Going Nowhere: Ten tips for expat Stayers who want to stay well

BookendsIn the expatosphere we tend to focus on the bookends of our cross-cultural experience.  Starting well.  Ending well.  Moving on.  

Between Stayers, Goers and Newbies the Stayers tend to get the least attention.  But the space between the bookends are where the books are.

The time between landing and leaving is where the real story is.  The adventure.  The tension.  The characters.  The conflict.  The resolution.  The tragedy and the comedy.  It’s all in the books but transition resources disproportionately target the bookends.

Fair enough.  Bookends are important.  Without them the books fall over.

Too metaphorical?

Starting your cross-cultural experience well AND ending it well matters — a lot — BUT the whole point of starting well is SO you can STAY well and leaving well is really hard when the whole experience has been a mess.

We lean towards the mentality that transition only happens when we cram all of our earthly possessions into plastic tubs and fly off into the sunset but it doesn’t take an expat long to figure out that the TRANSITION NEVER STOPS.

Read “The Transition That Never Ends: The ongoing cycle of expat Stayers, Goers and Newbies” for more about that.

For those of you who are going nowhere but your world never stops moving — here are some tips that I have found helpful but let’s be real here . . . we’re not even going the scratch the surface of Staying Well in one blog post.  Don’t hold back — we need your wisdom.

 

1.  Keep your CORE door open

Here’s an all too typical scenario — As a Newby you show up wide eyed and set for the adventure of a lifetime.  The veterans roll their eyes at your naiveté and unseasoned enthusiasm.  It’s awkward BUT you find your way.  You make a friend.  And another.  Maybe two more and it is so good.  You connect and do life together as bumbling foreigners who really enjoy each other.  You’re cordial with everyone but you’ve found your Core group.  Time passes.

Wide eyed newbies come and you roll your eyes at their naiveté and unseasoned enthusiasm.

Then it happens.  The first of your Core breaks the news.  Moving on.  Then another.  Then two more.

This may all happen over the course of years but if you’re planning to be a Stayer, Goers are going to be a part of your reality.  You can brace for it but if you’ve closed the door to your Core it’s just a matter of time before you’re lonely and left out.  Chances are you’ll become a Goer yourself.

Look at the Newbies.  The veterans.  The other Stayers.  Who could you really connect with that you have not yet?

 

Flight La 22.  Build trust with people who aren’t leaving

With a few beautiful exceptions expats aren’t lifers.  They come and they go.

Expats, however, are not the only characters in your story.  Building deep, lasting friendships with local people is a brilliant move towards staying well.  The friendship alone would be worth it but the insight gained is pure gold.  Close local friends open a window to your host culture that is otherwise bolted shut.

 

  • You can learn a lot from the other expats but it will always come from a foreigner’s perspective.
  • You can also learn a lot from local acquaintances but you’ll likely get the version that is safe for foreigners.
  • When you’ve got a bonafide non-foreign friend you get access to a whole new world of understanding.  Real heart stuff. Opinions, perspectives and information that you assumed you already understood but found out you were WAY off.

No doubt, those relationships can be more challenging, especially when language differences and deep cultural gaps are a reality.  Cross-cultural relationships require boatloads of intentionality.  They take longer to establish and (in many cases) may not be nearly as established as you think they are.  Not to mention you may learn truths that are hard to know.  It’s not easy but it is good.

Take your time.  Build trust.  Be trustworthy.  You have so much to learn.

 

TCK's3.  Reboot your sense of wonder

Remember when you got off the plane?  Wide eyed.  Confident.  So ready.

You were primed for the adventure.  Couldn’t wait to study a new language, explore a new culture and dive head first into the magnificent unknown.

What the heck happened?

I can answer that for you.  You discovered reality, that’s what happened.  You figured out how to make life normal again and in the process you found out that your new normal looks almost nothing like the high culture stereotypes that you came in with.  Your grand adventure includes laundry, dishes and binge watching sitcoms.

Don’t feel bad.  Misinformed, awestruck wonder is rarely sustainable.  Honeymoons don’t last forever.

Informed wonder, on the other hand — that’s where it gets good.  Now that your eyes are opened to what real life looks like, why not reboot and re-engage.  Learn the history of your host culture.  Study the art, the architecture, the current events.  Learn a song, a dance, a poem, a story.  Take a trip, eat something painfully local.  Go back to the adventure but do it all fully aware that you need to do a load of whites before you go to bed.

What are three things that you used to be excited about but haven’t thought of for a long time?

 

4.  Break out of “Expert Survivor” mode

Expats are phenomenal survivors.  Foreign life can be tough at first, especially if there is a language barrier but we’ve got to eat right?  So we instinctively sniff out the restaurants with picture menus.  We memorize the names of our five favorite dishes.  We become masters of charades and don’t mind flapping our arms or clucking out loud in a crowded McDonalds to get a chicken sandwich.

Even if language is not an issue, as outsiders, we tend to find our “go to” spots  and our sure fire routines.  It’s hard work to discover new things.  So when it’s crucial to our survival we work hard but once we’ve figured out how to live comfortably . . . why would we take the hard road?

Survival is an important phase of crossing cultures.  It’s all too easy though, to settle for a level of functionality that would make us a laughing stock if we tried to mirror back home (insert mental image of clucking like a chicken at your home town McDondalds).

Stayers though, have an opportunity to go beyond survival.  Again, intentionality is key.

Try a risky restaurant or new form of transportation.  Try speaking local even when locals speak your language better.  Get lost and find your way home.

As a sidenote — if you’re feeling judged here — don’t.  I’m doing that thing where most of my fingers are pointing back at me.  Makes it hard to typ,,

 

gma gpa wall5.  Host a visitor

Going home is nice but bringing home is superb.  There is something really rich about seeing someone from your other life in your new world.  It’s potentially surreal but it can be so good.

You might find that you instantly go from bumbling foreigner to expert on all things local.  Those five dish names that you can pronounce can be easily mistaken for total fluency.

The best part though is the connection.  There are galaxies of difference between going home and trying to tell your best expat stories to a friend who really doesn’t want to hear them and walking down the street with a visiting friend who is soaking it all in.

Galaxies.

That connection lasts a long time.

It may be a stretch but make the ask.  Get your friends and family on your turf.  Plan for a year.  Share your frequent flier miles.  It’s a great way to level up your relationship.

If you could have a week with anyone from your old life in the context of your new(er) one, who would it be?

 

6.  Translate the REST of your life

Expats too often check significant parts of their lives at the airport.  They assume that they can’t do things because it is not instantly obvious how they can.  Runners quit running because pollution is too high.  Musicians quit playing because they don’t want to carry their equipment all that way.  Gardeners quit gardening.  Woodworkers quit woodworking. Painters quit painting.

That’s one thing if you’re only doing this for a couple of years.  If you’re staying, though, don’t give up hope on maintaining important chunks of your identity.  You don’t just run . . . you ARE a runner.

You may be frustrated because you can’t do your hobbies and your habits EXACTLY that way you have always done them.

Fair enough.

So don’t even try to TRANSPLANT them.  You can’t.  You can, however, TRANSLATE them.

Ask yourself how you can you do your old thing in the context of your new life?  Keep in mind that something is always lost in translation.  It may look and feel like a different thing at first but don’t leave behind things you love because you’ve assumed that they are no longer possible.

What’s missing?  Did you check any part of your life at the airport?  Go get it back.

 

7.  Embrace ignorance 

Compared to where you started you’re pretty much an international genius.  Compared to your people back home your grasp on the politics and culture and customs and mannerisms and all of the intricate nuances of living abroad is incredible.   You’ve come a long, long way.

Compared to what you have yet to learn however (no matter how long you’ve been a Stayer) . . .

Yeah.

Don’t feel bad.  Being ignorant is not a bad thing unless you think you’re not.  If you’re ignorant (and aware of it) you’ve got room to learn.  If you’ve found an answer you’re likely to stop looking for one.

That is the biggest challenge for the Stayer.  Once you’ve been there for a while you feel like you should know it all.

You don’t.  Admit it.  Embrace it.

What have your learned the most about your host culture?  Re-open the case.  Learn something new about the stuff you thought you were an expert in.

 

8.  Emulate the Greats

Look around.  Who are the heroes in your story?  Who are the Stayers who have stayed well?  Who are the high functioning veterans that add life to the expat community, respect and engage the locals and haven’t settled for merely surviving?

Now pick them apart.  What is it about them that you want to add to your experience.  What are the characteristics, the habits, the intentional behaviors and routines that make them good at being a foreigner.

Do those things.

Name your top three Greats.  Seek their wisdom.

 

9. Process without complaining

Processing and complaining can start with the exact same statement.  For example “This is really hard.”

That is a fair and true statement but what you do with it sets you on one of two trajectories that ultimately lead to very different places.  Processing the hard stuff is absolutely critical for staying well.  Verbalizing the tough realities (as opposed to stuffing them) is a healthy discipline.  However complaining (at least habitually) is toxic for you and the people around you.

Here’s the difference.

  • Processors want wisdom — Complainers want sympathy.
  • Processors are seeking comfort on the other side of the challenge — Complainers are seeking instant release.
  • Processors identify the real challenge and work towards a solution — Complainers belittle so the challenge can be ignored.
  • Processers enjoy resolution  — Complainers are chained to unresolved issues.
  • Processors respect local culture even when it doesn’t make sense to them — Complainers mock local culture.
  • Processers recognize that they may be a part of the problem  —  Complainers always blame someone or something else.
  • Processors recognize they are ignorant — Complainers pretend they are not.
  • Processors attract other processors who are seeking wisdom — Complainers attract other complainers who are seeking validation.

Good news  — if you’re realizing you’re a complainer right now you are not alone.  We all are at some point.   Processing requires discipline (while complaining comes quite naturally).  It’s a discipline well worth developing if you want to be a Stayer.

Be brutally honest.  Are you a processor or a complainer?

sidenote — If you’re thinking of all the other complainers right now (and how bad they are) — you might be one.  Just a thought.

 

10.  Grace, Grace and more Grace

Your expat story is a good one and like all good stories it’s got tension.  There are conflicts and complications and hiccups along the way that keep it both interesting and frustrating.  The characters range from kindred spirit, life long connections to bumbling villainous idiots whose only role seems to be to irritate the pot out of you.

Stayers — the Great ones — are constant learners even though they already understand more than most.  They are incessant listeners even though they have so much to say.  They are humble even though their abilities and their accomplishments would outshine everyone around.  They are respectful and they stimulate broader respect.  They honor their hosts.  They inspire their teams.  They challenge everyone towards a better option.

More than anything (in my opinion) — they understand that this whole thing doesn’t work without grace.

  • Wide-eyed, know-it-all Newbies need grace to become great Stayers.
  • Core group Goers need grace to go well and remain life-long friends.
  • Locals need grace while you try to figure them out (and vice versa).
  • Annoying fellow expats need grace.  Period.
  • Friends and family back home need grace when they say horribly offensive things about your new friends.
  • Processors need grace so they are not mistaken for complainers.
  • Complainers need grace to recognize there is a better way.

And what about you?

If you’re planning to be a Stayer — you’re going to need healthy doses of grace.  Take some for yourself.

 

Surface — unscratched.  Help us out Stayers.  What are your tips for staying well?

Comment below and pass this on.

 

23 Comments

  1. I still remember a leader I worked for nearly 20 years (a three cultural transitions) ago… He said, “Hey! People just want to be treated like people.” The takeaway for me has been gargantuan. This means that any “labelling” I do regarding people needs to be only to identify ways that I might relate to them more fully and serve them better. If any of the labels I give them, “newbie,” “goer,” “immature” (and thus not worthy of my respect) only serve to make them less than the image of who they really are (i.e., made in God’s image.)…. this kind of “treating everybody like they are infinitely” valuable has been a rough road that has yielded some pretty wonderful relational results.

    Reply
    • Love your reply Makala Doulos. It is a lot of truth – and it stands whether you are an expat or not.

      Reply
  2. Consider this post forwarded…

    Good stuff.

    Reply
  3. Number 6 was so key for me staying well and I don’t ever recall seeing it written about before. It took me a good few years to figure out! But there,are many good points in this article. We nearly went after 4 years but it ended up 13. Many, many times I am so grateful we chose to stay (despite the constant loss of huge numbers of our community moving on). We learnt so much more, we contributed from a very different point of understanding, it forced local friendships to go deeper. We would have missed so much. And no doubt more years would have yielded even more. Staying is pretty unpopular these days between short term contracts and thriving from change and new experiences. Staying was not the comfortable call for us either, but I am so, so glad we did.

    Reply
  4. Jerry so happy to have read this. We are in fact getting ready to move to Belize next year, so we will be one of the “Newbies” and with your permission I’d like to print and post on my bathroom mirror section 9 about Processors and Complainers so I can read it daily! GREAT stuff!

    Reply
  5. Susan — All the best in your new adventure. I don’t think you need my permission to post on your bathroom mirror (depending maybe on how many people you are going to invite to your bathroom and how much you are going to charge them to use it) BUT regardless — yes of course. I would be proud to have my post hanging in your bathroom!

    Reply
  6. Fabulous article – mature, wise, and balanced! Currently in my 15th year as a stayer. So much that you’ve written resonates with me.

    Reply
  7. So good to read your words. And for so many reasons. Your words being so many memories, scenes, conversations, and situations to mind and I appreciate the gift you have in putting it all into words. Grace…oh my, yes. You made me smile Jerry. 🙂 Thanks

    Reply
  8. As a stayer I really enjoyed this article. The goers who are good friends make me feel so lonely at times. Thanks for the insight.

    Reply
  9. When nearly everything around me seemed to be changing incessantly, I found it helpful to focus on what stays the same (i.e. God’s presence, faithfulness, acceptance, etc.)

    Reply
  10. Beautiful post and oh sooo spot on! Thank you for putting all these emotions and experiences into words and giving them some sort of structure to be able to make better sense of the whole experience. Sharing it with a big smile on my face! Mille mercis.

    Reply
  11. So many great nuggets in this article. Thank you so much for being able to develop such keen observations and put it all in writing. For me, no. 2 is so important. My local friends give me so much joy and are my windows into the local culture, and this is what makes me so very glad to live in the country that I do. I’ve also found it challenging to know other expats in my circles who I simply cannot tolerate; therefore, no. 10 is critical. I’m careful, however, not to surround myself with people (expats, in this case) who do not give me joy. It’s important to recognize that as expats, we cannot check at the airport the ability to choose healthy friendships.

    Reply
  12. Great article! Insightful and succinct. We’re going on 10 years (off and on) as Stayers (er, rather, 10 years in one place, but not sure when we moved from Newbie to Stayer) I’ve always said about #5, “When family comes here it makes here home.” And one way when I’ve found myself leaning toward complainer (round about June when everyone leaves or when a local election happens) is I’ve found thankfulness a key to moving back toward processor. “Thankfulness will cure what ails you.”- is another saying of ours around here. Relieves the some of the misery and if my mouth is filled with a grateful word, it can’t be filled with a complaining one too. Thanks for this!

    Reply
    • Great insight Sharon. So true. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  13. Jerry, I am so glad I subscribed to your emails. I’m a newby Panama and was having a difficult day. This particular post arrived at the most perfect time for me. Thank you for your insight & inspiration! Feeling better in El Valle.

    Reply
  14. So spot on Thanks! I can identify for certain. Hmm I only wish I had this article of yours when I moved to north UK from New York!! Whoa…… Well so glad your article is out there now it will help so many!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

    Reply
  15. I moved 15 years ago!

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  16. I see culture blend all around me–without even leaving my birth country. I live with senior women who’ve transitioned through time and space more than even they realize. They’ve come from isolated farms to a bustling city. They’ve moved from a huge farmyard to a tiny one-bedroom apartment. They’ve left behind a lifetime of intimate friends and are now rubbing shoulders with complete strangers who are not very welcoming. Some have adapted well and others just cower behind their locked apartment door.
    That speaks only of their spatial transition. Over time they’ve left behind the old cookstove, the outdoor toilet, the coal oil lamp and now they’re trying to wrap their arthritic hands around a cellphone and regard the internet as a threat.

    Reply
  17. “We become masters of charades and don’t mind flapping our arms or clucking out loud in a crowded McDonalds to get a chicken sandwich.” – you actually made me laugh out loud with that one, and it’s so true! We’ve had to do so many things like this. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  18. Top stuff Jerry! Love the bookend metaphor by the way. Sharing to my FB community.

    Something I’d add is to consider doing something you’ve wanted to do for some time, but haven’t. Not necessarily something your location is known for, as you’ve covered with #3, but new or long-awaited all the same. Like paint. Or sing. Or build. Or gather. Or challenge. Or learn. Filling the ‘joy’ cup.

    Reply
  19. Great article with so many wonderful truths (and a brilliant metaphor). We are in the process of teaching our children how to be good expats and transition well between countries and culture (distilled lesson: don’t be a jerk) and this article will be really useful.

    Reply

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