There are few events in this life that are so big and new we do whatever we can to prepare ourselves. We buy self-help books, get counseling, and try our best to equip ourselves mentally and practically for such endeavors as parenting, marriage or living abroad. In other cases, we are thrown into this unknown territory by circumstance with no time to prepare before hitting the water. In both instances we never really know how we will respond emotionally to these new and challenging experiences until we are either sinking or swimming.
In my own experience, I hadn’t planned to move out when I was 17, nor had I prepared for that matter, to live in a new country. Throughout these last 3 years, I have tossed myself into new situations beyond my experience and understanding not realizing what I was getting myself into. In between traveling to 8 different countries and living in Costa Rica, I have come to realize a few things that missed the mark of expectation, leaving me feeling frustrated, discouraged, and pretty much just an emotional wreck. Hopefully, these insights will set realistic expectations for you and be somewhat of a guide to keeping your head above water in your expat journey.
1. Culture shock can come at anytime (and it actually shocked me!)
I knew culture shock was a thing – something that happened to other people, not me, so I thought. Until after about a year of living in Costa Rica, it was my first time living off campus of the organization I volunteer for and what the heck, it hit me like a train! For weeks I was physically sick and tired and didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was suddenly so aware that I was the only white person on the busses and that all the little kids and creepy men were staring at me. One hour I was ready to get on a plane back to Colorado and the next overcome with gratitude for this life changing experience. I didn’t understand myself, at all. Wasn’t this what I wanted? To move somewhere new, learn a new language and culture? So, why did I feel so grieved? Suddenly, going after my dream just seemed like self-inflicted suffering. I was mad at myself for not being happier and more excited and for not making a new life for myself quicker. Who was I?! Where did all my courage and wanderlust go?! Did I do the wrong thing in coming here?!
As my mom always says when I find out I’m not as invincible as I thought, “Congratulations, you’re a normal human! Welcome.” You are not alone in this. Just keep moving forward. Make a list of things you can do to keep yourself involved and motivated. Don’t give up and one day you will find that pushing through the toughest of times was worth it.
2. Making friends is hard.
Communication is crucial to any flourishing friendship and it’s more than just being able to speak the same language. Being misunderstood happens a shameful amount of times throughout the day. Sometimes it’s left me feeling defeated and insecure, but continually putting myself in awkward and uncomfortable situations hasn’t all been in vain. Over the many months, meaningful relationships have developed, and we have found humor in our many miscommunications. Through it, I’ve come to find pain and joy and a deep need for friendship are universal.
Be patient with yourself. Just because you haven’t made the same relationships you have back home doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Don’t be too hard on yourself. By the end of your time, you will likely find your confidence has grown and your identity has rooted itself in more than just your reputation and pride.
3. Cat calling happens on a whole nother level.
Seriously, nobody told me about this. Sister, prepare yourself. If you’re going to a Latin country leave that crop top you love at home and forget about those booty shorts. I think the hardest part about this, for me, has been the question of how to respond. Do I shout back with anger, run away in fear, or lower my head in shame? Will I egg them on if I ignore them or is it responding that will? Even if I did want to say something in my defense, I wouldn’t have the words in their language to do so. Walking down the streets is emotionally draining. Mace and deep breaths ladies, mace and deep breaths…
Know the culture you’re going to. Is it shame based, guilt based, or fear based? This will determine how to respond in confronting situations. In the States, you can threaten to call the cops because we are a culture based on right and wrong- guilt. In other cultures you might just want to stick to asking them who their mother is and shame them publicly.
4. Milestones will be missed.
When I left, I knew I was going to miss the birth of my best friend’s first little girl. What didn’t cross my mind was that I would miss almost every birthday after that as well. It didn’t occur to me that when my family went through hard times I wouldn’t be there to comfort them or love on them. It was conflicting. There was this unspoken resentment towards me for not being present covered by the “but you’re doing great things and we’re proud of you,” followed by an awkward, “thanks?” What I really wanted to explain was how I felt really guilty and it’s okay if they’re upset and that I am sorry. My heart is always yearning for the people I am not with, whether in Costa Rica or in Colorado. To be honest nowhere feels home anymore.. and I’ve got mad FOMO.
When the time is right, have the hard conversations. Allow yourself to be released from others’ expectations of you and even your own expectations of yourself. If living abroad is what you have chosen to do then release yourself from the guilt of living out your calling.
5. Living abroad is a platform for the Progressive.
I’ve always wanted to be an active, creative person with language learning as a hobby, and travel as a pastime, meanwhile, trying new things as often as I stuck to the familiar. Soaking in the comforts of the modern millennial American life these things sunk to the bottom of my list of aspirations. Living abroad stripped me of all which my culture told me was important, my reputation and my old ways of life. This created the perfect platform for me to finally go after these projects and plans. It still took just as much work and commitment as it would’ve in Colorado (if not more) but a change of scenery is exactly what I needed to change my rhythm to match the beat of the causes greater than myself.
You will survive without your familiarities, comforts, and conveniences, and if you cultivate courage in the midst of your vulnerability it will be the exact place you find yourself blooming.
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