SOUTH AFRICA — One of the recurring themes among the stories so far in my "Tales From Afar" series is the nature and experience of being an expat. Or at least the process of dealing with the cultural and interpersonal challenges that arise from pursuing a life in a foreign country.
In today's installment, we meet someone whose business and personal life revolve around this very process. Through her own experience, she has found ways to successfully navigate life as an expat, and now she helps other expats to succeed as well: Sundae Bean. More about that name in a minute…
Sundae calls herself an “intercultural strategist” and on her website sundaebean.com, in keeping with her extraordinarily upbeat presence and engaging manner, the tagline for her coaching business and approach to the expat experience is, "Get Results. No Matter Where You Are."
She has recently recorded her 154th "Expat Happy Hour" podcast, and they are well worth a listen whether you are an expat or not. There is a new one every week, so if my math still serves me, she has been at it for nearly three years. But that is just the podcasts — she has been doing work to help other expats around the world improve their lives and experiences abroad for over a decade.
“I get it. Not in just some superficial, surface-level way. Living well abroad requires a tectonic shift," she says. "My personal experiences, collected from over two decades, led me to discover the need for impactful resources and straightforward advice. I became determined to help other expats move the needle, persevere and live an exceptional life abroad,” she explains on the website.
The positive attitude embedded here ripples through this and many other statements and observations she makes. Her energy is infectious!
Back to that name: Bean. Rather an odd one for Williston, N.D., if not everywhere. I recall Mr. Bean, the bumbling, unforgettable character played by Rowan Atkinson on British television. This one is perhaps more prosaic, but nonetheless revealing about the process of immigration in the late 19th century.
Magnus Christian Larson arrived on Ellis Island on a boat from Stavanger, Norway. After waiting endlessly in line to be processed, he arrived at the desk of the registrar who asked his name. "Larson," Magnus said. “There are too many Larsons already,” the registrar flatly replied. “You have to choose ‘Bean’ or ‘Beau.'" Not knowing that "Beau" in French meant "beautiful," he chose "Bean" with even less knowledge of its meaning. Too many Larsons indeed.
But the name can be quite memorable, especially in a community of Scandinavians. When Sundae began a new English class in school, the teacher said “Bean! I had your brother, your sister, your father and your uncle before you!” Small-town dynamics. Of course the teacher’s name was Larson.
The name Sundae seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment invention of her father, switching the "y" for an "e" just to be different. It worked — she is.
She was what we used to call a “caboose”, a much younger child who arrived somewhat as a surprise, whose two siblings, Mike and Keri, possess much more conventional names.
After high school, it was off to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks for a year and a half, then to the University of Minnesota, in large part because they offered an opportunity for dance as well as academic study.
She spent a year abroad as a senior in 1997-98, which really set her on fire to see the world. After the experience in Spain, at Toledo, across the straits to Morocco and and crisscrossing Western and Eastern Europe, the path was pretty well set.
“I worked for a consulting firm in Minneapolis after college and during a long break between assignments, I made a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. I was still so hungry for adventure and travel. With two weeks left in my trip to Vietnam, I met a guy from Switzerland. Love is a mighty motivator, isn’t it? It compels you to rearrange your life to accommodate it. I moved to my husband’s hometown and got legally married eight weeks later. Little did I know that I’d spend the next 20+ years living, traveling and working across cultures,” she says.
In Switzerland, they started a family. They now have two boys, ages 7 and 11. Her advanced degree, a Master of Arts in intercultural communication from Arizona State University, prepared her to tackle the job market in Switzerland. Before long, she landed her dream job as head of intercultural management for the second-largest company in the country.
It seemed life was set: love, family, living in a super-secure environment (doesn’t get much more secure than Switzerland) and a great job. Sometimes, with some people, there is this engine deep inside them that never really wants to settle down, that is eager and excited about the next thing.
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So her husband, who works for the Swiss government, got a posting to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in West Africa. So much for the security of Switzerland! I think people from Williston, N.D., to Bern, Switzerland, were shaking their heads about this. Chalk it up to that wanderlust that started when Sundae was 8 years old.
The first year in Burkina Faso was pretty tame, almost normal. But by the second year, the temperature rose considerably as opposition to the current president increased, culminating in a coup attempt on Jan. 15 of that year when 30 people were killed. And it continued to worsen.
Many of her friends and colleagues, also expats, had a lot of experience in hot spots around the world, so they seemed to roll with the punches. But she grew more and more cautious, the security of Switzerland in the back of her mind. Erring on the side of safety, especially for the boys, she called time and took them back to Bern while her husband maintained a post in Burkina Faso. They co-parented across continents for nearly a year until the chance to move to South Africa arrived. Not as safe as Bern, perhaps, but a change from Burkina.
“If you look at videos and listen to the news about (South Africa), you’re sure you’ll get shot dead as soon as you get off the plane. But it’s not like that," she says. "I’ve had a wonderful experience, and I really love South Africa and the people here. Because of my experiences, especially in Burkina Faso, I have the feeling that a sense of security is very context-dependent. Like, in the U.S., going to school every day seems super safe until it isn’t. Until a kid shows up with a gun. I read recently that Amnesty International just listed the U.S. on their watchlist for travel due to rampant gun violence.”
And that’s where they are now, perhaps for another three years, until the next posting. She is sanguine about the next move, really ready for anything.
“I don’t really know what will be next, and in a way I don’t want to know. I like challenge," she says. "We will be in (South Africa) for another three years, then see what happens.
"But I will continue to do this work that I love, no matter where I am. I’ve gone through the hoops, I’ve confronted the problems of being an expat on my journey and now I have a good system to help others through those same, or even different, hoops,” she adds, philosophically.
I’ve been an expat for many years, but never in a danger zone. I plan to keep in touch with Sundae, just in case…
Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at firstname.lastname@example.org.