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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Getting Here, Working Here: An Expat's Experience in Corporate America

I was sitting in one of those fluorescent corporate cafeterias eavesdropping on the women at the next lunch table. One had vacationed in Thailand. The other had returned from a group tour of Vietnam.

"Over there, it was nothing to see two generations of family crammed into a house no bigger than my living room," said the Vietnam traveler. "Makes you appreciate what we have here, in America."

I will probably never see that American woman’s living room. But I'm willing to bet that it's larger—and certainly more weather-proof—than my childhood home in Ireland. And as for that multi-generational-living thing? Yup, we managed to cram two parents, five kids, two grandparents, and the family dog into a thatch-roof house with three tiny bedrooms.

But, sitting there in that air-conditioned cafeteria, did I interrupt my lunch neighbors to say: “Whoa! Wait. You have no clue how it really is. You have no clue about what I learned from my live-in grandparents, or that poverty and cultural exotica are a lot more than the sum of our non-commodities, of what we don’t possess?"

Nope. I just kept munching on my salad. Ten minutes earlier, I had ordered and paid for that salad in my best expat-American patois.

These days (I have since switched jobs), I work as the communications director for a nonprofit. In my own office, among my own colleagues, I say nothing about my rural, hardscrabble beginnings. Equally, I don’t stand at the office photocopier belting out a Gaelic-language song, just as I don’t brag about how, once, I used to design and knit fisherman-knit sweaters. You'll never see me pulling up a boardroom chair to re-tell one of my live-in grandfather’s fireside stories, like that one about how, as a little boy, his mother (my great-grandmother) took him to town where he saw a huge ship sitting way, way out in the harbor. His mother said that the ship was on a stopover between England and America. It was called the Titanic.

So as an expatriate in America, am I in a perpetual state of what my late mother called “putting dogs on windows” (a.k.a., pretending or trying to be someone I’m not)?

No. And yes.

In my private, non-working life, among my American friends, everything is fair game. Actually, I’m often the one quizzing them about their childhoods. But in the workplace, I’m quite content to “pass” as American.

I was 24 years old when I landed from Ireland at JFK Airport. It was a freezing December afternoon. I had an overstuffed backpack and a borrowed $200 and a set of directions for how and where to catch a Trailways bus.

In my early American years, I worked as a waitress in an Irish-American pub in a jazzy college town. This was the swingin’ ’80s, and that cash ’n’ carry restaurant life was one eye-popping culture shock. Also, in any country or culture, waiting tables is a safari of human behavior: the good, the bad, and the downright weird (especially after midnight).

In that Irish-American pub, for the first time in my life, I had to become—well, Irish. I discovered this “all-Irish” meal called corned beef (yuck) and cabbage. My bar customers ordered this “Irish” beer drink called a Black and Tan. By the way, if you had ever offered my history-buff father any food or beverage of that name, he would have laughed in your face or spat at your feet. (The “black and tans” were a band of temporary British constabularies sent to fight the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. Mostly comprised of World War I vets, the “tans” were famous for their civilian attacks.)

The first week on the job, I learned that the way I spoke was called a “brogue.” And my “brogue” brought a string of questions: Oh, what brought you here? Don’t you miss your family? Aren’t all you Irish chicks named “Colleen?”  

Of course, I was grateful for this job and this all-American chance to reinvent myself from my heretofore life as a parochial school teacher in a rural Irish village. So, bit by bit, I began to assume this packaged, offshore brand of Irishness.

Three years after arrival day, I quit that pub gig to start an evening graduate-school program and to work a string of day jobs, most of them in offices. I’m not proud to admit this, but as I interviewed for and started each new job, I wasn’t above laying on the brogue and the Maureen O’Hara charm.

What I didn’t yet know was this: Playing to a set of Hollywood stereotypes, to a set of broad-brush cultural assumptions, is “putting dogs on windows." And worse, it will deplete our sense of self and self-esteem.

I finished that graduate degree and landed better-paid jobs, including my first gig in business writing and communications.

In one position, I had to deliver a short, monthly overview of the organization's public information policies as part of the new-hire orientation. As an ex-teacher, preparing content and delivering a short, lively presentation was a snap. So I assumed that my participant evaluations would be glowing.

They were.

Then I scrolled down to those add-on, narrative comments: “I liked the communications woman’s accent.” “Love that accent!” “She’s really cute!”

Gulp. What about my carefully prepared content?

Outside of work, I was also building a career as a creative writer. My publications and bylines landed me on some book-discussion panels and public presentations.

More than once, an audience member would approach the podium to say: “Heck, with that accent, you could stand there and read the phone book, and I’d sit here and listen.”

But here’s the thing: I didn't want to read any phone books. I didn't want to have crossed an ocean and navigated a whole new country just to achieve “cute.”

Then came our 21st-century recession. And with it came a lot less room, a much narrower tolerance, for blather or swagger. In a 2008, 8-10% unemployment America, in an America where both the communications and the publishing industries were changing and dipping faster than the NASDAQ, it took real, hard-core skills to snag a new job. And, in a perpetually merging and downsized workplacekeeping that job means being trained, ready, and willing to produce the goods.

I find this delightful. I find it really freeing. Without the cultural distractions, I’m just another middle-aged woman with a skill base that's continually challenged and updated. I'm a woman valued for what I know and what I can do, not for where I came from.

Still, since that day in the lunchtime cafeteria, I have imagined myself turning to those women and regaling them with enough hardscrabble childhood stories to put them off their sandwiches. Like how I remember reaching for the family sugar bowl to sweeten my morning porridge only to discover that the mice had (again) decided to deposit their—ahem—food additives in there. Or how, without indoor plumbing or central heating, a kid needs both skill and stamina to snag herself a Saturday-night bath. Or how infuriating it was to finish all my third-grade homework only to get up in the morning and find it (again) stained with brown rain leaked through the thatch roof.

We weren't a poor family. Thanks to my father’s double life as a weekday truck driver and a weekend farmer, we were actually quite well off—at least by 1970s rural Ireland standards, and at least by how we viewed ourselves or, indeed, where we ranked in our village's socio-economic pyramid. Based on what I overhead at that lunchtime table, our set-up probably didn't match how those women grew up, but in our village primary school, most of my classmates had live-in grandparents. The lucky among us had a pair of good shoes just for Sunday, plus a warm winter coat. If it had once been a sister’s or a cousin’s coat, what difference?

But in that imaginary lunch speech, the glossary becomes longer than the actual content. There are more cultural footnotes, more lost-in-translation asides than any of us would have time for.

And anyway, from our company dress codes to our bullet-pointed, buzzwordy chatter, today’s workplaces breed a certain homogenization. We assume that most or all of us watched after-school TV and used the microwave on the kitchen shelf and went to U.S. colleges where Dad delivered us for freshman orientation and Mom kitted out our dormitory with a mini-fridge.

There are those of us who didn’t. There are those of us who get up in the morning and stand under the shower belting out a foreign-language song. We go home at night to dream in another language. But in our fluorescent, white-walled workplaces, we abandon all that in the downstairs lobby. Why? Because, as I learned the hard way, the socio-economic dissonance and the cultural quirks can eclipse what’s really there, what we can really do.

I can improve America. There. For 20-plus years now, I’ve been longing to just come out and say that. In my own small way, in my creative and working life, I believe that I can be the softly spoken (ha!) but persistent voice for better healthcare, better education, and fairer public policies—the kinds of policies that let kids go to bed at night with full bellies and go to school in the morning without a bullet-proof backpack.

But tell me: How can a woman improve a country, how can she write or fight for anything—anything worthwhile, anyway—if all she’s considered by the people around her is “cute?”

Photo of woman going to work courtesy of Shutterstock.