I’m An Expat…Get Me Out Of Here!
When you first move overseas, it’s easy to feel a little giddy–especially if it’s your first time living in another country. This feeling is common among expats. It’s the honeymoon period; a time when you fall in love with a new place and stumble around star-struck for a few weeks or months.
After some time, though, you’ll start seeing things that don’t quite meet your concept of “perfect.” Maybe the air isn’t as clean as you’d hoped…the traffic isn’t as orderly…the roads aren’t as well maintained…and it’s a little bit too noisy. The food just isn’t the same and you find yourself craving something that seems impossible to find locally. On top of all this, you may have to deal with a foreign language and a culture that’s a world apart from the one in which you were raised. Wherever you go, there’ll always be a period of adjustment. Again, this is often the hardest time for foreigners who are living abroad for the first time.
We know one couple living in Hoi An, Vietnam that has done an amazing job of adjusting to their new life. Michele and Gordon have mastered the art of creativity. It’s been a personal challenge that has brought them enormous rewards. Michele told us how much she enjoyed sour cream–a food that just isn’t available in Hoi An. So, she researched how to make it and now has an ample supply, homemade and free of any preservatives or additives. Another expat has shared with us his recipe for chunky peanut butter, a food he craves when he’s abroad.
When I’m in the United States, I rarely eat macaroni and cheese. When I’m abroad, I crave it. Only, here in Asia, it’s near impossible to get the easy-to-prepare boxes. But I can always find macaroni noodles, cheese, milk, and flour. And I’ve discovered that macaroni from scratch actually tastes better. Of course, there’s more to the “adjustment period” than food…
Often, when the initial wonder of a new place wears off, boredom can set in. This can be especially debilitating if you haven’t yet established a social network. The solution here is obvious: find things to keep yourself busy.
If you move to the developing world, you should find plenty of volunteering opportunities. You could rescue stray animals, clean up litter on the beach, help out in an orphanage, plant trees, provide health and education to disadvantaged youths…there’s always something to do. In return for your good work, volunteering means: you don’t have time to be bored; you’re working around other like-minded people; and you’re making friends. In Southeast Asia, there are many volunteer organizations that would love to talk with you.
Learning a new language is daunting at any age, and the older we get, the more difficult it becomes. I live in Vietnam and find the language to be practically incomprehensible, despite spending several months with a private language tutor. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never, ever master Vietnamese. (I realized this when my Vietnamese friend suggested–only half-jokingly–that I attend kindergarten with her son, so that we could both learn how to speak properly.) My frustration with the language, though, hasn’t affected my desire to learn. I still challenge myself to speak Vietnamese as much as possible when I’m around Vietnamese speakers. And, occasionally, I’m able to express myself successfully.
These small successes reinforce why I love living here, knowing that even though I’ll never speak Vietnamese like a native, I can make myself understood. It’s been a way to make local friends, who delight knowing that I’m making an effort. We may not talk much, but I enjoy the company of a friend who likes to style my hair or share a meal, because we’ve both made the effort to get past the language barrier. We find other activities, too–taking walks in the park or going to a circus. And, language differences don’t stop me from interacting with my friend’s children, who love to snuggle up to anyone, even if we don’t say a word.
Though your plan may be to “retire” overseas, working–at least part-time–is another way to get through a difficult post-honeymoon adjustment period. We’ve been to restaurants where we’ve been handed an English menu that has made little or no sense to us. Likewise, tour brochures are often hilariously garbled. These are great opportunities to get to know someone and put your English skills to good use.
Everyone loves the honeymoon phase. Unfortunately, it can’t last. So, be proactive when the newness wears off. Get ready to prepare foods from scratch that you used to buy in a box…to learn a bit of the language…to go places where you’ll meet like-minded people.
You’ll make some friends. You’ll learn to get around. You’ll discover new favorite foods. Before long, you’ll realize that you’re not the same person now as you were when you left home. You’ll feel better about yourself and your new home. You’ll remember why you took the plunge and moved overseas. And, you’ll rediscover how living abroad can be exciting, exotic, and enriching.
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