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Women Working Overseas: Meet Sparkle Hayter

In response to PwC’s findings that women have a lack of role models in the global mobility sector, we’re showcasing positive stories of women who’ve lived and worked internationally. While each experience is unique, every story maintains a common thread of deep personal growth, which has had a lasting impact throughout the lives of each of the women profiled.

“When I was two years old, I was given a child’s atlas,” remembers journalist and author Sparkle Hayter.

“I was fascinated by the idea of the whole world, what was out there, about all these different cultures. I was definitely primed to go overseas, I wanted to very much.”

And she did.

Throughout her life and career, Sparkle spent many years living abroad. First, she moved to New York City to study film at NYU, going on to work for WABC and CNN. When her visa expired, instead of returning home to Canada where there were limited job prospects in her field, Sparkle backpacked throughout India and Pakistan for 6 months. Two years later, she and her fiancé moved to Pakistan to cover the Afghan War for The Toronto Star. She also lived briefly in Tokyo, Amsterdam and spent five years in Paris where one of her novels was set. Her latest stint overseas was working in India for a Canadian movie network acquiring contracts for Bollywood films and producing content for “Bollywood Saturday Night.”

Life as an expat covering the Afghanistan war

In 1988, Sparkle and her fiancé moved to Peshawar Pakistan near the border of Afghanistan to cover the Afghan war.

“We went into Afghanistan with the mujahedin to report about it.”

“It was really difficult,” she says. “We got shot at, and we had to walk through minefields. It was really hardcore stuff.”

During that time, both Sparkle and her fiancé wrote for a number of publications in Canada and the US. And while Sparkle says she didn’t experience any form of sexism from her Canadian editors, she admits that some US editors preferred dealing with her fiancé.

“There was definitely a difference with how they treated me and how they treated him,” she says.

She also recalls people in assuming she was a trailing spouse, especially once they returned to the US.

“It really annoyed me because I had actually been in Pakistan two years before that by myself,” she says.

“It bothered me that people would impose that on me, and I found that very sexist. This assumption that he had the assignment.”

The transition back home

Coming back from a time overseas is always tricky, particularly if it has been a long-term post. Overseas experiences can be intense compared to the mundane easiness of home life. Expats often report making fast friendships which are deepened by the shared experiences. There’s more freedom, an inclination to explore and the new cultures tend to challenge and expand previously held mindsets.

“You learn a lot,” Sparkle says. “You [almost] become a different person.”

For Sparkle, the transition home was especially challenging after her time covering the war in Afghanistan.

“I found it really jarring. You have this very, very intense experience with these people and you have to leave them behind and go back to your own life like nothing’s happened,” she says.

“A lot of the people we knew over there were stuck there dealing with the aftermath of all this. Whereas we as Westerners got to leave and come back to our cushy lives,” she says.

“It wasn’t the bombs and the shooting. I never have nightmares about those things, but I do have nightmares about the people who were left behind.”

Not everyone’s international assignment will include exposure to wartime or extreme poverty, but the transition home will still likely take some time to adjust.  While it’s difficult to prepare for something like this, Sparkle encourages talking about it and developing healthy coping strategies.

“I wrote about it,” she says. “Writing was the way through it for me.”

A dream job living in Mumbai and working in Bollywood

Despite the incredible challenges of being a war reporter, Sparkle still maintained a strong desire for travel. After a period living in the US, Sparkle moved to Tokyo briefly with her husband and then later to Paris, where she had set one of her novels.

“Not every expat experience is a great one,” she says. “It depends on where you are in your life and where you are in the world.”

In 2007, Sparkle achieved a lifelong dream of living in India and working in Bollywood. She was asked to head up a project for a Canadian movie network where she would select Bollywood films and produce content for a regular movie segment, “Bollywood Saturday Night.”

“I shot promotional videos did interviews and went to premieres,” she says. “I always wanted to live in Mumbai and work in Bollywood, so in a weird way, this dream came true.”

The role also involved negotiating contracts with an industry that was only really forming.

“The movie industry wasn’t considered an industry there until the late 1990s, so everything before was the wild west. A lot of contracts were a mess, and it’s not my strong suit at all,” Sparkle admits.

And yet, she still counts the experience as largely positive.

“I was very grateful for the opportunity, and I loved doing it,” she says.

What makes a successful expat experience?

While Sparkle admits that “it really depends on the place, the kind of job, the kind of person,” there are some characteristics she’s found in people who do international assignments well.  

“You have to really be tenacious and have a sense of adventure and be willing to fall a lot and pick yourself up,” she says. “Be willing to apologise and learn from the experience, I think that’s key.”

In fact, Sparkle says she’s still learning from these experiences.

“I also made a lot of mistakes and learned many things the hard way. I’m still learning about those past experiences, as I get older and have more understanding and knowledge.”

Assignments in foreign countries, particularly ones ravaged by war or poverty or are notably different culturally from your home country, can be challenging to manage.

“But if you have a spirit of adventure and a sense of humour and an open heart and you take the right precautions and manage your risks, you can have an amazing time,” Sparkle says.  “It’s really a unique experience to be an expat.”

Ultimately for Sparkle, the one deciding factor for success is interest.

“Not just anybody can go and work in Bollywood or live in India for that matter,” Sparkle says.

“The desire has to be there.”

Photographs courtesy of Sparkle Hayter
Article by Bree Caggiati

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