Slurping Soup book

Why a chronic expat should attend the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference

Maryam Afnan Ahmad co-author of Slurping Soup and Other Confusions writes inspiringly about her experience at FIGT conference 2013:

On its website, the Families in Global Transition, FIGT Conference has been called a ‘reunion of strangers’. It did truly feel like discovering a branch of family, yet un-met.

It was such a brilliant experience that I have been struggling to put it into words without rambling for the last two weeks.

So here, after six redrafts (and a little guilty rambling), is my reasoning for why you, if you are a chronic expat like myself, really should check this annual event out.

1. Go for the fresh perspectives:

In his outstanding (brilliant, inspiring, I could go on here) keynote speech Pico Iyer quoted the example of the Dalai Lama’s perspective. He said that the Dalai Lama looked at the state of being away from his home country, not as a loss but as an opportunity.

Time and again in his talk, Pico Iyer’s similarly optimistic perspective shone through and it was apparent he has the same outlook on travel. To him: “travel is a journey into knowing my own ignorance.” He thought that it allowed him to: “trade in a sense of belonging for a sense of freedom; of being surrounded by something endlessly interesting.” Also, “home is not where you were born, but where you become yourself.”

And his words reminded most of us that we have all chosen this life. Sometimes by explicitly planning it; and sometimes by letting it happen because of other peoples’ plans. Remembering to keep intact our sense of wonder at the transitions and the myriad of cultures we face, and recognizing the doors it opens, is essential.

This need for a ‘sense of wonder’ for an expat was then reiterated also by Janet Bennett’s (Phd) ( concurrent session on ‘One Being Global Souls: what we know about Intercultural Competence’. According to her, research has shown that the most important characteristic key for success as an expat is curiosity. Not knowledge of language or culture, but a sense of wonder.

The interesting perspectives kept on coming throughout the day. Where else, I ask you, would you have heard someone use the phrase ‘reinvention burnout (Laura J Stephens, author ‘An Inconvenient Posting’) with a bell ringing in your head at the recognition of what’s been bothering you.  Or meet someone, who says that the themes of dislocation and transience present in the homeless and incarcerated resonated with her own TCK experience. As a result of which Amanda Gardner says, she was drawn to teach them creative writing for the last 15 years.

An example of one of her students’ writings: “I move because not to move is to loiter, and to loiter is a misdemeanor’.  Priceless perspective!

2. Go for the understanding and empathy you’ll find:

As expats we often struggle to be understood. Not only by the host culture but sometimes by people from our own home culture as well.

In host cultures, sometimes seemingly very similar cultures can also have vast differences. One of the simplest examples would be the differences British and US nationals report feeling from each other, even though both countries could be said to share a language. Entire sitcoms, movies and novels are devoted to this. Football vs. soccer; cars’ bonnets vs. hoods, the list goes on and on!

For people back home in our home cultures we are fortunate and it ‘should’ be exciting. So, apart from perhaps those who know us deeply, to others our challenges, fears, anxieties may be unfathomable.

Yet at the FIGT Conference I met people who can comprehend how the frequent transitions we face can both open opportunities; while simultaneously presenting challenges and unearthing emotions like isolation; helplessness etc.

That spontaneous hint of recognition of your dilemma in someone else’s face; the small gestures of empathy; the shared laughs at faux pas inadvertently done; those show you, you are amongst people who share your context in a very unique way.

And most encouraging, all of those present at FIGT are involved in initiatives to ease the challenges for expats. Sharing resources, conducting research, writing, blogging, training: just to ensure that other expats like themselves have an easier path.

3. Go for the fascinating people you will meet:

Starting with the first few people I met till the late night dinner I shared with some delightful women, the conference was full of people who live interesting lives and define their own experiences. These are not just people to whom life is happening. They are people who have instead grasped the reins of life and are creating their own pathways.

Here was a group of people, who still retain their thirst for learning more about others. And they generously share with others what they learn.

I met a lady who was an adult TCK and now lives in Japan, after having visited 40 and living in ten others. She was accompanied by a friend who had a diametrically-opposite childhood. Having been raised in an American city all her life, she ended up deciding as an adult, quite contrary to her entire family’s experiences, that she wanted to travel. She too headed to Japan, and now teaches and lives there.

I met so many interesting people that it would be hard to pick and choose and encapsulate their interesting stories here. The best I can do is bring some of their stories to you one by one as we connect with them and their work further through our blog and our page. For this one, you’ll definitely have to stay connected.

4. For all the fantastic help on offer:

After Pico Iyer had finished his brilliant keynote speech, I got the opportunity to raise a question. I asked him whether he found himself handling friendship differently. He pointed out that he didn’t feel the need to see his friends every day to feel close to them. To my request for practical tips he smiled and pointed out that other attendees of the conference may have many ideas to share. And was he right!

My question was the last and immediately afterwards other attendees came up to talk about my question, to offer help and resources; to tell me about their research or experiences. Linda A. Jannsen, who works on Emotional resilience in expats ( &, came to offer some articles and handouts on the same question. I excitedly realized that  had recently shared Linda’s post from Expat Focus on the very same topic on our facebook page.

Similarly another presenter at the conference,  Dr. Kyoung Mi Choi, told me that her research mainly focuses on the topic of TCKs and relationships.

Isabelle Min, who runs Transition Catalyst Korea, told me that she faces this question often in her work with other expats. And that she has created material to help for the same reason.

Having so many people spontaneously respond to one’s concerns is invaluably reassuring and in my experience becoming part of such a network, asap, is always useful.

5. Go for the delicious books:

I went to FIGT to take our book Slurping Soup and other confusions: true stories and activities to help third culture kids during transition. I was amazed to find so many authors at the conference.

One of the hottest selling authors was of course the keynote speaker for the conference, Pico Iyer, whose books got sold in the first  20 mins of the book shop’s opening, as people bought the books to be signed by the author.

Many authors with books published by the same publishing house as our book were also present: Summertime Publishing run by the dynamic, Jo Parfitt. Jo’s and Colleen Reichrath-Smith’s  4th edition of, A Career in Your Suitcase was also presented at the conference.

I had the privilege of meeting Ruth E. Van Reken, the lady whose seminal book co-written with David C. Pollock: Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds, was one of the books that was mentioned often in our discussions when we wanted to begin writing Slurping Soup. She is also the co-founder and past chairperson of Families in Global Transition. Her book Letters Never Sent, in a revised edition was also available at the bookshop.

So many more books were available to cater to the various aspects of a global nomad’s lifestyle. For instance for the young TCKs heading to university: Tina L. Quick’s, The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.

For the ups and downs of the global lifestyle: An Inconvenient Posting, by Laura J. Stephens; and Apple Gidley’s, Expat Life Slice by Slice.

So many more books were available to cater to the various aspects of a global nomad’s lifestyle. For instance for the young TCKs heading to university: Tina L. Quick’s, The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.

For the ups and downs of the global lifestyle: An Inconvenient Posting, by Laura J. Stephens; and Apple Gidley’s, Expat Life Slice by Slice.

To understand one’s intercultural competence: Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly’s, Subtle Differences, Big Faux Pas.

A variety of books was available on a plethora of topics like coaching; country guides, language; memoirs; self-help books. Almost every aspect of an expat experience was covered at the bookstore and it was quite the task to restrain oneself and pick only a few.



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