A world-travelling suitcase

The push for that jump into culture

You apply for the passport.  Attempt to cram your worldly possessions in 100 lbs (plus one carry on or personal bag).  Take off your shoes and belt in security.  Endure your coach seat between the wailing 2-year-old and sneezing aunt on the Boeing 747 like a saint (secretly hoping for an upgrade).  Drag your jet lagged mind through customs.  And find yourself in a world you’ve never been before.  Welcome.

Of course, travelling is not always this dire, but in the moment, it can feel like it.  However, my commentary is not about the journey, but rather, the destination. 

After spending nine months living as an expat in one country, and facing an indefinite amount of time in another, it begins to cross my mind exactly how I stay afloat in the face of culture shock.  This is not to say that each day is one in the salt mines, but I can comfortably say that at least once a week I find myself looking at something funny, noting that it’s “different.”  Different isn’t bad.  It simply is.  Some people adjust well to new cultures.  Others don’t.  If you’re one of the “others” here are 7 ways to keep your head above water:

1)      Music. Oh, I can praise the virtues of music.  It comes in so many forms with so many manifestations.  iPod.  MP3.  Computer.  iPad.  Phone.  It helps to ground a person, as well as listen to something familiar (and something in your language).  If you’re feeling stressed or maybe just a little lost; plug-in, tune up, and listen. 

2)      Cooking.  Maybe it’s just me – cooking is one of my passions – but when I’m feeling blue, it’s so nice to bake some chocolate-chip cookies or even a simple batch of popcorn.  If cooking is your thing, then scour the local markets for ingredients or their approximates.  This allows you to not only explore the local area, but also to get creative in the kitchen.  If you’re not culinarily inclined, at least pack a jar of peanut butter.  What we take for granted is pretty pricey in foreign countries, so it helps to B.Y.O.P.B.  Bread and jelly are pretty standard.  MmmHmmGood.  I would stop to celebrate U.S. holidays abroad with treats – apple and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, cookies for Christmas, cupcakes for Valentine’s Day, and so on.  Always an adventure to find replacements for ingredients!

3)      Routines.  When you go abroad for a long period of time, it’s customary to change your habits a bit.  A new haircut, a new favorite food.  Perhaps even a new love.  These things are good, because you have time to cultivate new facets to your personality.  However, if there’s something you did regularly before your new destination, stick to it.  Running.  Yoga.  Reading.  Blogging.  Writing in a journal.  Watching Mad Men.  It helps to follow something familiar in an unfamiliar place. 

4)      Social Media.  I’ve heard arguments for and against use of social media in different countries.  There are some who argue that one you should leave social media out of your new life to properly integrate and immerse yourself in the culture.  That works for some.  If you’re in the I-still-want-to-stay-connected-to-my-old-life group, then I would suggest keeping plugged in to social media.  Stay active in the lives of your friends back at home, whether through Skype, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, or whatever other social media you so choose. 

5)      The News.  Living in a country, especially one that is isolated from what you consider the civilized world, can put you in a bubble.  Don’t forget, there is a world out there.  Life goes on, even while you are not there.  While some news may not be urgent or pressing to you, it is helpful to know what’s going on at home.  It gives a sense of perspective.  This can be as simple as seeing if your favorite college sports team won, or as complicated as checking CNN or the NYT every morning for the latest and greatest (guilty). 

6)      Other Expats.  Take a look around you – are you the only expat there?  Are you the only English speaker?  There are places where expats gather, even if it means a 2-7 hour trip to get there.  Make it a practice to balance local friends with expats.  This can help you to meet other incredible people like you, to share stories of your experiences (not everyone at home is going to exactly understand what you’re going through), and to get away at times.   

7)      Treats.  Treat yourself.  If you’re living in a different country, chances are, you’re either living on a stipend, on budgeted savings, or you’ve got an expat pay (lucky you).  No matter the style of your budget – large or small, thrifty or loose – try to allocate a certain amount of money each month or week to treat yourself to something.  A bar of fancy chocolate.  A manicure.  A local sports match.  Kayaking in the local river.  Horseback tours.  An excursion.  A night at the cinema.  A fancy dinner.  Gelato.  Something that you would enjoy and that keeps you up, moving, and positive.   While I was abroad in my first country, I travelled out of the country a lot.  This was a long and very stressful travelling experience (all flights out of this country only left between midnight and 6 a.m., plus a train to get to the capital city, plus a layover, plus taxi).  I was usually looking at no sleep for 24+ hours.  So, when I would arrive in the capital city, I would always have money to buy the best gelato ever in the old town district before I went to the airport.  I was the perfect place to recoup after a grueling train ride and gather myself before my extensive flight schedule. 

Remember, it’s all about the mentality.  The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more you will feel comfortable in another culture.  The more self-conscious and nervous you believe you are, the more that will come across in your interactions with the culture.  The ideal is to strive for a good attitude – these seven tips are a means to give you a positive outlook.  That outlook is all you need to push you to take the jump into the deep water that is a different culture.