Expatriatism

Dean's story

Dean working during the government protests in Belarus in 2006. Photo credit: Joseph Sywenkyj

There is the phrase ‘third culture kids’ which refers to people who are born in one country and moved to another when they were young. I was born in Germany and both my parents were German but when I was an infant we moved to the United States, then later back to Germany and then when I was 13 we moved back to the States for a second time. I remained in the U.S. for the next 24 years and gained citizenship there. So I suppose from the very early on I have always been an expat in some sense.

People often ask me ‘What are you?’ I like that question, ‘What are you’, like that defines who I am. The best way of trying to explain it is I was born in Germany and I was raised in the United States and lived internationally. It’s kind of hard for me to define myself as being from just one place, if anything I would say I’m European, if that can be a definition. Although I moved back and forth when I was a child it was not of my own choice. 11 years ago I did decide to move abroad. Before that I had already travelled and lived and worked outside of the U.S. for short periods of time, in places like Prague and Germany. So I guess in many ways I was always interested in travel and adventures.

Professionally, as a journalist, being an expat is perfect for me. I have amazing opportunities to document and explore the world. I go to places like the North Pole and central Asia and I cover all sorts of news, hard news, soft news, business, food, travel and entertainment. I get exposed to some of the most amazing things I could never usually get exposure to. I meet the poorest people in the world one week and the next I’m photographing and meeting presidents. For me, it’s ideal professionally, I love cultures, exploring new places and meeting all kinds of people.

Dean with HKBU colleague Robin Ewing in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, during a London-Mongolia charity rally in 2013.

I think being an expat has helped me to be very open as a person, I’m very liberal minded, I’m not at all religious and so I’m open to exploring all these different things. Now that my two daughters are getting older, they’re getting to an age where I’m able to take them on assignments with me, so far they’ve been with me on assignments to Turkey and Northern Europe. I get to show them parts of the world that their classmates will probably never get to see in their lifetime. Conversely, my work does take me away from my daughters quite a bit with the travelling I have to do. I wish I didn’t have to do it that much but this may change in the next few years.

As a result of my travels, I have networks of friends around the world. Sometimes my colleagues and friends joke that wherever I happen to go I can message or call and say I’m going to be there for a few days and I’ve got a place to stay or someone to have drinks or dinner with, pretty much globally, which is great. As expats though, we are dis-rooted, I don’t really have a place I call home, I have a house in Sweden where my stuff is and where I live with my daughters, but I don’t feel culturally Swedish.

Some of the biggest challenges with being an expat and freelancer is I have no steady collection of colleagues that I see from day-to-day. There are also stages of my work where the money ebbs and flows. Sometimes it rains, and when it rains it pours, it’s a feast and famine kind of thing. There’s also no steady day-to-day routine and everyone needs some level of routine to have a stable life. I need routine as well but I think too much routine drives me crazy and I get cabin fever. If my mind isn’t occupied I get stir crazy and have to move on again. There’s an interesting quote which says ‘routine is the enemy of time’ and I think it’s true, I think what is the point of living if time just disappears very quickly? I think this is also a part of the expat lifestyle, where many of us don’t feel comfortable in these day-to-day routines.

Dean in 2013 in Hong Kong (the Peak) with two friends (James Brock and Julie Peirce).

I think some of the best things I have had from being an expat is finding people that have the same mentality about life that I do. They have the same outlook about being very liberal and open-minded and not being very socially or religiously conservative, not being anything but open about the world.

I guess in the future there is a possibility of moving elsewhere, you never know what opportunities will come along. I guess I’m in a position where unless there’s a really good reason for me to move to a place, I’m not really at a stage where I would want to say here or there. Eventually, once my daughters get to the stage when they want to go to university, I will slowly start disassociating myself with Sweden. I’ll always keep the house, I’ll keep it as a place to go back to and spend the summers or winters and it will eventually be for my daughters to inherit, but it won’t be a place where I will have my sunset years.

If someone’s going to come up to me and say I’ve got an offer to go and do something abroad, my first answer would be absolutely, take it and just do it. There’s no age limit on being an expat, you can be 80 and want to move abroad, go do it. It’s easier now to move around the world, it’s easier to communicate around the world, it’s easier to live in new places, and there are people of all different backgrounds that are moving. So I would say do, don’t hesitate at all. Do take a few precautions, think of how you can become stable financially, if you’re leaving friends and family behind that’s an issue. Try it short-term, what’s six months out of a life? what’s one year, two years out of a life? Nothing. And I think it’s one of the greatest things people look back on and say I’m glad that I did this, I may have gone back and lived my normal, safe life in New Jersey or wherever it may be but at least take that opportunity and try it. I think the worst thing you can do is not try and then spend your life looking back and saying if only I had done that. Never look back and say ‘if I only had’, just do it.

Often times, depending on location, expats are seen by the local populous as being arrogant or unappreciative. I think that if you want to try to be a ‘good’ expat in the eyes of the local community just do your best to learn as much as you can about those people, don’t just submerse yourself in a purely expat life because you’re going to miss a significant and very important part of that community. Learn as much as you can of the language as you can and try to make local friends. I think it’s important that when you get established somewhere to try to find a community of friends, whether they be local or expats. I think all expats go through this, you can go through feelings of loneliness or not knowing where you belong but once you find a small group of people and that will make your life so much more fulfilling and easier and ease loneliness. Don’t get caught up in this stereotypical, often unfair judgement of how many people view expats as being arrogant, or boorish or uncaring, you have to show empathy to the local people, and you have to try to get to know them as well.