If you play your cards right, living abroad can be an extraordinary life-changing experience. You will face so much more than just new language, food and culture, you’ll be surrounded by countless invisible differences which conspire together to create that unique foreign charm. At times you’ll struggle to explain or comprehend what you see around you, and at others it will simply overwhelm your senses and leave you speechless. But if you can’t adapt to your new home, that charm quickly degenerates into annoyance and disdain and you come home jaded and bitter. After four years of living abroad and experiencing every variety of good, bad and ugly, the difference between extraordinary and jaded distills down to a few key points I want to share. While you’re gone, read through this from time to time to remind yourself why you’re there in the first place. Then eventually, when the time is right, you’ll come home with great things to say and leave behind people with great things to say about you.
When in Rome…
This really goes without saying, yet it still amazes me how many foreigners go abroad and live like they never left home. No one expects you to go native, but a little effort goes a long way. The locals appreciate the effort, you make a positive impression on behalf of all foreigners, and the compliments you’ll get will make you feel better and leave you with a better impression of your hosts. Give yourself some time, but if you find yourself living the same old life in your new home a year in, it’s time to re-evaluate.
Live as the Romans but don’t force yourself to try and be one. There will always be politics you don’t agree with, food you don’t like, habits you can’t stand, and cultural aspects you find unacceptable. The good news is that you get to choose what to accept and incorporate into your own life. As for the rest, be conscious of it but don’t brood, your contempt is not going to change their hearts and minds.
Break Away from Your Own Kind:
Surrounding oneself with expat friends is just comfort food for ignoring the challenges of foreign life. Don’t fall into this trap and miss an opportunity to make local friends and really understand a place and its people. Making local friends is difficult, be persistent and get out of your comfort zone, but nothing will guarantee a great experience better than a circle of close friends. At the end of the day, you’ll have far better stories to tell than typical expats.
Keep a Piece of Home:
You’ll still need that comfort food from time to time, so find your thing, keep it close, and apply as needed. Whether that’s Starbucks with a book or a 5k in the gym, there is no reason to give up the things you enjoyed back home and make life unnecessarily difficult. You will have bad days, when you do, indulge yourself, you’ll feel better. It’s also good to make an expat friend or two who can relate to you, get together for beer, pizza and politics once in a while and get it all out. Just don’t let once in a while turn into four days a week at the club.
You Are an Ambassador:
When people see you acting like a douche bag, they assume everyone else in the entire world who looks like you are also douche bags. When they see you go out of your way to be kind, same rule applies. Don’t be a douche bag. Don’t let your friends be douche bags either. A local person may only have a one experience in their entire life on which to judge an entire foreign culture, don’t let that be of you, the only white guy, wasted, blasting music, almost naked, and screaming at local girls in nearby boats at a water park for families (no, I did not make that up).
Communication will be your biggest challenge, accept it. Concealed within a language is thousands of years of culture and history, and you’ll never fully understand another culture if you don’t learn the language. Most people don’t have that much time, but at least learn some basic words, it’ll put a smile on people’s faces and make the little things easier. When speaking your native language, speak slow, clear, use simple grammar, no colloquialisms, and speak the local version of it (Spanglish, Chinglish….). You might feel stupid at first, but if people can’t understand you they will avoid talking to you altogether. Finally, remember that translation is never exact and people will say the wrong thing all the time, don’t take it personally, try to understand what they really mean, and don’t correct them in public.
Not Everyone is Your Friend:
Most people will be friendly, sincere, and happy to meet and help foreigners, but don’t let that blind you to the fact that there are scammers, scumbags and bigots in every country on earth. Keep your guard up and if you get a bad vibe, trust your gut, foreigners are easy targets. On the off chance you meet someone truly prejudiced towards foreigners, there could be any number of good reasons why, or none at all. Either way an argument won’t help, just be polite, move on and remember there are a small minority of idiots where you come from too.
Know Your Place:
Learn the boundaries of cultural, political and other sensitive local issues, ask questions and understand viewpoints before opening your mouth. While people may agree with your opinion either way, they may not want to hear it from a foreigner, remember that this is not your country and it is almost always better to remain neutral on politics and sensitive issues. Many countries have histories of colonialism, political upheaval and other traumatic events which you may not fully understand or appreciate, and saying the wrong thing will just make you look ignorant. Use action to change hearts and minds, and save a contentious opinion for when it really counts.
It is easy to give in to those local bad habits that every place has, don’t give in to the dark side. Be polite and respectful, remember your manners, and go out of your way to be kind. Ultimately your small acts of kindness will touch countless people, and they will remember them along with that foreign face of yours. When local people talk about your culture, give them something good to say.
Know When it’s Time to Leave:
Sooner or later you’ll know it’s just time to go home. On the extreme end you’ll find yourself shouting obscenities in front of a crowd of locals who think whatever just happened is normal. If you find yourself here, it’s time to leave. More likely, you’ll just find yourself getting overly annoyed by everyday things, complaining more than you should be and in general just not feeling great about the whole situation anymore. Don’t delay the inevitable and end up leaving jaded and bitter, cut off your experience while it’s still good and call it a day.