So I was backing out of the garage Saturday when I heard a loud CRUNCH. As I jerked my head to the right I witnessed my passenger-side mirror’s demise in an all-out battle with the garage door frame. The frame won.

Needless to say, this fiasco was not within my plans and expectations for Saturday with the family. My two young kids were in the backseat, my six-year-old daughter panicking at the aggressive shattering and popping sounds while my three-year-old son sat too shocked to speak. Fortunately my wife, Laura, was not in the car as she would have vacuumed her tongue down her throat in an all-out gasp.

Yes, things were not going my way. Definitely not as planned. My plan was to walk to the garage with my kids, load them in the truck, back out of the garage, pick up Laura at the back door of the house, and then head to the mall to see Santa Claus followed by Jason’s Deli for lunch. But, as can happen in big and small ways, plans get derailed.

As I write these words, I can look out my large second floor office window at a long freight train passing by. Derailment can mean different things to different people in varying contexts. For me, I was inconvenienced for a couple days by the inability to see behind me as well due to the absence of that mirror. This lasted about two days before just today getting it replaced at the tune of $314. Ouch. But, in the big scheme of things, as they say, my issue was just not that big of a deal. I was able to roll with the changes.

However, when we are talking about global relocation, the need to be flexible is invaluable. More than switching cars for the day when we knock off a side-mirror, when we relocate our families we must bypass intensely challenging situations via equally elastic flexibility. When you arrive on the mission field before learning you will be working with deaf nationals who refuse to communicate in any other way than sign language. When you arrive for your first day of the big overseas assignment to find the host nationals want to welcome the new boss’ arrival by roasting and eating animal intestines at a fine dinner held in your honor. Or, when you arrive as an excited international student and learn you enrolled in a university with strict religious and behavioral guidelines with which you are not accustomed or agree.

Cross-cultural adaptation takes incredible levels of flexibility, because we all, no matter what, go into situations with expectations. When these expectations are not met, and they rarely are completely met, we experience discomfort. This discomfort can leave us depressed, angry, confused, or upset at best. We second-guess our decision to make the transition and begin to consider just packing up and going home.

Cross-Cultural Training for International Students

If this is you, or if you are heading into a relocation situation, know for a fact that knowledge truly is power. Now, this saying is a bit of a cliche, but is nonetheless true. People who have experienced cross-cultural relocation challenges will tell you and me that simply knowing what to expect can help ease its burdens. Knowing about culture-shock does not mean we can avoid it, but instead it can mean that we will recognize it when IT IS happening and know what to do about it.

The good news is that we can begin working on our flexibility today. In a safe environment, challenge yourself with simple adaptations to your routine. For some, a very small tweak to this routine can send you into an emotional mess, while others fly completely by the seat of their pants. If you relate with the former, this post is for you. Start today. Do something on the fly, ditch the planner for a day, etc. Make yourself feel that uncomfortable sensation that comes with feeling controlled plans slip from your fingers and face that feeling head-on. Don’t retreat to your planner. Instead, embrace that moment and prove to yourself that when you are on the field, you will be able to conquer the unforeseen challenges eye-to-eye.

My side-mirror was nothing compared to the challenges you will face as a global expat. Don’t let these words discourage you. Instead, know that you can successfully face these challenges, but you have to put in the work to get ready. Just like the top-tier college athletes who compete for our TV-viewing pleasure, they must work, work, work to be conditioned for that weekend game. If they took the field or court without a forethought to their upcoming performance, they would surely fail.

So practice your sign language, be prepared to eat unfamiliar (and maybe disgusting) foods, and be willing to learn about other religions. If you want to be successful as an expat, flexibility has proven to be one of the top intercultural competencies. Start practicing your ability to go with the flow today. As a matter of fact, the holidays with family can be a great time and place to practice your flexibility.

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