【interview / vol.23-English】Fast-track your career by learning the local language and jumping into the new culture!
This time we have interviewed with JoAnn
Please click here for the article in Japanese.
ー Tell us about yourself
I am american-filipinie and was born in California. My husband is from Britain. I have two sons. I met my husband in Washington, DC then I followed him for his assignment in Hong Kong, Singapore, UK and Brazil. I’ve been living in Sao Paulo, Brazil for three years. My regular activities are looking after the children, volunteering with the International Newcomers Club as the Vice President of Welcoming, and freelancing with international development projects in writing proposals and concept papers. Until last year I was also helping out NGOs with monitoring and evaluating their nutritional programs.
ー I have heard that you have a very interesting and flexible expat career. Could you tell us about your career?
I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t do any job for a long time because being a wife and a mother is not enough for me. I want to have a professional life too. But I can’t just do any job. I studied Communications and Spanish in undergraduate and Public Health in post-graduate. So before getting married, I worked at an international NGO as a program manager for a health program of the prevention of HIV in Tanzania and also in Guyana. At that time, my husband and I had been keeping a long-distance relationship. But my husband got a job offer in Hong Kong, so I quit my job and we moved to Hong Kong together, and we got married. So that’s when my expat life with my husband started. In Hong Kong, I worked for the Red Cross as a coordinator for Emergency Unit and after living there for two years, we moved to Singapore. Then I worked in the Public Health Promotion area of the Singapore government. Although I had the first child in Singapore, I was able to continue working, taking maternity leave. After four and a half years, we went back to the UK and I had the second child. We lived in London for four and a half years, and then we came to Brazil.
ー Do you work in Brazil?
Somebody I know from London suggested to me to contact a nutritional NGO in Brazil. So, I contacted them and I got the opportunity to talk with them but at first, they didn't know what to do with me. Finally, after five conversations, they said, "Okay, I think we have a project for you." But it took a long time. Because I think Brazilians, they like to talk, they like to find out more about you. They want to know you before they can give you any work. And so, it started from there. I ended up working with them as a volunteer for two years. Through the work, I learnt that there were some cultural differences in the way we and the Brazilians work but I had had a lot of program management experiences in public health, so I was able to advise them on finding a better solution. It was a good cultural and professional experience for me.
ー Did you find any difficulties working in Brazil?
When I came to Brazil, it was different from any other expat situation I had because I had to learn Portuguese. I had no problems in Hong Kong because Red Cross is an international organization and people at work all spoke English and in Singapore, they all speak English. So, my first priority here was to learn the language. If I were to learn again, I would learn it more quickly because I suffered a lot. I couldn’t be understood. I kept trying to say something but people didn’t understand. But after 3 months, it got better. I still take private Portuguese lessons twice a week though to review what I have already learnt and to improve.
ー I had thought that it must be easier for English speaking people to find a job elsewhere but we’re in the same condition if we live in the country where English is not the first language, aren’t we?
Actually, in Brazil, they have a law that is if you're not paid, you can only work eight hours a week. But I would work from home just to build up my skills, I did a lot of reading, and writing because Portuguese being my second language, I needed time to translate before I gave a presentation or before I spoke to them. For me it was fine because I was learning Portuguese and also working on my professional skills. I was also happy to get feedback from my coworkers like “I learnt a lot from you!” It’s very different from home life, like time with the husband and the children's school life… So, it was very important for me to find something that was more professional even though it's pro bono. Actually, it also helped me to settle into a new life here because I had somewhere to go with a regular schedule. I stopped working there at the end of last year but I enjoyed the work even though I wasn’t paid.
ー Are you involved in any work now?
I do two things. One is work at another NGO through my children's school, where I’m helping with fundraising events. It’s so different from the one I used to do. The committee is the parents of my children’s school so it’s almost like an extension of school. This is like being an expat. Working with other English-speaking expats is a very different work experience from the one before. The other thing is the work at the expat club where English-speaking expats get together. I’m the VP of Welcoming. So, I’m the first point of contact when you want to become a member. I’m a sociable person but it’s difficult to socialize when you don’t speak the language very fluently. So, for me to make the connections with other expats who can speak the same language made all the difference. So, I can understand why the Japanese community is so strong because you feel so comfortable, right?
ー Yes, language can be a real challenge for us. But you seem so integrated in the local community. How did you do that?
The way that I overcame the culture shock was just getting more involved. But it took me a long time to get to know the neighbors, for example. It took me a while to be able to have the courage to talk to them. I had to convince myself, "It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be perfect Portuguese, just say Hello. Ask them questions. “ At the end of the day, I realize that everybody is not too different. Everybody wants their kids to be happy and to have social life. So, now I’m in the WhatsApp group of our apartment building and volunteer for the kids’ activities that we do at our apartment like Easter, Halloween and Christmas parties and every Friday I get invited to a Playdate, which changed the life of my children.
ー Your courage and action changed everything. That’s great. Are there anything you are grateful for in your expat life?
Yes, I have 3 things that I am grateful for. I have a full time help so I don’t have to do all the domestic work all by myself. It’s not like I ask her to do everything. I also do some work but I’m very happy that I have someone that I can rely on because my husband is here to work and to advance his career. I can support him if I have somebody to support me (hahaha). I am able to spend evenings with husband out of the house because our nanny can take of our kids. Opportunity to travel and learning a new language.
ー It’s nice that you can spend evenings with your husband. Tell us about your husband. Does he support your career? Is he cooperative?
My husband is encouraging me to start up my career again. We've been together for a long time. So, he knows that I enjoy working and what I can be good at. So, he's always trying to encourage me. The funny thing is I applied for a job last month, and then I got the email a week later with a positive reply. But my husband was in shock and concerned like “who’s picking up the children? who's going to discipline them?” He was the one who suggested me to get a job but when I really got it, he was worried about the quality of life going down. So, I think he's supportive in the idea but in reality he’s a little worried. When the job really starts, I think we have to see if it’s really going to work as a family because to us educating and discipling the kids is important.
ー So, you now have a paid work? How did you find your job?
Here in Brazil, there are not many part-time jobs because of the law I mentioned. I want to work but thinking of the family, it’s difficult to do full time jobs. So, I thought I had to find work from overseas. Then I tried to contact all my old contacts, emailing, calling, updating my CV through LinkedIn, reminding people who I was. Then my ex-boss from Tanzania said her husband started a new organization, relying on freelance consultants. They didn’t give me a job right away but I emailed them saying “I’m available”. That’s what you have to do when you’re a freelancer. You have to say I’m available. Then I got some assignments. I worked even when I was on holidays because I didn’t want them to think that I was not professional. My husband supported my idea of working after our children slept. It was a good professional experience and I was happy to get my own money and do some shopping for me. Recently I contacted another NGO. This one is from the contact from Singapore. So everything is from my past. I told them that it’s not going to work full time but I could do freelance. I was a little worried to say this but they still seemed interested. So if you don’t ask, you don’t get it.
ー I understand. It’s important to sell yourself when you’re a freelancer. How do you manage your work-life balance?
I have a nanny but at the moment, I only have paid work every few months so I can manage it. For the unpaid work, I’m only allowed to work 8 hours a week as per the Brazilian law and I do it while my kids are at school and my husband is at the office. I think with planning I can find my balance. But there are some cases where I can’t find the balance. For example, just before the charity event for the NGO, I worked so much so my husband said to me “Get off the computer, Stop working so much!” But I want to get the things done properly and I feel responsible. So sometimes I can’t find the balance…
ー Are you anxious about reemployment after going back to your country?
Yes, I think so. We’ve been here almost for 3 years and when we go back, it would be 4 years. I do think that it won't be an easy transition after not working but I am trying to look at the positive experiences I have gained by learning a new language, building up my ability to be more resilient to changes, and generally being open to flexible work that might not be exactly what I am looking for professionally but allow me to have a work-life balance. So, I want to be relevant to the new workforce. I’m not sure if everything I do here is relevant but hopefully…
ー How are your friends in the same community spending their time as an expat wife? Do you talk about career with your friends?
Some of them work full time. They work for the employers they used to work for. I also have one friend who is working remotely. But they try to find the time to meet for coffee and go for a walk and chat with other expats because people working from home cannot talk with anyone face-to-face otherwise. Some of them don’t work at all and when they I tell them that I work, they say “Are you serious? Don’t you want to enjoy your life?” So, I don't think a job is a common topic of those who are here, because they know, they're only here for a short time and they want to make the most of it. So, I think usually the main topics are about their children, their holidays and just getting organized for themselves, or doing cultural things. But when people found out that I started doing some volunteer work that was more like professional work, some of them were very interested and said things like "So how can I do that?" and "Oh, I want to do that."
ー What do you think is important to do in terms of developing your career while you're away from your country and live your life as an expat wife?"
I think you still need to do something. The volunteer work that I really enjoyed, I know it’s more social, but it still builds your people skill in terms of working in a committee. You have to have board meetings, you have to approve, you have to make decisions together. That’s more like an office environment. I think maintaining the actual skills like writing, collaborating, reading a lot about how careers are developing is important in my case because public health communication that I studied is changing all the time. Also, when I have time, I try to watch short videos of tutorials on LinkedIn to upgrade my skills. People like my husband, they can learn on the job but I don’t have job all the time that teaches me how to do this. So, I think technology upgrading as well as knowledge building is important.
ー Lastly, it looks like you are enjoying your life here but is there anything you would like to change in your life?
I want my Portuguese to be even more fluent. But my big advice for a lot of people is that it never has to be perfect to approach an organization because they might be struggling in something you really know a lot about. That's why I just use the best of Portuguese I know and I was able to make contributions to NGOs. It was a good lesson for me as well. You don't have to be perfect for people to really appreciate you.
ー It’s a very encouraging word for us. Do you have any other messages for other expat wives?
I think it is important to have an identity that is part professional and not just about being a good wife or mother. It gives the children motivation as well to see their mother working to help them achieve their goals!