Today’s amazing story is shared by Patrick Burns, the author of Far Away and Further Back, who has lived his entire life as an expatriate and decided to write a book which includes chapters of expat’s stories.
Hi Patrick, could you please tell us a bit more about yourself?
I was born in the north of England pretty much at the beginning of the current Elizabethan age. My mother became the first expatriate in our family when she married my father shortly after the Second World War and they moved from her native Germany to his native South Yorkshire in 1947.
From a very early age, I fell in love with the idea of being in different countries. As a family, we went camping all over Europe in the fifties and early sixties. At the age of 12 I formed a deeply romantic notion of visiting the USA – and even of being able to live there – to the extent that I requested detailed road maps from the US Department of the Interior and developed a fully documented six week road trip around the country, complete with Greyhound Bus departure and arrival times for each of the cities to be visited…Sadly it never came off.
However, in 1975 the American Dream did become a reality when my first employer, Burroughs Machines Limited, transferred me from London to the company’s World HQ in Detroit. I was 23, engaged to be married, and it felt like the beginning of a huge adventure…
…which, for the most part, it continued to be for the next four decades or so. Three years in Detroit were followed by three years back in the UK and then it was time to change again – this time to Paris. (In fact that three-year return to England was the longest of three failed attempts to “settle down” in my country of origin. The reasons are many and varied but are in no way a rejection of my sense of what the country is. My background and the opportunity to live elsewhere simply eliminated the need for me to have roots or even to put them down somewhere else…)
Expatriate life was a series of opportunities that, when they came up, seemed like the best option at the time. It certainly wasn’t planned (even though my background contained clues that it might happen sometime.) Yes, I did engineer some of the assignments and always signalled my interest at the right moment. Working in international human resources (coordinating all aspects of managing a workforce spread across several countries in a region like Asia or the Middle East) helped. It meant that, by definition, I might live and work pretty much anywhere in the world.
The statistics for the record: my wife, Alison, and I lived in eight countries, made thirteen international moves, and moved house a total of twenty-one times. I worked for five large global businesses: two American, two British and one French/American. Along the way, we had four children (one in England, one in France and twins in Hong Kong) who went to umpteen schools and learned the rudiments of many different languages. The two eldest went to UK boarding schools; the twins went to the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore – we had a longish second assignment there which coincided neatly with schooling needs. All of them, I would say, are well-adjusted, well-educated and with an excellent world outlook. We all now live in the USA and are extremely close
The USA is now my permanent home. (After Detroit, I had a spell in living in Connecticut and working in New York in the 1990s and now I’m largely retired and living in California.) I still feel I exist without any kind of deep roots anywhere. Living in the US was always a goal and, despite its faults, it remains the most attractive place to be parked for the duration…
Why did you decide to write a book which includes expat stories?
The idea for writing a book came gradually from the fact that I realized with hindsight I’d probably retired from Corporate life too soon and too quickly. The idea of being free from the pressures and commitments of a working life was obviously attractive – but only in an abstract way; I hadn’t really thought through what I really wanted to do to fill the hours that work had occupied – and I wasn’t a golfer…
As a result, I struggled with not having responsibilities and with the absence of a sense of self-worth – status definers that I had taken completely for granted for many years and too casually gave up.
In looking at what I might do to reclaim some of what I was missing it occurred to me that I had a lot of worthwhile business experience, especially in Asia, that I could perhaps communicate to others in books or articles. I spent some time mapping out a book on how best to set up an HR function in Asia, with all its cultural diversity in the workplace and various approaches to business management and leadership – but it was dull and I just couldn’t find a way forward that was going to be engaging and relevant.
I cast around for other ideas and gradually the concept of a kind of travel memoir emerged – one focused mainly on some of the more memorable events that happened over forty years of expatriate life. I’d already co-written and published one of the earliest “how-to” books in this field (“The Expatriates Handbook – A Guide To Living And Working Overseas” with Bill Twinn: Kogan Page 1993) which had given me some practice in writing around this theme.
I started by having a go at writing a sample story – about a curious event that occurred when I worked in the oil industry and found myself helping with a pipeline pressure-testing job deep in the Algerian desert. My colleague and I were standing in the shade of a water tank in the blistering heat, waiting for the test to complete. We gradually became aware of a large black bird repeatedly flapping up from behind a nearby sand dune and then dropping down again out of view. Our curiosity got the better of us so we went to see what was happening and this led to a remarkable discovery and a very frightening experience…
I won’t give any more away but the point was that I really enjoyed the experience of putting this down on paper and without too much difficulty realized I had a number of other tales that arose from where my work took me. I found the voice I’d been searching for and a formula for writing that was fulfilling – one that allowed me to shake off the dissatisfaction I still felt from dropping out of corporate life so suddenly and terminally…
Can you explain and tell us more about the book?
The book’s title “Far Away And Further Back” is very easy to explain. Each story is datelined from a location somewhere in the world. Many are on the fringes of where people tend to travel: Hanoi, Vietnam; Yangon Burma; the Libyan desert etc so they constitute “Far Away” Some of the stories delve into the past. One starts on my grandparent’s wedding day – June 13th 1912 and hops through various June 13ths up to 2012 – 100 years later. Another begins in August 1961 with the start of the division of Berlin into two cities and the creation of the Wall. This all has to do with going “Further Back”.
Thematically the book underlines the view that history always informs experience and that family history shapes the person we become. My expatriate life and how I see the world from an expatriate’s viewpoint comes to a large extent from the intersecting of various lines of family history and events.
Having said all that, it would be wrong to give the impression that this is a self-indulgent book all about me droning on about who I am and what I think and like. I consciously shied away from that kind of memoir (and purposely avoided making it a chronological account of my life to help avoid such self-absorption). The book is mainly about other people that I have come across – largely as a consequence of an expatriate life – and the circumstances that surrounded our connecting in some way.
Each story is a self-contained chapter and while there are some links between them, each can be read in isolation. In my mind I felt the book might appeal to various types of expatriate: the experienced ones who would be nodding along with stories and events that chimed with their own experiences; the novices and soon-to-be expats who are looking for something that will give them a feel for what to expect and, of course, the armchair expats who would love to do all these things but in reality will only experience them vicariously from the comforts of their home countries!
What is the bit of the book that you like the most?
Since there are twenty plus discrete stories and no single narrative or plotline that runs through the book, it’s probably easier to talk about which story I found most satisfying to write. It’s very difficult to say, of course, since they each have a special place in my heart. In some ways “The Girl In The Blue Bikini”, which charts aspects of my attraction to, and then factors within my relationship, with Alison, my wife, is right up there. We’ve known each other for nearly 55 years and been married for 43 so it’s an interesting observation on endurance – within the context of expatriation. She would be able to write a far more interesting book than mine on the joys and frustrations of being an expatriate from the point of view of what used to be called, rather patronizingly, the “trailing spouse”. She comes into several of the other stories partly in an effort to portray aspects of married life while living overseas.
Do you have any tips for the people who want to move to other countries?
Much of this is obvious but it’s worth saying again:
To become an expatriate you tend to need to have skills that are in particular demand outside your home country and/or an employer with a very international reach who is known to move employees around. It isn’t hard to work that one out but so many people don’t prepare by putting themselves into that kind of position and become frustrated when they can’t “break out”. When I spoke to a government employment advisor after university, she had two graduate trainee openings on her books in the HR field. One was with United Biscuits – headquartered in Oldham, Lancashire, a traditional manufacturing centre in the north of England; the other was with Burroughs, based near London – a US mainframe computer manufacturer with operations all over the world. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make…
Don’t procrastinate – do it! It’s dangerously easy to get hung up on all the possible negatives. The leap into the dark is sometimes scary but, in my experience, it’s ALWAYS been worth it.
If you’re going with a wife or partner, be really, really sure they think the same way as you do about what this will all mean. There is no point in browbeating somebody into submission who in their heart-of-hearts is not on the same wavelength. Also, going to live in another country is not a way of repairing a failing marriage or relationship. Far from it: the relationship will probably crumble even more quickly.
Don’t be scared of what this will do to children. In my view, it’s all good. Even if education gets fractured and friendships become disjointed because of moving, the benefits outweigh the negatives.
You will go through really strange ups and downs when you first start in a new country: elation and excitement followed by a really unpleasant downer where you feel you can’t survive and then a slow process of assimilating into the real world of where you are, with all its delights and frustrations. The quicker you recognize the various stages, the quicker you get through them. It’s worth going on an orientation program when you arrive if you can.
Don’t try to go completely native but also avoid being the expatriate who only mixes with other expatriates who do exactly the same things they would be doing in their home country. The middle path is the best, in my experience.
And what about the tips for all the expat living around the world?
Much of what I said in the previous question plus:
Reintegration into your home country can be difficult. If you want to talk endlessly about what it was like in country x, find a community of expatriates at home and you can all bore each other with war-stories. The fact is that those at home have no real interest in all the details of what you saw and experienced and have themselves led interesting and worthwhile lives while you’ve been gone. Recognize this and bend over backwards to avoid being a ‘When-I’ (as in “When I was in Abu Dhabi, we went wadi-bashing every weekend in the four-wheel-drive…”) with every conversation you enter. It’s hard – but it’s for the best if you want to retain friends.
In terms of relationships with the local population, I saw so many expatriates who regarded themselves as being somehow “special” simply because they were expatriates. This is most obvious where the expat comes from a more developed country and lives in a less developed one but it works in many situations: a tendency to be dismissive of locals; to be overly critical of how things are done and take the view of somehow being “above” what is happening around them. It’s very easy to fall into this trap even for younger people who often have a more open, accepting attitude. Try to leave your prejudices and preconceptions at the door when you start in a new country and don’t be led by those who have lived there a while and may have become cynical…
“Far Away And Further Back” is available in paperback and Kindle Reader formats from Amazon Books. Here you can find the version for the USA and for the UK.
There is also an author’s Facebook page at Patrick H Burns with photographs and additional commentary on several stories.
Thank Patrick, for sharing your book and story with us.