Mental Preparation for Life Abroad

Living in “foreign parts” is largely a question of mindset. The people who are the most successful at adapting to the expat life – or who are the most successful immigrants, if we are going to try to be a little less elitist in our description of those of us who move out of the west to work in other parts of the world – are those who are able to adapt to uncertainty and uncanny circumstances.

Life is not necessarily more difficult as an economic migrant; we leave our homes to pursue work for various reasons, but simply finding the right kind of work is a powerful motivator. Many find that they enjoy new lives in new places – humanity’s history is one of migration and finding new places and ways to live, from the first steps of our ancestors out of a valley in Africa. Many new places offer excitement,

Uncertainty, however, is guaranteed. Much of this comes from culture shock – the disorientation and discomfort of suddenly having a heap of new, tacit, confusing rules thrust upon you as you enter another culture. Some aspects of this can be mitigated by simply visiting a place for a time before moving there, but there will be difficulties with facets of life that will not occur to you until you are setting up a household and going about daily routines.

When we moved to India, some of the biggest issues were simply realities of what was and was not available there. Items like maple syrup were prohibitively expensive, beef was wholly unavailable for much of our time there. Cheese was available intermittently. Vegetables varied in quality and availability depending on weather and seasons. Some items were only available if one was willing to make a multi-hour long trip into the nearest city.

China is a different story – we are in a Metropolis here, so everything can be had for a price, if you know where to look. But it can be difficult finding out where exactly to look, since everything is in a language in which I am still – despite three years of practice – functionally illiterate. Language was an occasional irritation in India, but here it can border on being a debilitating restriction. We function largely through the help of our ayi, whose ability to understand us is the byproduct of years of familiarity. She in turn is tasked with many of the more complicated errands that involve dealing with customer service reps or vocabulary that moves beyond my infant/toddler level grasp of “this,” “that,” and a few basic nouns.

Both of these challenges – and the challenges that would be encountered moving to any other culture – come back to uncertainty, and how we manage it. Uncertainty in communication, material goods, relationships, all contribute stress. If you can tolerate the uncertainty, you will find a way to overcome any of the other difficulties.

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