I hear it all the time – you are so lucky to live in (insert city here). I am not going to argue that fact. I will be the first to admit that is the absolute truth. I am not going to sit here and complain about how difficult my life is. Because most of the time it’s pretty good. I have been really blessed to live in some pretty amazing places both stateside and abroad in the 20 years I’ve been married to a military service member. I have met some incredible people who have made this crazy journey worthwhile. I have had some fantastic opportunities and my children are already more worldly than people three times their age. In truth, I can’t complain about anything. I just want to inject a bit of reality into whatever vision you have of our life.
Before we moved abroad, I had a vastly different idea of what living overseas would be like. I imagined that I would be traveling to a new exotic and exciting location every weekend. I thought the travels would never end. It wasn’t long before I realized that reality was going to be just a bit different.
The truth of the matter is, much like any other family in the world, our days and weeks are filled with the mundane and ordinary tasks of living. Far from the exotic, most weekends are spent catching up on laundry or recovering from the week. In fact, most of my weeks and weekends are spent a lot like yours, except for the past 8 years, I’ve spent mine in countries and languages that are not my own.
I find that to be the true challenge of expat life. Finding a way to feel at home enough in your new environment that your everyday life ceases to add to the stress and becomes a source of pleasure.
Sometimes that can be the challenge, especially when you aren’t fluent enough in the new language to handle life the way you are used to.
Take this scenario for example – you need a haircut. Simple enough in your home country. You call your favorite stylist and schedule an appointment. Now imagine that you’ve just moved to a new country and don’t speak much of the language. You certainly don’t understand enough to make the appointment over the phone. What do you do? You either give up haircuts until you figure out your new language, or you grab a phrasebook and head to a salon and try to schedule an appointment. This has happened to me. Not a terrible situation by any means, but it adds a level of complexity to your day.
Think about all of the things you take care of over the phone in any given day, and now imagine that you can’t do that. Because rely too heavily on the nonverbal cues in a conversation, you can’t communicate over the phone.
Now take this scenario: You have a sick child and have to make an appointment, take them to the doctor, pick up medicine from the pharmacy, all in a language you don’t completely understand. Imagine you need to administer medicines and you can’t figure out the dosages. Imagine you try to check in for a doctor’s appointment and nearly admit your child for two weeks. Again, these things have happened to me. When your kids aren’t feeling well, you’re already stressed. When you have to try to navigate a foreign hospital, a foreign healthcare system, a different approach to medicine, it’s hard to keep an open mind.
Imagine that you have a spouse that travels for their job. Occasionally, that travel is dangerous. Now imagine that you are alone trying to navigate everyday life in a new country. It’s happened to me.
Of course, there are many less serious examples as well. Like the time I bought what I thought were marinated steak strips on a skewer that ended up being slabs of fat on a stick. Or the time I thought the sample attached to my soap was shampoo, until I used it and realized it was lotion. Or the time I thought the conditioner was shampoo. Or the time I thought it was a holiday and kept my kid home from school until the school called looking for him. Or the time I was invited to a costume party and wore formal clothes because when I was invited they said to “dress up”. Or the days I’d show up at the school and wonder why no one was there – because it was a holiday I’d never heard of. There is no end to the list of misunderstandings I’ve had over the years. Most of them are laughable, and even in the most serious of incidents, I’ve found that most people are willing to help you out.
Yes, there are plenty of glamorous aspects to living abroad. Opportunity to travel is probably top on the list, and the best part is having the time to take in the places that only the locals really know about. My favorite part about living abroad is really getting to experience a different culture. This can also be the part that causes you the most stress.
There are the everyday things that are different, like grocery shopping or banking or paying bills, or trying to figure out the recycling or the school holiday schedules. Everything is just different enough to make life an adventure everyday.
Most of my days are spent making sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be. Just like you. Most of my “free” time is spent making sure we have clean clothes, a clean house and meals to eat. Just like you.
Why not just let people think that my life is all glamour and travel to beautiful places? Because life abroad is first and foremost just that. Life. Like anyone else, we have our ups and downs. We have exciting weekends and boring ones. We are living – just like you. We’re just doing it in a different language.
If there is one lesson that I have learned living abroad for the past 8 years abroad (and 12 years stateside) it’s this: starting life over in any new place is difficult. Trying to figure out how to live everyday in a foreign language and a foreign culture is even harder.
If you have never been the only person in a room that isn’t speaking a language, you’ll never completely understand how difficult it can be. If you’ve never been somewhere and not been able to explain to yourself exactly why it is that everyone is doing something that seems completely foreign to you, you’ll never understand how unnerving that can be. If you don’t expose yourself to the differences in the world, you’ll never learn to appreciate them. If you don’t allow yourself to be the outsider, you’ll never truly empathize with those who are.