It goes without saying that upping sticks and moving your life to another country and culture can change you. Anything that forces you to step out of your comfort zone ends up shaping you in some way.
I’m coming to the end of my first working year living in Arusha in Northern Tanzania. While this is not my first time living in a foreign land, I have recently got to thinking about how this year has once again changed me – and how previous years of being a so-called ‘expat’ have shaped the thirty-something that I am now!
1. It’s one thing to travel to foreign lands and quite another to make a life there. Travel is wonderful and gives you snapshots of all the amazing places and experiences our little blue planet holds. When you travel, you usually see the best a place has to offer. You go on safari. You stay in the rainforest. You visit the museums. You swim in the ocean. But when you live somewhere, you have to go deeper. As well as the excitement of the best, you also have the everyday. You go to and from work everyday. You negotiate the supermarkets, the banks, rent and paying bills, immigration rules and local laws. You build friendships and create a surrogate family around you. You embed yourself and gain a deeper understanding of the culture. You make it your home – for however long it may be.
2. Beware the ‘expat’ bubble. Expat is a curious word that seems to only apply to white westerners who move overseas. A person from any other culture would unlikely ever be referred to as an expat – the more likely term would be migrant. It’s a strange term that creates an even stranger subculture wherever it is found. It is natural to meet and spend time with people who have come to live overseas for similar reasons to yourself – they are likely to be your work colleagues, your neighbours, and become your best friends. However, it can very easily and quickly become a bubble and exclusive. You run the risk of creating a tiny little protected world around you and not connect with anyone else who is actually from where you have gone to live. What’s the point in living in Italy and never spending time with Italians? What’s the point of living in Ghana and never having fufu at a local bar? What’s the point of moving to Spain and only ever going to an English pub? It’s okay to surround yourself with comfort – but not at the exclusion of the people and the culture you have chosen to live within.
3. Taking risks to find your people. Living overseas, particularly in a completely different culture, involves continuously taking a step out of your comfort zone. Whether it’s your first tentative and often completely incorrect use of the language to going to new groups or events on your own – you have to take risks in order to make friends. Like the inital days of university, the people you meet first and are introduced to don’t always turn out to be the people you become closest to. You need to seek out events and groups that link into what you love – musicians seek out other musicians and places to jam, artists seek out galleries and art classes, theatre buffs seek out drama groups and amateur dramatic societies. You need to take risks to find those people who become your urban family.
4. Challenges happen every day – remember the big picture. From continual power cuts to negotiating bureaucracy, challenges will happen everyday and it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the big picture. I remember getting lost along a random suburban street in Prague, searching for the office of the local notary and feeling highly frustrated as I got more and more lost. Eventually I found it and, with a combination of my terrible broken Czech and many a hand signal, managed to communicate what documents I needed notarised only to be tersely told that I would need to return for them in the morning. Upon my return, I received my documents only to then have to stand in yet another line at the immigration office. The end result of the two days of my life was my work permit and residency permit which gave me the official stamp of approval to make Prague my home for the next few years. (Funnily enough, immigration rules changed about a year later and I no longer required the permit – ironic!) As the power goes out time and time again in my little house in Arusha and I get the candles out, I remind myself that infrastructure here in East Africa has a long way to go – but it is getting there slowly. As I bug spray my house every night and sleep under my mosquito net, I remind myself that I chose this life – so taking the rough with the smooth is a necessity!
5. Technology can make the world feel both smaller and bigger at the same time. I adore technology and the way it helps me keep in touch with my family and friends around the world. Being able to Skype or FaceTime my family and friends helps to make the distance feel no where near as far. Seeing my mum and dad’s face appear on my screen and being able to have a giggle with my sisters can brighten up the tougher days. But there are times when I look at my Facebook feed and see changes happening in my friends and family’s life and I feel so very far away. My friend has a baby and I know it will be months before I get to give them a cuddle from their Aunty Lynsey. A friend loses a family member and I know it will be months before I am able to hug them and cry with them for their loss. I see celebrations that I can’t attend and special events that I can’t be a part of. Sometimes technology can make the world seem so much bigger and people seem so much further away.
6. The mundane and the routine are a part of life no matter where you are in the world. Yes, I do live in the land of lions, elephants, giraffes, zebra and a whole host of other incredible creatures. Yes, the Serengeti is a drive away from my house. Yes, the beautiful white sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean are but a short flight away. The stunning photographs that I put on my Facebook are the highlights of living in East Africa, but please do not assume that I am doing that every day. Of course I am not going to post a picture of my visit weekly grocery shop, of waiting in an endless queue at the bank, and of my daily commute back and forward from my job as a teacher. As exciting as it is living in these places, day-to-day life and routine exists everywhere, and is often necessary in order to be able to enjoy the more exciting aspects!
7. You can surprise yourself with what you are capable of handling. One of the most amusing aspects of living overseas is the lack of ‘rescue me’ phone calls. Rat get into your house? There’s no pest control solution – you’ll have to sort that out yourself. Bathroom flooded? Better get the mop and bucket and find a friendly neighbour to help you find the source. Giant spider in your classroom – you’re on your own dealing with that! It is amazing how much you can deal with when it’s only you who is around!
8. Racism, prejudice, misogyny and ignorance is everywhere but is not always recognised or acknowledged. There is a long journey still to go. This is a tough one and, to be honest, is deserving of it’s own post at a later stage. While fully aware of the privilege that the latitude and longitude of my birthplace affords me, it is a continual source of frustration and despair when I witness attitudes that belong in the dark ages to still be vividly apparent in cultures I live in and the people I meet. Casual everyday racism, sexism, misogyny and prejudice that run as a persistent undercurrent throughout society with many simply ignoring it’s existence or explaining it away as ‘oh, it’s just the way it is here’. There are people who band together everywhere to fight this – swimming upstream against the current – yet there is much to be done.
9. You are still you – identity is important. One of the things I have always fiercely held on to is that, no matter where I am in the world, what culture I live in, what urban family I build around me, I am always me – the lanky, Scottish girl with the vividly red hair who prefers an in depth discussion over small talk, dances like a loon when her favourite song comes on, cares madly about every child she teaches, collects quotes and poetry like others collect DVDs, and finds meaning in her friendships, family, experiences and every stamp in her passport. It’s important not to lose yourself.
10. Wanderlust never ends. I remember my dad saying to me once that he hopes I’ll ‘get this all out of my system one day and just settle down’. Friends often ask me when I’m coming home to live a ‘normal life’. Travel only feeds the travel bug even more and, if you are made for this overseas life, you’ll keep on going back for more. If you were born with a bit of a gypsy soul and a case of wanderlust, it never really goes away. At some point you will always get itchy feet and be reaching for the passport once again – it’s best to just embrace it!