The first year living overseas is both an exciting and a challenging time. Life is filled with almost daily “aha” and “aw shit” moments. Dealing with these moments is both the best and the worst thing about living in another country. In our first year living overseas, these moments have taught us as much, or more, about ourselves as they have about Ireland. From learning the local history and how/why things work to making new friends, much of the first year living abroad is spent just getting to know the place.
Small things such as switching from standard to metric, and buying petrol instead of gas, are everywhere. But these are small potatoes compared to figuring out how insurance, voting, work permits, school for the kids, and other higher order programs function. Yet all of these impact daily life and happiness. Even if your day is spent dealing with “little things”, having to constantly adjust your way of thinking and filter your responses appropriately can be exhausting. It’s how you deal with things at the end of those days that tells the tale of you and your new country. In these moments, how we perceive the things happening to us dictates how the system will react to us.
Getting mad and blaming all those “foreigners” and their “screwed up” country prevents us from seeing the people (or the country) for who/what, and most importantly, why/how they really are. No country on Earth was founded simply to piss you off. The people in your new home want to live peaceful, prosperous lives where they can raise happy, well-adjusted kids, and realize their dreams. Somehow, for some reason, the way that they make sausage, install plumbing, and hand out voter registration cards works for them.
If you figure out why/how it works for them, you’ll begin to understand something of the national character. Look to their history, their former leaders, and their previous struggles to find out about the “national character”. I’m sure I’ll get a few love notes and happygrams for suggesting that Ireland (or any country) can be reduced to a single set of beliefs, and “character”, but I do believe that every country has a national character. What moves the people to action? What is their “line in the sand”? What won’t they tolerate, and, more importantly, why? Answers to these questions are key to understanding any country. People will tell you anything to your face, but the true collective character of a country is what they do. Once you start to get a handle on this, everything gets easier.
How you react to that character is entirely up to you. This is your own personal version of being judged not on what you say, but on what you do. Your personal measure in your new home emerges as you make choices about what’s important to you. Decisions about what you take with you, and what you replace after you arrive speak to your true values. Are you willing to rethink your notions of “job” and a “career” to avoid the work permit hustle? What comforts of home do you ask friends to mule through customs when they visit? Answers to these questions are vital and say things about you.
But the bigger questions, and the more revealing moments come when you analyze your reaction to not having those things in your life. Do you freak out and pitch a fit, or do you embrace change? When trying to comprehend both your own character and the national character of your new home, the fundamental question that must be asked and answered is, ‘what is the bare minimum needed to be happy?’ What do you need? What do the locals need (and how have they gone about getting it)?
At the end of my/our first year, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’m not an “expert” at any of this. I’m not sure such a thing exists. But we have picked up a couple of practical tips that have helped us to get by.
Tips For The First Year Abroad:
- Use your hobbies and activities from home to meet people and make friends. As you ferret out the shops and clubs that cater to your interests you’ll meet people with similar interests and get to know the area. This also helps you feel connected to home, and helps to beat the homesick blues.
- Use local coupons and discount programs (Groupon, Living Social, etc.) to inexpensively get out and try restaurants and activities in your new home.
- Avoid using a personal car as much as possible. Cabs, busses, subways, and trains are excellent ways to meet locals and get to know the area. And, more importantly, where public transit lines (bus, subway, etc.) have been implemented, and how often they run in certain areas, is a key indicator of national character/values. These things speak to what attractions, populations, and neighborhoods have been deemed worthy of societal investment.
If you want to live in another country, plan on spending your first year getting to know the local character, and coming to grips with your own. At the end of our first year I can tell you that the expense has more than been repaid by the experience, and the hard work has made us stronger.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Seeing the Sights