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Paramecium is an expat with the sage power to navigate

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

This article was first published on LinkedIn

Amidst the season of commencement, with my niece graduating from high school tomorrow, I am once again drawn to Angela Duckworth's speech delivered to the Class of 2020 at the University of Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago. Watching her on YouTube, I somehow feel that I have come face-to-face with my wiser elder self giving me permission to continue to embody the paramecium, and that the humble paramecium is “like a Roomba vacuum…makes its way in the world through trial and error…to get unstuck, to find nourishment, to keep making its life better.”

I remember the first few months when I first arrived at this little boarding school in England. I cried almost every day with such despair, gloom, and futility. I was so scared of what I had embarked upon even though it was my choice to study abroad at 16. The enormity of leaving home in Hong Kong and crossing borders, cultures, and time zones suddenly caught up with me as I tiptoed through the liminal space into the beginning of my expat life towards becoming a third culture/cross-cultural kid. I wish Angela Duckworth was there reframing this brainless single cell paramecium for me, explaining the values of adaptability, resilience, and persistence, and that the road ahead is not straight, and that is OK.

The road isn’t straight

I so resonate with Anne Finucane's 5 things I’d Tell My Younger Self, particularly with "the road isn’t straight." It’s like sailing. We can’t point the boat directly to where we want to go and expect the wind will take us directly there. Of all the different levels of unknown and facets of uncertainty in life, to know that the road isn’t straight, and that is in fact OK, seems to be the most calming, comforting, and even cheering thing to say in a world that is consistently transforming.

The summer after I sat through my A-levels, I went to New Orleans to visit my aunt, my father’s sister, whose husband was a professor there. With my aunt and her family first immigrated to the US, another branch of my father’s side of the family started to cross the Pacific to attend graduate school there. It was a glorious summer catching up with my many cousins. That summer fed my nostalgic need to be with family—I had been away for almost two years at that point—and I was able to be an expat at the same time. The notion of staying on for college was attractive. And I eventually went to college and graduate school in the US.

It took me more than a year to determine my major. I stumbled into an introductory anthropology class in my first year of college and the experience of learning, researching, and living in a Pacific island like Margaret Mead resonated with me greatly. And that became my North Star, though not necessarily with clear intention at the time.

I knew then that I would be going to graduate school. My academic advisor suggested my taking some statistics classes to boost my research skills. It turned out that I was good at Math. I ended up with an MS in Mathematics, which eventually landed me my first full-time job as a research scientist with the US Navy, and later, with NASA studying the ocean’s role in climate change. Much later, it was love and the opportunity to live and learn in a big island straddling the Pacific and Indian oceans that brought me to Indonesia, where I learned to become a management consultant, and for almost two decades I have worked and continued to work on sustainable development projects.

The power to navigate

Shirzad Chamine, founder and CEO of Positive Intelligence, states that “the power to navigate is about choosing between various paths and alternatives based on a consistent internal compass. The coordinates on this compass are your deeply-held values or what gives your life a sense of meaning and purpose. If you keep navigating with this compass, your cumulative choices will generate the fulfillment that comes from living life in alignment with your ideals and principles.”

My coordinates to my North Star have always been learning and being an expat. When I find myself sluggish, it is often one or both of these are out of sync. Maybe I had been at a job or role for so long that it has become too much of an almost mindless routine. Learning for me now has extended to embracing the unknown to open up space to unlearn, learn, and relearn towards innovation. Angela Duckworth, my proxy wiser elder self, digs deeper and reminds me of adaptability, resilience, and persistence.

I continue to live as an expat, at once within and on the fringe of communities, that sense of participating and observing. In our world that is transforming, the continuously expanding options often lead to stress. I become a coach to deepen my connection with my many touch points in life and at work, to continue to have conversations with my wiser elder self. I pause and be thankful, of the duality of bittersweet moments captured brilliantly by Harry Brioche’s Warm Summer Sun via Susan Cain.

What is your North Star?

I’m curious and would love to hear from you on what it’s like to be an expat nowadays.

  • How do you use the power of navigating to reach your North Star?

  • Fast forward, what would your wiser elder self say about the choices you are making now?

Subscribe to Just Be with Lina to receive my next monthly newsletter, to explore how being, rather than doing, can better support us through uncertainty, living on the periphery as expats and TCKs/CCKs. If you want to dive deeper, connect with me to explore how.



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