Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lessons Learned from Living Overseas

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
I'm a member of an organization called Families in Global Transition (FIGT) and on their Facebook page, the organization post many great articles that focus on transitioning and living outside of one's home country. A few months ago, I came across an article by Kathleen Peddicord on the FIGT Facebook page that intrigued and really connected with me. The title of the article is, "10 Lessons Learned From 17 Years Living Overseas."

Then, shortly after reading that article a friend of mine posted on his Facebook page an article by Will Patton that also resonated with me. The title of the article is, "7 Things Nobody Every Tells You About Backpacking."

My goal with this post (Just realized the interesting choice of words in the same sentence, purely unintentional) inspired by the above mentioned articles, is to share some lessons that I have learned from living and traveling overseas.

1. Constantly having to say goodbye is tough, but having closure is important: Living internationally in certain circles lends itself to being a transient lifestyle and my family and I exist in one. And, what is constant in this lifestyle is having to say goodbye! Eleanor and I learned this lesson the hard way 13 years ago when we first moved to Thailand. We were in our first year working at a school where we met a lot of great people with whom we connected (And have since become lifelong friends), then as the school year progressed, many of those people left to work at other schools internationally, and it really came as a blow to us. We quickly learned that this is the nature of this particular life that we had chosen. We have moved 4 times in thirteen years to three different countries, have worked with hundreds of colleagues, and have made friends with host country nationals in the countries in which we have lived. We have learned, especially with our most recent move from Oman back to Thailand that saying goodbye doesn't get any easier the more times you do it, nor does transitioning. And, it always seems like I meet cool and interesting people that I want to get to know better either right before I or they depart. This is the case currently, with this being the end of the school year; lots of good-byes and going away parties taking place right now. I have learned that before departing, it is important to take the time to properly say goodbye, especially, for children. Children/young adults need to have closure as much as adults. Plan a going away party or have their closes friends over so that they can say goodbye or hang out one last time.

2. Transitions take time: Eleanor and I have realized that first years anywhere are tough, even if you are coming back to a place to which you are familiar, such as Thailand. It was eye opening to me last year that it took me an entire year to get settled back in a place where I had previously lived for four years and have relatives. Learning the ins and outs of a new job is one thing, but I was surprised by how long it took me to get settled personally. We had previously lived in Oman for 5 years and after one lives anywhere for that amount of time, you have routines established and you just know how to get stuff done. You have a reliable mechanic, you know which barbershops to go to :), you know which markets have the best and cheapest produce and best selection of juice, when your cable/satellite tv goes out you know which technician to speak with, you have a pediatrician you trust, you know to go to DMV in Muscat, Oman 30 minutes before it closes because you will have the place to yourself. This was the bigger transition for me, finding out where and how to get things done, accessing resources and this takes time. One thing I've learned during transitions is to take it easy on yourself, don't be so hard on yourself, have some self-compassion. Be willing to make mistakes and laugh at one's self.

3. I have a hard time with packing: I love to travel, but I don't love to pack! Packing is overwhelming for me. One would think I would have packing down by now, but I don't. When I pack for a trip, let's say for a week, I go through the same process. I pretty much take out everything in my closet, throw it on my bed, then I begin putting clothes back in my closet that I won't need. This takes awhile. Or, let's say if I have a trip on Friday, I take out my suitcase on Monday and as I think of items, I throw them into my suitcase, then before I leave, I try to eliminate clothes from my suitcase. I'm a firm believer in having appropriate shoes for different occasions, therefore, I pack a variety of shoes when I travel and I have big feet, therefore, my shoes take up a lot of space. Plus, traveling from a warm weather place like Thailand to a cold weather place, bulky clothes take up a lot of space. Like I said, packing is hard for me..... Packing to move is the worst! It's the little items that always get me. Stacks of papers, pens, etc.

4. In many places in the world, laws are merely suggestions: I come from the U.S., a very litigious country. One quickly realizes, especially in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world laws are a lot more fluid, not so cut and dried. For example, driving the speed limit, if there is one, lack of seat belt/helmet laws, texting and driving, go right ahead, driving a car or something that resembles a motor vehicle car on the highway that is barely operational, that's ok. Plus, bribery/kickbacks are how things get done in many parts of the world and are expected. One time Eleanor was involved in a minor car accident, that just seemed sketchy. Everyone involved including the police just wanted her to pay some money to the person she rear ended and that was that. Nothing filed, nothing reported, everyone carry-on. Also, being aware that some laws pertain to local citizens while some just to foreign nationals.

5. Embrace ambiguity: When we lived in Taiwan, at times I had a hard time discerning when certain shops would be open and closed. One day a shop is open at one time, the next day, another time. I remember asking a shopkeeper one time during Chinese New Year, if he would be open the next day, he looked at me as if I was crazy and replied, "There's money to be made, I will be open."

In many countries holidays are based on a lunar cycle. So, for the 5 years we lived in Oman, there would be times we wouldn't know when our holidays would begin because it had to be determined by the Moon Committee and if they saw the moon (I really wanted a job on that committee). Or, the country would have to wait until the Sultan would declare when the holidays would be.

Or, you are at the barbershop and the barber asks you a question you reply, and in turn he doesn't verbally reply, but just tilts his head to one side. Since you are not sure he understood you, you repeat yourself and then the barber tilts his head with more of a roll from side to side. You just go with it and you end up with a great haircut and shave!

Or, just getting things done. One day you don't need a stamp or signature on a form, the next day, same establishment, you need a stamp, signature, and passport pictures. Then, inevitably the person assisting you will ask, "You don't have passport or passport pictures, why not?"

One time when our internet had been out for a week and we phoned the telecommunications company the person I spoke with said, "Maybe I come fix your internet tomorrow, Inshallah (God willing)."

6. Have extra sets of passport size photos at your disposal and/or a copy of your passport. You will need passport size photos to obtain a visa upon landing in some countries, to open an account, to renew your children's visas, and to prove who you are, sometimes. It seems as if we never have enough passport sized photos.

7. Buying everything you see in a store or you might not see it again for months: I used to use Quaker Oats from the U.S. to make granola/muesli when I first moved to Oman. I soon learned that Quaker Oats might be there one day and then it might not be appear again for months. A colleague of mine told me, "Next time you see something you like and you have the money, buy as much of it as you can because you may not see it again for awhile." This has been good advice. It recently happen to us with kiwi fruit. We eat a lot of kiwi fruit in our family and recently the store that we frequent didn't have kiwis for about a month or more. The next time they reappeared we stocked up.

8. Having two lives (two wallets, two phones etc.) For me since moving abroad, life has become dichotomous and I'm sure this is the case for most expats. Anytime my plane lands and I'm back in the U.S., I turn on my U.S. mobile phone I get this feeling that is indescribable. The feeling of, one part of my life is back and while my other life (Expat life) is dormant for awhile. Then, the same thing happens when I am departing the U.S. I'm always on a plane, just prior to take off. I have spoken with all my family members (Parents and sisters) and I turn off my U.S. phone. The minute I turn off the phone and put my overseas SIM card back in my phone, I get this feeling, that a part of me has once again become dormant, turned off. I communicate with my family and friends in the U.S. throughout the year, but it's just a weird feeling I experience when I say good-bye, hard to explain. It happens all the time.

9. Taking off shoes, has become natural to me. After living in Asia for awhile I've gotten to the point where I don't like walking in people's homes with my shoes on, even when I'm back in North America. And, I don't like people walking in my home with their shoes on.

10. Bloom Where You Are Planted: Firm believer that you are in a certain place, for a certain amount of time, for certain reasons. Try to make the best out of where you are and get the most out of the experience!

11. Establishing a new normal: Seeing a family of five on a motorbike carrying a pig or some other form of livestock during your daily commute, frequenting shops that are open in the morning from
8-12, closed from 12-4, open again from 5 until, hearing the call to prayer throughout the day, paying for everything in cash, seeing ladyboys being the primary employees at cosmetic counters in many major department stores in Thailand, smelling stinky tofu and durian, eating an entire meal that consists of nothing but various meats on sticks from a street stall and loving it!
Grilled meat being prepared on a street in Bangkok.

12. Life moves at a much slower pace in most parts of the world: 
Taking the time to go through various greetings upon meeting people in the Middle East even when in a car accident, sitting down and having tea with a shop owner before making a purchase or just when looking at items, sharing everything that has taken place with my family and I every time I go to a particular clothing store because the owner always shares with me what's been going on with he and his family. I've had to become more patient since moving overseas and it has not been easy at times. I'm a task oriented person, who likes to cross things off my daily to do list. But, over the course of crossing off lists over the years; I've come to strike a balance and have appreciated taking time to smell the roses while getting tasks done.

It's all part of the adventure!


Dick said...

A lovely post Ryan. Thank you for sharing it. Dick

Nancy said...

Everything you've written is so true and valid. Your post is very helpful especially that we are off to a big change this summer. We share the same saying, "Bloom where you are planted."