I avoided facing the fifth and final step to adapting to life as an expat in Bahrain for as long as possible.
My writing created an alternative reality to escape life stress and, possibly, to indulge deeper in the fourth step of adaptation: The mental isolation stage.
That is until a Bahraini colleague broke my introvert shell.
Shawqi Al Zain became my best, possibly only, friend for a while.
Unfortunately, Shawqi departed this life four years ago – long before either of us were ready for the goodbye.
Before leaving, however, he introduced me to new friends including his brothers, Hasan and Talal, and sisters.
During that time, Shawqi conferred on me an invaluable gift. In fact, the most important social part of the integration and acceptance stage: The sense of belonging.
Consciously or subconsciously, Shawqi managed my introversion sagaciously.
Ultimately, the circle of friends expanded steadily, but slowly to include executives in the private industry, active and retired high-level government officials and officers, business owners and community leaders.
They all, without exception, welcomed me into their fold as one of them.
As I look back with fondness, I regret leaving in the coming days and not being able to tell Shawqi how much that sense of belonging meant to me.
Up until my early 30s, I didn’t understand what it meant to belong. I had always suffered from a chronic feeling of being an outsider.
It could have been the collective inadequacy of having been born in a Palestinian refugee camp, where local government policies were daily reminders – making every refugee feel like a burden.
Then, a little over 10 years after I moved to the US, a co-worker asked if I would be willing to answer questions on diversity for his wife’s Master’s thesis.
She called me and we talked on the phone for over an hour.
Towards the end of the interview, she threw me a curve ball. “Jamal,” she said. “Have you ever felt you belong?”
The question jolted me to the core. My immediate reflex was an adamant: “No.” I had no idea belonging was academic term.
Seconds later, and as the adrenalin rush stabilised in my brain, with clear thinking I said: “Wait.”
I took a deep breath and continued: “There is this local cultural/political group in San Diego. I don’t feel like an outsider. I’m part of the group. I belong with them.”
Until I heard the question from my friend’s wife, I had presumed the festered feelings of non-belonging were uniquely individualistic to my life experience, an instinctive defence system to avoid rejection – whether imaginary or real.
Later, in postgraduate studies, we learned that belonging was one of the five tiers in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Maslow, author of the “self-actualisation” theory, suggested the need to belong to a greater community improves human motivation, health and happiness.
But how do companies in Bahrain measure in Maslow’s “self-actualisation” theory when it comes to belonging?
Sadly, and from my own organisational experience, creating a culture of belonging is something that is not done well in the workplace. Many expatriates could spend decades in Bahrain, but rarely enjoy a sense of belonging.
Expats sometimes confuse belonging with an individual’s ability to “tolerate” a foreign culture, its rituals and customs.
They miss out on the opportunity to acculturate and adapt to the prevailing host culture, to experience and embrace new traditions, without of course losing their original cultural values and traditions.
Most expats fail to see a connection to the local culture beyond a work contract and are willing to sacrifice cultural inconvenience for compensation.
I saw organisations led by expats focusing mainly on managing the longevity of their contracts, and maintaining the perks of lifestyle in exclusive communities, rather than leading and promoting a culture of “self-actualisation”.
In the process, important organisations miss out on the value of belonging – and as a result fail to create a motivated culture.
Final observations is the subject of my next and closing article next Wednesday.