To all Travellers and Expats
The idea of living in a new country appeals to a lot of people; some people love it, some people hate it and many people fall somewhere in between.
Some things that influence your experience of a place are uncontrollable. If your flat was robbed for example. Hopefully you would be able to set it aside eventually and not let that bad experience taint that place for you forever, but it might be a hard job. It would certainly put a dampener on things.
Some things however, I believe are within your control (at least mostly).
While travelling in various places, and while living in Harbin I’ve talked to lots of travellers and expats. In particular I’ve seen lots of people come and stay and succeed in expat life, or stay while barely tolerating life in China, or cry uncle and leave within the first month.
I was lucky enough to have a perfectly easy time of adjusting. Nothing was hard, I hated nothing; I still find nothing hard and don’t hate anything (although I’m not particularly fond of the times when the water in my apartment stops working).
Some people however have an awful time. It puzzled me at first. What was the problem? I had found it so easy. Some others have had little or no issues as well. Why were some people having such difficulty?
I think one of the main problems for these people was their previous expectations.
Travellers and Expats often expect it to be the same as at home.
And I really don’t know why. No really, I think it should be a fairly obvious thing. I mean, why? Why would anybody expect, after travelling to a new place with a different history, different cultural development, different way of thinking, different food and often a different language, that it would be the same? What rock have they been living under?
But while travelling and while living in China, I’ve heard many things about this:
“What is wrong with these people? Why don’t they sell real mattresses? In South Africa we have real soft mattresses.”
Inside my head: “Because they don’t make mattresses to sell to whiny expats. They make mattresses to sell to the local population, many of whom sleep on bamboo mats in the summer to be cooler. Why on earth would it be the same as it is in South Africa?
“I was annoyed at the train station. They didn’t speak English. I mean, everyone speaks English.”
Inside my head: “Good God really? You’re complaining that they speak Chinese? In China?”
“It’s a silly way to do it. In the UK we …..”
Inside my head: “You’re not in the UK. Why on Earth would it be like in the UK? This is a several thousand-year old civilization. They’ve been through their highs and lows, but I think they’ll do fine with their own way without slavishly copying how it is done in your home.”
“In China, what you see is never what you get. It was a different brand, but I saw the green and thought that it was the ___ flavour. But it was completely different.”
Inside my head: “Um, duh. The problem was your assumption. Nothing wrong with China.”
“Oh my goodness did you see the toilets? What is wrong with this country? In the cubicles it’s one long trough with a communal flush. I can’t possibly go there.”
Inside my head: “Your funeral. We have another 5 classes to teach here today.”
My question is, (apart from why would you expect it to be the same?) wouldn’t it be so boring if it all was the same?
I mean if everything was the same, it could be comforting. You wouldn’t have to learn new skills to manage things after the age of 20, take risks, or be uncomfortable because it would all be pretty much the same. Much less stress.
But wouldn’t that really be so boring?
One of the best things about travel is seeing how different the world can be. Seeing the world for all its wonderful colour and variety; trying new things, having new experiences.
There are the BIG things that you expect to be different (or should expect to be different and only make yourself ridiculous complaining about) such as language, food and style of dress.
Then there are the little things that are different, such as the colours used on packaging for flavours, which direction a closed-door handle will point in, or the firmness of the mattress.
While you cannot predict what these differences will be, you should expect to find them.
I honestly think that many travellers and expats make themselves miserable and their lives more difficult by simply not applying common sense. It is so completely illogical to expect things to be the same. Yet that is one of the number one complaints I hear. They all add up to the same thing: ‘It’s not the same as at home.’
Now while I can see the benefit in simply trying something out, finding that it’s not for you, and leaving it to go do something different; what I don’t understand is most of the reasons these people sited for going home (or why they couldn’t stick it out for the first 6 month contract to give it a proper try).
It wasn’t, “Yeah I underestimated the homesickness and I miss my family. I will take shorter trips from now on”
Or, “Yeah I thought teaching would be cool but after a few months – yeah, not so much for me.”
So far it’s been, “I thought that it would be more comfortable, more like home.” Or, “it’s not like I thought.”
Which brings me to point number 2.
Travellers and Expats often come with such strong expectations that they can’t appreciate what is really here.
“It’s not like I thought it would be. It’s not like China. I mean there’s a girl here who wants to host a TV show on Chinese TV, and ….. it’s just like home except with different writing.”
Inside my head, “There are lots of differences. What are you talking about? Were you expecting traditional clothes and horse pulled carts (there are still some of those in Harbin)? Why did you come to a city with 12 million + people?”
“It’s not real China! There’s no Chinese music played in the streets. I lived in Hong Kong(25 years ago). I know real China.”
Inside my head: “We are 1000s of km away, 25 years in the future, in an area with a vastly different history, geography and with very different cultural influences. Even the language is different. You really expected it to be the same? You really feel that this is a valid complaint?”
While it’s not going to be the same as at home, it’s also not going to fit into whatever your imagination has conjured up. This is real life. This is the reality of the country as it is today.
Cries of, “it’s not traditional enough,” and, “it’s not real (insert whichever country),” lack forethought and I think tend to show intellectual laziness.
In your home country do you all wear the most traditional of clothes in daily life? Corsets and top hats in England? Flax woven clothes and tattoos in New Zealand? Mohawks in the USA? No? You’re not traditional enough!
Or perhaps you all listen to the most traditional music and scorn the more modern pop music? No? What is wrong with you?
This isn’t just isolated to Harbin or to China or to badly adjusted Western Expats. One particular example is known as Paris syndrome.
Paris syndrome refers to a psychological disorder that sometimes affects people visiting Western Europe (usually Paris, maybe the name gave it away). Mostly Japanese people seem to be affected.
Their expectations are so strong, ideas of Paris being pristine with people all looking like models in designer clothes so entrenched, that they suffer from (according to Wikipedia) hallucinations, feelings of persecution, derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, dizziness and excess sweating.
They normally have to go home, which is a real shame, because Paris is a fantastic city.
So if you are travelling somewhere or if you are planning to move to another country and work – do it. Travelling and living overseas is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
But don’t expect it to be the same and don’t expect it to be exactly as you imagination has dreamed up. The food will be different; the way it is cooked will be different, the eating utensils, the language, the firmness of mattresses, the systems for legal documents, ticket buying systems, thought processes, architecture, style of driving, ways of dealing with problems, anything and everything could and will be different.
After all it’s a completely different place isn’t it?
Unless you only travel from Bristol to London, Wellington to Auckland, or Boston to New York; not so many changes then. 🙂
Travellers and Expats (you) need to
Discard your preconceptions
It’s a different place, different history, different influences, different people; it WILL be different in many ways. And not necessarily in the ways your imagination has conjured up, or in the same ways another place you’ve been to before was different. Think about it, accept it and get over it. Expect to find the differences. Don’t complain about them.
Learn to enjoy the differences
Because really, I think the differences are cool. I’d have been disappointed if I’d moved halfway around the world and things were all the same.
The differences are what make travel and expat life interesting. Without them the world would be one big blur of boring grey.
As children everything is new and exciting. By the time we reach adulthood, we encounter very few new things in our day to day lives.
When you are in a new country, lots of things are different, new and exciting again.
Be prepared to adapt to the differences.
You are the newbie in the country. You are the foreigner without roots in an established place with established systems. YOU are the one that needs to adapt. The local people won’t suddenly change and copy your system. They likely won’t give a rat’s arse about how you do it in your home, and why should they?
This does not mean that you must adore absolutely every single detail about your new country; after all I doubt that you love every single detail of your home country, but if there are things that you just can’t like (for me it’s my water going off once a month or so), then just simply accept them as a thread of the intricate canvas that makes the country what it is.
There are many wonderful places in the world. Whether you are travelling to them or thinking of living there, please for your own sake (and for the sake of anyone listening to your complaints) go there with an open mind and expect the differences. Learn about the new things and enjoy the different culture. Don’t spend what could be the most valuable experience of your life going “But at home we….”