Working in a foreign country is like being a classically trained opera singer and unexpectedly finding oneself on stage at the end of Act I of Hair, singing rock music . . . in the nude. So much is different, so much of what you relied upon without even thinking about it is missing — yet all you have to do is what you know you are already good at, and you will shine. And you might even learn something.
My third full-time job was teaching English to workers in Tokyo. It was the first time I had ever lived anywhere outside of Massachusetts. As the date of my departure approached, I was preoccupied by two thoughts. Part of me worried that something would go wrong and that I would somehow be left homeless and penniless (well, yenless) in the streets of Tokyo, my rudimentary Japanese leaving me unable to ask for help or guidance, only for a pen, your name, or some tuna sushi. Another part of me was insanely excited about the experience of living in a place so totally alien to everything I had known. I expected the differences to be so inherent to my new environment that I literally believed that I would see different colors everywhere — more vibrant reds, maybe, or washed-out blues.
Thus, my first few days in Japan were both a relief and a disappointment. A relief, because it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t end up on the streets; the company for which I worked, Interac, had a system in place to help new teachers get settled, and in short order I had both a job and a place to live. (Besides, to get my visa I had to have purchased a return ticket already, so the absolute worst that I should even have worried about would have been having to walk to Narita Airport.) A disappointment, because as far as I could tell, the laws of physics and chemistry were the same in Tokyo as in Boston — the colors were all the same, and there was no obvious magic to be found.
In time, of course, I discovered the million joys and frustrations of living in a new culture, and realized that their effects were not so drastic as destitution nor so exotic as Technicolor. I now believe that everyone should live and work in another country at some point — at the very least, every American, since emigration and its effects are so ingrained in our culture, and yet it is easy to remain stuck with a one-dimensional view of those effects until you experience a taste of their origin.
But even beyond the general personal benefits of understanding what it is like to be the outsider and appreciating contrasting standards of law and culture, working in another country can broaden your professional self as well. Part of it is what you learn from the new environment. Seeing how things are done differently at work can give you a better sense of which practices are inherently valuable, no matter what the environment, and which ones are basically just cultural choices that could be challenged and changed. It also exposes you to new ways of doing things, which can make you more creative and open in the future.
Complementing these external lessons is what you can learn about your own work persona. When you start over in a new place — and in this context, the new place does not need to be another country; it could be any place far from home and noticeably different from your home culture, like moving from Alaska to New York City — you only take so much with you. You bring your skills, your experience, your interests, your smarts; you leave behind your support network of colleagues and mentors, your sense of specific office politics, your knowledge of local resources, and your understanding of how your co-workers and bosses measure success. This gives you two valuable opportunities. First, you can develop more confidence, ingenuity, and flexibility as you discover how to succeed with those inherent talents that you brought with you. Second, you have the chance to develop more consciously and selectively those contextual resources — like networks, knowledge of business practices, and a grasp of cultural mores — that you first developed practically incidentally back at home. You not only learn about another way of doing business; you learn how to learn about other ways of doing business.
So working in another land helps you develop your professional persona not just by adding a bank of cultural knowledge to your repertoire (although that is a fantastic benefit); it also teaches you how to move into a new situation — a new job, a new culture, a new field, a new nation — and to adapt to it more efficiently and wisely. To paraphrase the saying, it doesn’t just give you a fish; it teaches you how to fish, even out of water.