Tag Archives: foreigner

Transitioning Overseas with Ease

Moving overseas is a momentous operation. But it does not need to be a miserable one! There are many things that you can do to make your big move easier and happier. Before I made my first big overseas move, I worked for a company that operated internationally. As part of my job, I briefed and trained interns who were heading overseas for a few months or years. I learned a lot in the process and soaked up insight from my husband, who has made five major international moves in his life. And when I finally had my chance to go, I learned for myself what it’s like to transition cultures and countries.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Everyone has different experiences, and I’d love to hear your stories and insights in the comments, too.

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  1. Expectations. This is the single most important thing to consider when you’re moving overseas, especially if you’ve never visited that place before. The truth is, your expectations define your experiences. They are the biggest culprit in relationship breakdown and disappointment in general. Before you go, write down your expectations so that you know what they are. Read them over and remind yourself that you have a 99% chance of every one of those things being different than you think! For example, I was totally convinced that I would get fresh mangoes off the tree every day in Sint Maarten. Not so– everything is imported. Try to prepare yourself for this sort of thing. Have as few expectations as possible. Be open to new and surprising things, and make it fun.
  2. The big fights. One side effect of leaving is that you will find yourself experiencing tension with the ones you love most. Don’t worry; you’re not losing your mind. This is normal– and knowing that makes big blow-ups avoidable. The inclination to fight is your subconscious’ way to make leaving people easier. Obviously, it has the opposite effect. Remember that the people you are leaving are experiencing loss, too, as they say goodbye. Have grace for others, and ask them to have grace for you.
  3. Saying goodbye. Saying goodbye is hard, but closure is important. Let people know you’re going. Meet with friends and make plans to keep in contact.
  4. What you need to pack. What you need to bring? Probably nothing more than yourself and your passport. Of course, your clothes and books are nice to bring, too. As you prepare to go, redefine “need” and “want” in your mind so you can judge what will be helpful to you and what will be cumbersome. Be sure to bring a few things that will remind you of home– maybe some photographs. Don’t spend a ridiculous amount of money toting the entire contents of your home across the ocean when you can replace it for cheaper when you get there.
  5. Your first day. The last thing you should do when you land is go to your new home and surround yourself with American (or Canadian, or whatever) things and people. Even if you’ve been on a plane for fourteen hours, try to spend your first couple hours on the ground immersing yourself in the culture. Go shopping. Take a walk downtown. Ride the bus. And remember that the faster you force yourself to adapt to a new time zone, the faster the jet-lag will wear off.
  6. Staying sane. Culture stress is a real thing. Some people feel it quickly, others don’t. Generally, most people experience the “honeymoon stage” for about three months and then go downhill from there. Rock bottom is at two years, and then things start to look up. However, charts and graphs can’t define your experience. This journey is what you make it, and somehow you’ll have to survive the bad days and the homesickness. Go exploring, try out restaurants, shop where the locals shop. Journal regularly, and start a blog so your friends back home can follow your adventures. Skype friends and family regularly. Write lists of what you love about this place. Write lists of what you hate and turn them into positives.
  7. Take care of yourself. Unfortunately, people take advantage of foreigners. We see this in our home countries, and it’s just as true anywhere else. Being taken advantage of can range from being quoted the “white price” on buses to date rape and muggings. Learn what the safe and dangerous places are, get to know local prices, and don’t take unnecessary risks.
  8. Feel what you feel. Not what you think you’re supposed to feel, not what your boyfriend thinks you should feel, not what a “strong” person would feel. Adjustment is hard. And that’s OK.
  9. Have Fun! With all of these points on how to survive an international move, it might sound like I think moving overseas is a drag. But transitioning to a new place can be a lot of fun! Enjoy yourself. Take a thousand and two photos. Try things you’ve never done before.
  10. Community. Without community, you will have a tough time feeling at home. Build community with other expats in your area. Make friends with locals, too. Both are essential for being truly integrated in your new home. Find a church, find a club, invite people over.
  11. Get involved. Becoming part of the community and culture around you will bring you joy and save you from many days of loneliness and wishes of a return ticket home. Some of my friends and I volunteer a few days a week to tutor kids with a local program. This really was the best thing we’ve done on this island– we were all feeling a little lost and isolated until we started focusing on something other than our own lonely selves. A sense of purpose brightens life anywhere you are.
  12. Understand the culture. The best gift you can give to yourself is the ability to understand the place you are living in. Learn the basics– how to properly greet people, what is decent apparel, and how to get around. New cultures can be frustrating at first, but remember that just because things are different it doesn’t mean that they are wrong. In the end, you’ll have fun as you achieve little cultural victories and begin to be able to understand and use the new language or dialect around you.
  13. Be a good expat. Represent your country and culture well. I wrote a blog post on this that’s worth reading.

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Looking for more? Here are a few other posts from my blog that you might find helpful! You can also check out my list of favorite expat blogs.

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Reasons I Like Living Overseas

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.

  1. Power outages
  2. Less choice in the grocery store
  3. The water goes out now and then
  4. Language barrier
  5. Transportation issues
  6. Frustrating cultural nuances
  7. Fewer people you can relate to
  8. That whole confusing English-metric conversion problem
  9. 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.

  1. 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.

Steel Drums in the Caribbean
Steel Drums in the Caribbean

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.

Click here to learn how to make this
Click here to learn how to make this

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.

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Tanzanian school (Click to learn about our nonprofit Bariki Africa)

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!

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Cream of Wheat… I think?

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.

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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.

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More on this in my post Dear American Tourists 

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.

Coat of arms sign in Berne, Indiana
Coat of arms sign celebrating history and culture in Berne, Indiana

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.

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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.

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Ancient American Pueblos

#HumanLivesMatter

The Cyberpeople are busy this week. My Facebook news feed is filled with causes, political arguments, moral statements, issue positions, photos of suffering people, cries for help, and hashtags for this cause or that. We live in an age where news and opinions are available at our fingertips in two seconds. The online world is saturated with activism and issues.

I’ve noticed that the real-life world around me is oddly silent on the problem of dead Syrian babies, dead unborn babies, dead officers, and dead African-Americans.

There are a few things that I find disturbing about this.

First, I find the Facebook world irrationally dichotomistic on many issues. For example, in the matter of the shootings of African-Americans and police officers. I see some people posting a lot of #blacklivesmatter, and other people posting a lot of #policelivesmatter. Don’t both police lives and black lives matter? Can’t I care about both police officers and black people? Do I have to pick? I think that the heart behind these posts are good. People want to show their care for a group of people that are hurting. But in my view, making a case for it seems to indicate that there is a legitimate position stating that black lives or police lives don’t matter, and clearly this is not the case! In reality, do these “sides” really exist? I would imagine that there are very few people who are happy when an either African-American or a police officer dies. I think the real line is drawn between the psychos who maliciously shoot people and the people who want to live in a safe, fair society. In my opinion, the problem of a false division (and possibly the violence itself?) among people groups is perpetuated by attention in the media– the professional kind and the social kind. Black lives matter. Police lives matter. White lives matter, Asian lives matter, Hispanic lives matter, librarian lives matter, accountant lives matter, teacher lives matter. Because human lives matter. So let’s live our daily lives like we believe that–let’s stop posting our hashtags and go be nice to some people today.

The second thing that disturbs me about the social media saturation of issues is that I see far more “awareness” being raised online than I see people who are actually, physically, non-virutually doing something about these issues. Friends, posting an article on Facebook doesn’t count as activism unless you are also actively involved in the cause. People are willing to post their outrage over injustice; we’re not often willing to actually take a day and do something that makes a physical impact. I know I’m guilty of this! I really hate posting my political opinions on Facebook, because it reminds me that I’m not actually doing anything active like calling senators or circulating petitions or volunteering. I don’t feel like I need to share my opinions with 921 people (minus whoever unfriends me after reading this post) who don’t care. I don’t say this to condemn those who are politically active online. Many of you have a platform to post political items; I don’t. There are enough people posting my same ideas about government. If I want to make a difference, I need to get out there and do something with my voice and with my hands.

The same goes for the ten thousand causes I see floating around cyberspace. I don’t care if your favorite cause is homeless puppies or defeating Isis. If all you do is Instagram a clever meme, you’re not doing anything to further your cause. Those kids in Uganda are still going to be hungry whether or not you post a picture of a kid with big brown eyes and a distended belly. If you want to make a difference, go make a donation to World Vision. Or go volunteer with the Peace Corps. Or sell your house,move to Uganda, learn Lugandan, and train young mothers how to cook nutritious food. Then, once you’ve done something real, then post that picture, along with a link to your organization so others to get involved, too.

Here’s the million dollar question: Do I care, or do I just want to look like I care?

Ask yourself that. Be honest.

Here’s my challenge, to me and to you. Log off your computer and close down your apps. Go do something this weekend that makes a real difference. Be a real activist. And then blog about your experience– not so you can look good, but so other people can be inspired and do the same thing.

Make someone’s life better.

Fight for justice.

Heal a hurting heart.

Because #HumanLivesMatter.

Cover image copyright Breana Johnson 2015

Dear American Tourists

Dear American Tourists, please stop being so rude.

It is no secret that American tourists do not have the best international reputation. I am an American. I live on a Dutch island in the Caribbean, where my husband goes to medical school. We were asked during orientation to be courteous and not perpetuate the poor reputation American tourists have. I do not think of myself as a rude person. I think most Americans do not. I have noticed, however, that in every country I have ever visited, “the locals are so friendly.” Maybe I have only traveled to friendly places. Maybe not. Maybe, everywhere else seems so friendly because America is generally not very friendly at all.

So what is our problem? Why don’t people like us, and what can we do to change that?

I would say that many things are cultural. People have different ideas of how to greet one another (one friend here said that he was sternly corrected for saying “hello” rather than “good morning,” which is proper here). People have different standards of eye contact. People have different rules for tipping, eating, asking for directions, etc etc.

There are some things that you can control when it comes to cultural courtesy. You can Google whether tips are expected or insulting in a certain area of the world. You can ask what a proper greeting entails. You can watch to see whether greeting strangers as you pass is considered kind or creepy.

There are also some things that you cannot control. You will not pick up on the majority of cultural nuances. You will trespass because you are used to signs designating private property. You will shake hands “wrong.” It happens. People probably won’t care too much; they will hear your accent and realize you are foreign. They will probably ignore it or laugh a little. They might become annoyed, but, hey, you’re learning.

Finally, there are things that are very rude no matter where you are. Dear American tourists, please do not do these things.

Please do not act as if you are better than other people. Your taxi driver and your waiter are not there for you to unload your grouchy jet-lagged crabfest upon. And just because people do things differently than you would does not mean it is “wrong.” It’s just, well, different.

Please do not act as though America is superior to all other nations. We Americans all love the stars and stripes, and that’s a good thing! However, people don’t want to hear a string of comparisons that belittle their own beloved nation. America is a culture where things are dichotomistic, time-oriented, and efficient. Most places aren’t like that. So don’t freak out when things are relaxed, confusing to you, or just plain irritating. If you wanted things to be American, you would have stayed in America. So enjoy the culture, embrace it while you’re there, and look for the good aspects.

Please do not be ethnocentric. No matter where you come from, it’s easy to place anyone different from yourself in the category of “Other.” You know what I mean, those Other people. The ones who look or dress or work or speak differently. I think that if we aren’t careful, we often look at people who are different from ourselves as less intelligent, less skilled, less important. You see a woman in a third-world county who is illiterate and does not work outside the home, and has never touched a computer. You may have more education and technical skills, but can you keep eight kids clothed, fed, and healthy in a two-room mudbrick home with no electricity, no water, and no stove? Can you sort rice so that not one tiny stone ends up in the pot? Can you carry 50 pounds of stuff on your head with no hands? Do you speak three languages? Can you keep a garden that supplies most if not all vegetable needs for your family, plus provides a little income? That, my friends, takes some serious skill. Some things are easy to miss. Learn to appreciate them. And just simply LEARN! Don’t go somewhere expecting to be a guru of all knowledge. (Shout out to short-term missions trip people here.) If you want to teach, you must first be a student. You will get more respect if you are willing to ask to be taught. Plus, it’s fun. It’s an icebreaker. It brings much laughter.

Please do not devalue other nations’ autonomy. I cringed when I heard an American tourist say, “The Bahamas should just be another state. It’s basically just part of the U.S. anyway.” How uninformed. Please, Mr. Florida Guy. You visit Touristville where half the people are white and everyone speaks English, and suddenly you think you know everything about the nation! My advice is, forget the tourist traps and take a local taxi or bus to the places that the locals hang out. Then you can get a feel for how people live. Learn about their government and read about the very intelligent people who run the state. There’s so much more to a place than just its American-catering tourist industry.

Please do not offend the locals by the way you dress. There are places where a bikini is pretty standard. There are places where you really ought to cover up, even arms and legs. Know the difference. There is no reason to exercise your liberty to dress revealingly if it gives you, your organization, and your country a bad name.

Please be mindful when you take photos. In some places, you can get your camera confiscated if you take a photo of the wrong thing (military or police in some countries). In others, people simply don’t want to be in your scrapbook. In general, don’t objectify locals as if they were some interesting foreign specimen.

Please do not be pushy. Yes, you come from a place where you can get pretty much whatever you want almost as fast as you want it. When traveling abroad, be mindful that this is rarely the case. Do not intimidate, complain, or demand. Rather, be smart and be respectful.

Please just be kind and courteous. In the end, people know you’re a visitor. They expect you to be, well, a weirdo. However, it is possible to be a courteous weirdo. Say please and thank you, smile, treat people the way you would like to be treated. Kindness counts, and it can go a long way in improving our international reputation.