Friday, November 4, 2011

An open letter to expats

Dear expat or potential expat,

You are going to be in a different country!  You're excited, maybe a littler nervous, and you're checking to make sure you have enough peanut butter in your suitcase before you head off into the different.  In this country, there will be different foods, different laws, different bugs, a different language, different paradigms of modesty, different ideals, and different smells.  There may be different plumbing or none at all.  But you are going , and your host country is accepting you.

Again, that's Host country.

Okay, now let's get serious.
Tell me, how do you act when you go to someone's house for dinner?  Do you talk in front of them about how you don't like the meal they prepared?  Do you make fun of their style choices?  Do you complain about the cleanliness of their bathroom?  Do you whine about how you can't pick up cell phone service?

If your answer is yes, then you have no business traveling anywhere besides maybe your local Wal-Mart.  The people there are used to dealing with ungrateful cry babies.  Even so, you shouldn't make anyone suffer through your attitude.  Please, stay home.

If, however, you make an excellent house guest, then, by all means, test the foreign waters and get out there and experience a new culture!  Just be sure to take with you the important knowledge that you are, in fact, a guest, and do all you can to be the kind that would be invited back.

For example (or, "Expat Requirements")
  • Learn at least a little of the language.  Sure, there are plenty of places where you can get along fine without speaking anything but English, but making the effort to converse in your host country's tongue conveys a sense of respect for the people you are interacting with and their culture.  It is evidence that you cared enough to put forth some effort.  As an added benefit, hosts are usually very please with your efforts (even if they make you sound like a baby), and they will be much more likely to help you out or to get you what you're asking for.
    Bonus: I recommend starting with learning how to order food.  It comes in very handy, and it might keep your server from spitting in your dinner.

  • Suck it up and study up on the culture.  You don't have to be a master of knowledge here, but, dude, why are you going to this country in the first place?  Surely there's some interest there.  Why not cash it in for some really interesting facts and a deeper understanding about a new people group and their intriguing history?  All the strange things these new people do?  Maybe you'd be able to figure out why they do it if you did, some investigation.

  • You don't have to like everything, but you should try to appreciate it.  You may never understand the fascination your host country has with bean paste or bunny ears but don't worry.  No one is asking you to.   You don't have to make the matching underwear for couples part of your own wardrobe (for example), but you are expected to accept it as a facet of your host culture.  And then, you're allowed to quietly snicker and blog about it like a maniac when you get home.  While maintaining a respectful attitude toward your host country, of course.

  • Learn about the phases of culture shock, how to identify them in yourself, how to accept them, and how to deal with them.  For more information, I recommend Julia Ferguson's post here and, as always, Wikipedia.
    Some of the advice I'd pass along is:
    • Write about it.  Pick up journaling or blogging.  If anything, your entries will be fun to read again later when you're back in your home country and all those crazy stories will be excellent conversation starters when the dinner party chatter lulls.
    • Talk about it with people from back home and with fellow foreigners.  Keeping these kinds of things to yourself leaves out the possibility of other people being able to help you.  And, believe me, this isn't something you want to do alone.
    • Bring along movies, books, and music from your home country for emergencies or foreign-land-detoxification time.  (Online TV sites like Onlineseries.ch can be a life saver, and if you have a tech savvy person around, ask about wormholes to help you access Netflix and Hulu.)
    • Get out of yourself and into other people.  I know they always say that investing in others is good for your soul, but it's true.  Find someone else to hang out with.  Find a new hobby.  Find anything else to occupy your time than feeling glum in your studio apartment.  Check out websites like Meetup.com to see if there are any interesting groups in your area.  Can't find what you're looking for?  Start your own!  There's bound to be some other people wanting to get together.

  • Whatever you do, please don't point and say "Gross!"  Remember that time when you made your decision and bought the plane tickets?  That was kind of like signing over your rights to what you previously held as "normal."  Welcome to the new place, pal.  You wanted this, and now you're here.  So enjoy the new experiences.  Take pictures of the bugs in a cup.  You can try one bite of that fish cake.  None of this will kill you, your hosts have been eating this stuff for years, after all.

I am not perfect in all this, but I can tell you that keeping an open mind can lead to awesome things like hanging out with three Chinese girls and a Saudi dude for 4 hours at Mannam International's Expat Festival.  I highly recommend it.
Photo by the super groovy cat, Craig Woods


Thank you for sharing your thoughts! If there is something you want me to respond to specifically, feel free to send me an email; I'd love to chat.