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Lessons from an Expat

By: Stephanie Schultz
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

According to the U.S. State Department, there are about four million U.S. expatriates. Many Americans travel overseas for an extended period of time to work for their U.S.-based multinational company. The length of these stays, according to GMAC Global Relations Service, an Oak brook, Ill., firm is decreasing, with 70% of all 2003 assignments scheduled for a year or less.

Despite the duration of these assignments, many expatriates are poorly prepared for their overseas experience, according to several sources including the American Psychology Association and the Wall Street Journal. Many businesses are recognizing that it' s in their economic interest to fully prepare and support employees, and their families, on international assignments.

When my husband accepted a post in Debrecen, Hungary, for three months, I wasn' t excited with the location. But we had always wanted to live in Europe and this seemed like a good chance. Our two children, ages five and two, were yet to start school and since I was a freelance writer, my job didn' t prevent us from moving. My husband and I, however, were two of the expats who were unprepared the journey. This is our story.

Hungarian Crash Course
“I can do anything for three months, I told myself and my friends after I accepted the fact that we were indeed moving to Debrecen, which is about 250 km east and north of Budapest. We left our house in Austin, Texas, with temperatures in the 70s, and experienced a tumultuous flight in which no one in the family slept due to a medical emergency that kept the lights on in the airplane and prompted an unscheduled stop in Ireland. It was there, in Shannon, Ireland, that my two-year-old son choked on a water bottle cap. Perhaps that was harbinger of what was to come? We arrived about 90 minutes late in snowy, cold, gray Budapest, Hungary. 

Two days later, my family and our eight suitcases took a taxi to Debrecen. The driver sped down the interstate going about 100 mph. Despite the breakneck speeds on what appeared to be icy roads, we did arrive safely in our very cute four-bedroom apartment. Later that day, we shopped at Tesco, which reminded me of an old Kmart with lots of food. It was here that I realized just how hard this was going to be. As we tried to find the things we needed to feed the family for the next couple of days, as well as a few necessities for the bathrooms and kitchen, we were gawked at as if we were aliens. Tired and trying to control Gracie, my five-year-old, who was melting down with jet lag and culture shock, I became nervous about what lie ahead. Still, I focused in the positives and looked forward to exploring the city the next day.

I wish I could say that I made the best of the situation, but I didn' t. Everything Hungarian seemed to present itself in shades of gray. The people seemed unhappy. The language was difficult. The weather was wet. The unfamiliarity of the city was stressful. I protected my children as if they would get snatched away or run into traffic if I let them out of my sight or my grip for one minute. I was filled with panic when I trudged across the city – at first to the mal – the only place I knew. I felt silly when I got reprimanded at the park for getting on the playground equipment. I felt the same when scolded at the indoor waterpark for getting into the kids' pool. I fumbled at the grocery store, on the tram and was filled with fear when driving my husband' s company-owned, stick-shift mini-van. My non-existent sense of direction sent me on many a wild goose chase – 15-minute drives that turned into two hours, 20-minute runs turned into marathon training escapades. (Running itself, once a stress release, wasn' t fun. I was one of the very few runners in the part of Debrecen where we lived and was the recipient of many strange, unfriendly looks.)

My initial shock and awe turned to sadness and ill health as our second month rolled around. I was mad at my husband for bringing us there, I was mad at myself for letting him. I was disappointed that I wasn' t doing much freelance writing and I had lost hope that Debrecen would ever turn out to be a happy place for us.

It was our third month there that I began to understand Debrecen. I learned much about Hungarian culture and the native tongue from my language teacher. She explained the roots of the Hungarian insecurities, telling of nightmare-ish scenes played out during the Communist rule. She worried about her country, and lost much sleep over the elections held while we were there. She worried that Hungary had become too western and said the country needed its own Hungarian identity.

It was in this month that I read On the Edge of the Volcano, a book I received from
Joszef Pesti.. Mr. Pesti had overheard my family speaking English at a cukrazda (Debrcen had several cukrazdak, or cake shops, filled with a wide assortment of delicious and very inexpensive cakes.) Me. Pesti spoke excellent English; he was in exile in the U.S. for nearly 50 years when he was forced to flee Hungary after the failed revolt against the Communists in 1956. He told us proudly that he was “the poet of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956”. After our chance meeting, he mailed me his book. I read his amazing personal story in the forward, learning how he wrote numerous poems during the first five years of the Communist rule and mailed his poems to Radio Free Europe. They were broadcast back in Hungary under a pseudonym.

It was during this third month in Hungary month that the sun came out. On our many walks around the now familiar city, the kids played in fountains, ate fitness pizza (pizza with ham, corn, pickles, carrots and other interesting toppings) at City Burger, and hopped on the tram with ease. We bought ice cream cones for 50 cents (a spring-time addition to the cake shops) and escaped to McDonalds when we needed a piece of home.

Kids Adapt
My kids, through all this, seemed happy. They liked to play in the snow and had many trips to Debrecen' s fancy indoor waterpark when it rained. Gracie, my precocious five-year-old girl, attended Hungarian kindergarten at a small old school on the university campus that served breakfast and lunch. While she rarely made it in time for breakfast, when she did she told us of the toast and cucumbers that were served. Many Hungarians commented that Gracie was the only foreigner who truly loved Hungarian food. She routinely requested seconds and some times even thirds at lunch.

The schoolwork was what you' d expect from a preschooler. (Hungarians attend kindergarten until they are ready to enter the public school system.) She drew pictures, played indoors and out, took walks and went on lots of interesting field trips. Her teacher, Zita, had spent a year in California so she spoke English and Gracie loved her. Her favorite Hungarian friends, Viki and Tita, were always there to greet her, stroking her cheeks and forehead, bringing her paper and doing their best to speak a little English.

Gracie, who learned enough Hungarian to follow instructions and understand what was happening at school (and her excellent pronunciation of Hungarian words certainly helped at the grocery store), explained that she spoke a special language with her friends.  “My friends and I speak the language of play, Gracie explained.

Meanwhile, Drew, my silly two-year-old boy, kept making us laugh. He put on shows for us, sang songs, and liberally used his few Hungarian words. One day, I went to the grocery store without him thinking that it would be infinitely easier. How I missed his songs and smiles while I shopped among the sober Hungarians.

Drew, however was a bully magnet at the parks we visited. We couldn' t figure out why he had such bad luck with the Hungarian kids. Although his consistent use of the words, Nem, Magyar. Nem, Magyar, ”may have had something to do with it. (I think he was trying to tell the kids he didn' t speak Hungarian by saying, “No Hungarian. No Hungarian.) Drew is still disappointed that we didn' t bring our tub back to the States with us.

Reverse Culture Shock
Mom, look at the juice! Look at the cookies! ”Drew said as we entered the neighborhood grocery store back in Austin.

Everyone is speaking English,” Gracie added. We were at the store buying a few things so she could take her lunch to school. We' d just gotten back the night before, and Gracie had a couple of big days ahead …

Egészségedre! ”my two-year-old laughed the next day, responding to my sneeze in the church sanctuary. Drew, using one of his Hungarian words, was blessing me.

My husband and I proudly watch as Gracie, fiddling with her fingers, is handed the microphone. “My name is Gracie Smith and I' m going to Gullett Elementary School, ”she says rather quietly before the small gathering of parents and teachers at her pre-school “graduation.”

Now Wednesday morning, it was just last Friday that she was happily playing on a playground some 3,000 miles away. Her Hungarian classmates sang the “I Love You” song from Barney in two languages as they showered her with gifts to help remember Hungary.

Lessons Learned
We will all remember Hungary, each in our own way. Drew, who will forever use “nem ”as a key word is his vocabulary, will simply be able to tell his friends that he lived there for a short period. Gracie can look back on her schoolwork and keep her treasures in a special place. Her exposure to this very different culture will serve her well as she is introduced to new people and new things in America. Andy brings home with him a better understanding of the Hungarian work culture, a thriving team of Hungarian business analysts and global work experience that may serve him well. I kept a blog that was very cathartic during the trying times. I bring back at least 100 pages of written word about our activities and our feelings about our lives abroad. It reminds me to be thankful for what we have here and will be fun for my kids to read when they are older.

When we ventured to Debrecen. we were in the midst of moving across town to a larger house. I was focused on this immediate obstacle, and failed to prepare myself for the Hungarian culture and the obstacles we would face. Like many other expatriates, I was ignorant of the impending challenges. With steel will and several meltdowns, we made it through. However, it would have been reassuring to have some kind of training about what to expect prior to our departure. Companies would be wise to institute better planning for their employees working abroad so that employees and their families wouldn' t suffer such extreme culture shock.

From Pesti' s poem, Am I Human?:

Everything is exposed.
They could enter through the window.
They are watching me,
Even through the keyholes,
As I come and go.
I feel it.
If they call me, I am frightened.
When I eat, I do not taste.
I am a dumb animal.
I am silent.
Alertness and aggressiveness
Constantly surround me.
I live a bare existence
With no horizons.
They are jealous of my cave
And they multiply like rabbits.
I avoid people
Like a lonely badger.
My life is measured,
Crippled, sealed.
Nothing escapes.
Shadows my face.
Are quickly denied.
If my heart warms
And my lips speak,
Fear again freezes my heart
And seals my lips.
When the great upheaval comes
And all this will be ended
My leaded legs will
Spring to life.
My fear will turn to joy.
Then, the hiding animal will be
A man!
(Joszef Pesti, Am I Human?)

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