Experiences of a Canadian Abroad

In this issue, we interviewed a former professional expatriate regarding his experience abroad and the challenges that came with it. Mr. Jean Marcotte, now retired, had a 40-year career in National Defence as a Commander and specialist in public relations and communications. He traveled the world while working on different missions and also took personal trips. An enthusiast for uncommon expeditions, he undertook many major trips that no one else dared attempt. In fact, he lived for several years on the French border in Belgium, and had to move around Eastern and Western Europe as well as the Horn of Africa while on missions. He also bicycled across Asia alone. Mr. Marcotte, a man of a thousand stories, shares his expertise with us.

In what countries did your job give you the chance to live and work?
JM: Actually, I’ve practically toured the world, with the exception of South America and Australia. I went everywhere in Western and Eastern Europe except for Russia and Poland. I’ve been to France many times, and to Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania and many other countries. In addition, I lived with my wife and three daughters in Belgium on the French border. As for Africa, I went to Kenya, Egypt, Somalia, and I also visited Israel and Turkey. As for me personally, I am a big travelling buff and I look for all sorts of challenges, which led me to bicycle across Asia. I intend on crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat in the near future.

What place did you like the most and why?
JM: My favourite destination was Turkey. I had a great experience.
Based on your experience and observations of your colleagues, what are the biggest challenges of working abroad?
JM: The biggest challenge would be personal adaptation to a new environment where things are done and seen differently. People generally make the mistake of demanding work methods and behaviours that do not fit in well with the workers’ culture. For example, we cannot expect workers not to take their break and to keep working if culturally it is important to them to do so. They will probably do it during work hours, since it is one of their customs. On the other hand, it is possible to identify elements where you can demand change, but you have to make sure it doesn’t go against their beliefs. The thing to understand is that they will not be ready to change for you, so you have to learn how they live.
What makes fitting in more complicated when you arrive in a new culture?  
JM: It’s hard, because all, or almost all, of our daily habits have to change. All the little things now make a difference. I would say that one of the biggest challenges is getting used to new eating habits; I mean, we don’t find the same foods at the market as we have in our supermarkets. So the recipes that we know and love have to change. We have to develop a certain openness to culinary novelties. I would say that this is often the main reason why people have trouble, especially those who come abroad with you—your family. The further we get from our own culture, the harder it is to adapt.

Did the organization have a big role in the expatriation assignments?
JM: Yes, for sure! In the military, we were lucky to be supported by colleagues and we had the contact information of coaches and other people we could talk to if needed.
How did you prepare before your trips abroad?  
JM: At the time, we didn’t really have any preparation for the cultural differences, unlike today, especially for those who leave for Afghanistan.
Was your preparation adjusted to the target country?
JM: No, at the time we were not very well prepared for cultural obstacles before our departure. For example, before going to Somalia, we had to see a doctor, a dentist, and another specialist to make sure we were in good health and were not harmful ourselves. But now soldiers are prepared before heading out. They receive a briefing and training on the history of Afghanistan. Also, an Afghan presents cultural rules about what both men and women can and cannot do. 

Did your family members have an expatriation preparation program before leaving?
JM: One time in NATO, my wife had to see a psychologist who asked her whether she was interested in moving and if everything was fine between us. This allowed them to identify potential risks so that I could return sooner than planned in case of family difficulties.
Once you reached your destination, what kind of coaching or support did you receive from your organization?   
JM: Actually, at that time we did not have a lot of resources before going abroad, but the organization helped us by offering the possibility of contacting a coach or another person who could help us through tough times.
Do you believe that this type of continued support fosters better integration?
JM: Definitely. It is not always easy to go abroad for a long period of time. Also, in the military one often faces situations that are difficult to handle, so the support given us is very useful in helping us get through it.

After repatriation, did you receive any particular help to ease your reintegration at work and in the community?
JM: Unlike today, we did not have a buffer time after returning to give us the chance to recover from our deployment. We got back to work quickly. I remember returning to work one time in Canada, my boss had forgotten that I had just returned, and he had to find me a desk in a corner while I waited for things to be set up. Such situations are rare these days.
In general and based on your experience, what personal qualities should a person have if he or she wants to succeed abroad?  
JM: In my opinion, people who plan to go abroad should be open-minded and tolerant of the different behaviours that may encounter. They should love creating new relationships and should also be willing to learn about the host community’s lifestyle.
And on the other hand, what personal traits could make it hard for an individual to fit into an unfamiliar community?
JM: A person who has to work in a foreign country has to avoid trying to change people to make them accommodate to him. He has to be open to changing some of his habits, and thus be open-minded.

What would you suggest to future expatriates to help them prepare well for their assignment abroad?  
JM: I think that we have to want to integrate and adapt to the culture and to the people around us, but above all, be ready to face some discomfort. We should not be afraid to try and make the most of this experience, but goodwill has a lot to do with successful expatriation.

Mathieu Durivage
Assessment and Evaluation Consultant