Reflections on living cross-culturally
I was recently contacted by a friend from the past seeking to reconnect and catch up after many years. Connection on a social media site led to an email filling in pertinent details of her life's arc and the question of what I had been up to in the intervening years.
That is the beauty of social media: we need only look on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ or similar sites to find people who have meant something to us along the way. Search engines fill in the gaps for those of us still not participating online.
I was thrilled to hear from her, and knew her well enough to go beyond the 30 word version you tend to use when meeting new people. I also did not want to bore her with too much detail. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I was looking for "just right," so I gave an abridged account.
In her reply she expressed a desire to hear more about what life was really like as an expat. So what to tell an old friend sincerely interested in something beyond a surface response? She deserved a more thoughtful answer than the typical clichés of "it's so different," "it's fabulous" or "missing home desperately."
Over the space of a quiet weekend, I gave it some thought, but I suppose these answers have been years in the making. Each person's journey abroad is different, but perhaps you will see glimpses of your own answers in mine.
Living & Traveling cross-culturally
Moving abroad is rarely as they portray it in the movies. No matter how internationally well-traveled you may be, a few days or weeks in another country is not the same as making a life there. At best you get off the beaten path and have moments of insight into what life might be like; at worst you have only witnessed the typical caricatured version.
It is similar and different, often both at the same time
In the early days every single activity, errand or interaction can seem challenging. Different language, customs, cultural rules and procedures conspire to throw you for a loop. Over time you master the basics and slowly add to your repertoire. You settle in and come to realise that the motions of everyday life go on whether you are in one country or another.
You still shop, cook, do laundry, the car breaks down, your child gets a stomach virus, you pay the utilities and your boss is still demanding. Only with slightly different nuances thrown in. When I begin to think I have it all under control, something pops up to remind me otherwise. Just like life anywhere.
Culture shock is real, and not always linear
We have all heard about the emotional phases we tend to go through in adapting to a new culture: the honeymoon when it all seems so new and exciting; becoming irritated and disillusioned as if "nothing's good enough;" hitting the trough of feeling alienated, lost, sad or depressed and just wanting things to be like they used to be; and finally approaching acceptance and settling in.
Some breeze through, others get bogged down. Or you might skip a phase or experience a double-dip into bottoming out before eventually rallying. I truly enjoy the life I have made here in the Netherlands. Yet, I am keenly aware that on any given day I may be only three irritating or frustrating interactions or encounters away from feeling like an outsider again.
In learning about others you learn about yourself
I am talking here about going beyond the superficial. When you start to learn more about a country, you seek to understand why people think and feel what and how they do, historical or cultural reasons why they may approach certain issues or practices differently.
You will come face to face with the ways in which others view you and your own culture. Sometimes what you learn is not particularly pleasant. But it stretches you, makes you rethink certain preconceived notions. You learn to focus more on what we have in common and less on the differences. You cannot help but be changed, and not necessarily in the ways you might think.
Work hard to go beyond living a "parallel life"
I have come to believe that this is the hardest part of living cross-culturally. Sometimes it is a deliberate choice to live a separate expat life mingling only with other foreigners; other times, constraints and limited options may conspire to push you into that way of life.
I have had to consciously address this in my thoughts, choices and actions. I may never be fully integrated into Dutch society, but I would like to get as close as possible in the time that I am here. For me, it is important to dig deep and become part of my community.
Recognise when it's time to move on
We do not always have a choice in staying or going. But in those instances in which we do, as circumstances change we re-evaluate our decision to remain. We may not know the precise "tipping point," but we tend to recognise it when it arrives.
Contributor Linda A. Janssen is a writer and American expat living in The Hague. She writes primarily on expat issues, blogs at adventuresinexpatland.com and is working on a book about emotional resilience in expat life.