Permission Slip | Doing Things Differently While Abroad
Welcome to a new episode of the mob bosses abroad podcast. Our guest today is Sarona Wolter, and we are going to dive deep into the whole notion of raising biracial kids, starting a business in a foreign country, and all the themes that have to do with diversity and inclusion, and how do they overlap when it comes to building intercultural relationships. So, welcome Sarona to our podcast!
Hi and thank you for having me, yeah, I just recently found out that all three of us have something in common it seems
We actually do! So, just a bit more background to you. You're actually South African, and a law graduate turned marketing strategist who courageously swapped in all year round summer in South Africa for a handsome German, a world class football and five days of summer in her new hometown in Bonn. And yes, I do resonate that with that because Germany is actually my home turf as well originally. So, tell us about your story like tell us about your journey and how you ended up in Germany, we know it was for love, like it is many times, but I'd love to just find out more about your personal journey.
So, I come from South Africa and I don't know if you've been to South Africa but South Africa is a developing country, and just, you know, to give you some context: I grew up in a very conservative, Indian family, and apart from traveling abroad for holidays, I never lived in another country. So, you know, South Africa, and all year-round summer was pretty much, what I knew. And we have a very multicultural nation but also one that has a very interesting history and you know that history becomes part of your cultural identity. So when I met my husband and, you know, him being from Germany, it was really excited and he was not the first German that I knew, so I was like ‘Oh this is cool, like, this is exciting.’ And, you know, for me it was just like this crazy adventure, let's just go. You know where this,
See where this takes us.
Exactly, and you know before you know it, the summer romance becomes a long-distance romance; the long distance romance becomes a serious engagement; and the serious engagement becomes a wedding, and next thing you know you're in Germany and you're like, ‘Oh, so when is summer arriving?’
Oh yeah I know! How did you adjust when you then decided to make that big, permanent I suppose, move to Germany?
You know, the thing is we got married in South Africa and my husband's a doctor, and when we got married, both of us had just finished our studies. So, I had finished my degree and he finished his degree, but he needed to complete his- I think it's a medical practical period which takes five years,
Like a residency or something.
Yeah,that's it, right. So he was ‘Well you know, I need to be in Germany for the next five years’ and I thought ‘okay well five years, that's pretty cool, you know, I can work with five years.’
And, of course, a lot happens in five years. During the first year that we moved. I got pregnant, and, you know, being pregnant in a foreign country, in a foreign language is, just, you know, whereas back home, you can just walk into a drugstore, you know what to get when you're feeling ill. This time you're like going through everything and you're like looking at your phone to try to translate, because you don't know what is what, so really small things became super terrifying
I understand you I’m currently six months pregnant in Japan- and it has been challenging to say the least
So the way that people do things its so different compared to in different countries
So I can only imagine navigating all the different variable in a new country, with the language barrier, on top of that, right? How it was for you, as you say, even running the simplest of errands became a bit of a whole journey in itself, just trying to get it done and navigating through all that. So, we were very keen to know how you actually managed to come to Germany, and somehow going through this notion of being allowed to do things differently, Where you allow to do things differently? Because people immediately understood somehow that you were a foreigner there? Because usually foreigners we stand out like a sore thumb as they say? Or was it something that you felt that you had to do in order to allow yourself the space to be your own person within this new context of a new country and a new life altogether?
So that's a really good question and it's going to be a bit of a longer answer because for the first few years, I thought, and here's the other thing coming from South Africa, which I would regard as a high context culture, where our mannerisms, the way we communicate with each other is very like polite, but very, you know, affectionate very lots of small talk.
Whereas Germany's very direct. So, I think you call it a low context culture. And so, when I got here, I did everything that I knew to do back home, you know, be nice to everyone, adapt a little bit. Do whatever it takes to fit in. And the more I did that, the more I think frustrated I got because I was trying so hard to fit in, but actually, people were like, you know, who is this foreign Auslander, you know like, who cares? Just just get on with it.
And I mean, they have their own like stereotype of who I was. And I guess in some ways I was fulfilling that. And it wasn't until I think maybe it was three-four years ago, I was working at an agency in digital media consultant, and it was around that time that I got sick and I was just trying so hard to fit in all the time that I was just frustrated with myself and you know even the job that I was doing it was something that I was overqualified for, but for the sake of entering into the German workforce I wanted to prove that I could do it.
And then I realized I don’t need to do that, you know, I could just start my own thing. And you know, in Germany, I didn't meet a lot of people who started their own business, everybody tends to find a job, because it's the safe thing to do. And if you know, German, like I said, Social Security is quite strong, so it makes sense for people to work for an employee. Whereas if you come from countries where the Social Security is not that strong there's a lot of entrepreneurship. I come from a family where my parents have a business, my grandfather started a business, and that was what I knew, I knew business and I decided that I was going to go back into this freelance lifestyle again but just this time with a little bit more of a plan. A little bit more structure and how to run it like my own business and start that up so yeah it was a lot of doing things differently, thinking differently, and just letting of societal
The journey of self-discovery, almost isn’t it? Did you ever feel like, ‘Oh I'm losing my own identity, I'm trying to be someone I'm not or belong to’ that I may not fit in the way they expect me to? So, is it really out of that need and a way to, to say, I need to regain that identity and that independence for myself that made you go into this entrepreneurship then?
Yeah absolutely, oh yes. I mean, either when you think about it, if you look at the things that were happening in my life at the time, so you know, I get married I changed my surname and so that is one part you're no longer Sarona Ready, you're now Sarona Wolter, like who is this person?
And then the next thing you're doing something that you didn't really study for so it's like okay I don't know if I really identify with this, and then you're a new mom in a foreign country, and you've got to be that role as well. And the other thing is, you know, I think motherhood in Germany is so different from like parenthood in South Africa as well, because here you have this one year of maternity, which is great, if, you expected that but I was under this impression after three months, you know, you have childcare and you go back, you could go into work again, life carries on, but it’s no so easy in Germany
It’s not so easy, it’s a whole other challenge, yeah
It's a whole different challenge and my husband, he was working night shifts, and just really long hours, so I had to figure out those things on my own, while he worked and I remember he said to me, I think it was around, like after I got sick, he said to me, ‘Why don't you just go do whatever you want- go on a trip- go away for the weekend, just do it. Go alone and just figure it out.’ And I love writing, I've always been somewhat of a closet writer and writing helps me process, all of these transitions, because I think I didn't do much of that. I was just going next next next next next and then all of these changes were happening. And so I went to Paris for the weekend, and it was the first time I've done, I don't know in how long, and our marriage that I did this for myself and I was like oh my god, I forgot how to book an Uber or check in at the airport. I remember actually been in Paris and like getting lost just like what can get him lost and I'm like oh my god this is crazy, but it was so, at the same time this so, getting lost helped me find myself so to speak.
Sometimes you do need to get lost to find yourself. That is very, very true
You know I was really happy that I'm in the kind of relationship where my husband realizes that's what you need for yourself like do that first. I guess it was also the way I was raised, my mom always put the kids first, put my dad first, but not herself first, and then I realized, you know what maybe that's not good for me, that’s gonna mean burnout for me. So I needed to put myself first, especially if I wanted my family to be happy
It’s the analogy that Iva always reminds me of: you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others. You need to really take care of yourself to have that strength that that self-love as well to pass that on to your family.
Yeah. And, and you know another thing that I think like in Germany that is not so common people and moms tend to do everything on their own. And I was like no, like I need help. So, during my second pregnancy, I knew that I wanted to start working earlier. I knew that I didn't want to take this one year maternity leave. So I planned, I got a babysitter that came in three times a week. I found a kindergarten place for my seven month old and you know like she's the youngest in the kindergarten, and it sucks a little bit, but you know it gives me this space to keep my business going, while you know, I know I can pick her up after a few hours because you know I'm not trying to do eight hours a day or anything, but at least you know, a few hours of work keeps it going and it keeps me sane. So I started to do that with having someone come over and help me with the kids and that makes such a difference
And I love Sarona what you said just now about breaking some of those stereotypes in order to find your center, and to find your own sanity and being very truthful about that to yourself. Because sometimes we can be very caught up into wanting to march to the beat of everybody’s drum especially in some countries where they tend to be more. I don't know what's the right word but more regimented, you know where rules are really respected, and the norms are really followed. Again, from where I come from, the rules are flexible, they're, they're very grey. Stop signs are just rolling stop signs- it's at your own discretion, if you want to really make a full stop, or you want to keep on going slowly, or whatever it is. So I would like to know a little bit more about how that was for you to step into that space of finding yourself in a country that for the most part, it ticks a very certain way, and everybody goes in a very specific direction, and realizing that for your own well-being and also for that of your family, you had to say, well, sorry, even if my daughter is the youngest one at the Kindergarten that’s what it needs to be regardless of how many eyebrows are raised in the process,
You know, so what was really interested in this last year in the pandemic, you know like we were separated from family we haven't seen anyone, I was pregnant with this chronic lung disease so even then I was even further restricted. I had time to reflect, I had time to think a lot. And one of the things I did was I had an online therapist. So, she helped me understand why I was doing things if I had this pattern of pleasing people or feeling this pressure to please people, she would ask me like, ‘why are you doing this. Do you have this need to be liked,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, do I?’ And I immediately every time I did something before I said yes or no, I would ask myself like, why am I doing this? And then, it helped me like realize, if this is about pleasing other people, then maybe I should think about it again. If it's about, like, if it's gonna genuinely build me that, you know, that it's definitely yes.
Then it helped me realize I don’t need other people's opinions when it comes to whether my daughter's the youngest at the day-care. For instance, my husband thought that everybody will be happy when he told them about the day care. And one time we said this to a friend and she was ‘Oh wow, I would never do that.’ And he was just disappointed. I was like why are you disappointed of course people have other opinions, but, you know, that's just how it is.
Yeah and it’s always feeling being judged like the fear of being judged a certain way, right and like you said, and I can attest to that the Germans are very direct and I'll tell you what they think and, but at the end, it's you have to make your own decisions you have to, you know dance to your own beat, and if that means you get help with the house with the kids, but at the end that enables you as well to be a better mom to be a better wife,
A better mom, you have more time, you're more effective. I don’t have to think about all the small things that need to be done, I get to do more of the bigger things that I need to do. So yeah, it's really about time efficiency in business they would call it, project management, and you know, like so if I free up all the day- to-day stuff then I have more quality time to focus on other projects, and even have quality time with my husband, which is rare when you have young kids.
And it is very important. How can you manage to navigate that aspect of you as a multicultural family coming together from completely two different backgrounds and making that work? With you know, all the layers that come of different paradigms, different ways of seeing the world, or as you put it, just different perspectives that have been ingrained in us from our own families and our own communities where we grew up?
I would say, a key ingredient is curiosity, because we're both curious about each other's culture, and maybe not just only each other's culture but like other people's cultures as well. And my husband has a story about being stuck in Panama, so, so you know. So, we you know we both love this idea of adventure and I think we also realize that we are different from everyone else. Whenever we get stuck in this pattern of doing it and how everybody else does it, we realize no, but does this really work for us? And, and coming back to what you said when you do things differently you will get judged, you will get criticized.
But then, you just have to keep going because, what you want as an outcome is possibly not what other people want as outcomes. And that's totally okay- we're all different. And I think for us it's just about normalizing that being different is okay, and how we navigate things. I think a lot of communication. I know introducing my husband to the context of South African culture. I used to use a lot of Trevor Noah jokes. So that helped him understand you know where we're coming from. We live in a time in the world where we do see a lot of representation, as opposed to when I was younger, there was no representation for a young South Indian girl living in South Africa.
But, you know, nowadays I can go on to Netflix, I can show my kids some movies that have Mindy Carlin's Never Have I Ever, which is about a South Indian girl living in Los Angeles and I can explain that to my kid this is how it was for me growing up. You know, so they get to see these but back in my day we didn't have that-it does come with a lot of, I say, looking for things that are familiar that you can sort of find your story in, and also telling your own story, because I think telling your own story, allows you to also change this dominant narrative. So, for us, I think we also realize that, you know, we have to be ourselves, but also take the best of what works for both of us, because there's some things in my culture that probably don't work for us as a family. And there's some things in his culture that doesn't work for us as a family. He's brought up in this, I don't know if you know this carnival thing that happens once a year.
Yes, it's a huge, huge thing.
Right. It's a huge thing and it is in a lot of countries, maybe even like some central American- South American countries as well. But I didn't grow up with this, so for me this is really weird to be standing out in the streets, in the dead of winter
The world stops, people don’t work, it's like a public holiday pretty much where people go out on the streets.
But is freezing, is absolutely cold. And my only experience of this is that I always end up getting sick after this. But I don't understand the cultural context of it, you know, so this is the thing when you've grown up with certain things. You will do it without thinking about why you do it. I always questioned does this really make sense for us?
Yeah, is it really necessary?
It's strange things like that that you have to realize, okay, you know, what are the core values of the dynamics of our family? Will we lose identity if we don't celebrate Christmas in a certain way or, for instance? So, we've had to find and recreate our own ways.
So how do you introduce these things to your kids then as well? Because they I guess they don't know life different? They are in this multicultural family with different traditions and different values and everything, yet they're also in Germany, in this instance where they see what people around them are doing and realizing I mean, your eldest she's five, she's old enough to say ‘Wait, my friends do it like this and they do it differently, how come we don't do that?’ Have questions like that come up at all?
Sometimes, yes, but sometimes not, because we also have a very nice community of, how would I say like, intercultural families, so everyone's got something that they do that is different. And I think for me my challenge was trying to make her feel proud of her energy. She says that she's different countries because she says, My mom is from Africa, but I'm also Indian, and my dad's from Germany. So I'm from three different countries.
That's nice. Yeah,
So, you know, I introduced her to all of these things, but you know she can choose whatever she feels that resonates best with her and it's really interesting for me as well because the Indian culture, did not resonate so strongly with me, growing up in South Africa because I just felt like, I'm just South African. But when I moved to Germany, I didn't know how to bring in the Indian culture to her. And yet at the same time, I found her very curious about it. So I was like well, I can get you some of the clothes, and maybe sometimes I will put on some Bollywood music but I don't speak the language and so I would find the Indian friends and be like: ‘hey can you meet my daughter?’
But it's nice that you get to pick and choose. Like I said at the beginning, I have to be careful what I say about Germans, like it's okay I can pick and choose, because I know there are things that also annoy me about Germans, for example. Ok this is my Indonesian side today. But then I also spent a couple of years working like studying and working in Indonesia, and working there with locals, I was like wow, this is totally my German side coming in of efficiency, of organization, of speed, of working, you know, so it's funny that you actually have that privilege to pick and choose like where you feel you belong and you just gotta like harvest your strengths from those different spaces inside of you to make them work to your advantage.
You know, there's this quote by Steve Jobs and he says, “When you realize that the world around you is created by ordinary people like you and I, then you realize that you can also change it.” For instance, how I grew up in an Indian conservative culture I was told ‘We don’t do this, we don’t mix with other people’ because that’s how I grew up. But I was like “who’s we” and who is making this rules? Because, why can't you change it? I think my parents are seeing that with me as well. I grew up Hindu and then I ended up moving into Christianity. It was another shift. But, you know, you have this one life and if you want the best out of your life, you know, it's really about like changing your mind or being open to changing your mind and just learning from other cultures and you know, it's the same like what you said, when I go back to South Africa, the German side of me kicks in.
True, but it's the power of being able to design that or even designing your life- you’re in control and you make it what you want it to be.
I would even go as far as to say that it is a great vantage point from where we're standing right now in terms of history, and the current society that we belong to that we have that power to create a new narrative and love Sarona, how you are doing it through a podcast. So your podcast name is called Hypewomen The Podcast, and it's been downloaded in over 70 countries, and, you know, we would like to invite our listeners to also check it out and for you to tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind it, and, what are your plans with it. How are you changing that narrative and empowering women through what you're doing?
Thank you for mentioning that I almost forgot about my podcast for a second. So my podcast was, was also started as a pandemic baby I guess, You know, again, I always knew that I wanted toas a writer, as a content creator, I was just always passionate about telling stories of women, because, again, being in Germany and seeing you’re in this first world country where women are still not quite in those C-suite positions. And yet, they're not, you know like, apart from Merckel, which is great. But, you know, a part of being a working mother in Germany, I think, is such a challenge because of the lack of childcare, when women go back to jobs they go back to part time positions, and they don't necessarily have this easy ability to get higher positions. And so, you know, it's almost like it's such an unfair space for women. So my thing was how can I interview women who have done it differently, who are excelling in in their careers and in their home spaces as well. I wanted to find those women to share their stories, but also you know, like you guys are doing, find women who have moved countries who have been displaced, and how they make it work for them because, you know, I've also spoken to a lot of expat moms who are like, you know 10-20 years older than me, who, when they moved to Germany they needed to see therapists like after their second kid because it was just so challenging. And the pressure of society and culture. You know, I saw an article recently where it says: Germany has these progressive laws but it has a regressive society. Whereas, even though you have these laws that say women have these equal rights, but the society in itself still expects women to be the primary caregiver, you know there’s this term Rabe mutter like you’re abandoning your kids. And I was this is so much of judgment and there's so much pressure for women to just be like that, you know amongst each other as well. And again it takes, it takes a lot of courage to say I'm not gonna conform to this. So my podcast is really about interviewing women from all around the world, especially, I think minority groups who are excelling and doing things differently because you can.
And you do have some online workshops as well?
Yeah, I've started doing something called How To Use Storytelling As a Meditative Practice.
I love that.
So this is basically about just being able to reflect on your own life, and how to, because I listened to some podcast that also helped me, I think, reflect on my own life. I think as moms, you're so busy doing a, b, and c and finishing that to-do list that when it comes to actually taking stock of our own lives, you know, where's the time and how do you do that? How you tell your story, but at the same time, reflect, and just allow it to like give you space to appreciate where you are, and like take lessons from hard challenges.
Oh that's so nice I can't wait to check it out. We'll, we'll make sure we'll include a link to access that in the show notes as well and the link to your podcast because this is perfect and it's so aligned with what we're doing as well.
So yeah, it's been it's been really awesome, I feel we can continue talking about this for hours and hours. We want to really thank you for taking the time and being with us here today and if you want to connect with Sarona you can find her on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn as well.
Thank you so much Sarona for spending today with us, that we loved hearing about how you have really been able to write down this new narrative for yourself and how you have found a way to do it in a way that brings you a lot of peace and a lot of well-being, so that you can, in turn, share that and empower and inspire other women as well.
Thank you both for having me on the show it's been such a delight to meet you as well. Of all across the other side of the globe.
We can't wait I know we will be continuing these conversations offline as well. I know that.
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Sarona Wolter is a South African law graduate turned marketing strategist who courageously swapped an all-year-round summer in South Africa for a handsome German, world class ‘Fussball’ and 5 days of summer in her new hometown of Bonn.
Born out of a need to connect with people from various backgrounds, as well as having to pivot her career and mindset since moving from South Africa to Germany, she developed a gift of communicating with people and became a somewhat ‘accidental’ communications specialist.
Check out Hypewomen Podcast here: https://thehypewomen.com/
Check out Sarona’s upcoming workshop How To Use Storytelling As a Meditative Practice here: https://thehypewomen.com/online-workshops