Nature vs. Nurture: Which Is More Important For Expat Success?
When I was overseas, I thought it was natural for me to be comfortable exploring the world that way. I thought so because I had grown up in a Navy family that was constantly being shifted from east coast to west coast and beyond.
By the time I went to school, I had lived in California, Hawaii, Washington DC, and California again at a different base. I went to 2 elementary schools, 1 junior high and 2 high schools. I got married to a sailor just after graduation and moved 9 hours away from any family or friends that I might have had. We moved 8 times in 5 years for training and deployments… and so on.
So when I made the decision to pursue an opportunity overseas, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. Maybe because I didn’t see the world with boundaries- each new place held as much curiosity as another- I just got on with it.
But, I’m beginning to rethink that question of nature versus nurture. While it’s true I had grown up in an environment of change (though not all that “nurturing”), I think it was more about who my father was– I believe he was a “star” and change was in his nature (see yesterday’s post on Stained Glass Stars, and Naomi Hattaway’s post “I Am A Triangle“). The more I look into my family, the more I see pieces of the character that makes me who I am, and enables me to be successful in my overseas assignments.
I think there is something in our nature that makes us resilient, strong, able to handle challenges, that makes us good problem solvers, and flexible partners and/or parents. How much is learned? Or, could it be intuitive for some?
To see how our family’s “stars” were made, to understand where all this started, I looked to my grandmother, a writer who chronicled life in the old west. Her book, “No Dudes, Few Women” was the story of her life, living and working with my grandfather on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the high plateau area known as Four Corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet.
Dan Ward, my grandfather, a purely Texas cowboy, was a range rider with the Government Indian Service, assigned to ride and resolve problems over more than 200 square miles of the Navajo Indian Reservation. My grandmother often rode with him and did much of her research and thinking for novels and stories the old-fashioned way, by getting up close and personal.
The Navajo Nation is 25,000 square miles of desert, mountains, canyons and high plains. Inset in this area is also the Hopi Nation as well. If this area is desolate today, imagine how remote it must have been in the 1930s. And to have two babies on the reservation? Whoa- I never thought of my grandmother as that tough.
The interesting feature of this for me is that the Navajo Nation is the largest sovereign nation in the United States. My grandparents were effectively expats, pioneering multi-culturalism in the 1930s and 40s! (I was taught to answer the telephone in Navajo language before I went to school.) My grandparents assimilated into and fully respected the nation they were hosted by. This is the model I lived and learned as I grew up, seeing Navajo blankets on all the beds, not souvenirs, but as highly prized long wearing wool blankets- a matter of practicality and thrift.
During their long years on the Reservation, they had to balance the love for the people they genuinely cared for against the unpopular directives of the government that paid them to be there. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was followed up with the mandatory Navajo Livestock Reduction program, which according to my grandmother’s notes, destroyed over 20,000 horses in one season. Hard work and a measure of prosperity was met with stock limits to counter severe soil and land erosion.
My grandfather developed a unique brand of honesty and diplomacy as he had to explain the rationale for and carry out what he considered a terrible consequence of finally achieving the relative peace and stability they had all been seeking to build.
I admired his strength of character, and everyone knew he would always give you the straight truth. Whether his mindset fit the Navajo or he learned it from them, I don’t know. But I do know that he wouldn’t have stayed that long if he couldn’t do an honest day’s work that helped people in real ways. He taught me that much.
He was attuned to the Navajo character, which he believed had at its heart much that was good and true.
They had a unique way of making sense of life, honoring and observing the past, and leaving the future as something they refer to as “escantoh’, meaning roughly anytime after the day after tomorrow… like the Spanish mañana concept. There is wisdom in how they pass down their history.
When the Navajo woke to the first dawning he realized that life was to be a continuous struggle for survival. He knew that throughout his life he would have to face the four monsters: old age, poverty, sickness, and death—monsters left by the killers of all evils, the Twin War Gods in the beginning of the fourth world, to make the Navajo stronger by overcoming obstacles.
They have walked a difficult trail, and they have lived in a forceful time of transition—in a time when they desired the past in its simplicity and shunned the future with its dynamic progression.
Growing up with this blend of philosophy and reliance on your own ingenuity should certainly have equipped me for survival and solving problems.
And I think it did; I adapted readily to life in Azerbaijan. The first 2-3 years were filled with new experiences and a steep learning curve. (The typical honeymoon and adjustment stages.) But just like living day in and day out on the Navajo Reservation, the adjustment phase peaks and there needs to be something after mastery to sustain an expat over a longer term assignment.
Once the job ramps up and the house is more or less settled (or, as good as it’s going to get) how do you sustain life in the remaining limbo until the job ends or winds down? That part I wasn’t prepared for and had no real resources for. With my divorce done, my whole exit strategy would need to change!
I finally decided after 10 years, I’d had enough fun in Baku- I had achieved what I came for and had done what the Board had in mind, so my job must be done, right? I was restless, looking for new challenges, and, having been divorced for more than 5 years, I was ready to move on and start dating again- and that wasn’t likely to happen in Baku (although the Georgians tried to fix me up several times, and I had any number of taxi drivers volunteer! Thanks guys!).
And so began the path to repatriation. I can honestly say, reverse culture shock never once entered my mind- as a concept or as a possibility! I had no advice or warnings to pay attention to, and never gave moving home a second thought really.
Being on my own, all I knew was that I needed to find a job somewhere in the states. I could go anywhere as I had no family ties or home left. My only wish was to find someplace clean, green, fresh and quiet. Any of you who have been to Baku will understand completely… (wink!)
If you have read my post “Re-Entering Earth’s Atmosphere” you already know how this story turns out… Not nearly as well as the going over did!
But just as I was able to lean on the skills learned at my grandparents’ table to get me started, I have also been reaching out and learning at the hands of skilled expats who have been here before and lived to tell the stories.
It’s better than smoke signals, and a lot faster, but I’m still not convinced the Internet is any better at nurturing! It’ll do for now, though.
(Thanks to everyone who has offered advice and resources, especially in the Expat Partner Coffee Online and others who have helped me get this far!)