I was going to talk about how being an expat made me a better person with tongue in cheek. But as I started thinking about it I realized that my experience as an expat living in several different counties, really did make me a better person. Here’s how:
- Patience. I’m starting here because learning patience has been my biggest life lesson so far and living abroad has been my greatest teacher
As many people living in developing or Latin countries will testify, things just don’t get done on time, if at all. Particularly, but by no means limited to, government offices.
At the beginning of my expat stint, I would naively sail into a visa office with everything I needed, and more, and expect to sail right out again, mission accomplished. Not. The waiting was endless, and then adding insult to injury, I’d have to come back again the next day.
I soon learned to bring a book I really, really liked and devote the better part of my day to reading. As soon as I shifted my expectations, I was fine and patience prevailed. So lowering my expectations to be more in line with the reality of my host country was a crucial piece of learning.
- Letting go of control. Here’s another big one, particularly if you’re a control freak like me. In my home country, the US, if I want something like my phone bill addressed, and if I persevere, speak to a supervisor, and am nice but firm, more often than not I get what I want. And yes, I do know that the US is particularly service oriented, but I only learned this as an expat.
In other countries where I’ve lived, Costa Rica, France and India this has not been the case. First, even getting anyone on the phone is a major feat, and supervisor? Forget it, they either don’t exist or are not “on the floor.”
So I learned that I could rant and rave and yell and scream or not, but nothing would happen anyway. I had no control. So I began to choose ‘not’ and my life improved. “Different culture” became my new mantra, and I would say this to myself many times a day.
- Respect for other people’s values. I am by nature a respectful person, or so I thought, before I lived abroad. I never had given any thought to how much our values were culturally determined.
For example, I believed, like many people in western cultures, that lying was a bad thing to do. Soon after I moved to India I became friends with an Indian woman who was in an abusive relationship with a Western man. I was trying to get her to see that this was not normal behavior in Western culture, and that this guy was basically a creep and she should leave him.
After a few weeks, she told me she was going on a religious pilgrimage and would be back in 2 weeks. While she was gone, another friend told me that friend number 1 was traveling with the abusive boyfriend. I was shocked! Who lies to their friends?
When she returned I confronted her about this and said that my friends and I don’t lie to each other. She said, “Really? Not even if you know what you’re telling them will hurt them?” She knew I would be upset that she was traveling with her boyfriend and wanted to spare me worrying. In her culture, not upsetting your friend trumped lying.
I never would have believed that something as supposedly clear-cut as lying would be up for grabs. But when I was able to see it through her eyes , I could respect her decision.
I could go on and on and maybe will in another post, but learning patience, letting go of control, and developing a respect for other peoples’ values that are in direct opposition to mine have been great benefits from living abroad. And they continue to serve me now that I’ve repatriated. What are some of the ways living abroad has made you a better person? I’d love to hear from you.