Last week I mentioned a personal grievance I have with the word “do” in relation to travel because it turns places into things that are either done or not done. This got me thinking about how our thoughts have the power to completely change the way we see things.
This is a big deal for all the expats out there.
Because when you’re adjusting to a new culture and life gets hard, it’s easy to focus on what you don’t like or is different. This seems like an innocent way to vent, but those brick-like judgments will quickly stack into tidy little rows between you and your new neighbors.
Some degree of assimilation—i.e. adapting to your new environment—is necessary to really be happy and settled in your new home. That said, here are three “bad expat behaviors” you should stop asap to keep moving forward.
Holding on to your old life
On my first trip back to the U.S. I brought home an entire sea-bag of food items that I couldn’t find in Bogotá. Here in Madrid, I tried keeping my early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule for months. Both things I eventually gave up because at some point I ran out of an ingredient or stayed out way too late having fun on a Tuesday. And life went on. There was a substitute for what I thought I couldn’t live without. My life didn’t end because I couldn’t get up at 5:30 am.
I’m not saying you can’t celebrate Thanksgiving. However, if you’re getting most of your groceries from Taste of America (yep, it’s a thing), maybe you should branch out a bit. When I started going to dinner at 9:30 instead of 8:00, I couldn’t believe I was in the same city! Early evening in Madrid is a ghost town but a couple of hours later, there is a completely different energy.
Each expat will have a different square-peg behavior that they’re trying to shove into a round hole. When we find ourselves struggling to keep things in a box, that’s a sign to try something new. It’s part of the adventure of living abroad.
“Fixing” your new culture
Don’t get me wrong, lots of things in Madrid drive me nuts. I may have very clear ideas of what constitutes good customer service or the proper way to walk down the street (you know, to the side and with some pep in my step!) but these are norms brought from my native home. And, they belong there because there’s no way I’m getting an entire country to adopt a new philosophy on anything.
Think of how much energy you expend being frustrated and disgruntled at people who are simply living life normally. And after an entire commute raging against the idiot drivers (or walkers!), are you able to turn it off when you walk in your front door?
Especially on rough days, this is a hard habit to break and I absolutely have the occasional vent session with my partner. However, living with these thoughts perpetuates an us vs. them mentality. This will not help you settle in nor will it do any favors for the locals’ view of your home culture. I always try and remind myself that just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Judging your fellow expats
This can play out in two ways. Either you roll your eyes at the naive rookie or for doing some of the things mentioned above or you crush your self-esteem to smithereens by comparing yourself to the expat who speaks the local language fluently, re-established her career abroad and had a new troupe of friends all within a month of arriving.
Measuring yourself against others is not a good way to adjust your self-worth. Also, it’s wildly unfair. Not only are you cutting yourself off from potential friendships (you need other expats!), but everyone’s journey is different. Some expats will never miss their families, some will go back every chance they get. Some will hit the ground running, some will struggle to find their feet. Nothing squashes happiness like a comparison, so please don’t allow someone’s progress (or lack thereof) to make you feel better or worse about yourself.
The root of all of this, I think, is fear. Remember the idea of becoming a triangle? Every step forward changes you in ways that can’t be undone. This can be especially daunting for trailing spouses, who’re already grappling with shifting identities. When you’re still finding your way in your new home, the ability to “go back” somewhere is comforting.
I understand this fear. I’ve lost some things along the way that I thought made me, “me.” The good news is that even though I may not be on time anymore, I really am still the same small-town girl that left the U.S. three years ago.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about assimilation and adjusting and settling in. Were you able to find a balance between your love for marshmallow fluff and brie? Let me know in the comments below!