Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘The best expatriate advice I ever received’

Saying yes to everything and showing a willingness to learn new things will take you far, writes Áine Greaney

Thu, Dec 5, 2013, 10:00


Áine Greaney

I always love that old Buddhist proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” This was certainly true when, in 1996, I met an American woman who gave me my best expatriate advice ever.

The date (1996) is significant. It was 10 years after I had left Ireland for America. So I was well settled in and ready to trade in the cash ‘n carry, new-immigrant jobs for more stable, better-paying gigs. I was ready to settle down.

So here’s my friends’ story:

In the 1920s, her mother had emigrated from Co Clare to become what many of our female ancestors—including my own grand-aunts—would became: a house maid in one of those Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey getups where she wore a black dress and a frilly cap and said, “Yes Ma’am” and, “No Ma’am.”

“Can you cook?” “Can you run the laundry?” “Can you sew?” Each prospective boss had her own set of interview questions for this job-hopping maid from Clare.

“Yes. Yes. And yes,” the young émigré said. “And then,” (she later told her daughter) “I’d run back to the boarding house or to the town library and study like the dickens until I actually could do what I said I could do.”

My American friend chuckled as she told me this story about her late-mother. Then she said: “I’ve never forgotten Mum’s story and its inherent advice.”

Neither have I. For over two decades, it has served me well.

Don’t get me wrong. Moving to a new, anonymous country or city doesn’t justify fudging our work experiences and what we have to offer. Even if it weren’t unethical (which it is), in these days of online portfolios and professional networking sites, misrepresenting ourselves, our education or our skills can land us and our C.V.s on the liars’ blacklist.

Still, moving away is an opportunity to really look at our past education, aptitudes and experiences to ask if, in a smaller (and now recessionary) economy like Ireland, we haven’t viewed and marketed ourselves way too narrowly?

I went to secondary school and college in 1970s Ireland, so I must confess to a twinge of envy when I review today’s higher-education offerings and the seemingly endless menu of choices—especially for us women. But I also wonder if, worldwide, we haven’t over specialised, if we aren’t graduating our 20 and 30-something students with a contrived set of mono-skills that will delay or stymie their real-world job opportunities and promotions?

For example, in my field of business communications, I am baffled and amused by the daily advertisements for “full-time social media experts”. Really? These employers will actually pay for and invest in someone who can’t or won’t do double or triple- or quadruple-time as a social media person and a writer and editor and, ideally, someone who will “run home to the boarding house” to learn how to do whatever else might be needed around the place?

Sometimes, the “can you do” question is a matter of semantics. I learned that when I interviewed for a job in which the recruiter asked, “What’s your experience with project management? Like, what project management software have you used?” Like an idiot, and against my friend’s mother’s advice, I looked across the desk at her and said, “I’m afraid I don’t have any.”

I got that job, and I discovered that “project management,” as it applies in the healthcare communications field, is a matter of managing all your jobs and deadlines. I did try out some of the specialized software. None of it was as efficient as that old trick we all used for our Leaving Certs, where we simply wrote and updated a hand-written project list and pasted above the study desk. So before you leave home or start your new job search, it’s worth logging on to the overseas companies and consultants and job advertisements to learn what they call what you already do.

Of course, knowing the lingo is not the same as having the skills. But it will at least show your familiarity with the field and your willingness to go get the training you may need.

And finally, employment aside, emigration is just easier if we are ready to embrace the possible—including the possibility that we can be proficient at more than one thing, that we can be equally left brained and right-brained and that, most of the time, we are all very teach-able.

My friend told me that her late mother was never without a job. And, when she felt exploited or overworked in one house, she simply moved on to the next job with a newly learned set of skills and a new resolve to say, “No problem. I can do that.”

Áine Greaney lives in Boston where she works as a communications director, writing teacher and author. She has published four books, and many short stories, essays and features in Irish and American publications. Her fifth book (in progress) What Brought You Here is a non-fiction narrative about leaving Ireland. See She has written previously for Generation Emigration about being accepted for who she is rather than her nationality in How Irish is too Irish?