I admit, I did not want to move overseas. As I like to say: been there, done that. I didn’t want to do it again and it wasn’t in the plan.
So, I spent the first couple of months after our move sulking more often than not. Making friends, building a social circle, takes work. I was caught up in getting the kids settled, and as an introvert, I only have so much energy to put myself “out there.” So I didn’t.
It took me a few months, but I changed my outlook and forced myself out of my comfort zone. I realized it was time to focus on the positive aspects of living abroad. I knew there were many, I’d just blocked them out while feeling a bit sorry for myself.
Maybe, if you are moving abroad and you read this list now, it won’t take you as long to adjust to the culture shock, wherever your feet land.
Here’s what you can look forward to:
1. Making connections with people from countries and cultures you’ve only read about (or not) in books.
If I’d stayed in my cozy suburban haven, I’d have never met my new friends from Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Pakistan, Israel, China, The Philippines, Chile, Belarus, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Holland, England, Denmark, Norway, Korea, Japan and more. The same goes for the kids.
2. Two words: International Schools.
I was perfectly happy with the great education my kids were getting in Virginia. I hated to leave the nurturing, highly rated, schools, but nothing compares to a good Independent International School. Dozens of 3D printers in the school’s art rooms, science labs and more; ipads for each kid in the lower grades, used for reading, math, communication, foreign languages and science; periods of time for reading AND writing each day, including time for exploring all different genres of both, throughout the year, in addition to math, hands on science, and social studies; Mandarin, music, music activities (choir, band or orchestra), art and technology- more than once every week. The music concerts are truly breathtaking at times. High School classes like Forensic Science, Classics, Rhetoric and Composition, IB, AP and more. I could go on and on. The resources, dedication of teachers, expectations of students and faculty, not to mention the facilities, are to be savored every day.
3. Sights and Sounds
These sometimes can be listed as down sides to overseas living, as they can be unfamiliar and sometime foul (stinky tofu and tea eggs, to name two,) but they can also be wonderfully fulfilling. The colors and sounds and scents of the Buddhist and Taoist temples are sensory masterpieces. The brilliant reds and golds, the ancient chants and the burning incense, throughout the modern city here, are peaceful reminders of the bigger picture. Just a few miles from the city, here, you can escape into any one of an endless number of stunning hikes, hot springs and bike trails. Whatever city you call home can offer delightful bombardments on your senses.
Most cities offer a symphony of some sort, a theater with local color, art museums and local craftwork. Some of these experiences are an acquired taste, some will never appeal to your tastes (I just can’t acquire an appreciation of traditional Chinese Opera, myself,) but you can always find something in which to take pleasure.
5. Forming Strong Bonds With New Friends
In some postings, there is a definite “us and them” line. When you are posted to a nation whose relations with your own are a bit cold, finding friendly faces among the other diplomats and expats can make life easier and the “us and them” mentality helps new friends grow close quickly. You meet another person at the pool one day, and a month later you are vacationing in a nearby country with their family. The friendship timeline is very different when you live in a more foreign expat or diplomatic community.
6. You Can Choose a New Vocation
When you have to pack up and move your whole life to foreign soil, that often means leaving a career behind. It can be frustrating, but if you look at it differently, it can be freeing. Many countries do not permit diplomatic spouses to work outside the embassy. So, if embassy work isn’t your cup of tea, or coffee, or vodka, or milk tea, or whiskey or whatever… you can choose a new calling. You can volunteer at an orphanage and hold babies, or play with toddlers a few days per week; you can help out at the school (or hide from the PTA); you can start a blog or write a novel; you can work virtually; or… you can get manicures, pedicures, massages and have lunch with friends. You are free to make your new life whatever you want it to be.
7. You Can Learn A New Language
This one never ceases to entertain me. We’ve lived in Mandarin speaking countries for 4 years now. I can speak passable conversational Mandarin and I can fake my way to a level far beyond where I actually am; but I am almost completely illiterate. My character recognition is pathetic. The great thing about living in a country where you can speak the language, despite the fact that you stick out like a sore thumb as a foreigner, is that locals are usually thrilled to hear even a small attempt at communication in the local language. Just today I said, “zao,” to two men I passed on the street. Zao is the short version of the morning greeting here. The two men greeted me in return and then looked at each other, wide eyed, and turned back to me, proceeding to profusely compliment me on my ability to speak Mandarin. I said, literally, one syllable. That’s all it took. Moments like these are truly diplomatic victories. Making the effort shows the host nation you care. I do care. I might not be thrilled about the circumstances every moment, but I do care about building metaphoric bridges with my hosts.
8. Depending on Where You Live, You Can Hire Affordable “Staff”
A not so well kept secret among diplomats and expats is that when you are sent to a less developed country, often, you can afford to hire people to help with your daily life. Sometimes that means someone to clean your house once per week, and sometimes that means you can hire full time, live-in help (a nanny if you have little kids); a driver; a cook; and a gardener. We’ve run the gamut, we’ve most often had no help at all, but we’ve also had live-in, 40 hours per week, help. Having someone else do your laundry, clean, cook and organize your house takes less getting used to than you might think. I love the help and I enjoy giving someone a job. The wages are always along legal lines and we always pay more than what is expected. I truly enjoy every moment of having help; I keep in mind that it’s a fleeting experience. As soon as we move back to the US, it’s back to mopping my own floors, mowing my own lawn and making every meal, and I’m ok with that.
Despite all of the great things about living abroad, and all the perks of being a diplomat, in the end of the day, I long to be back in my home country, in the house we own, near(er) to family and long time friends.
So, perspective is key to this lifestyle. Home is where the Navy sends us and I intend to make the most of wherever that may be. I encourage you to do the same.