Anna Noakes Schulze
Living Abroad Teaches Us the Power of Connections [TEDx Talk]
By Anna Noakes Schulze
The following is a transcript of my TEDx talk, Living Abroad Teaches Us the Power of Connections, given at the International School of Dusseldorf, Saturday, May 4, 2019. (Update: watch the official TEDx video now on YouTube.)
There’s a Chinese proverb that says:
An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle but never break.
I’d like to tell you a story of discovery in four parts: a story of lessons learned about connection and community in over twenty years of living abroad. I’ve come a long way from where I was born, but those invisible red threads are still there, connecting me to every person who’s ever been significant in my life. Some of these ties are close, and some more distant, but their nature is eternal. All through our lives, those invisible threads connect us and shape who we become.
Part I: North America
My story begins in Canada. I was born in Montreal but grew up in Iroquois, Ontario, a town so small it was officially a village. Iroquois was supposed to be the kind of place where nothing ever happens. In reality, that sleepy little town was constantly buzzing with some kind of intrigue or other. Some of the people and families I used to know were so memorable, they keep reappearing as characters in dreams I’m still having years later.
In Iroquois, I learned the value of community and what can be accomplished if we pull together. Whenever there was trouble, big or small, you could count on a helping hand. When a van full of show jumping horses was stranded nearby, stalls were vacated to house them. If a family member died you were inundated with kind words and cooked meals. When tragedy struck at a railway crossing, killing most of our volunteer firefighters, I saw how the townspeople rallied to support the bereaved and everyone affected. More recently, that same community spirit sparked again as people fought to save the high school from closure, a move that would have blighted the town’s future.
When you've experienced the genuine friendliness of small-town people it’s something you never forget. Indelible in my memory is the way that friendliness extended to strangers as well as local people. There was a steady stream of freighter traffic heading up the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes and back out to sea again. Each of these ships, from all over the world, had to go through our town's Seaway Locks. We used to drive up to the locks to watch the ships passing by at close range. The sailors would stand on deck waving to the locals and I always waved back dreaming of faraway places.
When you're growing up you don't always have the patience or perspective to appreciate your home town. There was a great big world out there, waiting to be explored. As soon as I finished high school, I was off like a shot.
Eventually, I arrived in the United States for graduate studies at the University of Michigan. It was my first experience of living abroad, and also my first experience of culture shock. In Canada, we tend to assume we know our southern neighbour fairly well. Culturally, we share many of the same television shows, movies, actors, comedians and musicians. How different can it be?
Let college football serve as a handy metaphor. The last time I went to a college football game in Canada there were roughly 500 people sitting in one bleacher. At my first football game in Michigan Stadium, there were more than 105,000 spectators. It was the difference between this:
No wonder they call it the Big House!
My master’s program was brilliant and one of the best experiences of my life. Not so the dormitory where I lived. For practical reasons, I chose a nearby undergraduate dorm instead of going to the dorm for graduate students away on another campus. I tried to be friendly, but it was hard to fit in. I was always somehow “other.” When I answered yes to the question, was I enjoying America so far, they told me, “Don’t get too comfortable.” Another jolt of culture shock.
My dorm mates took an intense interest in my foreignness. They would ask, “Aren’t you worried about this new illegal immigration bill?” and I would have to remind them, “I am NOT here illegally.” They would try explaining my home country to me or telling me how Canadian healthcare works, and always it was some guy who had never been to Canada in his entire life. The day I finally snapped there was stunned silence, and then muttering, "You've got to watch those girls from the northern woods." So now you know. Watch out for these...
From that point on, I was an outcast no more. Or rather, I became Ambassador Outcast, the walking encyclopaedia of all facts Canadian. There was no end of polite questioning about our healthcare system, our political system, our holidays and traditions, multiculturalism, hydroelectric power, poutine and even the root causes of the Quebec separatist movement.
No one in my master’s program had any idea this was going on. I didn’t want to seem like a bad guest or, worse, ungrateful for this amazing opportunity to study at a world-class university. I loved the energy and optimism and can-do spirit I found in my peers and professors at Michigan, so I chose to focus on the people who really inspired me and forget the ogres.
Lesson learned: be like a sunflower and turn to face the light. Whenever you find those special people who are positive, thoughtful and supportive, you stick to them like glue. Give them the place of honour in your life that they deserve. And for those who can’t be something positive, whatever the reason, just remember that invisible thread and let the line out as far as you need to.
Part II: Southeast Asia
Fast forward ten years and I was living in the middle of Bangkok, Thailand with my husband and our two small children, a baby and a toddler. We had arrived there after a few years in England, where our children were born. Then it was back to the US for just one year before loading up the shipping container yet again.
I was a total wreck when we first arrived in the Land of Smiles. The baby was a screaming banshee every night and I was so sleep-deprived I thought I would lose my mind. Suddenly, I had help on every possible front: relentless sunshine, warmth, colour, flowers, and the constant presence of some of the kindest, friendliest people on earth. Life in Bangkok came with a full complement of maids, nannies and a wonderful driver who knew the city like the back of his hand. I had people in my life whose job was making my problems go away, and whose attentions were soothing and magical.
With their help, I managed to climb out of that black pit of postpartum exhaustion. As I recovered, I had more energy to think about the people around me and what their lives were like. I started to understand that every person we employed was supporting many others: parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and children of their own. Bangkok’s Filipina maids were part of a vast network of young people living and working abroad and sending money back to their home country every month. They were far from their loved ones but their connections to family and community were incredibly strong.
It was over too soon. A couple of years after leaving Bangkok for Dublin, we returned for a holiday and found our beloved fast-paced city had already changed dramatically. In Bangkok, entire skyscrapers go up in about half the time it takes to build a family home in Europe. But it wasn’t quite the same for us anymore, and not just because of new construction. Many of the people we had known in Bangkok had already moved on. We realised that our connection to the place had a lot to do with our connection to the people.
Some things change but some things stay the same. Bangkok's incredible friendliness can make a megacity of 8 million people feel more like a cosy village. During that trip, I had a chance to stroll along Sukhumvit Road near where I used to stop at a fruit seller's stall. Two years away is a long time for Bangkok, practically a lifetime. I couldn’t help smiling when I saw the same fruit lady still doing business in her usual spot. I had no reason to expect she would know me anymore. Why would she? But she spotted me in the crowd, planted one hand on her hip - a little accusingly - and said, "Khun Anna, why you gone so long?" That invisible thread connecting us was still there and wrapped around my heart. It felt like coming home.
Part III: Europe
After a brief stay in Ireland, we were off to Germany for a long-term assignment and the promise of a more normal life. Germany seemed like an ideal place to settle down and raise our family. Little did we know it was going to be our biggest challenge yet. We had to learn a new language, a new culture, a new set of norms and an amazing variety of rules for just about everything.
We were all gung-ho for integration, so we put our kids straight into the German school system. That’s when reality hit. I couldn’t communicate with the teachers. I couldn’t understand any of the letters from the school. I didn’t know who Frau Schulze was! Suddenly I’d morphed from being a smart, capable adult into a helpless infant. I was dependent on the kindness of neighbours for even the simplest things, like reading the mail, getting a library card or figuring out how recycling works.
Then there were troubles without end: a ten-year nightmare involving special needs and a school system not designed for accommodating difference. We tumbled through the years arranging diagnostic tests, treatments, therapies, medications, interventions, endless parent-teacher meetings, and planning meetings to organize all the other meetings. Spoiler alert: everything turns out just fine. Fingers crossed!
Our families were an ocean away, but we weren’t alone. I’d built a strong network of local connections and that made all the difference to my everyday experience. Through the worst of times, I knew I could rely on wonderful German friends plus a fantastic international community made up of expats from all over the world. We meet, greet, eat, laugh, play, travel and celebrate together. I can count on my friends to bring good cheer and a wicked sense of humour to any situation. They remind me to put my burden down and have a bit of fun.
A friend once told me about her grandmother’s experience as a German immigrant in Canada. Her grandmother had limited English and few resources, so she turned every problem into a fact-finding mission. She would talk and talk and talk to everyone she met, knowing that somebody knew somebody who knew something that could help her. And, so it was for me as well. I’ve often thought of this Canadian Oma, how I followed her example from long ago, and how that shared bit of wisdom is the invisible thread between us.
Part IV: Global
The world has changed dramatically in the decades that I’ve been abroad. More than half the world’s population uses the Internet at least once a day. We have near instant access to people all over the globe and are more connected than ever. So how is it that so many of us are lonelier than ever? The answer is: no number of online connections can ever be enough. They can’t sustain us or give our lives meaning. What they CAN do is offer tenuous threads of connection that we can use to build or maintain real relationships.
And there’s the catch right there. Real relationships take work. They have setbacks, failures, disappointments. They show that we’re only human instead of perfectly edited and perfectly presented. Real relationships require us to be vulnerable, and that makes most of us a little uncomfortable. Social media sites have given us this big sandbox to play in where we can maintain connections while also keeping our distance. That’s always been part of the appeal, but now we need to be more aware of how it works against our need for real human connections.
My children could be the first never-Facebook generation. In the meantime, most of us in the expat community are resigned to being stuck with it. Love it or hate it, Facebook plays a useful role in preserving our connections with friends and family, no matter where in the world we go.
A few years ago, the inevitable happened. Just in time for a reunion, Facebook reeled me in to reconnect with my old school friends from Iroquois. Seeing them again was a bit like finding a long-missing piece of a puzzle. It somehow made me feel whole and right again, despite those invisible threads lying dormant for so many years.
That sense of well-being that comes from our connections to others isn’t just something in the nice-to-have category. It’s essential to our health and happiness -- and can even affect how long we live. Our connections enrich our lives. They can lift us up and help us to discover the best in ourselves. Living abroad teaches you that everyone you know is a part of who you are. And our pursuit of well-being through meaningful connection to each other is the common thread that connects us all.