By Alexandra Ryan
Over a year ago I moved to Thailand, not knowing much about the country other than the stories I’d heard of friends’ vacations, and the photos I’d seen in Facebook albums. I had settled on Thailand after months of failed job searching in Japan, and had finally accepted that now was not the time I was meant to move to The Land of the Rising Sun. Instead I swapped my dreams of Japan for the Land of Smiles, and departed for what would be an experience of a lifetime.
Before I arrived, I had dreams of days spent on deserted picturesque beaches, jungle hikes on the backs of elephants, nights spent dancing under a full moon, and mornings spent lounging around with tigers. That’s what the Facebook albums had portrayed, so why was I to imagine any differently? After arriving, reality quickly set in, and while some of these fantasies were shattered, others still held true. But the most stunning part of my year spent in Thailand were all the things that happened that couldn’t have been anticipated. All the emotions I experienced, the people I met, the places I went, the food I tasted and the things I saw. I spent a little less than a year in Thailand, and then pursued my next adventure in Japan, where I have lived for almost a half year. While my time abroad remains small in comparison to the time some spend, I feel as if I can offer a bit of advice to those looking to leave their home countries. If anything, I feel as if I can at least respond to the article, “The 5 Weirdest Side Effects of Moving to a New Country,” as it gives a very biased and inaccurate view of what living abroad is actually like.
First of all, moving to a new country may be different and difficult, but that is not to be confused with bad.
5. “You Will Hate Everything and Everyone There at First”
False. Actually, the thing is, you will NOT hate everything when you first move there. If you find yourself hating an entire culture and country, it’s time you look in the mirror and ask yourself, “What the hell is wrong with me?” It’s impossible to hate everything. I think most of us travelers and expats truly love everything when we first arrive. The so-called, “honeymoon phase,” that people refer to as the beginning of your trip, doesn’t have to end, as it didn’t for me the entire time I lived in Thailand. The last week I spent in the country was just as magical as the first week following my arrival, and all the days that fell in-between were filled with more adventures than I could have imagined. Time after time I found myself questioning how it was possible that this had become my life. I was always living with the feeling of butterflies in my stomach and a huge smile on my face. This is not to say that everyone was perfect all the time. Of course there were the small things that I found unpleasant, but that’s to be expected. While I didn’t like the toilets, which are more or less holes in the ground partnered with hoses to spray yourself clean with, always leaving the bathrooms damp and smelly, I eventually adjusted. I realized that the sanitation standards I had previously known, no longer existed and I had to deal with my new environment.
Being a coffee lover, who appreciates a well roasted bean with a rich flavor, I was in for a rude awakening when i had my first iced coffee in Thailand. As I sat on my motorbike at the coffee cart I watched the aged woman with missing teeth fill my cup first with ice, followed by a few heaping scoops of instant coffee mix, and topped off with some water and what looked to be a half can of condensed milk. The “coffee” was so thick and syrupy I could hardly suck it up through the straw. I knew that living without my caffeine was not an option so I almost instantly learned in Thai how to order it to my liking. As much as I found the condensed milk in coffee to be repulsive, I was obsessed with a street cart dessert called roti. Roti is a dough that is pressed thin like a tortilla or crepe, and then cooked in butter and coated in condensed milk. It is then rolled up and served to you in what becomes an instantly greasy wrapper. With every delicious mouth watering bite, warm condensed milk oozes out.
Thailand couldn’t have been more different from America, but I never experienced culture shock. I found it to be a very easy country to adjust to, filled with extremely friendly people, and a language barrier that was still manageable to work around. I never felt, “helpless, irritable, disregarded or injured,” the symptoms of culture shock described in the article. The only time I experienced situations of being “cheated,” were in dealing with other Westerners, and unfortunately, more often than not, it was with my employer. The sad fact was that teachers are often exploited by the agencies they work for, when in reality it should be those same people who are there to protect your rights and interests as you begin life in a foreign country.
The most overwhelming feeling I experienced was confusion. To say that I made it through just one day without feeling confused, even over something small, would be a long shot. While confusion can leave one with a feeling of frustration, I more often than not found humor in the miscommunications and misunderstandings. For example, my first week in Thailand my friend and I were shopping for simple household items. We needed dishes and silverware and thought we’d try our luck at the local 711. While we didn’t find any plates, we did find slightly larger than normal bowls, and we decided to purchase these along with the other eating utensils. When the clerks at the register kept giggling at us we realized that perhaps the bowls were actually for dogs, and they knew we were going to go home and use them for our curry and noodles. I shrugged it off, and we had a good laugh about how stupid they must have assumed we are. A week later I was having dinner at a friends, and it was the first time I had been in a Thai house. I went to use their bathroom, and next to the toilet, floating in the giant bin of water used to flushing, was the same type of bowl I had purchased earlier. I shook my head and laughed out loud as I realized that the clerks had been so giggly because they knew I was going to use a toilet flusher to eat from. I had a good laugh, at my own expense, and realized how clueless I was in this foreign country.
There are so many small cultural differences that add up to create a new world, but that’s why you move abroad. If you weren’t seeking that, you wouldn’t have left, and if you’re not up for a new experience, then living abroad really isn’t for you. You can never prepare yourself for how different life is going to be, but taking it day by day and learning to work within the new culture is a sign of patience and strength. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how different the country seems, we’re all people, and we all experience the same needs from life and the same basic emotions. We all want to be in the company of family and friends, and to be happy and healthy. As long as you remember that, you can find a place for yourself anywhere.
4. “You’ll Miss Stuff You Never Even Cared About”
False. The things I find myself missing the most are the things I care about the most while I’m at home. I miss my family and friends. I miss the convenience of being able to speak the same language of the society around you. I miss my dog, the California coast line, pool parties, and Mexican food. Oh boy, do I miss Mexican food. Theres nothing like being able to walk into a restaurant with no shoes on, wearing only a bathing suit, handing over four dollars to the woman behind the counter, and walk out minutes later with a giant burrito, stuffed with carne asada and fresh guacamole. Along with a few other familiarities, I miss having a shared sense of humor with the culture I am in. The fact that humor doesn’t always translate across cultural borders was something I learned early on. From what I’ve seen, Americans are sarcastic in a playful manner, the English are sarcastic in a way that often leaves you feeling like you were punched in the face, and Thai humor is actually based on punches to the face and other forms of slapstick. While the list of cultural humor goes on and on, these are the few that I came in contact with the most in Thailand. I learned to accept that what I find to be funny, others will not, and vice versa.
I miss these things when living abroad, but I can’t say that I actually miss things I never cared about. The coolest thing about living in a new country is that you begin to care about things that you never knew you were missing out on. In Thailand, I became very interested in education and work opportunities for women, after seeing how many girls turned to sex work to support themselves. Living in America, I took for granted the privileged life I’d been born into, and because I didn’t see it on a daily basis, I didn’t think about how disadvantaged women were around the world. The information I had came from college text books, articles, or documentaries, but I had never seen it first hand until it was thrown in my face once arriving in South East Asia. As for your taste buds, there will always be some comfort food from home that you’ll miss, mine being burritos the size of babies, but your taste buds will adapt to the culture and find new savory addictions. Thailand has the best cuisine in the world, for a cost of next to nothing, and during the nine months I spent there, I never stooped eating, always trying the dishes that were offered to me. I moved to the other side of the world to experience a life radically different from my own, and so I tried to never search out Western food.
You’re going to miss things from home, no doubt, but I can guarantee it will be the things that matter and which you care about.
3. “You Will Get Super Patriotic”
False. I think living abroad allows you to see your country in a new light, whether it’s positive or negative, and observing from a distance provides a healthy new perspective. It helps one realize their country’s strengths and weaknesses, as you compare it to your host country, as well as its neighbors that you travel through. Living abroad makes you more patient and observant, becoming more open minded to others and their cultures. You meet so many foreigners from around the world and each one has a different opinion of your country. Patriotism, for me, suggests that you love your country above all others, and you have a pride for it which can cause a wall between listening to others and preaching your own opinions.
Being an American means that everyone, I mean, EVERYONE has opinions and stereotypes about my country. To the rest of the world we are a bunch of gun owning, fast-food eating, loud speaking, Budweiser drinking-rednecks, which sadly, does describe a percent of the American population. However, it does not describe me, my family, my friends, or my community. I always listen to others with an open mind and I’m always curious to hear what they have to say, and I try to never take it as a personal attack. Considering others’ opinions of your country is important when thinking about how your own behavior reinforces those stereotypes or helps to shatter them. Living in an expat community is like being a freelance ambassador, you are always living as a representative of where you’re from. I appreciate my country and culture, especially because being a native English speaker, it’s allowed me to travel the world teaching my language, but, I am not any more patriotic than the day I left.
I don’t think people were ever meant to be confined to one country or culture, which is why I choose to travel. I prefer to live globally, appreciating each place I visit equally. Since leaving home a little over a year ago, I have lived in two countries and traveled to three more. The most surprising thing I’ve encountered is the presence of the American flag, not being worn or sported by Americans. I can’t think of a single time I walked into a clothing shop in Thailand and didn’t see something printed with the flag. Japan is equally obsessed with the flag, and I see it printed on some item almost every time I’m out. I even had a student come to school with a t-shirt that read, “Born in the USA,” which, may I add, he definitely was not. My favorite though, was a blouse where the pattern was US currency, easily the most hideous shirt ever made. The obsession with American culture in both places I have lived makes me feel that the people of my host country love my country more than I do.
2. “Every Other Immigrant You Meet Feels Like a Soulmate”
False. I’m not going to argue that it’s nice to meet people from home while living abroad. It’s especially nice to meet people from your same city or town, as you have a shared collective knowledge of a faraway place. But to go as far as calling them a soulmate is really stretching it. Part of the purpose of moving abroad is to be put in a position outside of your comfort zone, and to build relationships with people other than who you would socialize with at home. I understand that for some people this is undesirable, but if you find that’s you, maybe living in a foreign country isn’t the best choice. In the time I spend outside of America, one of my biggest goals is assimilating into my host community. In Thailand I didn’t take the time to learn the language, knowing my stay was less than a year, but I did reach out to English speaking locals for friendships. I would always accept when invited out by coworkers, and I spent most of my time with my housemate and his amazing Thai girlfriend.
Since moving to Japan, I have made a huge effort to immerse myself in the local community, and in just a few months time I had a great network of Japanese friends. Unlike Thailand, here I am employed by a school where I was the only foreigner under the age of forty-five, and the only employee in their twenties. In Thailand I was thrown into a huge foreigner community, but in Japan I found myself without a group of Westerners to befriend. Being an extroverted social person, I knew I had to make friends in order to enjoy my time here, so I thought of ways to meet English speakers, despite what country they were from. I signed into my couch surfers account, and messaged the Japanese people living in my town about going out for dinner or drinks. To my surprise, it worked, and this was my first step into making friends in Japan. As time passed, I met more people, both Westerners and Japanese, but I’ve never specifically sought out Western friends, especially fellow Americans. This is the first time in my life that I have friends that are substantially older than I am, with homes, spouses and children. Although two years ago I would have thought having mature, settled, adult friends was lame, now I really value my friendships with them because they have life experience to offer me for what lays ahead.
1. “All These Things Will Happen in Reverse if You Move Home”
Since moving abroad last year I’ve only been home once, and it was for two weeks around my one year departure anniversary, so I’m not sure exactly what to expect when I do finally make the move home. The biggest aspect of reverse culture shock I experienced when visiting home was how overwhelming it was to hear English again. My ears were freaking out as suddenly there was a constant pouring in of the English language from all directions. Rather than just the passing conversation with a coworker or a friend in a bar, it was being spoken by everyone, and as my brain processed it, I couldn’t help but wonder, why was everyone talking about such stupid unimportant topics? When I arrived at the airport in Los Angeles, my senses went into overdrive as they fought to all process the information coming from loud speakers, the flashing screens of information, the bustling crowds of people around me, all pushing and grunting their way to the luggage pick up, and the signs directing me what to do next. I was sure my brain was going to explode from actually comprehending the world I was in. It was the ease of communication that really caught me off guard, and I’m sure most people who return home after living in a foreign country experience this shock as well.
Moving abroad is an adventure that presents new challenges everyday. Never are they impossible to overcome, and the satisfaction that is gained from accomplishing something that at first seemed difficult is priceless. I hope that every expat and traveler is able to view their experiences as positively as I have. Living abroad is an opportunity that few get to experience, and making the most of your time is the way to go.
Allie combined her love of foreign cultures, spontaneous adventures, working with children and art, and let it carry her to Thailand, where she worked as a kindergarden teacher. After finishing the year in Thailand, she moved to Japan, and currently works at an international preschool, where she started the school’s first blog. Her blog, Blue Eyed Sensei, documents a foreigner’s experience in a Japanese school. She documents her other adventures at Taking Up Your Precious Time.