Have you ever felt tempted to take on an international legal assignment? Do you see it as a whirlwind of adventure and glamour? Have you paused to think how it might be to return “home” after a stint overseas? For so many, the expat adventure can quickly escalate into a personal and professional horror story, and returning home isn’t always the safety net we might expect.
In this blog, we’re sharing real-life experiences so that you make the most of the opportunity and dodge the often overlooked pitfalls that can turn a wanderlust career into tragedy.
After spending 10 years enjoying a hotchpotch of cultural experiences while working abroad (seven years with Nike in the US), returning to the UK was a shock; I felt like a stranger in my own country. It was hard to pinpoint why.
I found a kindred spirit in Xavier de Ramon (Xavi) who also experienced what we refer to as “repatriation shock”. He is legal counsel for MAPFRE and led the legal function in the Asia-Pacific region, returning to Spain shortly before the pandemic restrictions started in Europe. He’s also an author (more on that shortly).
Xavi’s travels have taken him everywhere, from his native Spain to China, India and Japan, but they’ve each brought their own level of danger, turbulence and big surprises!
The stories he shares about his career are wildly entertaining and terrifying in equal measure, so if you’re interested in taking on an international assignment (or about to go on one), there’s plenty of food for thought in this blog!
You can hear our full conversation on the Water+Air podcast.
3 tips if you’re heading overseas
Xavi recommends that you:
Consider the longer-term impact on you and your family.
As you know, Fuel+Move is passionate about creating extraordinary transformation by making the most of the ordinary. Xavi is a master at staying calm and making the most of everything; there was potential for many of the situations he faced to go horribly wrong!
1) Be open-minded
Xavi already had a passion for Japanese culture, having spent time in Japan in 2003 teaching English. It was this initial trip that ignited his passion for writing.
Xavi: “I wrote my own book about the horror stories I heard when I was in Japan. It was one of my life goals. Traditionally, Samurai warriors would gather together, light 100 candles and host horror parties. Each time a horror story (based on a real-life event) was shared, one candle was blown out. Little by little the room grew darker, and when the final candle was blown out, they would each look at themselves in the dark in the mirror, which is a scary thing to do!”
With a firm love of Japan, Xavi accepted another role there some years later. He, his wife and their six-month-old baby left Barcelona behind.
They were on the verge of signing the legal paperwork for a new house when Xavi was told his office was relocating to China! Instead of freaking out, he made the most of it.
Xavi: “I sometimes say to my wife that because she didn’t divorce me that day, she never will! If you are moving abroad, you need to be prepared. We had sold all our stuff and left our home in Barcelona, and instead of living in Japan we were told to go to Shanghai; but it was quite easy to fit into the country because there was a big expat community that helped us settle down there.”
Can you imagine yourself being quite so chilled out about that last-minute relocation? There’s always so much to think about when you are travelling to a new country, let alone relocating almost as soon as you get there.
During his time in China, where he worked as an insurance lawyer, Xavi faced anger and violence. He was advised that if he heard a code word, he must immediately follow an escape plan! How many of us expect to be taking our lives in our hands as an insurance lawyer? I wanted to discover how he coped with that level of intense pressure.
Xavi: “I could never have imagined such extreme situations in my life. There were 10 to 15 angry and powerful people waiting for us. There had already been trouble and violence that day. I focused on the problem. We had to control the frustration and anger so we could find a solution. In the end it was a big success for us and everybody involved.”
I’m sure you can all relate to having to manage a situation where emotions were running high, but, with the added danger, I was impressed at how calmly Xavi handled it. It’s a superpower I wanted to know more about.
Xavi: “We did our best to keep the emotions out of the discussion and negotiation. We thought that if emotions escalated, physical violence might happen. We had already been threatened. We managed to contain the emotional pressure and stay objective so we could find a common point of understanding and come to an agreement.”
Xavi takes full responsibility for finding the good in every situation.
2) Be proactive
Xavi: “Being a lawyer, you can get involved in many new opportunities. The language and the law might be different but common sense applies everywhere, especially in business law. The companies that have presence in different countries need a bridge between local units and the headquarters.
Often people tend to see the world in one way, but you have to have someone who can be in the middle and help everyone understand. Once there is a problem, you can only be reactive, but I think it’s better to be proactive and avoid problems instead of putting out fires.”
Skipping off to progress your career in another country might feel exciting and carefree when you’re single, but there’s a lot more at stake when you move as a family.
3) Consider the longer-term impact on you and your family
Xavi: “You need to be prepared. Everyone needs to feel comfortable. Some people love to live abroad and others are uncomfortable if they spend a few days away from home. As time progresses, you will find that even if you make new friends, some of those people will only be there for a short period of time.
In the first year that is easy, but after five years of people coming and going you might begin to feel a bit more closed, which makes life more complex. You need to consider what it will be like for you and your spouse, plus think about schooling for your children.”
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that Xavi and I bonded over “repatriation shock” – this is a feeling that isn’t talked about very often and people who haven't experienced it don’t always understand.
It’s a concept Xavi is all too familiar with.
Xavi: “You feel like a foreigner in your own country. It feels like nothing exactly matches who you are or what you do. Maybe we should create a group of people who will talk about it and hold space for each other!”
I hope Xavi’s wisdom helps you consider the big picture when considering an international assignment. There are plenty of amazing new cultural and work-related opportunities but they’re not for the faint-hearted!
Are you considering an overseas project? Have you already been overseas? Did you feel shocked? Did you feel like a square peg in a round hole when you first came home? Were you able to settle where you first began or did you stay on the move?
I’d love to hear your stories about repatriation! Tag a lawyer with wanderlust and send me a message!
Xavier de Ramon
Xavier is Legal Counsel for MAPFRE in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as a soon-to-be-published author.
Xavier de Ramon can be found here:
Parul is an experienced international lawyer, demanding client, disruptive consultant and thought-provoking non-executive director and board advisor.
She's advised law firms and big global brands like Nike, Speedo and Manchester United, as well as supporting inner-city social change programmes, startups and scale-ups. Fuel+Move is born of her passion to improve interaction with the legal sector and achieve a better experience with better outcomes for its stakeholders.
Parul Patel can be found here: