Alumni Share: Adapting to your Environments

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Podcast Transcript


Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In this episode we will be speaking with Jenna Lindake Heavenriche, a 2013 Boren fellow to Japan. After completing her bachelors, Jenna served as a Shansi fellow with a grassroots NGO in India where she developed an interest in International Development. She later pursued a double masters at American University where she furthered her knowledge of Japanese and the Japanese International Development sector. Since then she has to work as an analyst and researcher with two federal contractors and as a service to the Armed Forces Disaster lead for the American Red Cross in Japan. As a military spouse she has also had to pursue creative career solutions while abroad. Thank you so much for joining us today Jenna!

Jenna:        You're welcome, it's my pleasure

Shabnam:   You’ve transitioned actually quite a bit from doing International Development work in India and then studying in Japan and then working on a military base in Japan, so what was it like being in and then adjusting to these different environments?

Jenna:        I think it's always exciting. Moving to India, that was my first time I've ever been there and I was signed up to be there for two years, and with my Boren at least I knew a little bit what I was getting into, but there's always that excitement of getting on the ground and the excitement of not really knowing what it's going to be like. For me, it always took a lot of humility and also just humor to look back and say this is really uncomfortable but I laugh about it later and just this openness to knowing that I as the foreigner in these situations didn’t really know or even comprehend what I was supposed to do. So being really open to getting feedback, pointed in the right direction or make mistakes and move on, it was humble forgiveness of myself but also trying to adjust to the new realities that we're going to be my life.

Shabnam:   Were there certain new realities that you had to adjust to?

Jenna:        So I think India was I think the most dramatic adjustment for me. I walked in there with an eight week Hindi course to rural India, where not a lot of people spoke English and we did have of course running water and electricity and so on but instead of a shower I had a bucket. It was learning to be like “this is normal I'm not going to be upset about the fact that my shower is now a bucket in my bathroom” and I still clean every morning the same way, it's just a different process. I think also as a second language speaker when you going to places like these, being okay not fully knowing what's going on trying to find resources to help you figure out after the fact how you might have done it differently or maybe even that it didn't matter that much that you didn't quite catch all the comments in that conversation.

Shabnam:   And then in addition to adjusting abroad, you also had to adjust to a military base what was that like?

Jenna:        That was almost more shocking to me because I didn't expect the culture shock that I got there. When I was ready to go to India, ready to go to Japan, I was ready for this different culture and so when it was – I spent about a year between my born time in Kyoto back in the U.S doing some studies before I moved back to the Tokyo area with my new husband to live on this military base on the coast of Japan, and I thought “I know America, the base is going to be like mini America, I know Japan, these are two things I understand” and I think it's shocking to me how different that culture is as somebody who had never been in military communities before. Definitely encourage folks to get to know the military communities around you, it's a very resilient group of people, but I think the hardest thing for me adjusting there was just that I wasn't prepared that it was going to be a different culture. I think what that adjustment – initially I looked inward, I tried to stay in my apartment and then I went to shop out in Japan, and I didn't really connect with the people out in Tokyo as much because it was far, or the people in my neighborhood because I just didn't understand the cultural dynamics, and I hadn’t prepared myself to reach out to them. What it really came down to was realizing that there are, maybe not super well advertised, but there are, in any large community, people like me. Where I wound up finding these like-minded people is through the American Red Cross, and also through a new initiative called the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, or YCAPS, which was sort of a seminar series run by a new nonprofit, through finding those small opportunities on and around base I found people a lot like myself who might actually have been experiencing some of that culture shock of being in Japan on a military base and that unique little cultural mixture that people were dealing with. It was in finding – through activities that mattered to me I was able to find people that were like-minded and able to connect with and grow in that that new culture together.

Shabnam:   How did you go about finding these opportunities and building this community, and did you at all feel supported professionally during your time on the base?

Jenna:        So for the opportunities, I will say that YCAPS was a very happy accident, I happened to be cruising around Facebook and saw “this event is happening near you, you might like it” and I thought that yes I would! When I saw the event, afterwards I went to the organizer and said “this is really cool how can I help?” and then within six months I was the vice president. It was taking the initiative,  not just “I would like to ride on the coattails of what's being done” but really “let me be involved, be belonging in this” and the same with the Red Cross. That was a little more visible they often had a lot of recruitment tables on base and knowing what I did about the Red Cross, I thought about them largely as a disaster response, blood donation, type of organization but they do some really interesting services specific to the military. At that time they were looking to expand into the more disaster stuff, so when I walked up to them I already had an idea that I wanted to do something disaster-related, and they didn’t have a disaster program yet and so they handed it to me. I think in that context those two organizations were very supportive of me professionally in a volunteer perspective. I will say as far as getting - I was still working on getting some of my Boren requirements filled at that time, and as far as the hiring authorities on base and so on, that was a lot tougher, it felt a little bit like pushing on a rope. Since I've come back there's been some new hiring authorities that prioritize military spouses and federal hiring things and so I think that that super helpful. Had I gone back over there now, and if I was trying to get hired there, I think I would have a lot more support, but at the time it was quite challenging.

Shabnam:  What advice would you give to someone who may also be a military spouse and who may also feel a bit isolated and hindered in their professional pursuits?

Jenna:        I would say if you know where you're going next, start looking at places like USAJobs and even looking at some of the contractor websites. Figure out what contractors are on the base they do and what you might enjoy because a lot of those jobs actually recruit from the US side and then move people over to wherever that location is, so it's probably - the application process takes a long time so if you have a chance to look ahead do so definitely. I would say don't be afraid of the spouse groups, I was a brand-new military spouse, and I didn't know what that meant. Unfortunately, there are some really harmful stereotypes of what a military spouse might be and unfortunately, I bought into to some of those. When I was there and feeling very isolated because “I'm not like the rest of them” and the truth is I wasn't, because every single one of them is very unique. It's the incredible diversity and different kinds of support circles within the military spouse I think it is really wonderful. Don't be discouraged even if, for example I was a little disappointed that all the spouse groups that were posted on the wall to go hang out was like “bring your toddler and hang out” but I was like “I don’t have a toddler so I can’t hang out” but there are so many people out there and realizing that sometimes it may take some creativity to find those like-minded people - look for the activities, check Facebook, usually the bases have several Facebook feeds and social media feeds that they post things to, and go to community centers that they have, see what things are posted on the wall and gradually you'll find places where you fit yourself in.

Finding professional support, I think you can look around, you may or may not be able to find a page up, it's still tough. Look towards what volunteer service you can potentially do that would further your career. I found that in taking strong leadership positions in the Red Cross and YCAPS I was able to get skills that were transferable once I got back to the U.S. Don't be afraid to use a broad time if you're someplace that's harder to get a job off base, don't be afraid to use that time for professional development, I know a lot of folks who were working on their masters at that time. I also spent quite a bit of time working on my novel because I had a little time for that so if you can’t find paid work or at least enough paid work or the exact right kind of career work you're looking for there, it's a humility to be a little more flexible in what you might look for. I would definitely talk to some folks to help you tailor your resume when you come back to be able to speak to what those skills were so that folks don't look at your resume and say, “wow what were you doing for two years or you just wasting time?” when in fact you were really developing a lot of skills and networks and ideas. I wound up getting a lot of help from the Hiring Our Heroes program, so I highly recommend looking them up if you need some resume support services.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Jenna. I know you’re currently back in the states, but you’ve talked a lot about having to reestablish your identity upon return. In what ways did you establish identities in your different bases while you were abroad, and how did you create a sense of community in the places that you were?

Jenna:        I think it's easier as a student certainly to have that set identity that people know you're an international student so they know what to expect of you, know what you're doing, know that you’re going to classes, know you're interested in the culture you’re in. I think it was really fun in my first trip to Japan when I was an international student there and again when I came back as a Boren fellow, was to find clubs, Japan’s big on those, but I think other countries also have University clubs where you can – for example I went to join the choir club, singing in a choir was a big part of my U.S identity and then I was able to join one in Japan to see how that system worked, and it was slightly different but it was able to sort of transform that piece of my identity and anchor it in a local context. It was a little tougher in India and then again when I returned as a military spouse because I didn't have that sort of default student identity and default classmates to anchor in. On one hand it was finding people like me, there were a handful of foreigners on the hill when I was living in India, and of course there was a whole base full of foreigners when I went back to Yokosuka, and it's finding people like you, but it’s also really freeing every time you move to be able to shed the things that weren't helpful, that you introduce yourself as to group of people and then you realize that wasn't working for you and you can move on and shed that in the new location.

I think that there’s this temptation when you move to new location to try to be exactly like the locals to try and fit in as if you were practically Japanese or as if you were practically Indian, and I think there are some good things to that, but you really want to respect the local culture and make sure the people feel comfortable interacting with you and make sure you aren't any inadvertently offending people. I think once you start to get a hang of that you don't want to really erase your whole identity. It's okay to push back a little bit and pick your battles to sort of help people maybe question what they think about you as a foreigner, and I think the truth of the matter is I will never be Japanese and I will never be Indian or I'll never be anything about the American I am, but that that America can I am can still be a verry a complex layer cultural thing. I think it's finding the balance of holding on to those pieces of your American, or whatever your home identity is, and bringing in the aspects of this culture that you are enjoying being a part of and want to value and respect the people around you. I think that the tricky part that Boren really put forward to me as well as when I was a Shansi fellow, and even as a military spouse, whether you want to be or not, people see you as an American and you represent America inadvertently no matter where you go. I think that I felt that most keenly as when I was attached to the military because Japan can be very reactionary if a soldier you dose something bad or a soldier does something good, the media will pick up on it and sort of have a “look, Americans!” type thing which can really affect the way people view the next American they see. It feels like a little bit of pressure to make sure that you was representing the U.S well, but I think it's also something that you can have fun with and recognized that you have this chance with this polite interaction, with this warm interaction with somebody to show them that “I'm American and this is the type of American I am perhaps we can be friends.” I think that that’s also a fun part about these exchanges.

Shabnam:  How have you had to reestablish your identity in America?

Jenna:        I think that was almost harder than the foreign culture shock, because we all got training to say that this is going to be different, be prepared for a difference, you're going to have to adjust. I wasn't prepared, especially before I came back, for the same but different, coming back to the U.S didn’t feel like coming back to normal, because I’d been living abroad and that’s what was normal. The sort of person I had become to navigate those cultural and physical realities was also different than when I left, and so that was shocking. It was a bit of a roller coaster to come back and not be able to turn my right and left in see someone who had the same experience I had. “Is this right, isn't this weird?” I didn't have those connections and I think what was really important to me was being able to find other folks who have lived abroad.

Shortly after I came back I wound up connecting with someone who spent considerable time in the Czech Republic. While we had completely different experiences, she had also experienced that cultural difference when coming back to it, and that felt anchoring to me. I think that sort of cultural ambassador identity that I had sort of internalized, representing myself well as an extension of America sort of became a little bit toxic when I came back because I felt like I had to be by default representing the American who lives abroad type experience, but nobody was even watching for that and so I had to realize that yes I had picked up some habits and cultural things that made me more complex than the American who left the U.S two years ago, but I didn't necessarily need to represent that in every single conversation I had with other Americans. It was fun way to connect with people who had similar experiences but I had to let go that when people first met me they would say, “where are you from” I'm from Minnesota, and they make a whole bunch of assumptions, and some may be true, but that wasn't the whole picture, and at first that was really frustrating to me and I sort of realized that you know maybe that's where the conversation can start, but it doesn't really matter that much as I try to make friends, that they didn't immediately see that whole picture of my whole identity as long as that's an identity that I can feel anchored in.

Shabnam:  Thank you Jenna, do you have any final thoughts for awardees who might be having trouble finding their place?

Jenna:        Sure. I think what's really important is to be able to recognize that it's okay that it's weird. It takes about nine months to a year to really re-anchor into what now feels like a new culture back at home when you have last another home behind you. Don't be afraid of his emotions, they will come in rolls in the same way that your forward culture shock did. But I think the most important thing is to seek out other people who had similar experiences, because then you don’t feel so alone in it, and they may also have advice or bits of humor to be able to laugh with you about, how strange it is for home to feel strange. The Boren network alumni is a great resource, a lot of folks who had great experiences to really connect and figure out how to re-anchor together. Definitely look around even in this time when we can't necessarily physically see each other, there's a lot of great networks of people who've traveled and returned even now for you to engage with, to help find yourself here back in the U.S and perhaps to prepare you to go abroad again.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much for joining us again Jenna.

Jenna:         Thank you! This was a pleasure.

Shabnam:   You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, we will discuss the topic of belonging and reverse culture shock when trying to adapt to a changing environment with Ms. Jenna Lindake Heavenrich. Ms. Jenna Lindake Heavenrich, a Boren Scholar to Japan and Shansi Fellow to India, will discuss experiences and perspectives adapting to different roles and lifestyles whilst abroad. Jenna also discusses creative career solutions while abroad, particularly for military spouses.