On a recent flight from Germany to the US, I watched a delightful film that was not only entertaining, but exemplified the traits needed to successfully live and work in a country and culture different from your own. Based on a true story, it was an uplifting triumph of perseverance, openness, flexibility, emotional resilience, perceptual acuity and self autonomy – skills all tied to those achieving their international assignment goals.
The African Doctor, follows the journey of a young physician and his family in 1975 from Kinshasa, Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) to Marly-Gomont, a small rural village in the north of France. Faced with a myriad of challenges including racism, isolation, loneliness, economic strife, household tensions, and small-town politics, the family maintained their sense of humor and belief in themselves, despite the roller coaster ride of adjustment. They eventually became beloved, respected and even revered members of their new community. The head schoolmaster and an older farmer in need of help, were the first to open their hearts and minds, leading the way for others to step out of their comfort zones to trust, and eventually welcome the stranger.
This film was particularly poignant for me as I recalled the riveting stories told by my partner at the time, upon his return from the Peace Corps in Zaire in 1984. He overcame many of the same challenges as the doctor in this film. There were no roads in his remote village, far from the capital Kinshasa, and he would often walk for hours to get to a nearby “town”. Along his path he would encounter children who would scream and point as he walked by, genuinely frightened of such a “ghostlike, white” image — they had never seen a person of his color before. But on the same walk he would encounter kind and generous individuals who overcame their own fears and offered him water and even food, despite having barely enough to feed their own families.
Research tells us, Our cultural communities raise us to be members of those specific communities, to abide by their norms and customs, to take pride in being a member of the community, to carry on their cherished traditions and to see the world as they view it. When I asked my partner, “What did you miss the most when you were living in Zaire?”, I had assumed he would say Snickers Bars, snow, hamburgers, shopping, TV shows. But his answer was always the same: “I missed being with people who knew me and accepted me as I was. I missed connecting and being understood.”