hour.  A day.  A weekend.  Write it out.  Make a spreadsheet.  Draw a picture.  Whatever works for you but make a plan.

Tip #2:  Build a RAFT

One of the simplest and most brilliant plans for transitioning well was developed by the late Dr. David Pollock.  It’s called building a RAFT (genius).  Paying attention to these four areas can mean the difference between success or failure, flopping or thriving,  great memories or horrible regrets.  Way too much for one blog post but you should Google it (Try “Pollock RAFT”).

Here’s the short version of what goes into a RAFT:

Reconciliation:  Strained or broken relationships don’t go away when you do.  Make it right.

Affirmation:  People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how much impact they have had on your life.  Say it well.

Farewell:  Different people need different goodbyes.  Think beyond people (places, pets and possessions too).

Think Destination:  Even if you’re going “home”, much has changed.  Brace yourself.  Think forward.

Tip #3:  Leave Right Now

When are you leaving?  June 6th?  15th?  21st?

Chances are you answer that question with the date on your plane ticket.  Fair enough and technically correct but if you think you are leaving when you get on the plane you’re missing something really important.

Leaving is a PROCESS — not an event.

You started leaving when you made the decision to go and you will be leaving even as you settle in to your next home.  Everything you do as you prepare for the airplane is a part of the process.  Each meal with friends, each walk around the city, each trip to the market, each bumbling foreigner mistake are all pieces of the process which is closing out your full expat experience.

You are leaving now.

Tip #4:  Give Your Best Stuff Away

What to do with the things you can’t take with you is always an issue.  Don’t be surprised when the non-leaving expats come crawling out of the woodworks to lay claim on your toaster oven or your bicycle.  Opening your home for a “rummage” sale may be a good way to sneak in some good goodbyes.  Posting pictures online or sending an email may get you a better price with less work.

Consider this though — Giving your stuff away might just be a great way to add some gusto to your goodbyes.  Giving your BFF something that you could sell for a lot of money can be a powerful expression of how much you value their friendship.  It’s not about price.  It’s about value.  Maybe it’s a cheap trinket with a special memory attached.  Even better but give something more than your leftover ketchup and mop bucket.

Tip #5:  Photo Bomb Everything

Go crazy with the pictures.  Pictures are what you’re going to be looking at twenty years from now when you can barely remember what life was like way back then.  There is no better way to capture great events.  More than that though, pictures can become the event themselves.  Grab your friends, your camera and hit the town like supermodels.  Go to your favorite spots.  Eat your favorite foods.  Take a thousand pictures (that’s a conservative number) and laugh until it hurts.

You’ll love yourself for doing it in 20 years.

Too crazy for your blood?  Tone it down and hire a photographer to do a photo shoot for you and your friends.  Then go to dinner.

Picture events can be a great way to say goodbye to your friends and the memories will last for decades.

Tip #6:  Rank Your Friends

You read me right.  Don’t be afraid to rate your friends from best to worst.  Write down everyone you know and tag a number on them.  Your highest ranking friends need a special level of your attention as you leave.  In contrast you don’t need to do dinner with people if you don’t know their name.

Here’s an example but make it your own

Closest Friends — Quality time alone – Go away for the weekend

Close friends — Go to dinner individually

Good Friends — Go out as a small group

Friends — Invite to a going away party

Acquaintances — Send an email about your departure

Stupid People — Walk the other way when you see them

Important sidenote – Once you have your plan you should destroy all evidence that you ever ranked your friends.  Seriously.  What kind of person are you?  Jerk.

Tip #7:  Don’t Fret the Tears or the Lack Thereof

Know what’s really common as you pack up to shift every piece of your life to a different part of the planet and say goodbye to people and places you have grown to love deeply?


Know what else is common?

Lack of emotion.

Strange I know but people are different.  Crying makes sense.  There is plenty to cry about.  However, wanting to cry and not being able to is every bit as normal.  Maybe it’s because you’ve already cried yourself out.  Maybe it’s because the hard part for you was the process of deciding to leave and you spent all your emotion there.  Maybe you just can’t wait to get out.

Whatever the reason — don’t feel guilty for weeping like a baby . . . or for not.

Tip #8:  Get specific

When you are telling people how much they mean to you don’t settle for the generic version:

“Hey, (punch on the shoulder) you really mean a lot to me.”

Where I come from, that would pass for good, solid, heartfelt, transparent affirmation.  Almost too mushy.  But try setting that statement aside for a moment and lead with the specifics.

  • What have they done that means so much to you?
  • How has that impacted your life?
  • What qualities have they shared that you are taking with you?
  • What are some specific examples?
  • How are you a better person for knowing them?

THEN finish with . . . “and you really mean a lot to me.”

People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how you feel.

Bonus Tip:  You get extra points for being awkward.  Make eye contact.  Go for broke.

Tip #9:  Do Your Homework

What’s the protocol for checking out of your apartment complex?

What’s the penalty for breaking your lease?

What immunizations and paperwork does your cat need to fly home with you?

Does he need to be quarantined?  Before you leave?  After you arrive?

How do you close out your bank account?  Your cell phone?

What’s the weight limit for luggage on your airline?  What’s the penalty for going over?

This list goes on and on and only bits and pieces of it are relevant to you.  But in the masterful words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

A little homework early can save you a huge headache and a boatload of cash during an already stressful time.

Tip #10:  GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself

When your good friend finds out you’re leaving and asks if he can have your TV . . . Give him some grace.

When your kids don’t know how to process so they just fight . . . Give them some grace.

When your husband shuts down and doesn’t talk for a day . . . Give him some grace.

When your wife explodes for “no reason” . . . Grace.

When your landlord tries to milk you for some extra money . . . Grace.

When the whole community doesn’t even seem to care that you’re leaving . . . Grace.

When your #15 asks if she can ride to the airport with you and your #1 . . . Grace.

When someone offers you half what your asking for your Christmas tree . . . Grace.

When you fall apart and snap on your friends, your kids, your spouse or the lady trying to steal your Christmas tree . . . it’s for you too . . . Grace.

Leaving is hard.  There’s really no way around it.  People whom you love dearly will inevitably and with the best of intentions, say and do very stupid things.  So will you.


If you are packing up, I hope this helps.

If you know someone who is packing up, pass it on.

If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?

Click here for Part 2 about what happens after the plane ride:  Landing Well — 10 More Tips on Repatriating With Dignity

And here for Part 3 about saying goodbye and going nowhere:  Staying Well — 10 Tips for Expats Who Are Left Behind

And here for Part 4 for the welcomers: Receiving Well — 11 Tips for Helping Expats Come Home

“Hello Again” — The Unanticipated Bright Side of Perpetual Goodbyes

We are expats.  We say goodbye.  A lot.

I could end this post right there and know that I have struck a chord.  But I won’t.

If you’re living far from home (or you instinctively use finger quotes when you even say the word “home”) you’ve noticed it.  You started this whole thing with a massive (if not universal) round of “goodbyes.”  Before you were culture shocked.  Before you were homesick.  Before you ever felt the sting of being a bumbling foreigner, “Goodbye” was the hurdle you had to jump.

Who knew that there was a skill set for saying goodbye?

But there is.  And you got better.  Or maybe you didn’t.

Regardless you realized, somewhere along the line, that the first round of goodbyes was exactly that . . . the first . . . and they haven’t stopped since.

Saying goodbye is hard —  even when you’re good at it.  So signing on (or being signed on) to a life that includes more farewells than you ever could have imagined is, so very often, the darkest, bitterest, most horrible part of the life cross-cultural.

We have spent the past two weeks rediscovering the brightest, sweetest most wonderful part.

“Hello again.”


I am writing this post under the influence of jet lag having spent some UBER-quality with old friends in Prague.  They were the other half of the first double date that my wife and I ever went on.  I was their son’s first baby sitter and we lived next door in married student housing.  He taught me survival Czech for college credit but all I remembered was “put your hands up and give me some money.”

This trip was my first chance to use that in context.

It was rich to catch up with great friends but it was even richer to take inventory of just how blessed we are with so many great friendships.

I call them “LIFERS” (and in doing so recognize the need to distinguish them from the prison sort).

They are people that we have done life with and connected with on some deep, deep, almost inexplicable level and forged a relationship that will absolutely, unquestionably be life long.  They are friends that will always be friends regardless of petty little things like time or geography.  Some are family members and we’ve never not known them, some we have grown up with and others we’ve actually spent a remarkably small amount of time with.  They are all different but the single uniting feature is that, at some point, it has been hard . . . really hard . . . to say goodbye.

I don’t think you can cram Lifers into a neatly packaged box of easily definable (or even describable characteristics) but here are a few things that I’ve noticed:

Lifers pick up where they left off

There is some kind of wormhole that Lifers step through when they say “hello again”.  It’s like the elapsed time since they last said goodbye never happened . . . only it did because you’ve still got those memories and you’ve all grown older but it feels like all of that took place in moments and not years.   Catching up on what you’ve missed and reminiscing about your past times together are like red and blue play-dough that get all smashed together in a bluey-red, swirly ball.

It’s weird.  But wonderful.

The Lifer connection is not strained by poor communication

There is a security between Lifers that is nether contingent nor fragile.  “Hello again’s” are not made awkward by guilt.  There is no sense of “I thought we were good friends but you never . . .”  There is only, “wow, it’s good to be back together.”  You’d think we’d be more ashamed.  More apologetic.  But there is no need.

It’s unnatural.  But refreshing.

Lifers are not threatened by other Lifers

Spending time with some of our favorite friends has got me thinking about just how many favorite friends we have.  In fact we loved telling stories of our other favorites to the favorites we were spending time with and we also loved hearing stories of their other favorites.  There is real joy and zero jealousy in knowing that our Lifers have other Lifers.

Granted, it might be weird to be in a room with all of our favorites at the same time but the likeliness of that ever happening is slim.

It’s hard to explain.  But rock solid. 

fun jm

Lifers laugh at things that are not funny to anyone else in the world

I mean gut laughing.  The kind that hurts your ears.  Over simple, ridiculous things.  Shared moments that you think are hysterical but the entire population of the universe (with the sole exception of your Lifers) would not.

At all.

They would just squint . . . or maybe chuckle because they were embarrassed for you.

You and your Lifers though — you pee in your pants a little bit every time you talk about it.

For example: When I babysat our friend’s son he cried the whole time.

See?  You’re squinting.  But you should see us laugh (and pee) every single time we talk about it.

It makes no sense.  But man it’s funny.

Lifers repeat themselves

When Lifers say “hello again” we have a limited amount of time and the clock starts ticking from the first hug.  We also have a limited number of stories to remember because our times together are always short and sweet.  So we choose our favorites and we relive them . . .  the exact same stories we relived the last time we saw each other and the same stories that will relive again . . . every single time.

I can guarantee that should we all live to be old and senile, that boy’s great grandchildren will know that he cried the whole entire time that I babysat him.

It’s redundant.  But it never gets old.

Lifers are worth investment

If your Lifers are like ours they are everywhere — literally spread out across the globe.  Unless your bank account is considerably more impressive than ours and you have considerably more free time on your hands than we do, opportunities for reconnection are rare.

So when they come . . . pounce on them.

This time around our Lifers were the ones who opened the door for this to even be possible.  We are so thankful they did.

Every Hello Again costs time and it costs money but the return on that investment is impossible to put a tag on.

It’s expensive.  But so very worth it. 

As a final sidenote I should add that I thought it would be a nice tribute to put pictures of all of our Lifers in this post.  Two things stopped me.

 •   I was afraid I would miss one and they would be like, “oh I see how it is Jerkface” (even though they wouldn’t)

•   We’ve got a lot of Lifers.  More than I have ever realized.

It’s not a bad problem to have.

Maybe you (like me) have never taken time to count your Lifers.  Give it a shot.  I would bet you’ll be surprised.

Send them this post and say something like, “Yep.  This is you.”  

Then start dreaming about your next Hello . . . Again.

originally posted on

Scenery, Machinery, People — Rethinking our view of humans


Alicja Iwanska is about to blow your mind?

note — unless you are Polish you probably just pronounced this name wrong in your head.  No judgment here. 

Iwanska was a 20th century anthropologist who made one of the most simply profound and profoundly simple observations about humans that I have ever come across.

It’s so simple, in fact, that it can be summed up in a three word poem that you can hear once and never forget.

It’s so profound that once you know it, it will periodically sneak up behind you and smack you in the back of the head for the rest of your life.

Here it is.

“Scenery.  Machinery.  People.”

Mind not blown yet?  Stay with me.

While Ms. Iwanska was out people watching (as anthropologists do) she observed that the people she was watching broke their entire world into these three groupings.  She happened to be watching farmers in the Northwestern United States at the time but I would dare say she could have landed on the same conclusions just about anywhere in the world.


SCENERY, she noticed, encompassed everything off in the distance worth looking at and talking about.  Mountains.  Clouds.  Trees.  Fascinating things.  Confusing things.  Strange things.  It might be fun to explore and makes for great conversation but doesn’t take priority in the day to day.


MACHINERY then, was everything that helped the farmer accomplish his goals and get his work done.  Tractors.  Horses.  Pitchforks.  Manure spreaders.  It existed for the sole purpose of accommodating the farmer.  Machine maintenance is hard work but worth it because the farmer’s life is better when the machines work well.  When machinery is no longer helpful it gets chucked onto the scrap pile.


PEOPLE were people.  Family.  Friends.  Neighbors.  Other farmers.  Complex relationships that involve a give and take.  Emotions are invested in all directions and the benefits along with the challenges are mutual (although not necessarily balanced).  People are also high maintenance but less likely to be chucked onto the scrap pile because they hold intrinsic value beyond what they offer to the farmer . . . and they keep climbing off of the scrap pile.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Interesting . . . but not mind-blowing.”

Hang on.  She’s about to light the fuse.

In her research she noted that there was a strange inconsistency in the farmers perspective.

Not only was this three category system the framework for how they divided the “stuff” from the people . . . it was the framework for how they divided PEOPLE FROM PEOPLE.

(this is about to get really relevant if you’re living cross culturally)

The Native Americans off in the distance, with their strange clothes and confusing rituals were definitely worth talking about and absolutely fascinating to watch . . . but not so significant day to day.

They were scenery.


The hired help — the farm hands — the transient laborers were good to have around, especially if you got a strong one at a low wage.  They were incredibly helpful . . . until they weren’t.

They were machinery.


The prime spot was reserved exclusively for those worth a relationship.  Family, friends, neighbors and other farmers.  Despite the fact that they were not the only humans in the picture they had a category all their own.

They were the only people.


Pause for a moment to let that sink in.

Scenery, Machinery, People is the perfect pedestal to preach from isn’t it?  

  • If those stupid farmers weren’t so narrow-minded . . .
  • If the haters and the bigots would just figure it out . . .
  • If the ugly expats who come in here and act like they own the place . . . could just stop treating REAL, LIVE PEOPLE like they were some kind of tourist attraction or personal servant the planet would be a better place to live.

Am I right?


Of course I am.


The one thing that I have found to be most true about Ms. Iwanska’s discoveries is that they serve much more powerfully as a personal compass than a public high horse.

At any given time I can hold these three simple words up against my view of the humans in my life and instantly know how far off course I have gotten . . . again.

Are those scenery people?

Or machinery people?

Or people people?

To be clear.

I love scenery — I’m a culture geek who is perpetually fascinated by people.

I need machinery — I’m a bumbling foreigner who requires help constantly from people.

I don’t have the time or space to develop a mutually beneficial/challenging, give and take relationship with 7 billion people.


  • I know full well whether I’m treating people like people or not.
  • I know when I’m gawking and wishing I could take a picture.
  • I know when I am fascinated and not the least bit concerned.
  • I know when I’m talking like I’m an expert because they are too far away to expose my ignorance.
  • I know when I am asking for help and I don’t even care what their name is.
  • I know when I value someone by what they can do for me.
  • I know when I am intentionally pursuing deeper relationships and when I’m just not.
  • I know when I am relationally lazy.
  • I know when I’m arrogant.
  • I know when I’m assuming.
  • I know when I’m ugly.
  • And I know when I would chuck someone on the scrap pile if they were no longer useful.

Not literally.  I don’t even have a scrap pile.

Even though all of these things are crystal clear when I take the time to get painfully honest with myself, I periodically need to be smacked in the back of the head.

These beautifully simple, deeply profound, unintentionally poetic three words have been instrumental in helping me course correct.

“Scenery.  Machinery.  People.”

Thanks Alicja (however you pronounce your name).

Mind blown.

Originally posted on

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday” and other reasons I love my life overseas

Sometimes I get bored with my life overseas.

I still enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, it just loses the sizzle every now and then. The exotic allure of the “overseas” part gets pushed out by the humdrum realities of the just plain “life” part.

And then I hear myself talk and I’m like, “Who gets to do this?”

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday” is my sentence of the week.

True story. He did.

We got up before the sun to go drive beside racing camels, honking our horn and yelling as if we had bet the farm on number six.

Carl yelled the loudest.

It was great — but maybe even greater was hearing the sentence roll out of my mouth and remembering —

I love this life.

I couldn’t even have imagined combining those words to form a thought in other stages of my life.

Like, maybe, if it was game night and we were playing some kind of speed round where you have to draw random words out of a bag and make a sentence before the sand runs out.


“Frank threw Bob and Sue over the purple airplane on St. Patrick’s Day!”

“Uhh! Uhhhhh!”

“Simon jumped on slimy watermelon at the birthday chicken!”

“Ahhhh! Hurry! Hurry!”

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday!!”


“Ok, I’ll give you the airplane one but there’s no such thing as a birthday chicken and dude . . . who goes to church on Friday?”

Turns out . . . a bunch of people . . . all over the world. Which I never would have known apart from this life overseas.

And camel racing is a thing. Who knew?

And John and Carl — they’re like brothers. Would have missed that too.

And pausing . . .

Just for a moment . . .

On the exotic overseas bit . . . makes me remember how much I love the humdrum realities of the just plain life bits too.

I just told my daughter goodnight.

I love this life.

How about you? What’s the sentence that is true now that you never could have imagined as a younger you? What’s the single thought that resets your sense of overseas wonder? What’s sitting right in front of you that if you paused . . . and thought about just for a moment . . . would remind you just how much you love this life?

The End.