As the sun begins to set on a small waterfront resort, people of all ethnicities trickle into the courtyard. One by one, candles and lights begin to illuminate the surroundings. As the courtyard fills, the aromatic scent of curry begins to grace the air. It is the second night of Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights.
This is the West Indies, not India. Yet even here in the Western hemisphere, we are eager to celebrate the triumph of good over evil– and, of course, what promises to be the apex of human culinary achievement.
Someone announces that the food is ready, and we all line up, plates ready. The menu consists of rice, banir (vegetarian red sauce), chicken tika masala (red sauce with meat), yogurt sauce to cool our mouths after the spice, naan (Indian flat-bread), and samosas (fried dumplings filled with potatoes and peas). We find a group to sit with and dig in. It’s as delicious as it smells!
The group we sit with is comprised of people who were born in India or raised in Indian homes. The conversation quickly turns to Indian culture and geography as people discuss and compare their location of origin, lingual heritage, and family traditions. I take the opportunity to ask questions and learn about the diverse and colorful nation of India.
A university student explains to me the origin and traditions centered around Diwali. Diwali is a traditional Hindu festival lasting five days. On the first day of Diwali, people hope for wealth and prosperity. The second day of Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. The third day is the actual day of Diwali, the Indian new year’s eve. The fourth day, the new year, celebrates love and devotion between husbands and wives. The final day is a celebration of sisters. Siblings honor one another and exchange gifts on this day.
The night grows blacker and sparklers are lit, illuminating the party scene. Indian pop music wraps us all in an exotic sheath of sound. Children dance and spin in the candle light. People migrate from tables to the bar and the dance floor.
Before long, the deck is crowded with smiling and laughing dancers. The sky is black, but for us, the darkest night of the year is bright and joyous.
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.
Less choice in the grocery store
The water goes out now and then
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 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.
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.
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.