Tag Archives: culture shock

The other day my mom sent me a photo of a basket of peaches.

I want to be that basket of peaches.

I want to be the prickly, sweet way that they smell. I want to be the juice that seeps through the corners of the dry, crinkle sound of the paper bag that first housed them on the side of a two-lane road somewhere between Fredericksburg and Austin. Bluebonnets long since faded and replaced by green that won’t be brown until August...on a good year.

I want to climb inside the basket and feel how they’re both scratchy and soft at the same time. Like the little pig I once named Wilber…before I really understood what happens to Wilber.

I want to walk into HEB and pass right by the Georgia peaches that sit there in that big, wooden, less-expensive crate with the bright yellow sign that says, “Buy me because I’m cheaper!” and go straight for the smaller ones in the less visible display next to the limes and lemons.

Sure they’re smaller. Bring it on! Don’t Mess With Texas.

When you pick them up in your palm you already know they’re just right without even giving them a gentle squeeze. There’s always a stack of lunch sacks waiting just right on top or maybe sometimes in that little wooden holder.

Do they bring that holder out just for peach season?

Who would put peaches in a plastic bag?

Who would call tortillas, soft tacos?

Who drives by Dairy Queen without stopping for a Blizzard (small, extra Heath)?

But back to the peaches.

I want to hold the fruit in my hand and gently turn the knife around and around along the middle, making a meridian. Lots of meridians to cross between here and home. Lots of lines. This one in the peaches is perfect.

I want to be that moment, after the knife, when if it’s just the right peach, on just the right day (which is always June), at just the right time (which is always 3:00 in the afternoon) when you hold each side and twist. Snap. Not quite a snap though. More like a deep, just-waiting-to-give release.

And now it’s two sides. Eat one. Slice the other. Peel or no. That part's up to the consumer.

I want to be those peaches because in them there are so many memories. It’s like if I become them, crawl inside and live from them all the things that seemed so simple are still there.

Time stands still in those peaches.

We’re all watching the world go by. We absentmindedly read the news, scroll through Facebook, eat lunch with one eye on our laptops and drive home without even remembering how we got there.

To be fair, it’s a little bit harder to become fully zoned out when you’re living outside of your home culture. Not paying attention could land you eating some bizarre, new food or telling the cashier, “I don’t need a bath,” instead of “I don’t need a bag” (true story). So naturally expats tend to be a bit more observant.

But, no matter where we are, we get into habits in our daily routines. We take our feelings, our thoughts and our actions for granted. Much of the time we don’t even notice that the strain in our neck came after the disagreement with our spouse or that the third cup of coffee fuels the sloppy emails or late night media binge.

I believe there’s an additional layer to this for people who are living away from home. Our thoughts, feelings and actions are complicated by the unpredictable and unusual way in which we live. There are more distractions...and simultaneously more ways in which to pay attention.

Often, people who thrive in this lifestyle do so by learning to pay better attention and by adopting a level of intentionality in their daily lives despite all of the spinning around them.

When I talk with people about this, no one ever disagrees. Yes, of course, we should pay attention to what we’re feeling and thinking. But, how? Should I journal? Talk with a friend? What about going for long walks…listening to woodwind instruments over the sounds of the sea…drinking one less gin and tonic?

Sure. But really, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

There are surprisingly easy ways to adopt a higher degree of intentionality in the things we do. And, contrary to what you might think, it can start in small and specific ways at any point in the day.

When we’re able to pick a couple of things to do on purpose, we’re strengthening the part of our brain that pays attention. At first we simply pay attention to a couple of seemingly innocuous events, but before we know it, that heightened sense of awareness has come to support us in noticing the more significant ups and downs of our daily experience.

But pay attention to what?

I like to say, "Think of yourself as a scientist."

In that vein, paying attention can be anything from really noticing the sensations of washing your hands to making a head-to-toe scan of your body when you sit down at your desk each day. It can include actually observing yourself making your coffee or sitting on the train, noticing the world around you (not reading your phone).

Brainstorming a list of ideas is a great way to start. And there’s nothing that says you have to choose everything you write down. Maybe just one to start and then add two or three as the weeks progress.

What you’ll notice is that the noticing, instead of the brushing-aside, becomes the habit. The paying attention starts to feel normal. It’s an exceptional way to tune in to your daily experience. And that, in turn, creates greater insight and can improve decision-making and relationship building.

None of this happens over night. It’s like doing push-ups. You get stronger and more skilled, little by little, until (before you know it) you’re aware of things you never noticed before.

If you’re stuck - this exercise might give you some insight into how to try out paying attention.

I also love this TED talk about developing habits. I watched it as part of a Personal Leadership program I’m participating in. While he’s not exactly talking about paying attention, the presenter's ideas for micro-practice could help you establish a regular routine for paying attention.

And, if you want to get a better sense of how to observe your thought and emotional patterns, check out this activity from my book, The Expat Activity Book, here.

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Think about all the times you had something you wanted to share and you held back. It could have been that small, but big-to-you victory. Maybe it was the bad day at work that came out of nowhere. Maybe it was the time you felt overwhelmed, lost, rejected…or completely thrilled with the path before you.

We do that, don’t we? Keep things in when we know they’d be so much better shared with and supported by someone else.

One of the biggest benefits of growing into the person you want to be, is accepting that talking it out with a friend is always, always one of the best places you can go to make sense of whatever it is you’re facing.

Talking out our troubles with friends doesn’t always erase our pain or free us from our challenges, but it gives us a completely new lens from which to see what’s there before us.

Sometimes this is harder for people who move around a lot. But, it doesn’t have to be. Deeper connection comes from taking the leap to share with others. As expats we’re often forced to dive into relationships very quickly. Rather than worrying about who we will scare off, I think we benefit from focusing on who we’ll grow closer to.

But there is no doubt it can be difficult. Even when we know the benefits of fully and honestly connecting, the hesitation we feel about reaching out and the old belief that we shouldn’t bother people with our problems (or brag about our successes) can be hard to overcome.

It occurs to me that sometimes all we need is the very first step and when it comes to talking it out with our friends – the very first step involves…well…talking.

It can be as simple as saying (or texting):

“Are you free to talk?”

“I’m celebrating! Join me for a drink?”

“Have a minute?”

“I could use an ear, are you free?”

“I’d love to bounce something off you, can I give you a call?”

“Are you free for coffee? I could really use a friend to talk to?”

“I don’t want to feel like I’m unloading on you, but I could really use someone to talk to. Are you free?”

Yes – that is actually just a list of words to get you started. It's totally something you could have come up with on your own. But – it is both not-rocket-science and totally overwhelming at times. Having that list up there is my way of reminding you that you already have the tools...you just gotta' use them. If you’ve been struggling to connect – take a minute to imagine what would happen if you committed to using one (just one) of these in the next few days.

Write down your favorite phrase. Use the ones above to plan out your own words to get you started. Practice in the mirror if you have to.

And then, whether it’s a major accomplishment or a tiny, little, barely-there frustration – go ahead and reach out.

You won't regret it!

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My 3-year-old is scared to death of Japanese toilets. Maybe you’ve been to Japan so you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you haven’t, but you’ve heard about them. I mean, they’re kind of like Japan’s most famous weird thing…from the perspective of the non-Japanese out there, that is.

She’s scared because our first night here she stared down into it as my husband did his best to decipher the various buttons. A face full of toilet water will do that to a toddler. Nothing we’ve been able to do can convince her they’re safe. My friend tells her daughter it’s a car wash. I like that idea, but it hasn’t turned things around for us. I’m afraid there’s no going back.

But, I’m not one to typically avoid the daunting…at least not for long. This week, 2 months into our life in Japan and armed with Google translate (although without a face mask, which would have been, in retrospect, a good idea), I decided to get to the bottom (figuratively!) of our Japanese toilets.

I soon discovered that the steps for figuring out my Japanese toilet were not unlike some of the biggest keys to mastering transitions as an expat. In fact, I found 4 specific expat life skills just waiting there for me on that piece of porcelain!

One: Start with what you know. No matter where you go in the world, you come in with a pre-existing set of skills, habits and bits of knowledge. Despite what it might feel like, you’re not born anew as a baby every time you move. So remember to always start with what you know, access those skills first and offer up those abilities when possible (especially when you feel new and a bit like you have nothing to offer). In the case of the toilet – I can read hiragana and katakana (the two Japanese phonetic alphabets). With this I was able to know – that button turns on the bidet (ビデ) and that word says おしり (which I can lookup…and which I now know means buttocks).

Whew! Two items deciphered - now to phase two.

Two: Pay attention to the clear and easy. So often we are so blinded (and frankly, blindsided) by our moves that we don’t even notice the things that are clearly marked. We forget to pay attention to things like hunger, exhaustion, illness, frustration or sadness. These normal experiences can get buried under the sea of the unfamiliar. We benefit from finding ways to take time out to pay attention to these emotions, physical feelings or logistical questions. What’s this got to do with my Japanese toilet? Well, the toilet comes complete with a few illustrations. So, the photo of the butt with water spraying up should be pretty obvious. Push that button and I doubt the results will take you (too much) by surprise. When in doubt – go with the obvious.

But, what if even after using the skills you already have and reading the clearly marked signs, you still feel lost?

Three: Get help with the confusing stuff. I’m a firm believer in the power of community. It’s not always easy to ask for help. We’re often trained to believe that it means we’re weak, stupid, lazy or needy. I’m here to tell you that that is simply not true. We need others. We need community. We need helpers. My clients (and friends) that are able to reach out for support consistently adjust to new experiences better than those who suffer their troubles alone. In the case of my Japanese toilet, Google translate was my very best friend. She mostly gave me helpful answers and only occasionally (I mean, nobody's perfect, right?) provided complete mistranslations like “toilet seat flights.” On the other hand, if this thing flies I’m totally signing up for that adventure!

So you’ve moved, you’re unpacked and you’re flying off into expat happiness on your Japanese toilet seat. But wait! There’s one more important step to mastering transition.

Four: Just go for it. Sometimes you’ve just got to get in there and do your best. You will get lost sometimes. You will feel like crap sometimes. You will definitely feel lonely, lost, confused and completely out of sorts. But, you will learn and you will get better every single time. As for the Japanese toilet? Well, go ahead and sit down…it can’t be that bad of a ride.

Wanna’ get better at tapping into your best expat self? Check out The Expat Activity Book on Kindle and paperback and my latest coaching offers here.

 

 

My Beloved Emotional Roller Coaster

So we made it! We’re back in Japan after fifteen years away and we’re back abroad after about 18 months in the States. There’s no other way to say it – YAY!! It feels so good to be back to our typical way of living.

I think in some sort of way I didn’t know it would feel this way. Maybe I didn’t even know how much I was missing our international life. Somehow I’m not sure I realized how being back abroad would feel more like home than “home” really did.

But you know what? The most awesome part of all of this is that despite feeling so good about being back – I don’t actually feel perfect! I don’t feel good all the time! I haven’t slipped peacefully back into life here oblivious to the ups and downs of culture shock. What I am doing is feeling all up close and personal with the whole range of thoughts and emotions that come from living life as an expat. Most of them are actually really nice and happy and welcoming, but some of them are, naturally, not sweet and cozy emotions.

Like anyone who is going through a major transition sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed, turned around, confused and exhausted. I’ve been doing this long enough that these feelings aren’t plaguing me all the time, but they’re there – sometimes really big and loud and sometimes just quietly in the background.

As strange as it may sound, I’m finding old friends in the whole host of emotions that live inside me when we’ve moved to a new place. These emotions are so familiar to me during transition. Even when they don’t feel so nice, I’m finding now more than ever I’m able to say, “Oh, it’s you again Anxiety-About-Getting-Lost-Down-Unfamiliar-Streets? Welcome home!”

What surprises me this time around (this is my sixth international move), is that these emotions don’t scare me anymore. I know they’re here. I know they’ll likely be gone soon and I know they may reappear from time to time. They are actually a part of me and a part of my expat experience that feel completely familiar. With all the new stuff, there’s something really nice about experiencing something I’ve known before, even if it is a handful of emotions most people would try to avoid.

And so, with the ups and downs and all the in-betweens, I think I can officially say – we made it! I’m home.

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That was then...

In less than one month we leave for Japan – almost exactly fifteen years from the day we left. So much has changed. The person I was then – a 23 year-old, recently married, college grad who was just beginning a career (in the end, a rather short-lived career) as a teacher – is both intimately connected with and very, very distantly related to the person I am now.

Japan will be the first foreign country I’ve ever called home and then returned to, to call home again. And like those before and after shots of people who’ve lost a hundred pounds or gotten complete make-overs, I have this sense of all of the emotions and thoughts and assumptions wrapped up in my first time there running parallel to what my experience will be like this time.

For the most part I’ve been ecstatic about our return. Our time in Japan was a good one. Not without its challenges, but good nonetheless. Living in Japan was the first significant opportunity I had to learn to let go of what I thought to be true and accept a different, subtler truth that comes from recognizing for the first time that we all live completely from our own perspective. Of course that journey’s ongoing and has been paved with ups and downs, but without a doubt one of my biggest personal mantras was born out of my time in Japan –

The minute you’re certain you know, you stop knowing anything at all.

So there’s this strange dynamic to going back this time. Having lived in Japan before, I know so much more about what it’s going to be like. That’s comforting. But I also recognize that the key to survival is recognizing that my assumptions and beliefs must be filed away for reference, not written out like a game plan for my survival. Things will be different. I’m different. This has seemed a bit daunting – knowing what it’s going to be like and simultaneously remembering that things will have changed. However, I’ve recently come to the realization that this filing and sorting of past experiences is something most expats (myself included) do all the time.

I can most easily relate this to what it’s like to go home. In the course of our international adventures, I’ve come and gone home from Austin countless times. In the early years, it would upset me that it wasn’t the same, that I wasn’t the same, that things felt different and that for all the ways I felt perfectly at home, there were all these ways in which I could never feel the same sense of belonging again.

However, with time, I've learned to see and then file my assumptions and beliefs away. I don't ignore them, but I don't live by them either. I can pull them out, check their validity, wonder about their reality, but I don't have to use them as my only guide. Keeping my eyes and heart wide open without needing anything to be a certain way, seems to work much better for me. I can't say it is always easy…but there’s no question it makes me feel happier, more at peace and more satisfied with whatever actually unfolds before me.

I think this is one of the biggest keys to living more mindfully as an expat. When we develop the ability to know that things may not always turn out the way we expect them to and when we learn to recognize that our past experiences provide us with only part of the insight we need to understand our current situation, we can more fully settle into a place of curiosity and contentment. From that place, we’re more open to appreciating what we may find upon landing in a new home- regardless of whether or not we’ve been there before.

Japan will be like this I think. It will be both somewhere I know and somewhere completely unfamiliar. My mental file will help me make sense of things when I need it to, but some of the aspects of Japanese culture and language that I most remember will likely turn out to be irrelevant this time around. In fact, even some aspects of my own personality will fit (or not fit) differently than they did before.

So, with just a couple of weeks to go, I'm comforted about returning to a place that holds so many memories and excited to know that there will still be so much learning left to do. And then there's sushi...so, you know, how complicated can it all really be?

This blog post is linked at these great expat websites. Click on the links below to find it and other great expat blog posts! #MyGlobalLife Blog Link-Up and #ExpatLifeLinky

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Expat Life with a Double Buggy

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Confession time. I’m not a packrat. In fact, I’m like the opposite of a packrat. Which I guess is someone who not only constantly gets rid of their own things but harbors fantasies of cleaning out the closets, shelves and toy rooms of others as well. Yep – that’s me.

But wait! That’s not the confession. The confession is this. There’s one little tiny, packrat-like thing that I do. When I find a receipt or card or movie ticket stub or even a crumpled old parking garage pass hiding in the bottom of an old purse or coat pocket – I keep it. I take these things out from their hiding place and I look over them and I smile. Sometimes I even cry.

This weekend I found the receipt in the photo up there. It’s almost two years old and it’s from the time when I just gotten over the 6-month culture shock hump. I felt in my groove in my little life in Antananarivo, Madagascar. I had friends. I knew which store to go to buy toilet paper, tissues, dark chocolate and parsley. And even now I can still picture the produce guy who would weigh my food and print out my sticker at the Leader Price on the dusty, crowded, chaotic Hydrocarbon Road in Tana. I look at this receipt and I can actually feel what my day was like that day.

I see this receipt and I’m back there. I’m reminded of all the parts of myself that I leave behind in all of these little places. I’m reminded that I only really think I leave them behind – they’re still with me. Like little slips of paper hiding in the pocket of the jacket I haven’t worn in years…just waiting for me to bring them back out again.

And so, I never throw these little things away. I can’t. After my moment of remembering, I re-hide them. I slip them into books. I put them back into new purses. I slide them under the socks in my bottom drawer. It’s all like a little ritual now. They’re my little reminders that wherever I go I take a bit of my old life with me. Wherever I go I never truly leave behind the things I think I’ve left behind.

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My husband once asked the staff at a hotel in Guatemala if we could have more Satan paper in our room. He meant toilet paper.

Sound familiar? As expats we perhaps have the longest list imaginable of embarrassing moments. It feels at times like we’re living in a never-ending cycle of “Gotcha!” I mean, seriously, where are the hidden cameras?!

Frankly, it sucks to feel embarrassed. Your face gets all red, your palms sweat, your heart races, imagines of crawling under the covers and going back to bed loom large.

The good news is – we’ve all been there. Embarrassment is just part of the human experience and while you can try to minimize embarrassment or the effects of it, it’s fruitless to try to completely eliminate it from your life.

But, would you believe there’s even more good news? Check this out (and read the full article here):

Researchers have found that people who display embarrassment at their social transgressions are more prone to be liked, forgiven, and trusted than those who do not, and, as a result, their embarrassment saves face (Keltner and Anderson, 2000). Even teasing and flirtation, which provoke and evoke embarrassment in the targeted person, are motivated by the desire for increased liking (Keltner & Anderson, 2000). So embarrassment is a good thing, even if at the time you experienced it you wished it never happened.

Could it be that embarrassment may be one of the major keys to living a deeper more fulfilling life as an expat? I’m thinking maybe so…

Think about it this way – every time you say the wrong word in a foreign language, inadvertently commit a major cultural faux pas, wear the wrong shoes in the wrong place at the wrong time, shake hands instead of kiss, laugh instead of cry (or cry instead of laugh) or many of the millions of other things that can happen in this crazy cultural mix – you’re telling those around you – I’m Human!! You’re presenting yourself as real, authentic, natural and willing to make mistakes in the process of getting it right. How’s that for awesome!

So, go ahead and march right on out of the bathroom in your potty shoes (ooops, that may have happened to me more than once in my Japan days)! Smile, genuinely say sorry, and keep right on moving towards your much improved You!

I remember, with an incredible degree of detail, stepping on the plane for my first, true international adventure. It was 1997, and I was in my sophomore year of college.

As I found my seat on the plane, I looked around at the other students who were also flying out of JFK that day – headed to study abroad programs in Spain. They all looked much, much cooler than me…or at least they looked much, much cooler than I felt.

They all had large travel backpacks. I had a hand-me-down suitcase from my mom. Most of them were smoking. I stifled coughs and gags and burning eyes as the cabin filled with second-hand smoke. Most of the students didn’t speak a word of Spanish…and apparently didn’t intend to learn any. I not only spoke a fair amount, I thought we were actually going to Spain to learn more.

As a rather extroverted Texan from a small town – I suffered a crisis of comfort zone. I felt completely out of my element. I feared I wouldn't fit in or find friends and that I'd end up on a big (and scary) solo adventure. I suddenly realized I'd lived a very, very sheltered life.

I remember thinking at one point, “Well, I’m just going to have to do this on my own.” Then, little by little, I began to find the people with whom I connected. I made friends. I improved my Spanish. I traveled. At each step, I was stretching to the outer limits of what felt comfortable to me and to my surprise it felt really good.

As is the case with most expats – with time (and miles), the process has become easier for me. For all expats, it's second nature for us to expand our definitions of comfort. We take on broader and broader views of what feels right and we become experts in things that once seemed unfamiliar. The gap between fork and chopstick, English and Arabic, handshakes and kisses on the cheek narrows. This is good for us, I think.

But, it’s also important to remember that this is just a start. Knowing that you’re comfortable in lots of different situations is one thing – understanding how the experience is affecting you is completely another. This is, in my opinion, one of those wonderful things about being an expat – the opportunities for personal development and growth are built into the lifestyle. And, while it can take time to find your own style (be it journaling, meditation, reflection or just plain talking it out with a friend), there are so many options for making an expanded comfort zone a true learning opportunity. Gets you thinking doesn't it?

Are you interested in the idea of getting the most out of your expanded comfort zone? Do you want to take the strengths you've gained living abroad to the next level, but you're not sure where to start? To get a better sense of what your expanded comfort zone really means for you – try this activity. It’s a FREE sample of one of the exercises from my new book The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are. The complete book is also available on Amazon, Amazon.uk and Amazon.eu.

Today was one of those days. You know, the days in your expat life when you think, “Why are we doing this? Again.” I find these days always hit me completely out of the blue. We’re going along, no big deal, feeling on top of the world and (honestly) quite proud of ourselves and our children. We feel like transition rock stars. And then – Bam!

Yesterday we were looking at some family photos from our last home in Madagascar. Because of his Type I Diabetes diagnosis my middle son was never able to say goodbye. He got sick. He went to the doctor. He got on a plane. He’s never been back. He found the photos upsetting. He got teary-eyed seeing his toys and his room and his friends reflected in the pages as we recalled our favorite memories. His siblings had closure. He never really did. At bedtime he was saying, “I want to go home.” But, of course, it’s not home…anymore.

Last night I had a dream that he and I were in a foreign country and we got distracted by something that was happening in the street and laid our bags down, then a civil war broke out, then our bags were stolen, then a small, starving child latched on to us and wouldn't let us go. That’s my psyche working out the conflicts that always come up living this lifestyle. We wouldn’t give this up. We’re happy. It’s a way of life and the benefits, for now, far out-weigh the downsides. But man, that dream really hit me.

And then I remember:

  • Expat or not, I’d probably still worry sometimes (or…always?) that I’m screwing up my kids.
  • Sad days happen no matter where you are.
  • This lifestyle can be hard, but not always. Today is just one of the hard days.
  • There’s a lot to be said for love…and hugs.
  • I’m not alone.
  • Some things are portable – like fun, and silliness, and getting outside, and (more) love.

The funny thing is, by today he was completely back to his usual self. That makes me think that that list up there, all those things I say to give myself some perspective aren’t just things I say, they’re habits that my husband and I live out…and the kids know that. They’ve learned to tell themselves those things too. They’ve come to believe them to be true. So…now I’m back to thinking – wow, we’re kind of transition rock stars…most of the time.