6 Things I Learned from Living Abroad


6) How to distinguish needs from wants

If you’re a fan of the television show “House Hunters”, you will often see potential buyers go through long inventories of things that they need, like a hood over the stove, a jacuzzi to fit 5 people, a shower with a mountain view. I have down-scaled my “must have” list, after some of my travels. The basic American appliances that I have in the U.S. has slowly made it to my list of luxuries. This was realized the moment I arrived in the congested city of Seoul, S. Korea; where there was an odd absence of bathtubs and ovens in apartments. The memories of my spacious country bathroom, was now being compared to the ability to use the bathroom, shower and brush my teeth in the sink.. all at the same time.

Here in Saudi, when someone told me that I’d have to fill my washing machine by pan, pull the machine to a hole in the middle of the floor, drain it, and then hang dry.. I made sure that a conventional washer/dryer unit was added to my list. It’s the simple things that you miss the most, when everything is foreign to you. I no longer will assume that another country’s definition of a “need” and “want” is the equivalent to my own.

5) Your survival instincts come into play

Before leaving the US, I’ve often been asked.. “Do you know anyone out there?” “Can you speak the language?”.. “No?!? Sooo, how are you going to get around??” … You just gotta figure it out! We are all primitively programmed to fight for our survival. I’ve learned this best in Saudi. The 1st three days in the KSA, I lived off of cold pita bread and rice. I saw not one soul who spoke English or could direct me to something familiar. Each day, I inched a little further down my road, counting buildings and turns, so not to get lost. I took down as many taxi numbers as possible, so at least someone could direct me home. I immediately befriended the hotel staff, so that they’d felt comfortable loaning me money if things got tight. Survival! Without a lick of Arabic…. ‘Whatever higher power you believe in’ always seems to work the immediate things out. You can always figure out the details later..

4) At the same time, you’re never truly alone

There’s 100 English teachers on my campus. All of them came with the same expectations (or lack thereof). All with the same frustrations. All having the same questions… Outside of the school, there is the occasional English speaker; the taxi driver from Pakistan who wants to practice through conversation, the Filipina nurse who understands your homesickness, the Saudi woman who wants to soak up all things American. You start to realize that maybe running off to a new country, a new job, and a new culture… is not such a new idea.

3) You Start to Define Yourself

There are so many titles that one can take on these days.. Democrat/Republican, Gay/Straight, Christian/Atheist. However, quite a few people have a hard time defining why they feel so strongly about these titles. When you live in a country that challenges these labels, you start to see where on the spectrum you fall. Plus, you’ll have a firm example to back it up. Being in a conservative, Islamic country makes me realize how much of a liberal Christian I am.

2) Life should not be all that stressful

There’s a time to work, and there’s a time to play. As an ESL teacher abroad, you finally have ample time to pick up a new hobby, start and finish a book, choose whether or not you want to have a social life, or even be random and attend a ‘camel beauty contest’… As an expat, in general, you have a totally different itinerary from the tourists. Somehow, I’ve managed to experience various activities from having a few cookouts in the middle of an Arabian desert, to digging for fossilized seashells and desert diamonds (http://www.ehow.com/info_8127431_desert-diamonds.html). You no longer check out the city on someone else’s schedule and course. You tend to make your own fun, and it ends up being a way more interesting story to tell.

1) See life through someone else’s eyes

Yesterday, I was watching a music video on MTV. The American singer spent the whole video in a swimsuit. There was no pool, ocean, or water of any kind present. This sorta bugs me. It is one of the reasons why my greetings in Korea often came to “So, can you sing or dance like Beyonce?” or “Are you Obama’s sister?” And they are dead serious, in asking! In Saudi, out of the 5-10 English channels, these were also the American examples portrayed to a conservative country. I have seen some coverings to the extreme (women not showing an inch of the body, including eyes). Under these all-black coverings, I’ve always imagined two types of women: one who was very timid, or someone expressionless. Going against the stereotype, my students, the ladies under the veil, are some of the most outspoken, confident and dramatic girls I’ve ever met..

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6 thoughts on “6 Things I Learned from Living Abroad

  1. I love the cartoon. Where did you get it? I love museums. Some of the artifacts are not available to see other places. I’ve always been a feminist even when I was a little girl and didn’t know what it meant. Glad you are writing.

  2. I read backwards and can see that day to day life tends to wear down initial adrenalin and enthusiasm for new experiences and new things. Everyone needs to vent and your emotions will be able to be drawn upon in years to come when things are not going so great you’ll surely be able to say…things could be much worse. That which does not kill us can only make us stronger-hang in there the months are ticking away and you’ll be stateside before you know it!

    • Your totally right.. Thankful that I’m not in a total war zone. But some days I do feel like “if I can make it here.. I can make it anywhere”! Was just reading the 4 stages of culture shock, and it reminded me that it’s simply an inevitable phase I’m going thru

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