Embracing All Three Stages Of The Retire Overseas Adventure
“I’ll never forget the first time I went to Asia,” writes Correspondent from that part of the world Wendy Justice.
“My husband and I spent three magical weeks exploring Thailand and Cambodia. Everyone we met was friendly, every site was exotic, the food was awesome, and we couldn’t get over how outrageously low the prices were. At the end of our planned visit, I wasn’t ready to return home to my job, and I knew that I would be back.
“Two years and a lot of determination later, we returned to Asia. This time, we bought one-way tickets, celebrating the beginning of our early retirement. Young enough to envision decades of high-quality life abroad ahead, we couldn’t have been more excited.
“Just as during our first time in Asia, we couldn’t soak everything in fast enough. Over the next year, we explored China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma. It was fantastic!
“But being perpetual travelers, we found, is not an easy life, and we decided to change our strategy and to linger in some of our favorite spots and replenish our energy.
“We chose Hanoi, Vietnam, as our first Asian base. Living in the heart of the Old Quarter, simmering with activity from dawn to dusk, home to some of the most welcoming people on the planet, we thought life couldn’t get better.
“Or could it?
“Hanoi has many wonderful features (most in the Old Quarter), but there are drawbacks to living here (as there are drawbacks anywhere). For me, having lived outside the United States for almost a year at this point, one important drawback was the food.
“Vietnamese cuisine offers some of the most varied and sophisticated dishes available anywhere in the world. The aroma from delicious bowls of hot, steaming pho wafts from kitchens on every street corner. Tasty noodle dishes, fresh vegetables, and some of the freshest meat that you’d find anywhere await hungry diners at every turn.
“So, why, I found myself wondering, was it impossible to get a decent hamburger?
“Finally, one day, I bought hamburger meat and cooked burgers for my Vietnamese friends. They had never encountered this exotic dish before. And they insisted on using their chopsticks to eat it.
“Watching this, I recognized just how alienated, disconnected, and disoriented I was feeling. Little things had grown in importance, becoming almost obsessions. All I wanted was a decent hamburger! More order, less chaos! A little peace and quiet!
“Most people who leave their countries to live expat lives go through a honeymoon phase, as I did, during which everything different is interesting, new, and exciting.
“This is followed, for almost everyone, again, as it was for me, by a difficult period of adjustment.
“Many (perhaps most) people become disoriented or frustrated…even depressed or angry. The power is out again! The Internet is too slow! Why does the repairman say he will come in the morning and then not show up until late afternoon? Why does no one speak English? The traffic is horrible!
“And why can’t I find a decent hamburger!
“It took a long time for me, living in Asia, to make it through this adjustment stage. After my honeymoon period, I questioned not only whether Asia was the right place for me, but even whether living a global lifestyle was really the right decision in my case.
“I’m happy to say, though, that I stuck it out.
“My perspective changed slowly, subtly, without me realizing it at first.
“Then, one day, I went for breakfast to a hotel restaurant, where I was offered a choice of dim sum (oriental dumplings) or noodles. Eggs were not an option.
“And, for the first time, that dim sum sounded great. Just what I wanted!
“I learned to sleep through noise levels that at one time had been causing me grief to no end. I accepted that bargaining was part of a lifestyle that not only structured commerce in this part of the world, but that also could make for lasting friendships and relationships. I resigned myself to the fact that, if I wanted a real American-style hamburger, I would have to make it myself.
“It takes perseverance to get through this adjustment stage. How do you do it?
“You make local friends, take a class, become involved with the community…
“You make an effort to learn the local culture and to deepen your understanding of the people you’re now calling neighbors. You accept that what is normal in your adopted culture is nothing like what is considered normal back home.
“Once you accept and embrace the differences, you reach the final stage of the expat adventure: acceptance.
“It isn’t easy to become ‘bi-cultural.’ But with determination, patience, a positive attitude, and a ready sense of humor, acculturation is a gift, however subtly it arrives.
“One day, in your adopted country, you’ll suddenly realize that ‘back home’ is no longer home. Your new home is where you belong now.
“And you wouldn’t have it any other way.”