Being a cross-cultural worker: Experiences, Lessons, Strategies. Interviews - Part I

This blog wants to build platform for people working in the creative sector. Working in this field I have the pleasure of knowing wonderful people who gave me their time and answered some questions about their experiences with living abroad, their perspectives and unique insights. I am deeply touched by the honesty and the wonderful insights that they share. You can feel connections among their answers and the possibility to "connect the dots" is really comforting as it shows a notion of belonging and togetherness in this adventure of working cross-cultural.


Audrey Sykes - Founder of Stick Together and Manager of Max Zorn

What is your cross-cultural experience? (where to where, why)
I came to Europe in 2005 from the United States for a double master’s degree in international journalism, media and communications. The multi-national student program was spread across two years, four universities and three countries: Denmark, The Netherlands and Germany. It was like being tossed into new environments as fast as a theater stage might lift its backdrop to reveal a new scene.

And I think this international framework organically became a lifestyle without me really stopping to notice. After my degree I spent a year with an international media team working in Austria, and then an international arts and culture team in Amsterdam. I started Stick Together with Max Zorn, and we both had international goals and contacts. The clients, galleries, projects and events were coming from everywhere, so I suppose the cross-cultural experience has been more of a globalization experience in all aspects of life.

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other countries?
It’s definitely not easy, and I’ve seen beautiful connections and disastrous ones – especially at art fairs. My skills revolve around communication, and maintaining this anywhere in the world involves a good balance of judgment, listening, and confidence in what you represent and your experience.

I read in an interview lately in the Harvard Business Review of a CEO who stressed the importance of being aware of yourself and your actions in the spectrum of different business cultures around the world, and I find a lot of truth in that. My career is at a point, cross-culturally speaking, where some foreign countries are familiar and others are just opening doors. Being true to yourself and your character is important, but being observant, attentive and reading social behaviors are equally important.

What do you see as challenges in living and working abroad?
Language and legality. Whether one wants assimilation as part of their identity or not, it shouldn’t decide whether or not to live or work abroad. But being legally able to does decide, and there is just no way around the red tape – you have to cut through it. This will involve time, thought, paperwork, finances, patience, patience and patience, and that will be the true challenge to pass for most people. This doesn’t count for EU citizens living elsewhere in the EU, you lucky ducks.

And when it comes to language – either learn it or don’t. I’ve tried to learn Dutch three times by audiobooks, twice by classes, and once by a partner, and I still can’t hold a conversation with anyone over the age of five. My partner speaks German, my transnational social circle speaks English the lingua franca, and Amsterdam is too international to be patient enough to teach me. And that’s okay. I don’t feel discluded from the Dutch, I feel international.

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel home?
That’s a good question. I used to write mass emails back home to friends, family and colleagues, but that ended and Facebook replaced my time for mass communication.

I keep music close to me, as it’s always been a strong pillar in my life and family. I have a record collection despite my nomadic life, I still look for new music and send out playlists to friends, I still make time to practice guitar and play in studios, I bring a ukulele with me when I travel, and I’m still (irrationally) looking for ways to acquire a piano.

What are the most important lessons you have learned?
No matter how local you feel, it’s still never a good idea to complain about the culture you’ve decided to surround yourself with. If you can’t find happiness and inspiration from where you live abroad, it’s time to keep searching.

What you might have accomplished greatly in one country can be completely off the radar in another, so don’t let your vision of global success be confused with pockets of local success – don’t get arrogant.

And accept as many invitations as you can, and remember to bring thank you gifts.

How did your relation with the concept of home change?
I don’t like using the word “expat” or “expatriate” because I think it’s a bit outdated for the international life abroad nowadays, but feeling like an expatriate in your own country definitely holds some weight. One of the hardest things to prepare for when living abroad is realizing that you’ve changed immensely, but your home hasn’t. Maybe you’re still the same in personality, but your view has expanded, opinions maybe swayed, and your perspective has been on the outside looking in (especially in my case as an American).

I’ll always enjoy going back home, digging into unhealthy chicken wings and a pitcher of domestic beer. But the nostalgia wears off, and this honeymoon at home of doing the things you forgot about gets boring. Driving turns from thrilling freedom to stressful traffic, television from humorously cliché to annoyingly unavoidable, and political opinion… at this point from amusingly entertaining to disappointingly frustrating. So I guess the relationship to home becomes a love-hate one.

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker?
Living and working abroad once was rare and circumstantial, but that barrier has been broken and it’s not as tricky as it seems. Don’t let the idea intimidate you away from wanting to try it out. Take it step by step, task by task, and look at all your options. If getting hired by a company didn’t work out, look at opening your own business, finding work on a travel visa, or higher education abroad.  And don’t think that once you’re gone it’s forever… but you might have so much fun growing abroad that time flies faster than you imagine.

Find more about Audrey's work with Max Zorn here.


Laura Sánchez Serrano - Curator / Arts Manager

What is your cross-cultural experience (where to where, why)?
I am originally from Madrid (ES) but I have been living, studying and working abroad since 2005. My first destiny was Brussels, where I finished my Masters in Art History (Erasmus exchange programme – Université Libre de Bruxelles) and had my first working experience in a Museum (Les Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique). After a year improving my French and getting to know the art scene in Belgium, I went to Buenos Aires (ARG) for a six months period to assist the artist Cristina Santander in organizing two exhibitions. Then I spent one year in Paris (FR) studying a Masters in Museum Studies at the Ecole du Louvre and working at Monumenta (Grand Palais), which that year had Richard Serra as a guest artist. After Paris, I decided to continue expanding my knowledge and experiences by moving to Switzerland, where I finished my Masters in Museum Studies (Université de Neuchâtel). It turned to be a good choice, so I stayed in Switzerland for about four years. During that time I was responsible for the Press and Communication at the contemporary art center CentrePasquArt, organized educational projects and curated two exhibitions (Kunsthaus Zürich / espace libre CentrePasquArt). In 2012 I moved to Munich (DE) for personal reasons. Since then I have been working as a freelance curator and art manager. The biggest projects I have worked on are the SCHAUSTELLE at the Pinakothek der Moderne (project manager) and UNDER (DE)CONSTRUCTION, an exhibition project I initiated and curated at the Kreativquartier in Munich. Since 2014 I collaborate with the Stiftung Pinakothek der Moderne, the Stiftung Federkiel, Instituto Cervantes and lately with the project street philosophy (The Mindshift Group). In September 2015, together with Miguel Moreno I started a new project in Madrid: ROOT, an off space where I regularly curate contemporary art exhibitions. A bridge between Munich and my home town Madrid.

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other
countries? What are the challenges to live and work abroad?

One of the biggest challenges of living and working in another country is understanding how things work in order to find your place as soon as possible. Adaptation is key. You really have to be sensitive to social
structures and dynamics. People have different ways of working depending on their cultural background. What is accepted as a positive way of working in your home town might be considered aggressive in another country, or the other way around. That is why, it is essential that you pay attention to small details in order to understand what the best way of behaving and reacting is. Of course you shouldn't lose yourself in the way. The idea is that you become integrated into the new country and continue your activity there (find projects, meet artists...)

A basic tool you need to work in another country is the language. Speaking fluently the language of the country you are living in will make your life a lot easier. By understanding how things work, you will avoid misunderstandings and frustration. People will respect you and take you serious if you make the effort to speak their language. The main issue is that your level will never be theirs (it will never be your mother tongue!) and this unavoidable disadvantage can often play against you. The important thing is not to despair and try to focus on what makes you special and different. They can probably write/ speak better than you in their language, so think about how you can successfully contribute to the project. Which unique experiences can you bring that they can't?

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel home? How did the relation with the concept of home change?
I guess that depends on your definition of “feeling at home“. For me “feeling at home” doesn't mean feeling in Madrid. I'm not trying to replicate life in Madrid. My concept of “home“ has evolved into an abstract and definitely not space-related term in the last years. Feeling Home means feeling good with myself, the people that surround me, and my work. It doesn't depend on where I am, but on how I react when I am there, on the decisions I make and on how I deal with new situations.

What are the most important lessons you've learned?
No place is perfect. No matter where you are, there is always something to learn.

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker?
I think being a cross-cultural worker nowadays is more a need than a choice. In our globalized world it makes little sense to limit yourself to where you grew up. You need a larger view to understand the world. Everything is connected.


Elena Bajo - Artist 

What is your cross-cultural experience (where to where, why)?
I have had several cross-cultural experiences first from Madrid to New York and then New York and London, New York and Berlin, then Los Angeles and Berlin.

I’m a native of Madrid, Spain. I moved to New York in the late 90s following a desire to experience a different culture. I wanted to see if American movies reflect the real American culture; I wanted to experience the American way of life, the American culture firsthand without mediation. The United States and capitalism were leading the world and I thought I had to be at the source of this happening, in terms of time and space. What I was experiencing in Spain was second hand, same as in Europe—European governments were following capital, and the maximum exponent of capitalism was the U.S.

I was a New Yorker for years. Then the next step was to explore the West Coast—Los Angeles and the myths around it, the Hollywood film industry, the history of American art in Los Angeles, 60s psychedelia. I wanted to learn about the future of the world by doing research in Los Angeles, but I also wanted to get a deeper insight into the past of the world. I always think LA is a city that reflects the future of other cities of the world. When I go to other cities I experience in their present that they reflect the recent past of cities like Madrid or Berlin. Anyways, then I became very interested in the origins of the psychedelic movement for example, and this led me to investigate drugs with hallucinatory properties, which crossed over into my own research on histories of indigenous and ancient cultures, women, power and anarchism. There are elements of the same power and spirit in the 60’s movements: the Situationists, the “refusal of work”, the anti-materialism and anti-system, the Paris student riots, the BlackPanthers—all of these shared elements with issues of power and shamanistic practices. Parts of this research became part of an artist in residence, an exhibition and a publication entitled With Entheogenic Intent (Burn the Witch).

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other countries?
Art workers become more exotic when they come from other cultures and foreign places and they are open enough to exchange and flow in the new environment, so the experience can generate a positive outcome. Different places have different degrees of exchange in this kind of encounters…what is a desirable trait in one place is a handicap in a different one…

What are the challenges of living and working abroad?
The whole thing is a challenge, it is a cultural challenge that extends to a pragmatic everyday life challenge…You need to be very motivated to decide to move to a foreign country, where you will have to start from the scratch and even the simplest things you usually would do in a minute can become an entire day thing in a foreign place…One needs more energy, concentration and motivation to “start” from the scratch again, learn everything again…Everything takes longer and you need to invest more time socially, so you can make friends and can build a supporting team, kind of an extended family, personally and professionally …and then things get better when you feel you have friends and people that are important in both your life and your work. There are cities that are harder than others to make new friends and all. You might need to learn a new language, you should be ready to  be part of a situation where you slow things down and learn to enjoy new habits and values. Be ready to go through some tough times but also exciting ones. Finding a place to live, a new art studio, finding a job will be tough too, since you will have to speak the language first, then get legal papers that allow you to work. Get medical insurance, etc. The “art challenges” will be similar in the sense of having to meet new people, go to openings, meet new artists, new curators, visit museums, alternative spaces, art schools, etc. Then develop new professional relationships that will lead to new opportunities.

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel home?
I usually try to structure my day around the work wherever I go so I can always feel at home. I do almost the same everywhere I go. Get up in the morning, 2 coffees and go to work until 5-6 pm. Then after work I do my workout and then I go out and meet other artists and go to openings or visit exhibitions. When I am preparing exhibitions social life is more restricted as I am more focused on work, but I meet lots of new people around the production.

What are the most important lessons learned?
Do your best to learn as much as possible about the place and meet new people, be patient and very open, Try to keep optimism and good energy. Do not generalize ever…there are nice and not that nice people everywhere. Get involved in the local scene, you’ll become part of it faster

How does the relation with the concept of home change?
It changes to the point that once I havefriends in a new place it feel already home…

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker? 
I am very happy my life developed into being a cross cultural worker, it pays off, always.

Find more about Elena Bajo's work here.


Yüge Wang - Post-Sale Coordinator at Christie's, London, UK

What is your cross-cultural experience (where to where, why)?
Moving from Munich, Germany to London, UK. Having an education in Business, Art History (especially contemporary art) and Art Law, I wanted to take on the challenge to work in one of the most important cities for art, art market and art trading to learn from the top end of the international art world.

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other countries?
For me as a German with Chinese heritage, I was lucky in England to be considered as a focused, hard working, reliable, well-structured worker with attention to detail. With many important artists, collectors, art dealers and galleries coming from Germany and China, my knowledge about the language and culture of both countries, gives me the opportunity to connect with clients from those countries on a much more intimate way than other colleagues. Being able to speak three very useful languages in the art world (English, German, Chinese) and having an understanding for both art market, economics and Art History and having experiences in working abroad, helped me immensely to find employment in one of the world-leading auction houses right after I graduated from my Master´s Programme. 

What are the challenges of living and working abroad?
Although in general Germans are considered as “good” workers, there is also the picture of the German, who is very direct, which particularly in England, can be perceived as rude and inappropriate. I would have never thought that the cultural difference between British and German people is so massive and I did and still do have to learn to adapt in certain situations and to avoid to be too direct. In one of my first meetings with the HR department I saw the expression in her face, when she realized I am German, so I wanted to make a little joke and said: “I know, Germans are considered to be a bit too direct sometimes.” She answered straight away (without smiling): “Yes, they can be rather rude.”… The ways of working are different and the way colleagues interact with each other is very different from what I was used to in Germany.

The way of life and life quality is different too, especially living in London, where the average person spends 70% of their monthly income on rent, which would be unthinkable in Germany. Since in a big city like London where people are coming and going, everybody is used to the fact that not a lot of people you meet will stay here, therefore, it is not easy to find close friends as people don't put the effort into getting to know you as you might not see this person ever again, and if one is lucky to find some good friends, it is always a challenge to meet up due to the long distances one has to overcome in this large city.

It is a challenge to get used to this type of lifestyle, however becoming a decent Londoner, I guess, also means to learn how to survive and enjoy living in a crazy place like this. London has an incredible amount to offer – the challenge is how to get there. I am still learning.

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel home?
The easiest way to feel home is to have some good German beer. I regularly go to my local pub with some friends and have some Paulaner, Weihenstephan or Augustiner Bräu. I try to get out of the city as much as possible to get some fresh air and nice countryside walks outside London. Every time I get the possibility to cycle without fearing to get run over by some cars or buses, it helps me to feel like I am back in Munich again. Even going shopping in Lidl makes me feel I am back in Germany again. Although I do have to say that the experience in those supermarkets here are by far not as pleasant as in Germany…

What are the most important lessons learned?
Nothing is more important than people, who you can trust and who trust you. Loyal companions are the most important thing for me to face the challenges in this crazy art business and living in this big city. They give me strength and the right state of mind to help me survive in this jungle.

How did the relation with the concept of home change?
Home could be everywhere. Home for me is everywhere I feel comfortable and familiar. London is my home now although I still feel I am not fully settled, even after living here for over 2,5 years. However my hometown will always be Grafing/ Munich. I am thinking about Munich and Grafing in a much more nostalgic way, remember mostly the good sides and I will always try to go back as much as I can.

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker?
I think everyone should take the opportunity to work cross-cultural. One learns a lot and gains so many valuable experiences. Although moving around a lot means that for example keeping friendships and relationships is much harder and one will miss a lot of important events, such as weddings, birthdays or even funerals. However it also helps to identify, which people in your life will stand by you, whatever happens, and this is much more valuable. I never regretted to have moved around. I had so many eye-opening moments in the past years, good and bad, but I am already excited to see which eye-opening moment will happen next. It also helped me to find out what I expect and want from life, which again, was for me eye-opening, since I would have never thought that I would think about certain things the way I think today.

I always love to hear from you. Share your thoughts on cross-cultural work below in the comments or via Social Media with #ArtasLabor