Here we go again.
We’re ramping up for the annual reminder that expats say “goodbye” an awful lot — Some because they are leaving and others because they are not.
It feels different this time though. All of the same old repatriation dynamics apply but there is a LOT going on in the world right now. Current events are screaming (even more so than usual) for the attention of the masses who are in turn screaming for the attention of the current events.
Homegoings are bound to be impacted.
One quick clarification: I’m not a political commentator nor do I desire to be. There are plenty. Regardless, though, of where you are from, where you are going and what you feel like screaming about . . .
Here are 10 Tips for going home when everything has changed:
ONE: Brace for impact
Re-entry can be kind of like when you’ve been sitting by the pool in the hot sun for a while and all of your friends are saying, “come on, the water is perfect”. Then you dive in and . . . PHUUUAWWW!!!
Instantaneous hypothermic shock.
There are multiple variables but one of the most significant is that you expected something different.
Repatting is most challenging when it is a surprise. Do your best to know what you are jumping into.
THEN jump in.
Bonus tip: Know yourself — Are you a diver-inner or a toes firster? Plan accordingly.
TWO: Anticipate the Eclipse
You’ve got stories to tell. Exciting ones. Grand adventures of far away lands, awkward moments and likely something that involves a toilet.
On a regular day one of the most commonly shared frustrations among repats is the sense that no one is listening. Add to that a dominating narrative or news event (local, national or global) and it’s probably a safe expectation that your stories could get trumped (no pun intended).
Be patient. Eclipses don’t last forever.
Bonus tip: Superlatives lie. Just because a lot of people aren’t as interested as you thought they might be does NOT mean that NO ONE is.
THREE: Find Your Safe People
Every repat needs a place to be understood.
You’ve got some catching up to do but that is not going to make sense to everyone. You need someone who gets it and will stand as a buffer between you and the rest of the well-meaning welcome homers who can’t fathom why you have broken down crying in the cereal aisle. Someone who has been there and felt that is a great option but don’t shut the door on someone who hasn’t.
If they get it — they get it.
More than anything look for someone who lets you be ignorant without making you feel stupid. The right safe person can help you make sense of the things that just don’t.
Bonus tip: Let people who “get it” help you engage (not hide from) people who don’t.
FOUR: Lay it on the table
Repats are a strange breed. So are expats but at least their strangeness makes sense. When you were a foreigner you had your foreignness to fall back on. There was little question as to WHY you were such a bumbling mess and you weren’t expected to be completely caught up on politics and pop culture.
Not so for the returnee. You’re supposed to be normal, up to speed and happy to be “home”.
However, it is unfair to expect anyone who has not experienced what you are going through to miraculously presume that you feel more like a foreigner than you ever did abroad. Give them the benefit of vulnerability and let them know what’s going on inside.
Bonus tip: Repatriation is not a disability. Don’t confuse being vulnerable with making excuses for bad behavior.
FIVE: Become a Master Asker
Asking questions is an art form on so many levels. Not everyone is gifted at shutting up, listening and probing for deeper understanding but it is a skill that can be honed.
Of course you have an opinion and something to say. Look around. EVERYONE has something to say and they are all saying it (loudly) at the same time. Being intentional and genuine about asking questions first will give you a MUCH deeper grasp on what is really happening AND earn you the right to be heard.
Bonus tip: Asking questions can also be a science (if you are more inclined in that direction). Develop a formula and ask away.
SIX: Flip the coin
Know what makes me mad? When someone rips on my host country.
I’ve lived in China for the better part of ten years so the “chingy changy” jokes or the cracks about dog meat strike a nerve especially when they are followed by the elbow of presumed agreement.
You’re talking about my friends. They are actual people.
Know what I forget? There are two sides to every coin and my home country is full of real people too.
I generally stick my foot in my mouth at least three times before I remember that life abroad doesn’t make me an expert on all things domestic. My “home friends” deserve the same respect that I insist they give my “far away friends”.
Bonus tip: Respect does not equal agreement.
SEVEN: Adjust the volume
Repatriating can also be like when the sound is not good on the Travel Channel. You crank the volume up to 85, put the subtitles on and scoot closer to the television.
Then you flip back to the news and nearly blow your eardrums out.
It’s ok if home feels loud at first. Sensory overload happens when you suddenly hit the switch and simultaneously understand more AND less than you have in years. There is no shame in pacing yourself.
Unplug when you can and even if you can’t, do your best to lower the volume.
Bonus tip: Scheduling things that you have never scheduled before could help. Start the timer on news intake, social media and binge-watching. When the buzzer buzzes . . . walk away.
EIGHT: Don’t lean on your ability to unpop balloons
A perfect storm is brewing. If you are going home, you have some wonderful things to look forward to but transition comes naturally with tension.
If you are stacking the typical repatriation tensions on top of an extra set of transitional tensions (for example your friends are adjusting to a new job or a new leader of the free world) the odds of conflict go up.
They just do.
People say stuff. People that you have known and loved for your entire life might even say things that make you think, “who ARE you?”
This is important: No one is the best version of themselves in transition.
When emotions are flaring and core values are being challenged from every angle people do and say whatever they can to make their voice heard.
Take a deep breath. Work hard to NOT say what can’t be unsaid or do what can’t be undone. You will still love these people when the dust of current events has settled.
Bonus tip: There is a world of difference between disagreement and personal attack.
NINE: Study Yourself
Living abroad changed you. You knew that already but have you considered HOW it changed you? Specifically.
This is a great time for you to become a student of you. The more you know about yourself the less confusing the tensions of re-engaging will be. Knowing yourself won’t alleviate challenges but it may shed some light on why they frustrate you so much.
Here are some questions to think through:
- How has my view of my own country changed?
- How has my view of my host country changed?
- How has my view of the world changed?
- How have my politics changed?
- How has my faith been strengthened, stretched or challenged?
- How has my perspective on wealth/poverty been effected?
- What has changed in me that I wish had not?
- What is different in me now that I hope never goes away?
Get alone with a piece of paper and figure yourself out. Better yet, have this conversation with your family, or your safe people.
Bonus tip: Physically writing is a powerful way to discover things that you may not have even known existed . . . in your own brain.
TEN: GIVE GRACE ALL AROUND
Count on this as you prepare to go “home.”
• There WILL be moments that make no sense at all.
• There WILL be people who say stupid, stupid things.
• There WILL be days when you feel incompetent, irrelevant and marginal.
There will also be great moments of joy and celebration. Your transition does not need to be defined by the tensions or the rough bits BUT . . .
When they happen and you’ve run out of options, patience and steam, consider giving grace like you have never given grace before.
- When your brand new friend says, “you lived WHERE?” . . . “WHY?!” give him some grace.
- When your best childhood friend says, “You must just be glad to be away from there” . . . give her some grace.
- When your second cousin makes an ignorant stereotype joke about your host country . . . grace.
- When your dad forgets which country was your host country . . . grace.
- When your favorite people say painful things.
- When the noise is deafening.
- When the news is depressing.
- When every conversation comes back to the exact same topic and none of them are about you . . .
GRACE. GRACE. GRACE.
Not because it is the best weapon but because it leads to a better place.
And here’s a bonus tip: When you fall apart in the cereal aisle — take some grace for yourself. Lot’s of it.
Transition is temporary.
Know someone who is headed “home”? Pass this on.
Are you a “home-goer” yourself? Share your thoughts . What excites you and makes you afraid?
Been there and lived to tell about it? Give us your wisdom. Comment below.
Life abroad is a trade off isn’t it? You give some things up. You get some things back.
Some would call it a sacrifice which is perfectly accurate for so many. I prefer the term investment for myself. Both start with letting go of something but a sacrifice let’s go with no expectation or hope for return.
Truly and entirely selfless. Those people are my heros.
I’m getting way too much out of this to think that I have genuinely sacrificed anything (especially in comparison to those people). I’ve given things up but I’m an investor and frankly the returns are phenomenal.
To be clear — I’m not talking money here.
My investment has been comfort, connection and confidence.
I’ve given up things like a room full of power tools, a bathroom that doesn’t smell like raw sewage and literacy. Those are trivial compared to the relational investments — sure would be nice to drop the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the day.
I’m whining a bit but I’m not complaining. The returns are not lost on me — I’m getting a bottomless adventure, a network of close friends from every continent (except Antarctica), kids who will never be held back by words like, “that’s too far to travel”, free language lessons with every taxi ride, fabulous family selfies, street food that would make your head spin and a chance to live out my calling every single day.
Seriously — not complaining — but I do miss my family. Especially this time of year.
The holiday season has me thinking about traditions. Are they an investment or a sacrifice?
I feel like many expats buy into the idea that when you live abroad you have to check your traditions at the airport. Just put them on pause until you get back “home”. A total sacrifice on the altar of “that’s not an option here”.
I don’t buy it.
Traditions, for the expat (and the repat), are one of the great opportunities for something solid in a life which is otherwise incessantly marked by change. Adaptation is required to be sure. Adjustment is essential. You can’t do this without some tweaks and twerks and modifications but rock solid traditions are worth the investment.
My family needs that. I need that.
So I’m investing in a solid set of traditions (holiday and otherwise) that can remain constant here, there or anywhwere.
sidenote: Twerks are probably less essential to this process than tweaks and modifications. Please consult a doctor before you include twerking in your family traditions. Please also consult your family.
When you squeeze the old, stable customs through the filter of expat realities you end up with a set of TRAVELING TRADITIONS that can go with you wherever you land.
I’m working on mine and here are some things that I’m considering:
Traveling Traditions should focus on people not places.
We don’t have the luxury of going to Grandmother’s house every year let alone going over the same river or through the same woods. Our stability will likely never be a place. It is people (namely us).
Traveling Traditions should be focused on what “can always” instead of what “can here”.
Every true tradition must be held to the test . . . could we still do this if we lived in Dubai or Moscow or Bangkok or Atlantis? If not then it always runs the risk of extinction with the next move . . . or the one after that.
Traveling Traditions should be focused on small and not large.
Ornaments travel. Trees, not so much. We are mobile people. Our traditions should not be tethered to “things” that cannot move with us.
Traveling Traditions are more likely to need “translating” than simply “transplanting“.
Traditions probably won’t ever move seamlessly between spots on the planet but discovering how to convert the heart of the old into a new location or culture is worth some thought. sidenote: something is always lost in translation which does not render it unworth translating.
Traveling Traditions should be firmly flexible.
I am 100% dead set, unflinchingly convinced and resolved that our traditions will move forward according to our plan, absolutely . . . until they don’t. Then I’ll be flexible. We’re expats so we’ve already learned something about flexibility. It keeps us from breaking.
Traveling Traditions should break the time-space continuum.
20 years from now I want my kids to finish the sentence, “When I was a child my parents always made us ______________”. Then I want them to wrack their brains figuring out how they’re going to get their families to love it as much as they did.
We have a wonderfully challenging, beautifully transient life. Things change regularly and rapidly even when we don’t go anywhere. We make more friends than we ever dreamed we would, engage more cultures than we even knew existed and say more goodbyes than we ever signed on for.
Considering the fact that pretty much everything changes on a regular basis for the average expat . . . something needs to stay the same.
Traditions are worth the investment but they are certainly not without return.
What have you learned about maintaining your traditions in a constantly changing life?
What are your favorite Traveling Traditions?
Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it.
A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery. That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years.
The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now.
The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.”
The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT. Keep dreaming chump.”
And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”
I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home.
But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.
(just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you)
I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis) and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:
• Issues can fly
• They expand when they land
The life cross-cultural can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure and the newness can serve as a great cover up for a good long time but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.
Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:
If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems non-available in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.
If your marriage is in the toilet — you may very well need some time away with your spouse and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.
If you have anger issues — That’s one thing when your life is compartmental. Blow up at work and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.
Whatever it is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).
Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.
Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out of control people and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.
This is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?)
If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be” don’t freak out
- Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
- Do everything you can to address them before you go — and set a plan to keep addressing them.
- Don’t be naive — Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
- sidenote — if your issues are actually going to crush you abroad it is MUCH better to discover that before you go
If you’re a half-jaded “Been There”
- Good news — you’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
- Say it with me — “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog)
- Become a master of seeking wisdom.
- sidenote — if your issues are already crushing you finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Do whatever it takes.
If you’ve been there, come through it and learned something along the way
- Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
- Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
- Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
- sidenote: Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.
Whoever you are and whatever your issues, add to the conversation and comment below.
Know someone who needs this? Pass it on.
I love living abroad. I really do.
Even the stressful stuff cracks me up.
Like the time I got 28 enormous hickeys on my back or the day I discovered I might be Amish.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Life as a bumbling foreigner makes me laugh — some days simply because the alternative involves some combination of thumb sucking, a fetal position and dents in my wall that match my forehead.
If you can relate — even a little — then you should read this new book:
“THE DAY GRANDMA GOT US KICKED OUT OF MEXICO (and other fun stories about life as a bumbling American foreigner)“
It’s a short compilation of my favorite and funnest stories, interactions and reflections over the past several years and it’s free.
This book is simply about stepping back and enjoying the expat ride . . . bumps and all. There is no moral to the story. No great self-help wisdom. Just a few light hearted thoughts from the perspective of an American living in China. Incidentally, it might even make a good read for a German living in Brazil . . . or a Kenyan living in Russia.
Probably not a Canadian living in Greece though. That’s pushing it.
Here’s how you get the book. Just sign in below and click on the big red button. Check your email to prove that you are a human (easier for some) and enjoy.
Thanks for reading . . . and for laughing at my Grandma. I hope to return the favor someday.
If you enjoy the book or you’ve got a fun bumbling foreigner story of your own I’d love to hear about it. Please comment share this post with your friends.
Hey expat. You too repat. When was the last time you laughed?
Like really laughed. Belly laughed until your ears hurt and you actually had to force yourself to think of something sad for fear that you might pull a muscle in your gut. Laughed so hard that you had to fight to catch your breath even after you stopped laughing . . . and then you snorted and started laughing all over again.
I’m not talking “lol” here. I mean “BWAAHAHA!”
How long has it been? How often does it happen?
Too long? Not often enough?
Why is that?
Let me guess. Life happened. Transition got real. Culture shock or re-entry stress hit you like a ton of bricks and you can’t even remember what gut laughing feels like.
In the economy of major life transition, laughter sometimes feels like a luxury that you can’t afford.
I’m right with you . . . but we’re both wrong.
It’s hard to find a better value proposition than laughter. Your investmentment is virtually nothing and the returns are astronomical. Try to get that deal from stress . . . or worry . . . or anger . . . or complaining . . . or overthinking . . . or even venting.
Bottom line? You need to laugh.
Laughing is healthier and tastes better than Kale
The only thing that disqualifies laughter from being classified as a superfood is that . . . well, technically it’s not a food (if you want to be all picky). However, the studies are in (lots of them) and all of the data points to the same conclusion. Laughing is actually crazy healthy. Physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.
Here are some of the benefits (not making this up).
- Lower blood pressure
- Increase short-term memory
- Lower stress hormones
- Protect against heart disease
- Defend against respiratory infections
- Improve alertness and creativity
- Increase oxygen levels in your blood
- Increase pain tolerance
- Improve metabolism
- Make you blow milk out of your nose which makes other people laugh which resets the whole healthy cycle
Seriously. Kale isn’t even funny. At all.
Laughter is the opposite of everything that stresses you out
Important to note here. Laughter doesn’t SOLVE all of your transition challenges. It’s not going to magically infuse your brain with a foreign language or explain to your family why you’re crying in the cereal aisle. Laughter is not the answer to all of your pain but it might be the break that you need to STOP being consumed by the hard stuff. Even for a little bit.
A good laugh can be a great reset.
There are no Laughter Rehabs
People with issues (like you and me) want to detach. It’s what we do. Unfortunately the unhealthy options that offer a break from hard realities are as unlimited as the devastation that comes as a result of engaging with them. Laughter is all natural with zero negative side effects. So is kale but we’ve covered that.
A good laugh can give you a break without disconnecting or doing damage.
Laughter crosses cultural boundaries
Some of my most enjoyable laughs have been shared with people who speak about five words in my language (which is three more than I speak in theirs). To be clear . . . HUMOR does NOT often cross cultural lines.
Like, hardly ever.
Your jokes are probably not funny to the rest of the world. Sorry, but it’s better you find out here . . . from the guy who has learned the hard way.
HOWEVER — humor is not the only thing worth laughing at. If and when you find that point of connection with someone who is on the other side of a cultural line, it is golden. A good laugh not only crosses cultural barriers — it crushes them and builds a rapport that is hard to find elsewhere.
A note for repats — You’re crossing cultures too.
A good laugh can be a surprisingly great connector.
Laughing at yourself means you’re doing transition right
If you can’t laugh at yourself in the context of being a bumbling foreigner or returning “home” (and feeling like a bumbling foreigner) you are likely to do one of two things: Explode or Implode. Neither of those is good (just in case you were wondering).
There is only one reason you should laugh at yourself. Ready?
Because you’re funny.
Not so much in the brilliant, well thought out comedic genius kind of way. No no, you’re funny in the cat who falls off a ceiling fan kind of way. You’re making mistakes and falling down even though you look and feel like you shouldn’t be.
Frustrating . . . but funny.
Bumbling and falling can be a shot to your pride for sure — but laughing at yourself can be an indicator that your pride isn’t controlling you. I’m not talking about a self-loathing, self abusive, “I’m too stupid to do anything” laughter — but a healthy acknowledgement that you are not, in fact, the first person to do transition without falling down is a good sign.
A good laugh at yourself is a great gauge for transitional health.
Laughter is a good sign of things to come
Transition is a thief. It temporarily robs you of the comfort and confidence that you enjoyed back when you were settled. Remember those days? You had it all figured out. Now it’s just awkward. You don’t laugh when things are awkward.
Ok you might “lol” . . . but you don’t “BWAAHAHA!!”
So finding a way to genuinely laugh, even before you’re resettled, gives you a glimpse of something good that is coming.
A good laugh can be a great reminder that it’s going to get better.
One important disclaimer that could change everything:
It matters what you laugh at
All of this is out the window if it takes ripping someone else (or yourself for that matter) to shreds for you to laugh. You might still get the sugar rush but it’s not worth the damage you’ll leave behind (and carry with you).
So take some time and get intentional. Try this — Write down five times you can remember laughing til it hurt. Now start making connections. What do they have in common? Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? What can you recreate now? What can you not?
Even if transition has made it impossible to reproduce your most laughable moments, don’t give up on finding some new ones.
Why not start with a chuckle? — scroll up to the blue box at the top, right of this page and download my new ebook, “The Day Grandma Got us Kicked Out of Mexico.” It’s full of some of my most frustrating and enjoyable laughs as a bumbling foreigner.
You might relate.
You finally made it. You’re a foreigner . . . in a foreign land. So now what?
There is nothing quite like your first days abroad. It’s magical. All of the anticipation and excitement with none of the baggage (unless you count the actual baggage that you’re living out of). You haven’t yet tripped or bumbled or slipped into any of the inevitable pitfalls. You haven’t snapped or screamed or broken down or crawled into a hole or stayed up all night searching for the cheapest one way ticket home.
It’s a golden time. Bask in it. Breath it in. You haven’t messed it up yet and you — more than any other — have the untarnished potential to do this thing right. The advice for people like you is as plentiful as it is practical — sage wisdom from those who have marched before you:
“Engage the culture.”
“Learn the language.”
“Try the crazy foods.”
“Give more than you take.”
It’s all good counsel and you’ll do well to soak it up like a sponge.
However, there are ten things I wish someone would have told me early on.
I understand why they didn’t but still . . . I wish they had. Here they are.
One: Mess it all up
How’s that for starters? The key to not messing it all up is to mess it all up.
But seriously . . . it is.
Get ready to make some mistakes. Lots of them. Big ones. Little ones. In between ones. Go for broke.
Mistakes are the best chance you’ve got at learning and this is absolutely the best time to make them. Making mistakes while you’re still having fun gives you the chance to laugh at yourself and makes for great Facebook fodder. You’re also much more likely to get grace from the vets and the locals. Take full advantage of your “Oops, I just got here” card.
The flip side (trying to fake perfection) is a miserable place. You won’t fool anyone but yourself. Don’t go there.
Two: Get ripped off
There are few things more frustrating than getting the “foreigner price”. This may or may not be a reality where you are but it’s not uncommon for outsiders to pay more than locals. I have watched otherwise rational, quite lovely expats transform into rage filled monsters, foaming at the mouth and bent on revenge — usually over pocket change.
It’s not the money it’s the principal right? The injustice. The exploitation.
Nope . . . it’s your pride.
You’re new to the system and you got took. Fair enough. When you understand things more you’ll be more equipped to get the best deal. Until then do your best to learn something but know that resentment is a terrible teacher.
The system isn’t new . . . you are . . . and EVERY system (including your own) is designed to get the most money out of people who don’t know better.
Swallow your pride . . . and take someone with you if you’re buying a car.
Three: Don’t listen to the old timers
Discernment is key here. There is often grand wisdom to be gleaned from the seasoned expats around you. They’ve been there. Done that. Probably printed their own T-shirts to prove it.
Respect them and sit at their feet when you get the chance to hear their stories.
However, when someone who has been there for 40 years says, “yeah, you can’t buy ketchup here” or “you can only get there by donkey and it will take three weeks” . . . you might think about getting a second opinion. Sometimes the vets (myself included) offer advice based on their own outdated experience. Things change faster than people do.
Last years newbies may actually be a better resource when it comes to finding the things you need and especially the things you want. They just went through this so not only did they work hard to figure it out they know what you’re going through.
Try finding empathy from an old timer who once rode a donkey for three weeks to buy ketchup. Let me know how that works out.
Four: Be ignorant
Let me rephrase this one. Ignorance is not something that you need to achieve. It’s something that you already are. Embrace that.
Ignorance gets a bad rap. It’s not the same thing as stupid. Stupid is convincing yourself (and trying to convince others) that you know something when you actually don’t. Ignorance is just not knowing it.
People do damage when they act on the pressure to know something that they don’t. However if you are able to recognize just how much you don’t yet grasp you are poised and primed to start soaking up the new.
As a sidenote — Don’t fall for the lie that answers equal understanding. Answers give you one opinion, one perspective, one piece of the full picture. Ask the same question a thousand times to a thousand different people and THEN you’ll start to scratch the surface of understanding. Kind of. Maybe.
Be a constant, relentless learner but never lose sight of how much you still have to learn.
Five: Don’t be helpful
Duane Elmer tells one of my all time favorite stories in his book Cross Cultural Connections. In it a monkey spots a fish caught in the ocean’s current following a typhoon. At great risk to himself, he climbs onto a branch and reaches into the water to pull the fish from danger. Heroically, he lays it on dry land where it can be saved from the raging waters. At first the fish jumped with excitement and then fell into a peaceful rest.
Duane says this, “Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature.”
Helping is such a good thing . . . but take the time to understand what is ACTUALLY helpful . . . and what is probably not.
Six: Be offensive
Offensivness (like helpfulness) is a culturally loaded concept. My culture, for example, is currently (what I would call) hyper-selectively concerned with offensiveness. Say the wrong word one time and it could go viral which (this happens every day) might actually ruin your reputation and even cost you your career. However, say the same thing in the name of sarcastic, mocking comedy and it might go viral instantly making you famous and rich.
It’s hard to keep up in your own culture, let alone another.
Offensiveness is nuanced. We tend to filter our understanding of it, however, through our own experience. So, when we cross cultures our most valiant, heart felt attempts to avoid offending fall painfully short . . . because they are rooted in our own cultural perspective.
Give yourself a break. You are going to be offensive at some point. What matters more is that you pick up on the cues when you are and that you are willing to make adjustments even when it doesn’t make sense.
Be especially careful not to react offensively when your offensiveness is called out.
It’s a tangled web but humility breaks you free.
Seven: Have bad days
In China we often say we’re having a “bad China day”. I would bet we’re not the only ones who do that.
Here’s the thing. I have never (not once) said I’m having a “bad America day” and yet I have had hundreds of bad days in America. Unfortunately our host country becomes the dog that gets kicked when things aren’t going our way. It’s there so we transfer our frustration. That can be dangerous.
Sure, sometimes the culture is pushing on your very last nerve but it’s likely that your nerves were raw already.
Blaming sets you up to be bitter . . . which will make for more bad days . . . which will make you more bitter . . .
See where this is going?
It’s ok. Just have a bad day.
Eight: Quit exercising and eating healthy
Just kidding. That’s terrible advice.
Seriously though. Take care of yourself.
Physical, mental and spiritual health take a hit in transition. They are disciplines that work best with a routine. Considering the reality that your routines (the ones from the old country) have been obliterated in the move you might find yourself struggling to stay fit.
That’s why it’s called a discipline.
Work hard to find your new routines. Don’t lie to yourself by saying stuff like “I can’t do that here.”
“I can’t find kale smoothies so I have to eat McDonald’s every day.” “I can’t jog 5 times a week so I haven’t gotten off the couch for a month.”
Let comfort food (the literal and the metaphorical) be a nice treat . . . not a steady diet.
Nine: Crawl in a hole
You read it here first. When you are frustrated by the overwhelming challenges of transition, one of the best things that you can do is hide. Crawl into a hole. Scurry under a rock. Retreat to your cave. Curl up on your couch and binge watch 90’s sitcoms.
But (you knew this part was coming didn’t you?)
Do it with a plan.
It get’s hard sometimes . . . and sometimes you need a break. So take one . . . but before you crawl into a hole decide when you’ll be coming out. Specifically. Exact date and exact time.
Hiding is a great way to retreat, recover, refresh and recharge but you didn’t move all this way to watch Netflix. You can do that anywhere . . . unless Netflix is blocked . . .
Come on Netflix.
Go ahead and hide from reality . . . with a reasonable plan to re-engage it.
Ten: Focus on yourself
I see fabulous foreigners all the time who are the most sacrificial people in the world. Sometimes they even wear it like a badge of honor. “I haven’t had a day off in 6 months . . . I’ll rest when I die.”
Those people do one of two things. They crash and burn OR they help create a culture where crashing and burning is inevitable (and sometimes celebrated) .
Flight attendants say is best, “In the unlikely event that we should lose cabin pressure an oxygen mask will drop in front of you. Please secure your own mask before taking care of others.”
The point is NOT this — You are the most important person on board.
The point IS this — You can’t help anyone while you’re passed out on the airplane floor.
Want your kids to thrive abroad? Your students? Your co-workers? Want to build strong relationships? Engage the culture? Learn the language?
Want to do this right?
Get your mask on and breath normally.
How about you?
Just getting started? What have you learned so far?
Been doing this a while? What do you wish someone would have shared with you early on?
Know someone who is going or gone? Pass this on.