A young lady on a social site I’m active on had a question about adapting to life abroad. I told her that I believe there are several distinct phases of living abroad, and – depending on your personality and circumstances – they can last for differing lengths of time.
Although she’s pondering a long-term move, what I wrote about the different phases of settling in a foreign country also applies to the experience of someone only intending to stay for a more limited period of time; e.g. an exchange student.
# 1 – Wonder
Everything is new and different – in a very positive way. You walk through life with your eyes wide open and try to take in all the many impressions and experiences your new life is offering. You love the museums and quaint shops, the art house films and outdoor cafès. You feel a rush as you begin learning the language (if that’s relevant), and are tickled to death whenever you can say “please” or “(no) thank you” or “where’s the rest room” at the right time, just like the “natives”.
Oh yea, you think the food, as well as the beer/wine, are marvelous!
#2 – Homesickness
Now you’re getting way too much “new” – and not in a good way. You miss the familiar things that used to be your life: your favorite foods, the TV shows you loved to watch, your favorite radio station…(big) closets!
Although you are busy trying to learn the language, it’s not nearly as easy as it was in the beginning (and it didn’t always seem easy then!), so you feel as though you only understand about 20 % of what’s being said around you.
Everything that’s done differently can be the source of yet another irritation:
- Why are small shops closed at midday?
- Why don’t they know what a “real” salad bar looks like?
- Why do I need to have stamps/documentation/certificates for everything?
- Why do I have to pay a government organization for the “privilege” of watching TV ?
That’s not the way we do it at home. And the way *we* did it was the right way!
You live for C.A.R.E. packages from home.
#3 – Going with the Flow
Now you are can maneuver pretty well through day-to-day life. Although you don’t speak the language fluently, you can get by in most normal situations and even dabble in a little innocent small talk when you encounter a neighbor while getting your mail.
You know how to read the subway schedule and work the ticket machine, what time your bank is open, and where to find peanut butter in your local supermarket. You don’t feel at home, though… You spend a lot of your time with other expats – often complaining about he way things are here.
You can’t wait till you can visit home again.
#4 – Settling In
You no longer feel drawn to every English book store and/or the American products in your local hypermarket as though by a high-powered magnet. You tune in to your favorite channel for the local nightly news, go to author readings at the city library, and maybe have a subscription to a sports or women’s or gardening magazine.
Still not perfect, you can now joke in your new language and understand more of the nuances when talking with your local friends. And yes, you’ve noticed real friendships developing with a few “locals”. You have a job or volunteer somewhere; meet a friend every week for tennis or to jog or for drinks on Friday night.
You appreciate the healthcare, the generous vacations and the relative safety of your neighborhood. You walk more and watch TV less. You realize that “quality-of-life” isn’t connected to material things, but to the experiences and opportunities for growth the journey has brought you.