Welcome to Part 4 of my ongoing series featuring real life stories and advice from living breathing expats. It’s a thinly disguised way for me to store up wisdom from others which I can use when I have an absolute freakout about what I’m embarking upon. I thought I should do the right thing and share it with the internet at large, just in case it helps anyone else out. Enjoy.
Today we’ve got some of my IRL friends guesting on the blog. I’ve asked them to feature because their stories are a little different. Today’s post is also a little bit longer – I think I caught Lyd on a good day – so maybe get a drink and a snack for this one because it’s packed with sage words.
Chris and Becky
Chris and Becky are quite new friends of mine, but have given S and I so much wisdom and kindness over the couple of years we’ve known them that it feels like it’s been a lot longer (in a good way…). Chris and Becky were in S and I’s home group in Bedford, and it’s been a delight to walk with them during our time there. Chris and Becky lived and worked in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo – they moved there with 3 children, came back with 4 and now have 5!
Why did you become expats?
Becky: Chris had been working as a chartered accountant for about 7 years and felt he wanted to use his expertise to help disadvantaged people. He didn’t think anyone would be interested in an accountant, but would want teachers, doctors and so on. However, we approached Tearfund and they were interested in sending Chris to run the finance for a hospital in then Zaire, and to train up locals to take over from him in the future.
What advice would you give to new expats?
Chris: We were advised not to make any major decisions for the first year you’re away. Spend that time observing, trying to understand what’s going on around you, and most importantly don’t judge. It’s tempting, but try to resist!
Be aware that after about 6 months you’ll probably experience some serious homesickness and will react strongly to it. It’s like a pain barrier to get through – at that point you realise you’re not there on holiday.
Becky: Try to go on holiday during your first 6 months; it’s important to reflect on progress and take time out. It’s tiring to adjust to a new culture.
Chris: Also don’t underestimate the reverse culture shock phenomenon. Coming home was arguably harder for us than going out in the first place. It took us quite some time to adjust to being back in the UK.
Brian and Lydia
Brian and Lydia are our friends from way back when we lived in Birmingham. Through coincidence we not only were in the same home group as them, but we also did our marriage preparation courses together and we ended up living on the floor above them in our block of flats in sunny Kings Norton. So we’ve shared some pretty big stuff together, but big or small it’s always fun with Brian and Lyd.
Why did you become an expat?
We had known for several years before getting married that living overseas was something we both wanted to experience. We are both Christians so the decision to move was very much linked to our faith. Our beliefs in a more just, compassionate and peaceful world stem from our Christian faith and we felt that we wanted to be a part of a Christian ministry overseas that was working towards these things.
Through a UK mission organisation we joined Compasio Relief and Development in Mae Sot, Thailand in 2014 – Brian as a fundraiser and myself teaching English to national staff.
What advice would you give to new expats?
Moving to the other side of the world is a huge thing to do so it is completely normal to have ups and downs. Life so far in your home country may have been relatively stable, but as soon as you’re out of the comfort zone of your home culture, it’s not uncommon for the cracks to appear!
Culture Shock and Homesickness
Living overseas, especially in the Majority World, can be challenging. It’s hot, you don’t understand the language or the cultural norms, you’re served chicken’s feet soup for breakfast and health and safety measures as we know them are more or less left behind! At first it can be really exciting but as you start realising that this is not a holiday and this is now the norm, it can be bewildering. Home sickness and culture shock can be big emotional things to deal with so my advice would be to be kind and patient to yourself as you navigate this new territory and who you are in it.
Get into the habit of good practices that will help you in the down times. I found practising thankfulness really helpful in overcoming home sickness. It was something I had to work at though as I was pining for the cool, green landscape of the UK!
With homesickness, it may also be helpful to seek out familiar sights and sounds. In our first year, I found going to western style coffee shops (very easy to do in Thailand!) comforting and a good place to gather all my thoughts and emotions. After a while though, you’ll probably notice that you don’t need to latch on to the familiar as much as you did, as the world around you starts to feel much more like home.
Make friends who are in similar situations to you. It’s so helpful to hang out with understanding people when you are struggling.
One thing that we didn’t do which I think would have been helpful would have been to disconnect from UK life while we were trying to settle into life in Thailand. These days it has never been easier to stay connected with those you’re close to but this is not always helpful when you’re trying to get established in a new culture. It may be helpful to stay off Facebook for a while or ask friends and family for a period of time when you don’t have a lot of contact. It can be difficult to explore and settle into a new place if your head and heart are still connected to another.
Cultural Differences and World-View
Don’t underestimate the cultural differences in the way that people think and function. Even between English speaking countries, our world-views and the way tasks or problems are approached can be very varied.
In the western world, it is very normal to ask questions in order to gain a clearer understanding. We don’t have too much of a problem asking or even challenging people in authority when we want information. However, in some eastern cultures, questioning authority in any way is sometimes viewed as a challenge and is therefore highly disrespectful. Authority figures are not to be challenged, at least not in a direct way.
In living overseas you discover that much of what you’ve been brought up with as being correct or the ‘norm’ is now put into question. It’s good to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try to understand the situation from their perspective if you want to avoid frustration or even confrontation.
We’ve had to get used to the fact that in an Asian context, people see the world differently from us and this has been a very good lesson – it certainly broadens your own thinking and approach. It’s so easy to come into a new cultural context and make judgements. We were given some great advice before we left – just remember, ‘it’s not wrong; it’s different!’
It’s also helpful to not jump in with your opinions when you’re very new to a place. We were encouraged to take time to observe and listen in our first six months to a year. It takes a long time to understand a different culture and our opinions and judgements can be misplaced (and even create problems!) no matter how well-intentioned they are.
One other useful thing is to know yourself well. Tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strengths Finder and the Enneagram can be good to explore. If you’re fairly self-aware then you’ll be better prepared for the situations that you are likely to find difficult. This is especially important if you’re going into cultures where there are dominant cultural traits that are different to your own.
For example, are you an introvert going into a culture where extroversion is more normal or preferred?
Are you a planner, an organiser, a stickler for time? If that’s the case, you may find the more fluid approaches to time-management from certain cultures challenging. Not impossible, but challenging nevertheless and you will have to work out how you deal with looser structures, appointments not starting on time and plans being made at the last minute! It’s good to be realistic about how you will cope with this.
In the UK I always tried to be on time and never liked it when people were late. Now I’m far more relaxed about this which has been a good gift for me. It’s now not uncommon for me to be the late one to meetings!
It’s also helpful to be aware of our own cultural biases. For example, in the west we are far more individualistic than people in the east. (I think you only truly realise this once you’re out of your home culture). Some eastern cultures are collectivist, in other words the needs of family, friends and work organisations are often placed above the needs of the individual. For people coming from western cultures, a more community-based life can feel like a bit of a shock.
We all have them. Of ourselves, of others, of particular situations or roles we’re in. It’s good to have realistic expectations about what you’re doing. If you’re moving overseas, the expectations that you put on yourselves and what your future lives look like can be high. However, with so many life changes going on at the same time it’s unsurprising that you’ll have your down moments and you may not meet the high expectations you’ve put on yourself.
There may be certain expectations around working culture as well. Will you be a part of a work hard, play hard culture (more western)? Or, will the working day be more flexible with less of a structure, possibly even a siesta in the middle?! It’s good to think through how you will find these different ways of working.
In our lower moments, sometimes the best thing we could cling on to was that it is normal to find it challenging. I remember a friend telling us that his working capacity plummeted when working as an expat in Thailand. This has been my own experience too. Again, be compassionate towards yourself and take time to reflect on all the good things that you have learned and experienced so far in your new culture. There will come a time when you will feel like you’re succeeding and you’ve found your fit – it may just take a while, and that is ok, in the meantime be gracious towards yourself (and others!).
If you’re moving overseas with your partner, talk through the expectations you may be putting on yourself and each other. Support and encourage each other and celebrate those moments of breakthrough.
If you’re going to a country where English isn’t the first language, it’s a good to learn a bit of the language – people really appreciate it when you make the effort and respect the fact that you’re trying to learn/speak/understand the language. If you’re going long-term and really want to understand a culture different to your own, then learning the language is key.
It Takes Effort
Life overseas often requires a lot more effort than it does back in your home country. It’s hard to exactly explain this but often we will joke with our friends about the efforts required to do even simple tasks like going to the post office or paying bills. Here I should note that doing anything involving visas or visiting the local immigration office is never a simple task. Whenever your visa check-in day is due, make sure you block out the day in your diary – you never know what unexpected surprises there might be!
It’s Worth It
Our time in Thailand is coming to an end and we are heading back to the UK next month (reverse culture shock here we come!) It is an emotional time for us – excitement about new things ahead but sad about leaving this wonderful place. The friends we have made and the experiences we have had here have changed us – we feel we will be leaving a little part of ourselves behind when we go. So despite the challenges, a life overseas is worth it! It is the most wonderful adventure and we would encourage you to make the most of every opportunity. You will become so much richer for the experience and it will change you and your perspective on the world in so many positive ways.
GO FOR IT!!
Thank you to Brian, Lyd, Chris and Becky for letting me share their stories, not to speak of all their support over the years. You guys are awesome.