Interesting expat: relationship specialist Vivian Chiona

I first came across Vivian when she contacted me via LinkedIn. We had a chat on Skype – her in the Netherlands, me at my kitchen office desk – and I found her to be an incredibly warm and supportive person. An experienced expat herself, Vivian has founded her own counselling service – Expat Nest – to help others transitioning into expat life, with a special emphasis on relationships and a specialism in children and teenagers. The Expat Nest website introduces the service as a “warm, safe and confidential” counselling service and, having spoken in person to Vivian, I am quite sure this is what it would be. I thought it would be interesting to hear a bit more about Vivian, her own background and about the service she provides to help expats with parenting teens, expat life and relationships generally.

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Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how long you have been an expat, where you are from and where you have lived?

I am a bicultural, multilingual expat with family all over the world. I was born and grew up in Greece and have been living and working in the Netherlands for the past eight years. I love travelling, exploring new cultures, trying different food and collecting folktales from all over the world.

I’m also a qualified psychologist and the founder of http://www.ExpatNest.com. Expat Nest provides emotional support to expats and their families by offering telephonic and online counselling services (via Skype and Facetime).

What brought you down the expat road to start with? Was it planned or accidental?
Because of my multicultural background, I’m not really surprised to have expatriated! I feel it’s a big part of who I am. My relocation to the Netherlands to study was planned; however the length of my stay was not. The initial plan of staying for one year in Holland has since become almost a decade!

What has been the most positive thing for you about being an expat?

Celebrating diversity and getting to know people from all over the world… trying their food, listening to their music and just enjoying the blessing of being in a multicultural setting. I simply love it! I also feel at home when I’m around internationals.

And what about the least positive? If you could change one thing about your way of life, what would it be?

The most challenging part of being an expat is that the goodbyes accumulate as friends come and go. Saying goodbye to my family after a visit to Greece is also difficult. No matter how many years I’m away, I still feel the sadness of farewells.

As for what I would change… the weather in the Netherlands! I know it seems trivial, but as someone from a country with 10 months of sunshine a year, I have really struggled to adjust to the climate here.

Tell me about Expat Nest, the online-counselling service you started for expats. Why did you start it, why do you think it’s something that is needed? Who is it aimed at and how do you help them?

It all started with my vision to inspire love and joy in expats everywhere! Founding Expat Nest has therefore been a dream come true for me. I’ve always been really passionate about supporting expatriates and it didn’t take long for me to notice a significant need for counselling services devoted to them.

I know from both my personal and professional experience that expat life can be daunting and lonely at times. This spurred me on to create a comforting, empathetic environment (hence the name ‘Expat Nest’) in which expats could feel heard and understood and deal with the unique challenges they face (like saying all those goodbyes!).

In a mobile life, technology is often the only constant, so it made sense to offer online counselling so that I could truly serve expats. As a result, Expat Nest’s services are accessible, convenient and flexible for all expats, across all borders and all time zones – this is truly counselling without borders. What also makes us different is that we are expats/internationals and highly qualified – so expats are guaranteed a professional supportive service.

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In my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I talk about how hard the expat life can be on relationships. What can people do to try and protect their relationship? Would you recommend counselling even before they move?

I think it helps to understand that relationships exist within an emotional eco-system. When the external variables change – whether a new friend group, job or neighbourhood – the relationship often has to adapt. And of course, it’s also challenging when one partner follows their heart to a new country. Moving for love is one of today’s classic dilemmas and it’s important to recognize that the person moving is not weaker or less-than.

Fortunately there are a number of ways expats can protect and nurture their relationship, including:

• Keeping communication open and honest so that you avoid letting negative feelings build up
• Rediscovering your identity in the new place so that you feel empowered and whole in the relationship
• Setting realistic expectations of your partner so that you don’t expect all your happiness to come from one person
• Meeting other expats (both individually and as a couple) so that you have the space to discuss your unique challenges as an expat. For more pointers, check out this article I recently wrote on moving for love.

And yes, I would highly recommend counselling before moving abroad as it can make a significant difference to the whole relocation experience. (This could be a one-off session or a limited number of sessions – it needn’t be a lengthy process.) Pre-relocation counselling allows you to prepare emotionally and mentally for the move, but it also facilitates a safe space in which to talk about any thoughts and feelings that are not easy to discuss with our partner or children, or those we are leaving behind. That said, if you’re about to move and weren’t aware of the benefits of pre-relocation counselling, or just don’t feel ready for it, that’s okay too. Trust in your wisdom and do what feels right for you.

As well as adults, you also work with children – particularly teens – and in fact one of your specialisations is as a child and adolescent psychologist. I feel this is a hugely important subject and one that perhaps isn’t considered enough before families make the decision to move abroad. What sort of issues do you particularly find yourself dealing with in this area?

There are a number of common challenges faced by expat teens, including:

• Grief at having said many goodbyes
• Feeling disempowered due to lack of preparation or discussion by the parents before the move
• Being reluctant to invest in friendships/relationships as they know they will move again or have already experienced the pain of leaving people behind
• Shutting off emotions to avoid feeling the same pain again
• Feeling confused about their identity or uncertain where “home” is
• Feeling angry without knowing why
• Loneliness as they miss old friends and attempt to make new friends
• Struggles in adjusting to the new culture and way of being

If you’d like more info on helping expat teens and TCKs to thrive in their new country, feel free to read our blog articles, including “10 things you might not have known about TCKs”; “10 ways to improve communication with your child (teens too!)” and “How expat kids can use their difference to make a difference”.

What advice would you give to parents contemplating an overseas move with their children?

It’s essential that parents have in-depth discussions with their teens before moving, so that teens feel empowered (and even excited!) about the move.

After the move:
• Ask your teen to describe his expat experience in three words – this is a great way to lead into an honest discussion about his feelings/thoughts. Above all, listen to your teen… even if what he says is difficult to hear!
• Brainstorm ways to help reduce any painful feelings that have come up. Do this together – the idea is to avoid giving instant solutions and rather help your child to build up his own coping tools. Be sure also to convey the comforting message that any hurtful feelings will lessen in time.
• Focus on the positives of expat life, such as a fresh start, the chance to learn about another culture or learn a new language, and the opportunity to develop an expanded worldview.
• Remind your teen that friendship and love are not gone; all the important people in the previous country/school are still there. Encourage your teen to communicate with those left behind using online technology.
• Put up photos of your previous life to give a sense of stability and continuity (assuming that your teen is ok with this).
• If the painful feelings persist and are affecting your teen’s ability to function (e.g. disturbed sleep, poor academic performance, isolation, high levels of anxiety), seek out professional help.

Thank you Vivian for telling us about yourself and your counselling service. You might want to know that you can get free resources by signing up to Vivian’s website; but in the meantime I would be interested to hear what any expats think of specific counselling aimed at them – do you think it’s necessary? Do you wish you had known about services such as Expat Nest? Would you consider using a service such as this?

Interesting expat interview: Helping sportspeople settle into life abroad

Welcome to another post in my occasional series Interesting Expat. In this interview, I talk to a woman who has taken her own experiences of living and working abroad and turned them into a business to help others going through the same thing. She has even cornered one little niche part of the market – assisting athletes and other sportspeople taking up contracts overseas. It’s certainly an interesting angle on the expat experience, and one that has led to her writing a book as well. Please meet Suzanne Salzbrenner

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Hi and thanks for answering my questions about your life as an expat. First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your family, where you are from originally, and where you live now?

Sure! We are a truly multicultural family, currently based close to Paris, France. I am originally German and met my Brazilian husband in Copenhagen, Denmark while we were both working there. We have two trilingual children, although they claim to know many more languages.

And can you tell me about where you have lived as an expat in the past– and what took you there?

I actually started my experience of cultural transitions early on without moving. Growing up in the East of Germany, I was raised partially during the communist times and then had to re-adjust to a new way of thinking. I think it added an extra pinch of curiosity for different perspectives to my approach on life.

Since then I have lived in the United States as a teenager, in Australia as a researcher, in Denmark as a consultant. After my husband searched for opportunities in his company for an international assignment, we have ventured out to China and France with our kids, and I started my journey as an entrepreneur.

 Of all the various countries you have lived in, which has been the one that you have enjoyed the most?

I enjoyed different countries for different reasons, also due to the different life stages I was in. I loved living in Australia, simply because of the life style, laid back work atmosphere and diversity of culture and natural wonders. China fascinated me culturally. But overall, I would say that I wouldn’t want to miss any of the six stations in my life, since they represented different stages in my development.

And which surprised you the most – either for positive or for negative reasons?

France was probably the most surprising. Because it is a neighbouring country to my home country, I didn’t expect as many cultural differences. We also came here with a lot of stereotypes about the country that we had gathered from short vacation trips. Many of them turned out to get in our way of integrating when they turned out to not be quite so true. We live in a rural area without a lot of foreigners. The integration process of finding friends, being forced to speak the language and jumping through many bureaucratic hoops took us a bit longer than expected.

Your experiences have led to you setting up your own company, as well as write a book – can you tell me a bit about that? Why do you think there is a need for this sort of support? Who is it aimed at, and how do you think your experience can help others?

I’ve been working in the cross-cultural consulting business as an organizational psychologist and intercultural trainer since 2008. By that time I had already moved internationally 4 times before becoming an expat spouse. Following my husband was actually quite difficult in the sense that I wasn’t in control anymore. But I figured that I had the unique opportunity to see the experience of global mobility from all sides.

While I was able to continue my training and consulting work throughout the assignments as a freelancer, I have also ventured into creating my own start-up “Fit across Cultures” that focuses on providing resources and coaching to professional athletes in their international transition and integration process, enabling them to maximize their success abroad. The book I wrote focuses on this exact group of people and is called “Play Abroad 101”. I played basketball in many of the places I lived in and always noticed a shortcoming of preparations and integration support for the foreign players that arrived. The plan for this resource existed in my head for a while, but living in France gave me the time I needed to work on it.

My experience of living and working abroad has definitely influenced my way of coaching and training others that are venturing out and often taking the leap into an unknown world. We often find things to be quite different from the guidebooks, don’t we? Whether it is an athlete, a business executive or a spouse, stepping out of that comfort zone is more of a feeling and a sensation you have than a cognitive process. Many levels of learning and development abroad happen unconsciously. Without my own experiences, I wouldn’t be able to relate and describe the process in the same way that I can now.

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Can you give any examples of how the support you are able to offer has helped someone, and how?

I’ve just recently had an example of a young family moving to France with quite typical concerns about the adjustment of their child. I offered them insights into the French day care system. When I looked up, their faces were white, mouths wide open. They were appalled, surprised, and speechless. Quite a normal reaction! Wanting “the best” for your children often stands for following what you consider “normal” in your home country. Every cultural clash, especially when it comes to child care, often creates a big emotional conflict and a gigantic step out of one’s comfort zone. For me as a trainer however, it opens up a great discussion about our values and how they influence our judgements (often without realizing it). We discussed the educational values that are behind the French system, dove into the reasons why French regard education and parenthood differently than the couple.

Talking about different ways of reaching the same goal, the couple realized that there were certain advantages of the system they could use while holding on to their own beliefs of how to raise their child. My job was to facilitate that deeper interaction with the French culture beyond what is visible and enabling them in shifting their perspective, a vital skill to success abroad.

How do you find clients – do they approach you, or you them? How do people find out about what you are doing?

I wear multiple hats throughout the day, so how I find clients changes depending on the role I have. As a freelance trainer, I work with consulting companies that hire me to provide certain services like expat training. I am also part of virtual teams, for example this initiative for an online training platform for German-speaking spouses (“How to create my life abroad”).

For my own business, I utilize the power of social media to connect and find collaboration partners, as well as potential clients. I am especially active on LinkedIn and Twitter (@fitaxcultures). I also run a podcast for athletes abroad that helps to drive visibility. Additionally, I am a freelancer writer and my work has been featured in a variety of magazines related to expat life, international business or sports, which helps me staying visible and credible in the field.

Do you think your help can translate across into other areas of expat life, or is it very specific?

My work translates into all areas of expat life. Learning about the impact of our values and cultural preferences on our behaviour, how to be more competent when working and living with different cultures, and how to treat people inclusively transcends into every aspect of our life.

If you could give your pre-expat self an advice what would it be?

What are you waiting for? Don’t just stand on the edge and observe, take the full leap and soak up this new culture to the fullest.

Make a bucket list and start working on it from day 1.

What would be your “dream” expat destination – and why?

Tough one….but probably a melting pot with a bit of Asian flavour, like Hong Kong or Singapore. These cities offer the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

And is there anywhere you would even have said a definite NO to?

Never say never! Although at this point, my husband and I have reached the point of wanting to choose a place to live by ourselves and not directed by a company’s expansion strategy 

Finally, would you prefer your children to end up living in another country to you – or would you like them to stay close?

I would like them to choose where they are happiest. As third culture kids, they will have to find a place that fits their identities.

Thank you so much Susan. What an interesting background, and it’s great that you’ve taken what you know and turned it into a business to help others.

If you think you are an “interesting expat” and would like to be interviewed for this series, please let me know!