November 2007

Canadians Abroad

Tribulations of an expatriate

By J.-P. Rivard


Our home away from home

Working abroad takes planning.

Working in a mine is already something special; working abroad in a mine can be stimulating, even exotic, for someone who can adapt, or it can become a nightmare.

How does one prepare for such an adventure?

While working abroad, you come into contact with a different lifestyle, one that makes you aware of your own lifestyle, your values, and your beliefs. Living abroad represents a good occasion to redefine yourself and to understand your own culture much better. It is first and foremost a voyage to the core of your identity. Who has not heard of cultural shock or cultural adaptation?

You leave behind a North American world where everything is taken for granted: water (potable and hot), telephone and Internet, supermarkets with an abundance of products, etc.

I have had the occasion to live through various experiences: deep in the jungle, hundreds of kilometres from civilization, in the bush a few hours from a big city, and in the savannah, a few minutes from a village, both in Africa and South America. I worked on rotation shifts: 30 days of work followed by 26 days at home (extraordinary rotation), and nine weeks of work followed by three weeks at home (less interesting). All these places had their share of exoticism… at first.


Oh! The joys of experiencing several airline companies: six planes in two and a half days to arrive at our destination. The incredible experience of going from an Airbus 340 to a bush plane where the flight attendant sits on the cooler. Of course, one advantage is to accumulate many Air Miles and thus be able to take more planes during vacations, therefore accumulating more Air Miles.

Some employers will have you travel in executive or business class, allowing you to arrive at your destination in top shape and ready to work. Others, however, see no need for this and wonder why you are so tired when you arrive.


In remote mining sites, a complex is built on site. You have your little “roomette” (with shower, TV, and naturally, Internet); you are just required to eat, sleep, and work; the rest is taken care of (housekeeping, washing, cooking).

Certain sites are near towns or villages and, depending on the employer, you can have a villa with all the personnel (maid, cook, gardener, etc.), a hotel room, or share a house with two or three other people. It is up to you to read your contract carefully.

When you are there for the startup of a new mine, it is scouting, pure and simple: tents, bivouacs, and field kitchen, while awaiting the construction of permanent installations.


Who has not dreamt of a bush or jungle excursion? And being paid for it to boot!

It is similar to visiting a zoo, but where the people are in cages and the animals are free. You do your morning jogging alongside a cheetah, monkeys steal your volleyball, and, from 6 p.m. on, there are strange sounds throughout the night.

You meet people who do not speak your language but who are greatly willing to share, people who do not have your habits or methods but who want to learn as much as to teach; people who eat funny things and who think you eat funny things; people who are not in a hurry and who wonder why you are always in a hurry; people who earn in a year what you earn in a day; people for whom tomorrow is tomorrow and for whom tomorrow will be just like today, while you plan your retirement during the course of your first job.

After a while exoticism brings irritants that can even become maddening. This is the “nothing-works-in-this-forsaken-country” stage; you can even lose your sense of humour. It is the daily contact with the differences that generates this reversal of situation. An insidious malaise lowers your tolerance level.

Anything, or almost everything, can become an irritant: climate, food, insufficient sleep, physical (and gastrointestinal) upsets, work or life rhythm, the gap between wealth and poverty, difficulty with the local language - to speak it or to read it if in another alphabet, waiting times, crowds, hygiene, etc. In short, too many different experiences at a time, whatever the country. According to the magnitude of the difficulties encountered, this is known as culture shock.

Then, with time, patience (a great deal of patience), and a sense of humour (very important, even essential), the “joie de vivre” and a certain social ease in a foreign environment come back.

Key clues for working abroad

When heading to a new position in a different country, don’t forget the following:

  • Be curious; brush up on the history, the customs of the country.
  • Speak several languages (among others: French, English, Spanish); this will open almost all doors.
  • If you do not speak the language, at least learn a few sentences. This is simply a question of respect.
  • Exchange with the local people, greet the people around you, take part in festivities and rituals.
  • Adapt, do not forget you are in “their” country.
  • Arm yourself with patience, patience, patience, patience, patience, and more patience.
  • Never lose your sense of humour.
  • Be autonomous.
  • Keep an open mind.

At all costs avoid:

  • Discussing politics.
  • Constant comparisons with your country (we have this, we have that).
  • Expecting North American work modes, rhythms, and methods.

The life of an expatriate was for me a fantastic experience with excellent aspects and little inconveniences. I sincerely wish that you might have such an experience.

Back in Montreal, Jean-Pierre Rivard currently works as a systems administrator at CIM.

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