Three life lessons learned from living abroad

Every stage in life, ever chapter in our own journey’s book offers many opportunities to learn and grow. I think I’ve always embraced the power of knowledge, but it wasn’t until I lived abroad that I truly embraced the power of self awareness. When you live abroad you are forced to confront a wealth of insecurities that you probably didn’t even know you had. While creature comforts are ever changing as we move through life (new cars, new houses, new city, new school), nothing strips them away quite as suddenly and completely as moving across the world. I’ve learned many many things about my new country, my home country, the research world, etc, but some of the most valuable things I’ve discovered are just about myself and how I interact with my world. So here we go, three of the life lessons I’ve learned since living abroad.

  1. The way things are done at home isn’t THE way of the world. Adjust your perspective because it’s the only thing you can control.

This seems like a funny one, but hear me out. I spent my first 6 months in Australia comparing absolutely EVERYTHING to how things happen in North Carolina. It was as if my little state (and more specifically my 40 square miles of “home territory” within it) was the standard by which everything “should be done.” Because of this, I initially spent a lot of time being pretty frustrated. The pace is slower, the customer isn’t king, and pretty much every word can be shortened to something ending in “o” (ambo, servo, salvo, avo, etc). The things that week one are hilariously entertaining, quickly become infuriatingly frustrating when they constantly conflict with your expectations. So I adjusted. This is the reality. There’s no “should, would could,” it just is. And you know what? That mindset shift changed everything. All of a sudden I started seeing some of the things that were actually better here than home. That slower pace forced me to find more of a balance. Losing the “customer is king” policy forced me to find a patience with the service industry (that to this day I still battle with, but I’m working on it), and all the Aussie slang has just made for some hilarious moments.

 2. My identity isn’t entirely tied to being an American, and it’s not my job to defend it.

One of my biggest struggles when I moved was finding out how much I unconsciously identified with my country. So much so that I personally internalized any and all negatively charged comments toward Americans (and trust me, there were plenty being passed around). I felt that since I was a part of the stereotyped country, I was being branded with the judgments being cast on my nation. Because of this, I found myself in this constant frenzied state of defending my country. It was painful, emotional and soul crushing because I turned every discussion into something personal. It took probably a year (and a lot of self work with patient guidance and understanding from a friend) for me to break free. I don’t mean to say that I don’t identify as American. Far from it. I embrace it, body and soul because where I grew up and the culture that raised me has a profound impact on the way I think and how I first see the world. BUT, it does not entirely define my personhood. My country of origin isn’t the whole me and while the culture and stereotypes that envelop it it have passed through me, so have many other moments, memories and teachings. I am my own person. And I am American. Those things aren’t the same, but neither are they mutually exclusive.

 

3. Language can be one of the most powerful connectors. Learn it, use it, be thankful for it.

I never realized just how powerful a shared language was. A vast majority of my friends here in Australia are fellow expats, but mostly from non-english speaking countries. Literally the only reason we can communicate is because they decided to study a second language (English). How incredible is that? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved the idea of studying different languages. I continued my French studies all the way through college, but studying a language and living in that language are two entirely different things. One night I was out for dinner and drinks with four French girls. I remember having this intense feeling of guilt as we all sat around the table speaking English. All four of them would have had a much easier time speaking French, but they all went to their secondary language so that I could be included. It stands out in my mind as such a powerful moment of social inclusion and acceptance that resulted in this intense feeling of gratitude. I walked away determined to devote some more time to my second language (if you can call it that). Whilst I’ve studied it for years, without having a need for speaking it, my vocabulary has dropped to an infant level. I’m very self-conscious now that I’m trying to resurrect my lost language, but it’s a feeling I’m working to embrace. Language is an incredible tool and connector, and I want to have the ability to connect with another culture using the words they connect to innately. I’m headed to France to close out 2017, so the clock is ticking. 🙂

I plan to continue expanding upon these musings, but for now I think I’ve hit the highlights. Until next time…

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Mary and Mary…taking on the world one country at a time

While I wouldn’t say that I am particularly “well traveled,” I have had the opportunity to venture to a few foreign countries over my last couple decades. I’ve been to Chile (this only slightly counts since I was far too young to remember, but I heard stories), England, France (x2), Italy and now Australia. I think my European adventures have given me a good start, but I have a feeling I will be adding quite a few stamps to my passport over the next few years.

Perhaps what is more interesting than the number of countries I’ve visited (because, admittedly, it’s a relatively short list), is the people I’ve visited them with, or rather, the two people I’ve visited the most of them with.

My Nana and Papi always loved traveling. Ever since I can remember, they were always planning these grand adventures to new cities, states and countries. At one point or another, they stepped foot on all 7 continents and over 60 countries. Their travel stories and pictures are absolutely incredible. And what’s even more amazing was their passion for sharing the experience.

My first trip abroad (not counting Chile when I was only 2years old) was when I was 13 years old. My Nana and Papi had a plan to take each of their grandchildren in pairs to any two foreign cities of their choice for a week each (European ones preferably). My cousin Alex and I were the first up for the trip abroad, and I must say, I think it’s pretty incredible that my Nana and Papi kept their promise to the other grandchildren after dealing with two teenage girls for two straight weeks in foreign countries. Picking perhaps the most predictable, tourist-ridden destinations, my cousin and I ended up in London and Paris for our two weeks.

The trip was filled with inside jokes, laughter, whining, SO MANY photos, at least two crepes a day (in Paris), and memories that will last a lifetime. We returned to the states boasting to our fellow cousins about how there was no way they could ever top our trip. Afterall, we were the FIRST.

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While I wouldn’t say any of my cousins topped our trip, every adventure my Nana and Papi took the grandchildren on had its own special meaning to the travelers. There was another visit to Paris, along with a river cruise to Amsterdam, a flight to the Galapagos islands, and a couple other countries I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Beyond this initial trip to France with my Nana and Papi, I somehow convinced my Nana to be my travel buddy on a vacation to Italy one summer when I was in college. We spent months planning out our dream Italian adventure, and my Papi decided to let us ladies make the trip solo. We flew into Venice, travelled around Rome, and took a cruise along the Amalfi coast of Italy. On board we wined and dined (thanks Europe for that young drinking age), made friends, did daily tours through Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii, and I even became a certified scuba diver. Another amazing adventure with my Nana by my side.

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My other European travel experience was with my small family unit. My parents planned a month long vacation in France where we did all the non-touristy things by staying in two small towns in Southern Provence. We even rented homes within the towns, and spent our days amongst the locals, and our nights eating bread, olive oil and fresh meats. We traveled all around the South of France for two weeks. Surrounded by people whose English was only marginally better (sometimes) than our French, we endeavored (well, my dad and I did anyway) to speak only French. Since we had all studied French as our second language, having the opportunity to put this learning to use was an amazing experience. A couple weeks into our French adventure, my Nana (of course) and one of my cousins joined the family. We enjoyed another week and a half in France, hitting up Paris for my second time because, well, why not?

So you see, I have been very blessed with my travels. While each trip was uniquely special, every single one had one thing in common….or rather, one person in common. My Nana. Every country I’ve ever set foot in, she’s been there beside me.

Well, every country but one.

Australia has been my first trip abroad without any family, and perhaps more significantly, it is my first trip abroad without my Nana. Thankfully, however, our travel streak will soon be back to perfect. My Nana is due into Sydney Australia September 25th of this year, and I cannot wait.

Ever since I learned Australia was a possibility, my Nana and Papi had been planning to arrange a visit. My Nana’s “mum” was a native Aussie who moved to California for love early on in life, but left behind all her siblings in Sydney, Melbourne, and Tassie. While the older generation has passed on, my Nana has many cousins (my cousins twice removed) who now have children who all live in Australia. So me possibly moving to Australia gave my grandparents yet ANOTHER excuse to hop a flight to Oz. Unfortunately, my Papi passed away shortly after I finalized my decision to move here last year. He was so proud of my decision to pursue a PhD and even more so that I had chosen to earn it while living abroad. While I wish more than anything he was here to make the trip to Australia, I know he’d be so happy knowing my Nana and I are adding another country to our buddy travel check list.

Living abroad is an exciting adventure. It is a learning experience I wouldn’t trade for anything…but on those days when the homesickness hits a little harder than usual, it’s nice to know I only have a few more weeks before I will see someone who encompasses all that my home really is. We have conquered five countries together (counting the US, because, why shouldn’t that count?), and I am so excited to add my new home country, Australia, to that shared list. My friends think they’ve had enough to handle with this American Mary….wait ‘til they meet the American I’m named after!

25 days and counting until the Marys take on Australia. See you soon Nana

Happy 6 months!

I’ve been in this relationship 6 months now, and I think things are getting pretty serious. I know it’s still too early to make a long term commitment, but I think this could be the real thing. I see this lasting for at least four years. Sure, it has had its ups and downs, but what relationship doesn’t? We have our misunderstandings, but we are slowly working towards a mutual appreciation of our differences. Bottom line, Australia and I have hit our 6 month-a-versary, and I’d say for the most part, we are still in our honeymoon phase.

I know, I know, it was a bit of a “cheeky” start to a blog post, but how else do you blog about this kind of milestone. Maybe most people wouldn’t consider it a milestone…but for me, this is pretty big. Sure, I’ve traveled–I’ve been around the states a bit and over to Europe a couple times—but I’ve never LIVED in a different country. So living here for 6 months seems pretty big.

I’ve finally switched to quantifying my time here in months. For a while there I was treating this Australia move like new moms treat their baby’s age. You know what I’m talking about. When the baby is born it is one month old, 3 months old, 9months old, etc etc. Then they hit 1 year, but after that the om’s go back to months again. “How old is your baby?” “Oh 18 months.” What? I was always that person who wanted to just say NO. Your baby is one and a half YEARS. Move on! Why do moms do that? Do they think that somehow using the smaller unit makes the time seem more significant? Does it make the baby seem younger? Well, I can no longer judge these moms because this smallest unit of time description is EXACTLY what I did when I first got to Australia. At first it was days, and then weeks, and then for some inexplicable reason it stayed weeks well beyond 1 month, 2 month, etc. “How long have you been here?” “oh you know, like 12 weeks?” WHAT? Why am I saying this? I think it was because 1 month seemed like too long and 4 weeks felt like it more adequately described how new this life still felt. When I heard myself say 12 weeks out loud though, I realized I needed to suck it up and accept the fact that my move was no longer “new news.”

Still, I wouldn’t say Australia feels like “old news” to me just yet. It does, however, feel a bit like a home. It’s funny because I don’t feel like home here replaces home back in the states….I just feel like I now have two homes. When I went to the states in June, I was “going home” and when I came back to Oz, I was “coming home.” Home to me is where I can feel settled, safe, and at ease. While I never felt completely lost here, even when I first arrived, it’s not been until recently that I’ve actually felt settled.

You see, I’ve finally pieced together an every day norm here and it’s such a relief. I’ve made great friends, found a nice apartment, and I don’t actually need my google maps on 24/7. Don’t get me wrong, I do still miss pieces of home. Aside from the obvious family and friends aspect, I miss having people around me that just know the culture I grew up in. The people that know my state, my town, the weekend haunts, college sports….well, they are all thousands of miles away.I knew coming here that I was an international student (my acceptance letter clearly stated this), but I don’t think I truly understood what that meant until I arrived.

Being an international student, even in a country with the same language, is a challenge. It’s a fantastic, life altering, self-discovering adventure….but a challenge nonetheless. There you are seeing a country and its people for the first time, and you can’t help but to question every little saying, tradition, and norm because it’s all so new and different. No matter how “similar” countries are said to be, believe you me, when you get there you can’t help but to see the differences. While noticing the differences is beneficial and helps foster understanding of cultural variations, adapting and settling into a new country requires that you notice, but then look beyond them. Sure things aren’t the same as “home,” but does that actually make them worse? Or better? Or just….not what you’re used to. It’s all a matter of perspective really.

What is funny is that I’m not just gaining a new perspective on Australia. This experience has given me the opportunity to see my own country and culture through the eyes of non-Americans….and, to say it is enlightening would be a huge understatement. I won’t go into all of that in this post, as I will save that topic for its own post. For now I’ll leave this point by saying that I am very thankful to have found friends here who are open-minded enough to have real conversations about cultural diversities in a respectful manner that allows all sides to break through the pre-conceived notions we have of people from other countries.

So yeah. Australia and I are pretty serious. But I’ve got some budding relationships on the side with France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and the UK….Maybe I need some time to play the field. Maybe I’m just not a one-country kind of girl? Who knows what the future holds. All I can say for now is that this American girl has gone international. And she’s loving it.