Those of us in the expat/foreign student category can name a lot of reasons why we chose to live overseas. I’m sure the most common answer is “I wanted to experience a different culture.” We talk about the people we interact with, the things we see, the food we eat. But reasons why one benefits from life overseas goes so far beyond just the obvious, beyond the great Instagram moments and the postcards home. Here is a list of some of the reasons why I think living overseas is great.
- Power outages
- Less choice in the grocery store
- The water goes out now and then
- Language barrier
- Transportation issues
- Frustrating cultural nuances
- Fewer people you can relate to
- That whole confusing English-metric conversion problem
- It’s not as safe
Pause. You’re wondering, why are these positive things? Aren’t these some of the reasons why most people never move internationally? Probably. But I would argue that they are also some of the best things that you will experience while living overseas.
- Power outages
Power outages are arguably the most annoying part of my daily life. We have weeks where the power stays on for days at a time and other weeks where I spend three hours every afternoon with no power– thus no internet, no AC, no cooking. The whole island is on the same power grid, so if something goes out, the whole island suffers. This is with the exception of the medical school, which has its own reliable generator. Our apartment, however, is at the mercy of the power grid. While it bugs me, this has made my life better in a few ways. First, it teaches me to be more flexible. If I have plans that require power, they have to change. That’s all there is to it. My attitude doesn’t change the fact that we have to eat cereal for dinner. But I can choose to have an enjoyable bowl of cereal by iPhone light or to have a miserable cereal dinner by iPhone light. I’m learning to go with the flow. Secondly, lack of technology forces me to look around and remember all the other thing I can do! Reading, games, art… sometimes it’s good to take away the digital options! Also, the power outages bring us together. We all open our doors to let cooler air in, drop in to a neighbor’s apartment to see if we blew a fuse or if the power is out everywhere, and stop to have conversations.
2. Fewer options in the grocery store.
Personally, I like this because it make shopping quicker. With fewer brands and options, I can pick choose what I need and move on. It also makes my cooking more basic and my cupboards less crowded. I know what my staples are, I know what they ought to cost, and I know what I can make from them. Easy.
3. The water goes out now and then
Honestly, I really don’t like this. It’s gross to have dirty dishes pile up in the sink. It has, however, taught me to prepare and have a few jugs of water in case of emergency. Also, it makes me grateful for having running water at all. It makes me respect people who don’t have running water and work hard to make life work without it.
4. Language barrier
I interact daily with people who speak English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and/or Mandarin. Most people here speak enough English that I can communicate with them. My biggest struggle, honestly, is the heavily-accented Caribbean English that many people use. It’s terrible, but I struggle to understand foreign accents. It’s embarrassing. I have so many uncomfortable moments in buses and at stores! I’m grateful for this, though. It teaches me to go out of my comfort zone and learn to communicate. It forces me to assimilate my ears to local speech. Someday, when I move to a country without much English, I’ll be forced to learn to communicate on a whole new level. The result of this will be learning a new language. And that, of course, is a wonderful thing!
5. Transportation issues
We have decided to live here without a car. I am so grateful for my friends who have cars and take me to the store and everywhere else I go! Besides those who let me grab a ride, my only other option is a bus. We live in Cupecoy, an area with mostly resorts and dining and few locals. Therefore, the taxis come often but the buses are unpredictable. If I want to go somewhere by myself, my options are to wait as long as it takes for a bus to come or walk a mile through a golf course along the road to Maho, where buses come more often. I usually choose the golf course. Once on the bus, getting somewhere is not too bad. I did have a bus driver make me get out in the middle of traffic and then holler at me for not standing in the middle of the road to close the door. Other than that, it’s been alright. Certainly less convenient than having my own car. But in many ways, it’s better. First of all, I get to spend time with my friends when we carpool. I love that. Secondly, when I bus it, I get to be a part of normal life on the island. I meet people I’d otherwise never meet. I get to talk to the bus driver and hear his or her story. I get to learn island etiquette better. Want to be a local and not a long-term tourist? Take the bus.
6. Frustrating cultural nuances
I took a few intercultural courses in undergrad. I remember that we once played a game representing a foreigner in a new culture. We were told some of the rules, but not all of them. We had to figure out the rest based on the behavior and reactions of the players who knew all the rules. That really is what it’s like when you live in a foreign culture. People tell you the obvious differences, but not the more subtle ones. You can let this drive you nuts or you can treat it like a puzzle to be solved. In the process, you’ll get some weird looks, maybe even some dirty looks, but you’ll also build relationships. Come in as a learner, with smiles and shrugs and apologies, and people will often be willing to laugh with you and help you learn. Expand your comfort zone! Step out into new boundaries, and enjoy making those mistakes and earning those little cultural victories. In Sint Maarten, locals greet each other formally with “good morning” or “good afternoon” as soon as they enter a new place. It has (finally) become a habit for me, and I’ve had great conversations with the local employees at AUC and people around town because I’m more capable of communicating respect the way they do.
7. Fewer people you can relate to
Just because you seem to have absolutely nothing in common with another person doesn’t mean you can’t learn to relate to them. Widening your definition of what it means to connect with another person allows more people into your life. Diversity is a good thing! Expand your horizons. One thing I love about living here is that most of my acquaintances are from vastly different backgrounds than my own. I can learn so much.
8. That whole confusing English-metric conversion problem
Thanks, America, for having a complicated measurement system that is entirely different from the rest of the world! I’m still not sure this is actually a benefit. And I do love my dual-system measuring cup. However, I think I will be forced into learning how to operate in either system– and maybe even be able to do rough conversions in my head.
9. It’s not as safe
During my rather limited international travel experiences, people in the U.S. have often fretted to me, “But it’s not safe!” “Africa is not safe!” “What if you get malaria?” “Why would you move out of the country? Isn’t that unsafe?” Even, “Be careful of those Islams over there.” I know they mean well but… really? This American obsession with safety is why schools have to have a specific number of inches between the wood chips and the seat of a swing or risk being written up by a safety inspector. To be honest, I’m not too worried about foreign diseases, all my Muslim friends and acquaintances are pretty cool people, and sometimes “safe” is boring. Why else do people jump out of airplanes for fun? I think the biggest thing here is redefining “safe.” In the U.S., we work so hard to stay safe and secure– we probably tend to go overboard, actually. Even so, the U.S. isn’t really safe. I grew up in the city with the highest national percentage of kidnappings per capita. We have all heard the tragic news about recent school shootings across the country. And some freak on the I-10 spent the better part of September lodging bullets in other peoples’ cars. Now, I live in a the region of the world with second-highest AIDS rate. There is a bar down the street where someone got stabbed last year. Muggings sometimes happen on the golf course at night. Also, all weapons are illegal on the Dutch side of the island, so I can’t even carry mace or a pocket knife to defend myself. That makes me feel uncomfortable. Is it safe? No, but neither is Phoenix.
I realize that many places in the world are extremely dangerous. There are places with rampant disease, war, religious radicals on extremist jihad, and many other dangers. There are places you would not bring your children to live. There are places it is not wise for many of us to go. I think that there are times, however, that we just have to place our lives in God’s hands and follow Him wherever He asks us to go. For some of us, part of the process of trusting Him is putting ourselves in a place that frightens us. What would the world look like had the Pilgrims, David Livingstone, Florence Nightingale, or St. Patrick been afraid to go where it was unsafe? Where would we be without the men and women in the armed forces who are willing to leave their homes to keep our nation secure? Stepping out a place of security helps us to redefine our priorities in life and to destroy unnecessary fear.
Whether you’re in Sint Maarten battling with a bad attitude about the electricity, in North Africa risking it all to help others, or in the United States stepping out of your comfort zone to engage your neighbor from a different culture, we all have something to learn from our circumstances. Whether you’re living at home or abroad, don’t take the little things for granted. Everything that comes our way can shape who we are.