Currently Browsing: Identity

The adventure of being an accompanying spouse

Just over two and a half years ago Geoff and I left Melbourne, Australia and moved to the beautiful student town of Uppsala in Sweden. We moved so that I could take up a scholarship to finish my masters there and luckily Geoff was able to transfer to the Stockholm office of the company he worked for. After I finished my masters, Geoff started working for a Swedish company and we decided to remain in Stockholm for the time being. I might not be a traditional accompanying spouse, but I can certainly relate to the experience on a number of levels.

Accompanying spouses go by many names: trailing spouses and STARs being two of the most common, but it basically means that you’ve moved abroad for your spouse’s career. The 2013 Brookfields’ Global Relocation Trend Report showed that 79% of overseas assigners were accompanied by a spouse or partner, and 43% accompanied by children. While the number of women being sent on international assignments reached a high of 21% in 2012, the vast majority of accompanying spouses are still female.

Having lived overseas of my own volition a number of times in the past has really made me appreciate how very different it is when you do so for your partners career. When I moved alone as a single woman for work or study I could choose where I wanted to go, for how long, and I could choose to move away at a moments notice. Moving as one half of a partnership is still an amazing opportunity: you get to experience a new culture, to learn a new language and to meet amazing people you’d never have met before – all with your best friend, but it does leave you with the feeling that you are somehow not in control of the situation. Although you’ve made the decision together, some sacrifices need to be made, and it is the accompanying spouse’s career that is often the first victim.

Indeed the question that strikes the most fear into the hearts of an accompanying spouse is ‘so what do you do?’ As the brilliant expat writer Robin Pascoe says in response to this question: ‘what did I used to do, what would I like to do, what am I going to do, or what would I like to do to you for asking me this?’ (In an aside, I’d love to have met her at a cocktail party, she sounds fantastic)

Being an accompanying spouse can be challenging. When I had first finished my masters here in Sweden and didn’t have a job, I lost count of the number of times people said “So are you ever going to get a job” – often accompanied by an indulgent smile, as though they thought I must just sit around painting my nails and eating biscuits all day. What is truly frustrating about this is that acquaintances have absolutely no idea of the struggle and heart break you go through on a daily basis when you want to work – looking for work in your field, finding very little in the country in which you are currently living, considering moving to another country, debating whether or not this is a good idea or not, looking for work again. There is often a lot of soul searching, stress, tears, frustration, anger, and sometimes resentment in accompanying your partner overseas. I wanted to shout “You have no idea how hard I am working to try and start a career here”.

At the beginning of this year I took up a position in Berlin working in my field of immigration research. It was an absolute joy to be working full time in a fascinating industry and in a truly enjoyable work environment. But most importantly it gave me a sense of purpose and positive self worth I had been lacking in Sweden. I was amazed by how something so small could have such an enormous impact on me. It gave me the motivation and self confidence to pursue my dream project full time: of interviewing highly mobile children and adults about their identity and to turn this idea into a book.

Choosing to go overseas with their partner is, for many people, the perfect opportunity to spend time on a project they’ve always wanted to get off the ground. I know people who have started successful businesses abroad, who have had the time to dedicate to writing books, who have become freelancers and been able to develop their careers that way, and some who have decided to return to study. I also know some people who have successfully found work in their field (very often people working in the IT industry), some who have chosen to stay at home and focus on raising their families, and some who have decided to simply embrace this time away and to enjoy themselves, knowing that when they return home things will be very different.

All of these are valid choices and should be celebrated.

So if you are an accompanying spouse, please ignore the negative comments you receive. People might dismiss your issues as first world problems or other such nonsense, but as far as I am concerned, life is not a battle to outdo one another in the nonexistence competition of who has the most challenging problems to deal with. It is totally normal to have fantastic days where you can’t help but smile when you realise you live in Stockholm or Paris, New York or Hong Kong. But it is also totally normal to have days when you feel lost, frustrated, depressed and angry. When you find yourself looking longingly at flights home or googling ‘how to make friends in [insert city]’.

Surround yourself with positive people who support you, with friend’s who are going through a similar situation as you, and encourage each other to reach your goals. I couldn’t have gotten through my time here without the support of the amazing women I’ve met here in Stockholm. The support of your partner is also invaluable, but most importantly I think it’s important to give yourself a break, take each day as it comes, and give yourself some credit for having moved to another country and for building a new life there.

Raising Bilingual Children: An Interview with Professor Christof Demont-Heinrich

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to interview Christof Demont-Heinrich, Associate Professor of Media, Film & Media Studies at the University of Denver about his views on bilingualism, and also his experiences of raising bilingual children.

I first came across Christof on the brilliant sociolinguistics website Language on the Move where I was immediately fascinated by his articles on the costs of raising bilingual children in the United States. What is interesting about Christof is that while his father was German, Christof was raised to speak only English, and learnt German later at university. He now uses the one language one parent approach to teach his two daughters German and English, but as a non-native speaker of German, he has also employed at various times German au pairs, a nanny and then sent his daughters to an international school in the US.

Michelle: Some people from English speaking countries feel that due to English being the (unofficial) lingua franca of the world at present, that being bilingual is unimportant for native English speakers. Why was it important for you to raise your two daughters to be bilingual in the US?

Christof: I believe strongly in the ideal/ethic of meaningful multilingualism for all, including mother tongue speakers of English. I also believe that simply talking about how important multilingualism is — which a lot of well-educated mother tongue speakers of English do — but not actually living that multilingualism in a meaningful way is highly problematic. We need to live that which we preach/believe in, create the social structures and practices we believe in by living them, or they will not come to be. Plain and simple. I recognize this is highly idealistic, of course, and the fact of the matter is that, while a small but also growing percentage of the U.S. population with English as a MT are waking up to the fact that multilingualism has to be lived in order for the ideal to survive, for instance, by building language immersion schools, the vast majority of people for whom English is a MT in the U.S. either have little interest in multilingualism, or, if they do, do not bother to invest themselves significantly in building the social structures and participating actively in the social practices needed to develop multilingualism in a meaningful way.

In short, while I recognize — in a painful way, actually — that instrumental language learning means that very few mother tongue speakers are going to invest in becoming meaningful multilinguals themselves, I want to build a world in which this changes, even if very slowly. I view myself, and the bilingual living and education of my daughters as integral to actively building the multilingual social change I believe in. I’m not so naive as to believe that we, alone, will change much of anything. But if enough people “walk the walk”, then, hopefully, change will happen on an incremental basis. Of course, being somewhat of a natural born pessimist, I often think that what I’m doing is rather hopeless.

Why did you choose the combination English/German?

C: For heritage reasons. My father emigrated to the U.S. from German in the early 1960s. He did not pass his linguistic heritage on to me or my two siblings (my mom is an American who was, when we were kids, an English monolingual). We lived for 8 months in Stuttgart, Germany when I was 7. I went to school then, along with my younger brother, who was 6. I acquired something very close to a native accent as a result of this well-timed experience. However, I never really learned German until college (the late 1980s), when I chose to major in German and I spent a full year studying abroad in Freiburg, Germany.

Why did you choose the one language one parent approach? Would you recommend this approach to other parents who might not be a native speaker of the language?

Everything I have read — and I have read extensively on the topic of raising children bilingual — points toward this being the most effective approach, at least if the goal for the children to use the minority language regularly on an everyday basis and, ideally, acquire high-level spoken fluency in that language (I recognize this is not always the goal for all parents raising their children as multilinguals, that there is a continuum of goals/hopes for the children ranging from a “a few words/sentences” and simply a general appreciation of the minority language to receptive bilingualism only to full-scale, near “equilingualism” for the children. I believe my stubborn and consistent sticking to German — which, as you probably know, is not a first language for me — with my daughters, Alina (7) and Kyra (6) has been absolutely integral to them using German everyday. I’ve seen many situations in which parents, for a variety of understandable reasons, do not stick to one parent one language and, in those case, I see that the children often speak very little German at all. While I think one parent, one language, and sticking to that is absolutely crucial if the goal is high-end spoken fluency and regular use of the minority language and the family situation is one in which only one parent speaks the minority language (that is our situation), I think an even better situation is one in which both parents speak the minority/less powerful language in question, for instance, German in the U.S. In those instances, I would support a two-parent German at home model, frankly.

What have you found most challenging/rewarding?

In terms of challenges, fighting the system, frankly. The entire U.S. public education system is rigged against multilingualism and for monolingualism. Indeed, it’s specifically designed to ensure the erasure of the languages of immigrants who are educated in English only. Because there is only a tiny percentage of public charter schools in the U.S. that offer language immersion program — far less than 1% of schools in the U.S. offer language immersion — and because “our” language, German, is not a powerful language in the U.S. context, we have been forced to send our kids to a private language immersion school. I’ve estimated by the time my daughters are 13, we will have spent $250,000 out of pocket on their bilingual education. This because the American public education system simply does not support bilingualism. Nor does the larger American values system — if we truly valued meaningful, deep multlingualism for all, we would see that reflected in investment in multilingualism in our education system. The monolingual U.S. public education system is nested within a cultural and political environment that is largely indifferent, often very antithetical, to multilingualism, especially actually lived, everyday multilingualism where people actually use multiple languages on an everyday basis in multiple domains outside of the home.

Are there any books or journal articles you would recommend for other parents wanting to raise their children to be bilingual?

I’m going to have to check on this. While I’ve read quite a few, I haven’t kept track of them, for the most part. That’s because my area of research as a professor at the University of Denver focuses primarily on macro-level issues having to do with language, identity, power, culture, globalization, and, especially, the globalization of English as this affects the larger global linguistic configuration of power as well as the question of multilingualism vs. English-centric bilingualism (for those for whom English is a FL) vs. English monolingualism (for those with English as a MT).

Do you want your daughters to spend time living in Germany while they are young? (to become familiar with the German culture as well as the language?)

Yes. In fact, I hope to be spending a sabbatical year at the University of Hamburg with the entire family next year. I hope that everything works out and we are able to do this. Of course, I am aware of the rather large irony that in order to raise my kids as true/meaningful bilinguals I must escape the deep monolingualism of the U.S. education system and place my kids in the largely German monolingual educational environment in German.

Yes, they are clearly learning English in Germany, the students, that is, and they start at a much earlier age than children here do on learning FLs. But in the end, the general environment in Germany, I would say, is still one in which the ideology of monolingualism, in this case monolingualism + English, dominates, e.g. the “modern” nation state model. I ultimately view as the biggest impediment to meaningful and deep multilingualism for large numbers of people around the globe. That is, English isn’t really the problem, it’s the ideology of monolingualism that’s the problem. In global power domains this translates into English only — at academic conferences, etc. However, it could just as easily be another language, had historical circumstances developed differently. And, frankly, I often wish they had (though, clearly, I would not have wanted to see Nazi German triumph — that’s a whole other issue, Germany’s Nazi past, that complicates the whole attempt to raise one’s kids as German-English bilinguals: The vast majority of German educated elites see English as an escape from that past — and I, and my daughters, are literally swimming against all the Germans rushing to English in our attempt to be German-English bilinguals). In any case, if another language had become the global language, then we Americans would be multilingual — because we’d have to be.

Thank you very much Christof!

You can read more about Christof’s views here at Language on the Move.

Itchy Feet

For those of us who have moved multiple times, sometimes saying in one place can be the hardest thing of all.

This is especially true for me when times get tough. When I have bad days, when I’m lonely, or frustrated, one thing that always pops into my head is ‘life could be easier if you just moved to (insert city/country that is my flavour of the month)’. It’s not that I actually want to run away from my problems, and in fact I’ve never actually followed though with these thoughts, but they are always there, in the back of my mind – you could just move, leave it all behind, start again – it would be better next time, somewhere else.

I also like to research other countries and cities that I’d like to live in. At the moment for example, I like to read about the thoughts and experiences of people that live in Berlin. I’m sure if I moved there from Stockholm, I’d be looking up what life might be like in another city, and probably missing aspects of life in Sweden. (In an attempt to remedy this desire, I’m going to Berlin to explore/work for a week rather than permanently – to my husband’s great relief, I’m sure).

The same thing goes for language. I used to love the Swedish language when I lived in Australia. I’d watch movies, read books, and look forward to my Swedish lectures at university. Lately – the last 3 or 4 months, I’ve grown tired of learning Swedish. Maybe I’ve hit that point where it’s harder to see progress, where I can do almost everything I need to do in Swedish, and so I stop feeling as motivated – which then leads to me thinking of all the other languages I would like to learn instead. 

It can really be a challenge – this experience of life across so many cultures – you grow to love so many different places, to make friendships with people who scatter across the globe, you become comfortable with the process of being new (an outsider), and almost addicted to it. It becomes hard to settle, to grow roots – or rather, to take pleasure from these roots – they can seem at times stifling, and yet at the same time something you deeply crave.

I sometimes wonder (out of sheer curiosity, and only very very rarely, a hint of envy) how it must feel to have always lived in one place, to be part of a community you have grown up with, to know where you belong and where you want to remain. I have no idea where I will be in five years time, on which continent I will be living, which language I’ll be learning. But the thought of not knowing makes me feel comfortable rather than fearful.

I just hope I can learn to take pleasure from where I am now, this very moment, rather than imagining everywhere else, anywhere but here. 

Everyone should be an immigrant once

I firmly believe that everyone should be an immigrant at least once in their lives. 

People should know how it feels to be new to a country, to know no one, to not even know how to do fairly routine things that at home would not be given a second thought – like how to make a doctors appointment, or how to go food shopping – in Austria for example, you have to weigh your own fruit and vegetables at the supermarket before you pay, and place the price sticker on the bag otherwise you will be yelled at by the woman at the check-out, while the people in line behind you roll their eyes in frustration as she then needs to run back to the machine and weigh them for you (learnt from personal experience).

Anti-immigrant sensationalism in the media (and by far right political parties – and more worryingly by mainstream political parties) is increasing by the second, and sadly there are many people who are adopting these points of view without really looking into the facts and figures. Yes, I get it, ‘evil immigrants taking over our country and causing chaos’, sells newspapers (and conveniently creates a scapegoat for many economic and social issues), and newspapers are a business, and they need people to buy their papers, but I think the media has a lot to answer for in this respect.

One insight that really resonated with me in response to the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe was this:

“If they knew how difficult it is to live abroad, they wouldn’t think that. It’s ten times as hard if you are coming from Africa. It’s hard enough if you are German or a French person… I have to say, it’s nice to move, but sometimes it’s very tiring and very depressing and very challenging” (Eurostars and Eurocities by Adrian Favell)

I am glad that at the age of 28 I have lived in four countries so far, that my grandparents were immigrants, that I can understand the difficulty of moving to a new country, the struggle of learning a new language, of negotiating the minefield that is integrating into a new society. But most of all I am glad that I can put myself into the shoes of those that are new to a country, to empathise and not to judge so harshly, because like it or not, we need immigrants in our ageing societies, as Hein de Haas wrote recently:

“Indeed, the only way to drastically reduce immigration is to wreck the economy.  A prolonged economic recession is therefore the only recipe to reduce immigration.”

“If and when economic growth resumes in the US and the EU, migration is likely to increase again, but with increasing global competition for migrant labour, governments and societies cannot afford the luxury to just take for granted that migrants will keep on coming – with this attitude, they may be shooting themselves in their own feet.

In many ways, in the future, the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.”

I realise not everyone has the interest or opportunity to immigrate, but studying abroad, taking an expat assignment, and even travel helps to open your mind, to build tolerance and understanding. Nothing bad can come of that.

Exploring Identity: the challenges of going ‘home’

Going home, back to where you were born, or where your parents were born can have one of the biggest impacts on your sense of identity and belonging.

Many immigrants, refugees and expats living abroad do not identify fully with the culture of their adopted country, identifying more strongly with the culture of their country of birth, or that of their parents’.

An extended visit, or permanent return to their country of origin or that of their parents, can shatter any idealised pictures formed during years away. While we are overseas, our home country is changing and will not be the exact same place when we return, just as we are not the same people when we come back after two or three or ten years. It can cause the person to realise that their new ‘home’ or ‘homes’ are becoming a larger part of their identity, sometimes leading to a sense of not belonging fully anywhere.

Yesterday as I was re-reading Geert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, I came across a paragraph that summed up my thoughts perfectly:

“A common experience for second-generation immigrants is to identify with their country of origin while they live in the adoptive country of their parents but, in contrast, to feel that they belong to their new country when they visit their parents’ country of origin. This is because they are likely to live by a mix of cultural (hidden) rules from both societies while emotionally needing a primary group with which to identify. To no surprise, they often seek comfort with one another.”

Seeking comfort with people who share similar experiences was one of the main traits I mentioned in my discussion of Third Culture Kids – feeling a sense of belonging to those who have a similar experience of life across cultures, even for those who do not share countries in common.

One of the best examples I have read of this experience is that of Lisa, a girl living in Sweden, but originally from Yugoslavia in Paradoxes of Multiculturalism: Essays on Swedish Society:

“One young girl, Lisa, travels to Yugoslavia to find her ‘real’ homeland. Yugoslavia, often referred to as the homeland, is perceived of in terms of challenges associated with the search for belonging and identity, for one’s own home. For immigrant youth, ‘home’ is a multifaceted metaphor. Lisa travels back home every year with her parents … One year, when Lisa spent a prolonged period in the homeland (Yugoslavia). on her own, she found herself only partly at home. She identified homelessness there with similar forms of homelessness in Sweden.

Eventually she found her path crossed by and resembling that of fellow travellers in her multicultural circle of friends in the Stockholm suburbs from where the trip home had begun. This circle of friends consisted of an ethnically mixed group of girls and boys with shared ongoing journeys ‘home’. Among Serbian Lisa’s best friends were a Turkish boy, an Italian-Swedish girl and a wholly Swedish girl. The rest of her circle included about a dozen youth, mostly boys from the Muslim Meditteranean area.

To retain their identities in the multi-ethnic suburban tenements they actively had to create a cultural consciousness that was more comprehensive than that of their parents. Through its ethnic mix, this circle of friends not only represented most of what could be found in the local community, but also constituted a new kind of community, one which questioned and reworked both the traditional values of the new (Swedish) world, and the established attitudes about masculinity/femininity, friendship/ emnity, etc. of the ‘old’ world.”

We can see that it wasn’t until Lisa spent a prolonged period of time in her homeland, or rather the homeland of her parents, that she realized she didn’t belong fully in Sweden or in Serbia. But she found a sense of belonging with her friends who had shared similar experiences, who were third culture kids, like her.

Tesfay, a refugee living in London explored his sense of rootlessness in the book Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees by Caroline Moorehead:

“If I were to play with words, I would say that I was homeless. Even if I go back to Eritraya now, I will not belong there. I will be strange to people, and they will be strange to me. I have acquired new habits and manners. But here, I lack what I need to feel at home. Wherever I am, for the rest of my life, I will never be entirely at home again.”

It is clear that many adults who live outside of their country of birth often feel as though their identity shifts, that they assimilate parts of the new culture into that of their past, some developing a more cosmopolitan outlook, others feeling rootless, and lost.

These issues of identity will only continue to grow, as migration does.

In Third Culture Kids, Pollock and van Reken predict that “growing up among cultural differences is already, or soon will be, the rule rather than the exception – even for those who never physically leave their home country”. The Schengen Agreement is making it easier for Europeans to relocate and find work in countries not previously as open to them in the past, for work, study, and love. Asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Europe in search of protection and family reunification and immigrants will come to build a better life for their families. This human movement is encouraging a cosmopolitan ethos of interconnectedness and multiculturalism within the European Union, on a scale never seen before.