Updated: Jul 16
Covid Expat Refugees: Navigate Lock-downs, Homelessness, 24/7 Zoom Meetings, and Ace the New Normal
My husband and I are both development professionals living and working outside of our home country, the United States, for a quarter of a century now. Due to our work, we’ve been keeping separate households in different geographical areas and hardly ever spent a full month together for over a decade. My work has been based in Jakarta since 1997 and my husband’s across East Asia Pacific, Ghana, and currently, for the second time, he’s based in Papua New Guinea (PNG) since late 2019.
Just as my husband moved to PNG, I packed a 40-foot container and relocated to Taiwan from Jakarta, where I had lived for two decades, to be closer to my elderly mom, and still in the same region as my husband. I was able to work remotely for my organization, not realizing that remote work would become the norm for most of the world within six months.
As Covid-19 morphed into pandemic status and borders becoming restrictive, companies started to have to make the decision on evacuating their expat staff. For my husband, we expected that he would be temporarily based in Taiwan. By the time my husband’s company made the decision on evacuation, Taiwan closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents. My husband’s only option was to fly back to the US, his home country, though not really his home for some time now.
It eventually took two months for him to receive a special entry permit as spouse of a resident to enter Taiwan. My husband and I got to shelter-in-place together under the same roof for eight months straight, a rare occasion in our twenty-three years of marriage. At the meantime, I get to be living in the same city as my mom, first time in four decades, contributing to her well-being now that I can respond to her needs more immediately, accompanying her to shopping, to her medical check-ups, and recently to get her first Covid-19 jab.
Introducing a Blog Just Be for Expats
Not everyone is as lucky or with such a relatively simple household. As expats, we are spread out all over the globe with many having parents in one country, children in another, our workplace in a third, and family members holding different national passports. In the era of Covid-19, the majority of us have been sheltering in place at home under lockdowns, continuing working as professionals via Zoom or some other video platforms, and acting as caregivers and teachers. Separation from loved ones and inability to travel add to the worry, stress, isolation, anxiety, and a strange sense of homelessness.
I’m launching Just Be, a monthly blog, to explore how being, rather than doing, can better support us through uncertainty.
Thaw Uncertainty with Gifts
Shirzad Chamine retells this century-old Chinese parable, the stallion story, about this old man who initially lost his prized horse. Later, the horse found his way back to the old man bringing along a herd of wild horses. The old man’s son tried to tame one of these wild horses and was thrown off the saddle fracturing his leg. Soon after, the imperial army came through to draft eligible young men for the imminent war. The son was spared due to his fractured leg. At each of the inflection points of the story, the refrain is: Who knows what is good and what is bad?
The lesson in the stallion story is less about musing over the inflection points of one’s life—whether these are good or bad, lucky or unlucky—but more about experiencing life as it comes. In fact, as suggested by Chamine, these inflection points, or times of uncertainty, become opportunities to reframe and convert into gifts.
Because of my planned relocation and that steps were taken, I was well prepared to adapt and adopt remote working, seamlessly leveraging heavily on technologies to collaborate with internal team members and external stakeholders around the globe. While virtual meetings are in no way novel, 24/7 virtual meetings for all meetings are becoming a new normal, and likely to be part of our new reality of work arrangements. Harvard Business Review puts “Doing Hybrid Right” on the cover of its May-June 2021 issue underscoring an emerging work-life shift, and urging companies, when considering hybrid work arrangements, focus on individual needs and concerns in the context of place and time, recognizing that people can work productively anywhere, anytime.
With the pandemic raging waves after waves, rippling from different parts of the world, and with my husband now back at his post in PNG, I find myself sheltering in place in Taiwan, my newly adopted home that is experiencing its first real wave of Covid-19. I find myself pausing and reflecting my own life transitions. While treading in uncertainty, there’s this trust that I’m really not stuck in place and time.
For me, Covid-19 presents an inflection point that offers me three gifts: (1) extended time-spent with my husband; (2) adapt and adopt remote work modality; and (3) pause-and-reflect time to clarify what matters most.
Cultivate Trust in the New Normal
Rachel Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.” She describes “trust as a remarkable force that allows us to overcome uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to try something new or do something differently.” She believes that trust is “the bridge or the social glue between the known and the unknown.”
What is certain is there is always uncertainty. Cultivating trust to leap into a new normal we get to:
Design our own gifts in times of uncertainty
Live and honor our core values
Get unstuck in the now
I’m curious and would love to hear from you on what it’s like to be an expat nowadays. In your personal or professional lives,
How do you convert the multiple inflection points in your lives into gifts and redirect them to opportunities?
How do you trust and leapfrog into the unknown?
Do share your thoughts in the comments below. Or connect with me to dive deeper.