Ten Things I've Learned About Living Abroad

Three years ago last Friday we arrived for the first time in Jakarta. Three years ago we were new, fresh, and totally overwhelmed by the crush of people at the airport, the chaos and hubbub, seeming lack of rules and order. We passed through the corridors of the airport where  stern faced men in official uniforms glowered and I shrank. On the way to the hotel, I peered through the car windows at the unending jams on unfamiliar roads, unsure if street vendors were friend or foe. Those first few days my stomach was in knots. What did I know of Indonesia but bombings and riots? Here we were arriving with a little girl not yet old enough to speak sentences. 

Now, here we are, infinitely more confident and self assured. I'm at ease in this city as if it were the lap into which I was born. My heart swells with gladness as the city skies erupt with music at the tree PM call to prayer. I've grown to love the chaos here. I've learned to see the kind hearts behind official uniforms. The traffic, well, the traffic is hard to love. But it's a part of the city. 

We've been three years in Jakarta, and this January will mark ten years in Asia. Which totally stuns me. When we decided to go to Asia, it was all sort of a lark. We were not yet married. I didn't even have a visa. We just had a vague notion that somehow the future was here and we'd just figure it out somehow.

Now, almost ten years in, we're married now, with two children, and in this expat game for the long haul.

I could fill volumes with what I've learned about living abroad, but I thought, hey, this is the internet. Let's boil it all down into a nice, tidy listicle. Okay. Herewith I present, the x things' i've learned from living abroad. 

1. Culture Shock Is Real. And it hits me every time.

I've had culture shock, with differing degrees of of intensity, each move we've made. I cycle through the predictable pattern of honeymoon period, followed by rejection, regression, and then recovery with each move. 

It can feel totally disorientating.  Nothing is familiar. I have to relearn the most basic ways of being, and refashion my identity to fit your new reality. The symptoms of culture shock can feel a lot like depression. But if I know what's happening, and what to expect, culture shock can be managed. Here's a good breakdown of the stages of culture shock (I'll admit, I never made it out of the second stage in a couple of our moves) and here is an excellent overview of strategies for managing culture shock.

2. I can not expect a whole country and age old culture to change just because I arrived.

I've made this mistake before. I've felt incensed at ridiculous rules, and certain that if given all the power in the universe, I could organise a more logical and functional system (notably the time I had a temper tantrum in a Japanese post office, giving a didactic speech to a poor postal worker who didn't even understand English, all because the official told me that I cold not send a thank you letter to my grannie because the envelope was two cm too small. And, now that I'm thinking about it, similar minor dramas have also played out over banking, immigration, another post office incident in Switzerland, and basically daily when I rage at the fact that drivers in Asia do not respect pedestrian rights.) Anyway, it is what it is. The rules are the rules. They are not going to change because I arrived. Acceptance is the way forward.

3. In different countries, things are different. Duh. 

This one. Oh, so obvious, and oh os difficult to learn. Man. I am always so surprised and always so pissed to learn that things do not operate EXACTLY as they do at home (or in the country which I previously called home.) I mean, why is this such a surprise? Every time? 

4. People from different cultures do things and think things differently from me. Duh. (Again) 

One thing I caught myself saying A LOT, especially when managing work relationships with non-anglos was "If it were me, I'd NEVER do it that way!!!' With aaaaallll the judgment I could muster. And of course. I would behave differently. Because my frame of reference is different. My culture is different. My expectations of how the world works and how people relate is different. I can not expect that EVERYONE around the world will live their lives according to my very anglo Canadian culture values. 

When faced with a clash of cultural values, you have three choices: Adapt, accept, or be really really really pissed most of the time. 

5. Adapt

There are myriad ways in which I've adapted to life in Indonesia. Some of these are simple, like learning to cross the road by diving head on into traffic with arm stretched out in a STOOOOOP gesture.  Some adaptations conflict with my own values, like modifying the way I dress to suit local customs. Some adaptations have taught me valuable lessons about living in the world.

6. Accept

There are times, actually, when I don't want to adapt certain ways of living to suit local norms. And that is totally okay. BUT I do need to accept the differences of culture, and the fact that by not adapting I'm creating a little more resistance for myself. 

I do not dress "appropriately" when I go out for a run on Sunday mornings. I wear shorts and I expose my shoulders. And I get lots of long, lingering glances, sand so so so many HELLO MISTERS! Mostly it's harmless, but very occasionally there's an inappropriate gesture or a rude comment that follows. Most of the time I just let these go. I mean, it is what it is. Women and men do not have equal standing in Indonesia. Revealing clothing invites unwanted comments. It's not right, but it is the truth. I can be pissed about that. Or I can be okay with the fact that occasionally someone makes a strange sexual reference as I'm red-faced, sweaty and disgusting running in the tropical humidity. I need to accept different culture values. (Though I will admit that when I'm low on sleep, or otherwise cranky, I do, occasionally, let my middle finger rise.) I try as much as possible to just let it go.

7. Be okay with being really really really pissed. (Sometimes.) 

There are things that I can't let go. Pedestrian rights, for example. Gah! There's nothing that makes my blood boil like a a-hole driver barrelling through a zebra crossing that I'm currently striding through while holding Stella's hand and pushing Hugo in the stroller. I mean! PEDESTRIAN RIGHTS! They're the law! (In Canada, dummy.)

I know, i know, i know, things are different in different countries. (See number two!) But somehow this issue is a bugaboo for me. And I can't get over it. So, I have to okay with getting a rage headache every time I cross the street. I guess the secret to being happy abroad is to keep these sort of cultural pet peeves to a minimum.

8. Give yourself six months to feel comfortable, 18 months to feel at home. 

When I move to a new place, It takes a while to feel okay. I go through a phase of feeling totally discombobulated and out of sorts. I need to be really easy on myself for the first six months. I won't feel really at home till at least 18 months in.

9. Decorate your home. Even if it is just a temporary home.

In the past I've been really reluctant to spend time and money on making our place our home. We've just rented furnished apartments and not invested anything into our domestic aesthetic, thinking oh, we'll just move soon. This is a mistake. Investing time and money in making a home really helps me to feel at home.  

10. Learn the language. No. Really. Actually do it.

Hahaha. Okay, I've only done this ONCE in all the places in which I've lived. While I am fairly fluent in taxi Chinese, Baby Japanese, and Indonesian numbers, I can't actually talk to a human in any of those countries (unless of course that human speaks English or French.) And being able to converse, even haltingly, in the local language makes such a difference. Trust me, SUCH a difference in feeling at ease. So, Take those language lessons. Learn that language. I promise I will do it, too. (Next move.)

So, there you have it! All my super smart wisdom. ;) I'm amazed that it only took me ten years to learn. What have you learned about living abroad?