Being an ex pat is harder than I thought it would be.
In fact, even realizing that we qualified as “ex-pats” was pretty strange. It implied a certain sense of permanence that I had not really acknowledged. Or even realized.
It also notes the temporary nature of our position. We are not immigrants or citizens. My EU-ID card says that I am a resident with an expiration date. Once I started thinking of our situation as just that -ex-pats; guests in a host country- I started to appreciate our time here more.
No, this is not permanent. Some days, I wish is was. I want to tell Jimmy to tell his boss that we want to stay through the duration of the project. I want to keep traveling until we have exhausted all of this continent. I want to become a real local and get to know the store owners in our neighborhood and settle more into our apartment.
But then there are days that I want to move. There are so many places to live and I want to try more. Sometimes I just want a car and my own office or a real job and a sitting room that I can buy a pretty couch for. I want to make friends that want to have a girls nights and holiday parties. I want to be less than a 20 hour flight day from my sisters and my nephews and my parents and grandparents. I want to be able to go to my friends’ weddings and baby showers. Then I remember that that time will come. Right now, we are here. I appreciate every day we get to spend in this surprisingly perfect host country.
However, that does not make it any less difficult. I strive to not make this whole experience look too glamorous. If you could see me hauling totes of groceries home, scouring 6 different stores for one item or trying to translate what looks like a very urgent message posted on the door, you would not see glamour. You may see desperation, confusion and frustration.
I am lonely a lot more than I thought I would be. Lonely is very different than being alone, which is something I am very comfortable with. Lonely, however, is much harder to accept and even harder to admit or fix-not that it needs fixing. It just goes hand in hand with moving, particularly dropping into a new culture. I think it is an essential tool in this whole experience. It teaches me more about myself, my husband and our journey here.
Embracing a new culture can never be easy. It is challenging to explain this to anyone who has not really immersed themselves in the culture of a new land. Lived and eaten and functioned in a place that is entirely different from your roots. However, it is more difficult to remain ignorant to the differences. I have found, in this situation, that it is best to let it change you. Let your lifestyle be disrupted and embrace the change. If you fight it, you are missing many opportunities for enrichment, self exploration and growth.
These are just some of the lessons we are constently learning, every day. Through our 365+ days here, I think that I have learned a lot.
As this blog is evolving from journal updates for families and friends, I hope to make it a source for other mobile families, expats, and travelers in general. In honor of that, here is what I have learned in our time here:
#1 and most important: When you travel or move some place new, do not be afraid to ask questions. Ask how you pronounce some obscure word. Ask where to shop for the most basic item. Ask if they carry apple cider vinegar (by the way, you were staring at it for 5 minutes) or molasses (nope, still haven’t found that).
Do not avoid asking questions because you do not want to reveal yourself. If you feel lost, you look lost. Do yourself a favor and get it over with, or you will end up lost (been there) or spending 2 hours on a quick grocery run (done that).
Which leads us to number 2:
It is ok to look stupid. It means that you are learning. Look stupid this time so next time you can look less clueless.
But learn. Be observant. How do people behave on the tram? What is the routine at the grocery check out? What are the customs at the bar? How do people pass each other on the street? Pick up on these things so you can begin to fit in.
I used to be terrified of revealing that I do not speak Finnish. I would nod along in the check out line, mutter my “Moi” (hello) and say “ei” (no) when I heard the key word “pussi,” indicating that the teller offered a bag. But then they would say something different and I would smile and nod, until they looked at me like I was a moron, waiting for me to answer whatever they had just asked. Then I’d freeze. Now what? I have been pretending to go along with this like I know what is going on.Then they feel awkward that you haven’t understood a word and you feel awkward for pretending.
Lesson learned: be upfront about it. I can confidently get through most transactions now, but if I don’t know the answer, I just smile, say “I’m sorry…” and tell them that I am getting better but that’s the extent of my Finnish. They usually laugh and indulge me.
Admit to what you do not know and do it before you are in over your head.
Going along with the above, trust that people are kind.
I have found myself ridiculing my actions based upon some unwritten custom that I am not yet familiar with. I assume I am wrong. Then I walk around with this “wrongness” around me and feel like everyone knows how wrong I am.
The fact is that that is all in your head. The people around you are kind. If they chose to judge you or make you feel inferior because you are just off the mark, despite your best efforts, then try again. Do not tailor your thoughts and memories of a place based upon your fear of rejection. Rather, choose to favor the goodness of people. The chances are that they will want to help you out and make you feel comfortable. And you will leave with a better memory of the place.
Jump into things
From embracing public transit to accepting what you cannot find at the grocery store, embrace the culture. Join groups, clubs and communities. Never say “No” to doing something new.
This is some advice I could take for myself.
Some, I have done well, like jumping into the lifestyle. We scorn cars and carry our groceries and appreciate customs. We have a small community here of Jimmy’s co-workers and their significant others with whom we remain involved. We jumped into traveling and exploring the city. I attended a few “English speakers” events but found very little in the social department. I took a sewing class purely hoping to meet people. I once went to coffee with I woman I met in the tanning salon the same morning.
What we did not do was jump into getting to know people. In our defense, Finns might be some of the hardest people in the world to meet. They are natural introverts with a certain protocol for casual conversations; in that they do not engage in them. We have found that despite being extremely friendly at the bar, they are generally not interested in meeting up again.
But we do not belong to any clubs or teams and we could certainly do better to engage. That being said read the following:
Accept what it is, Forget what it isn’t
When we first arrived, I had high hopes for a job and making great new international friends that we could visit for years to come. When that never happened, I was pretty bitter. I am social, I am fun and I am usually outgoing. When we travel, we talk to far more people than we do in our home town. I wanted to meet people. I still do. I started to resent our time here; it wasn’t at all what I wanted it to be!
I needed a change in my mindset. So I wont be leaving some stellar Finnish community behind. Instead, I have gotten to know a lot of the people on this project and I enjoy them a lot. So I do not have some resume boosting job. But I do get to travel some place new nearly every month and I get to see the world with my husband. We get to live in an amazing city. I have had the opportunity to build my own brand.
Focus on what this experience is, not what it isn’t. It isn’t a lot of the things you are used to. It is not America, it is not comfortable, and it is not easy. On the plus side, it is challenging, full of adventure, and new.
Let go and Let in
Let go of what you are used to.
Let go of all the things you miss. Not the people. The things.
The standing Kitchen-Aide in your storage unit. The particular brand of cereal you always eat that doesn’t exist here. Your really cozy sub-division and well connected highways and your car. The convenience of drive through and Target and one stop shopping. Your beautiful couch an perfectly appointed wall art and your holiday decorations.
Start to pack your memories, not your stuff.
Let in the tired feet, sore from walking on cobble stones all day. Embrace the weird ingredients in the store in lieu of what is missing. Be ok with walking alone.
Let in the experiences that this has to offer. The different smells and sights and tastes. Make room in your bags to take home the changes that this experience will impose upon you.
This experience is not meant to be comfortable. At least not it the way you are used to. It is meant for you to find comfort in different, often times smaller places. In that way, you will begin to understand comfort as a state of mind rather than a state of being.
Which is 100% necessary as an ex-pat. It will make your time away far more enjoyable. I imagine it will be a useful tool in the future, as well.