Bad expat behavior: Three things to stop doing to start adjusting

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.

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A few things to know before moving to Madrid

NoLongerNative is a kind of chronicle of expat life blunders. But I’m noticing that instead of learning from my mistakes, I usually go make them all over again. You know how it goes, once you get far enough away from those embarrassing stumbles you kind of forget it all.

That said, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear me say I arrived in Madrid with a suitcase full of assumptions and expectations carrying over from my first ‘life’ abroad, the two years I lived in Bogotá. I had a certain mental timeline of how quickly things should move. I thought that if something took two weeks in Colombia, it’ll probably be twice as fast here!

And so, settling in for the second go-around is coming with a new set of lessons.

I mentioned the first a couple of weeks ago, that I was surprised my Spanish vocabulary needed a tune-up. Even if you didn’t learn in Colombia, the Spanish you learned in high school is not the Spanish spoken in Spain. While it isn’t necessary to speak Spanish and visit Spain, some proficiency is necessary to visit government offices and do all the paperwork things that go along with being a foreigner.

Keep reading for a few more of the surprises I’ve had these past few weeks as I’ve been settling down in my new city.

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Three reasons you need other expats

reasons you need other expats
Sometimes, you just need a friend with similar taste in footwear.

Last summer I wrote about how important it is to not get trapped inside the expat bubble. In our first months in Bogotá, I resisted getting too involved with other expats. I thought that making American friends meant I would not “experience” Colombia. Oh, the naiveté.

There is truth in that sentiment. You will short-change yourself if you spend all your time in Starbucks, never venturing past the main streets filled with familiar shops to try the mom-and-pop cafe. On the other hand, there are gaps that only someone on the “outside” can fill. Keep reading for three reasons every expat needs other expats.
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When your own culture catches you off guard

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When you face a cultural quirk in your adopted home it’s easy to chock it up to the fact that it’s a funny (or irritating or charming!) part of life abroad. However, it’s bewildering when those shocks are coming from things that used to be second nature. Robin Pascoe, writer and expert in all things expat, likens repatriation to wearing your contacts in the wrong eyes: everything looks almost right.

I’m no stranger to reverse culture shock. This blog has been an important place where I can talk about my changing ideas of home, of adopting aspects of a new culture or having a hard time going back to the U.S. 

But, like regular culture shock, no matter how easily you move between worlds you still experience it to some degree. I’ve learned to stop expecting things to be the same when I return to San Diego. The thing that always gets me though are the unexpected ways I’ve changed.

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Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

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Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean your mind is…

The two years I’ve spent living abroad have been a crash course in the emotional ups and downs that come with uprooting your life and starting again somewhere new, all with the lurking expectation of doing it again in a couple of years. This week I was compiling all my little tips about how to have a happy life as an expat no matter what your circumstance when I realized my advice was rooted in the same practice: mindfulness.

Though originally a tenet of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness—much like yoga—has become much more mainstream. In its essence mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present, which allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. If new age-y terms freak you out, just think of it as being in the moment or living in the here and now. If you’ve read articles about disconnecting from technology, staying in the moment with your kids, or listening to your body to avoid over-eating, then you’re familiar with mindfulness.

Because life abroad doesn’t come with a built-in support system, expats can benefit from using this tool to refocus their thoughts. Keep reading to see four particular areas where mindfulness has helped me manage expat life.

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Is expat life a shortcut to happiness?

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Does expat life really make you healthier, wealthier and happier? is the title of an article highlighting a study of 1,000 people, half of which have lived abroad and half of which haven’t. This particular study shows that those who’ve lived abroad were more satisfied with their lives than those who haven’t (albeit only slightly).

I agree in theory, but don’t think that living abroad is some kind of magic cure-all or ticket to enlightenment. Flip through some of the posts here and you’ll get a healthy serving of the downsides of expat life—loneliness, identity issues, struggling to find a new normal or to redefine your ideas of home. One way that expat life does point you in this direction, though, is by throwing a bucket of cold water on the cozy complacency that comes from living in the comfort of your native culture.

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Reverse culture shock is a thing.

El Dorado Bar San Diego
El Dorado was our spot for the last couple years we lived in San Diego and is always on the top of our list on trips back. Thankfully, it’s only changed a little bit.

I never expected to experience culture shock and I certainly didn’t anticipate the reverse. How could I have a hard time visiting the U.S.? That’s basically being a stranger in your own home. But it happens every time: I can’t decide what to eat because I’m overwhelmed with options, I can’t quite remember where things are, something I’ve built up in my head has changed or closed or wasn’t very good. Spend enough time outside your home country and a short return visit will feel foreign as well.

It’s particularly strange when I visit San Diego because that’s the place I considered my home. I have family and friends there, it’s where I got married and settled into ‘real life.’ Facing the ways your former home has changed can be daunting, and there’s always a sepia tone that creeps in somewhere (I’ve written before about the dangers of going back too soon).

I spent a week in southern California towards the end of February and decided to put into words the foggy feelings that come along with regularly moving between two worlds. Below are a few of the things I’ve come to expect when visiting my former home.

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Recommended Read: Knocked Up Abroad

Knocked up Abroad - Lisa Ferland

Mother’s Day is just a quick three months away and here just in time is Knocked Up Abroad—an anthology of 23 stories, each giving you a glimpse of all stages of gestation from the viewpoint of parents all over the world. The one thing tying them all together? Each story is from a family navigating pregnancy and birth outside their home culture.

Knocked up Abroad isn’t just for pregnant expats, it’s a book for anyone wading through life in a foreign country, with an intercultural marriage, or who loves travel. There is a thread of universal truth to be found in each of these personal stories.

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The lies you tell yourself before moving abroad

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When I tell people I live abroad, I know exactly what’s coming: a whimsical look in their eyes, a sigh, and something along the lines of oh that must be so nice…

I can’t deny that—our time living in Colombia has been incredible. But, it’s been a lot of other things too. Most people form their romanticized ideas of life abroad from pop culture and movies, where after you’re run off the road riding your bicycle in Ubud, Javier Bardem stops to rescue you and you tumble into mad, passionate, ’til-death-do-us-part love.

I drank the living abroad kool-aid too, thinking life in Bogotá would be an endless loop of idyllic experiences: days full of museums, coffee in quiet cafes, roaming outdoor markets. Even disasters—and they were always mild—would end up as quirky stories of how I made new friends or had some authentic (what does that even mean?) experience. I had no problem imagining us happy in our new life but, like all good daydreams, I skipped over the kinks to get right to the good part.

Read on for some of the lies I told myself before moving abroad.

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Expat advice: Remembering how to make friends

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thanks to Spanish class, I made some new buddies

The strangeness of making new friends is what I set out to write about earlier in the week (before I was overcome by emotional navel-gazing) and has been second in difficulty only to the weepy goodbyes said to those people I mentioned on Thursday.

As a classic introvert, moving to a new country and making friends from scratch was already a bleak prospect. After factoring in the language barrier and some cultural differences, I was looking into an abyss. I mean, can you even remember the last time that you—as an adult—made a friend? And I’m not talking about that time you were at a party and scored an invite to a group lunch, all the while nestled in the comfort of your own social circle.

In your home country, it’s easy to take for granted how your already established relationships form a kind of safety net: they provide a place for you to meet new people and should you have a social swing-and-a-miss, you already have friends and so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When your support system tally is one (because I have a spouse), every new interaction is imbued with pressure. A few weeks ago my friend Cherise and I were laughing at all the thoughts that whirl us into anxiety as we put ourselves out there: Am I coming on too strong? Do I sound stupid? Was that joke dumb? I was telling her how it gets easier, which is kind of true…I mean, I still feel awkward and uncomfortable, but now I’m used to it!

In all seriousness, I completely believe that making friends is like any other skill and if you keep at it, it will eventually feel more natural. If you’re looking for some more practical steps or ideas about where to meet people, go back to this post about overcoming culture shock. For me, however, the whole process of making friends started in my head. Keep scrolling for a couple of the roadblocks I had to overcome in order to get my social groove back.

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