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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Nous Restons Unis (United We Stand)

There I was standing in solidarity amongst my French friends as we gathered together to mourn a tragedy. For me, it was an attack on Paris and on humanity, but for them it had the added element of being an attack on home. We all felt a sense of loss, but the drive, the history and the emotion behind it varied. No one’s emotions are ever less than another’s, but they are, by nature, inherently different. I was standing in the crowd. It was an almost out of body experience. I was part of the moment but a bystander as well. I glanced around. Thousands had gathered. A sea of voices surrounded me, but they were speaking a language I only know pieces of. Sometimes when I spend time with my French friends, I jokingly remind them to speak in english (side note-very rarely is this necessary…they are all incredibly thoughtful in this way, always opting for their second language so I can speak my first). This day, however, was not a day for them to make adjustments for me. It was a day for me to just be. I could pick up words here and there, but only a few. Someone sang a beautiful rendition of the French national anthem. People sang with her.I didn’t know the tune or the words. But somehow that was ok. I was just being. Being a part of a moment that was far bigger than any individual. Bigger than any country. It was a moment where the world was coming together, I thought. Coming together in response to an attack that was meant to tear us apart.

A year ago I think that moment would have been very different for me. A year ago I did not personally know anyone from France. Today I do. I know amazing, incredible women who, like me, have left their homes on a grand adventure to Australia. What brought us to Australia may be different, and we each have unique personalities, histories and stories, but it is these very differences, and the celebration of them that brings such a richness to every shared moment between us. Today I know people from France. I have friends who spent the day contacting everyone they could to see if their friends and family had survived. I can’t even begin to imagine what that felt like.

When I found out about the attacks, I suddenly felt homesick. Overwhelmingly homesick. I just wanted to be back with my family. Then came a pang of guilt. I’m wishing to return home to the safety of my country and family and yet I think about how my friends here must feel. Their home is not a place of safety at the moment. A rush of emotion takes me back to the feeling I had after 9/11. You can never truly compare two tragedies. They were entirely different. But then again, in their most basic sense, they are entirely the same in that they both compromised peoples’ sense of security. There was an immediate loss of safety following 9/11. That day, no American felt truly safe. We fought off fear, we stayed strong, and we persevered, but in that moment, home was not safe. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the feeling after November 13th is similar to me. The world was attacked, humanity was attacked, and for the French specifically, their home was attacked. Fear will be fought off, the people will stay strong, and they will persevere, but this day will never be forgotten- nor should it be.

While I say the moment would be different had I not known anyone from the country, I don’t think it would be any less impactful. I don’t think you have to be directly affected to experience the devastation of an event of this magnitude. This attack was coordinated. It was meticulously planned and expertly carried out. It was disastrous. And, sadly, it is not unique. Terrorism and terrorist attacks seem to be more and more commonplace. This attack was in Paris. There was another in Beirut. The attacks could be anywhere. It becomes less and less about the where, what and how and more about the who and why. No, not even who to blame…who are they attacking? And why?

Say what you will about the president of the United States, but this quote rang true to me:

“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

–Barack Obama

They aren’t just attacking France or Beirut, they are attacking the the values people hold most dear. The bombs and gunfire struck Paris, but the aftershock has hit the entire world. And the response from the world in the wake o this travesty was overwhelming. Around the globe, landmarks, buildings, media, and Facebook profiles lit up in support of France. In support of the people. In support of peace.

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So on Monday, November 16th, Melbourne organized a peaceful gathering for the French community and supporters. Federation square was set up, guards were in place (just in case) and the French community (as well as official representatives) came together to mourn for the lives lost, not just in France, but around the world. One by one speakers shared their thoughts on the tragedy. Some highlighted the loss of life, others detailed the events, but the all-encompassing message of the night was clear: We will not live our lives in fear. We are one world united.

 

After the speakers, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” played…and for a few minutes, we all just listened. For me, the lyrics rang truer than any other time I’ve heard them.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”

As the official part of the program ended, one of the most poignant moments of the night began. The community joined hands forming a circle and slowly, one by one, people walked to the center and laid down tokens, flowers, candles, shirts and photos in remembrance of the lives lost.

image3Aside from the gentle music in the background, the only sound in the entirety of Federation Square (a city center spot normally abuzz with daily happenings) was the soft clapping as people laid down their offerings. For a moment, time stood still. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of.

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By the reactions of those walking through the circle, you knew who had lost a loved one. There was one man in particular who broke down completely. I don’t know his story (he was interviewed so maybe at some point it will be released) but in that moment, the details of his story didn’t matter. We all knew. We all felt it. And it was heart breaking.

The emotional crescendo of the evening was when a man walked into the center of the circle and lifted high a shirt with #notafraid written on it. I can’t remember if the symbol above the words was the Eiffel tower or the French flag, but in that moment the words spoke louder than any image. The crowd erupted in cheers. It was the loudest moment of the night, and a beautiful end to the evening.

Overall, to me, it was an experience that was respectful to the community, mournful of the loss felt by all, and yet it was permeated by this sense of strength and unity. In that moment, we were one people. Race, religion and country were all secondary to the one thing we all share: a sense of humanity.

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** Disclaimer– The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. I don’t pretend to know or explain how this event impacts anyone but myself. All pictures were shared with permission from my lovely French friends.**

 

 

 

Expat Experiences: it’s not all kangaroos and koalas

Australia really is breathtaking. There are sights, animals, sounds and smells here that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. It feels like every day is a learning experience, and I am like a sponge soaking in every piece of this culture and lifestyle. It is thrilling, but it is also a challenge. Some are smaller than others, and most of them have lead to positive changes in my lifestyle and outlook, but they are obstacles to overcome, nonetheless.

The rhythm of this city goes against every instinct I have. The cars are not just on the “other side of the road,” everything is. You don’t only have to learn to look right before left when crossing the road, you have to learn to always walk left. And oh yeah, when you walk over to those escalators, the one you think is up is down. I can’t tell you how many near collisions I’ve had with people because as soon as I stop thinking about where I’m walking, my feet wander me over to the right.

Because I am from the US, I am living a day ahead of everyone I know and love. It’s something I’m mostly use to, but that doesn’t make it easier. It means after about 3-4pm my time, everyone I know stateside is down for the count asleep in bed. The upside of this is when I wake up my phone is always abuzz with messages and notifications because the other side of the world has already lived half of their day. For me, birthdays happen “Twice,” and the day I live them is not the day my friends and family live them. It’s confusing for me, but also kind of fun. I called my dad twice this year. Once when I had his birthday and the next when he did. (He jokingly asked me how his birthday was going for me)

I have no car here, so I walk most places except when I take a tram. This is great for health and exercise, but also changes the lifestyle a bit. I have to allow more time for things like grocery shopping. Suddenly a trip to the store is a bit of an ordeal (even though it is close by) because it takes time. I can also only buy what I can carry so unlike in the states where I could load up my car once a week, here I end up at the store 2-3 times because I can only fill up my backpack. Luckily for me, in general not having a car isn’t an issue here because their public transport is so widespread and efficient. Some trams get delayed and during peak hours your commute will take longer, but the system overall is quite good.

Most stores here close at 5pm (except on Thursday, Friday and Saturday I think). The grocery stores stay open a bit later, but any regular shopping you need to do needs to happen before 5pm. This isn’t as big of a deal as I’m used to banks and postal offices closing at 5pm stateside, but when you are in need of the occasional random item, you have to plan your day around it. For instance, we were due our first bit of rain here since I arrived and I needed a backpack cover before the next day. I had to take off from school early in order to get to the shop before it closed. For the most part, though, the store times don’t affect everyday life, as the only stores you really need to visit after 5pm are usually the grocery stores.

The running joke at my Uni is when something goes wrong to say “Welcome to VU” (Victoria University). It’s a joke, but with a lot of underlying truth. I’m not sure if it is nationwide, but there just seem to be a lot of barriers at VU to setting things in motion. For instance, I am teaching tonight (a lab to Masters students), but they haven’t put through my employment paperwork because I am missing a tax file number (their equivalent of a SSN). Since I am on a student visa, I am not allowed to get a TFN until I have a student ID. I am not allowed to enroll at VU until March 2nd. It’s a bit of a mess. So I will teach tonight without a school email, ID card, or access key. I’ll be paid for everything in a month or so when they can put all the paperwork through, but it’s just a bit messy, isn’t it? It can be frustrating, but for the most part I just choose to respond to the mess with a smile and a chuckle because, let’s face it, nothing I say or do is going to change it, so might as well keep calm, cool and collected.

The internet here is equivalent to when the US has a hurricane rolling through and the connection gets spotty. Well, wait, even then if we have power we typically have internet. Hmm. Ok, it’s equivalent to the days of dial-up internet. Sometimes you have great speed, and sometimes you just walk away from your computer and amuse yourself for 5 minutes while the page, document, picture or video loads. Other times the internet works fine and you don’t notice anything except for that fact that you can’t watch anything in the US. As with anything though, there are workarounds,and I just end up watching more of the free TV here. Australia’s free TV is extensive compared to the US. Granted, I’d say that from I’ve seen on free TV, 70% of the shows are either american or a direct remake of an american show, but everything is better with an accent right?

Then there’s this whole business of starting completely over and not knowing anyone outside of the one family I followed over here. It makes for a lot of nights hanging out at my townhouse, but it’s given me a chance to explore solo. And being alone has never really bothered me. For the 7 months before I moved here I lived alone in an apartment and I quite enjoyed it…but there I could always call up a friend for dinner or a chat, and here I don’t quite have that yet. Time is the only remedy for creating a life here, but it is certainly hard not to be impatient.

So there you have it folks– the everyday struggles of an American expat down under. I love it here. I’m glad I came and excited for this adventure. Everyday there is something new and challenging, but I enjoy rising above. It’s easy to share the adventure side of life (and often times more exciting to read about), but today I wanted to share the challenges, because as fun and exciting as Australia is, it presents obstacles everyday, just like anywhere else in the world. Sorry folks, it’s not all just kangaroos and koalas here (but they are pretty awesome!).

Cheers!

P.S. Don’t the sunsets here make up for everything else?
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How you going?

The language here is mesmerizing to me. It’s so familiar and yet so foreign. I’ve mentioned the Aussie’s love of all things abbreviated previously, but it goes even further than that. Even words that are the same, are sometimes pronounced differently (putting emphasis on different syllables and such). There’s a rhythm to they way they talk and it feels like even though the language is the same, they are marching to a beat that I just haven’t learned yet.

I am starting to feel more in sync with the rhythm of the city though. My confidence is growing and I’m pulling out my phone’s gps mapping app less and less. I still look both ways at all road crossings (both ways at least twice), but I’m starting to recognize which way the cars are coming.

My roommate taught me how to use the grill, giving me even more cooking options, and today I got tutorials on a few more of the house appliances. We are trying to fit everything in before she takes off for the US in two days.

In another step towards independence, I purchased a bike today for my daily commuting. The Uni is only a few miles from where I live, and while the trams are super convenient, they are quite expensive (7 dollars a day). I try to tell myself that back stateside I was spending close to $200 a month between insurance and gasoline for my car, but even so spending 7 bucks a day for a ride I can do just as fast (if not faster) on my bike seems silly.

Anyway, I really like my new bike.

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And I got a snazzy helmet to go with it:

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It was a fairly large expense, but I wanted to be sure to get something that was reliable and would last. Without a car, this bike is my main mode of transport. My roommate took me for a ride around to show me the area on two wheels. It was incredibly intimidating because here in Oz it is illegal to ride on the sidewalks, so I’m being thrust into the chaos of driving, with only two wheels and no metal surrounding me.

There are loads of bike paths in the area, but to get to any of them you have at least some road travel. It’s also oftentimes faster to just ride the roads (which typically have bike lanes) because the paths are out along the rivers. For me, however, speed is the least of my worries and I plan to stick to quiet roads that get me to calm bike paths. Luckily my Uni is right off the river and my home is also very close to the river so I can take a longer, more roundabout commute with little road travel.

The other excitement (I use that word loosely) of the day was finding a GIANT (Aussie sized) spider in my bathroom.

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It’s hard to tell in the picture, but it’s body was probably the size of a nickel to a quarter. Ashley and I removing it was not the most graceful venture, but we got the job done.

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Yes, he went for a swim. No, I don’t feel bad. Needless to say after that I have been watching where I step even more closely.

Speaking of scary animals, the other day at the Uni I went to an international student orientation where we were inundated with tons of information. Overall they presentations were fairly helpful, but one in particular caught everyone’s attention- the life guard (life saver). She started out the presentation saying something along the lines of “now even though we had that event yesterday, shark attacks are NOT common.” Needless to say, that piqued everyone’s interest. Apparently earlier this week someone died from a shark attack in Northern New South Whales (not near me). Luckily the state of Victoria is not known to be a shark area. It helps that most of the close by water access is to the bay and not the open ocean as well. She repeated again and again that as far as water safety goes, the area we are in is about as good as it gets as even the jellyfish aren’t venomous. PHEW.

Aside from that I’ve just been trying to get sorted at the Uni. Everything moves at a rather slow pace here, and I’ve actually adapted ok so far. Somehow I’ve managed to not get overly frustrated. Comparison can be a killer here so I’m trying to avoid it entirely. Of course for purposes of this blog I’m obviously highlighting some differences between Oz and the States, but for the most part I just go with it and accept it as the new norm. I even caught myself absentmindedly throwing out some Aussie phrases.

The standard greeting here is “how you going,” which is their version of “how are you,” and EVERYONE says it. For the first few days I just smiled and said “good thanks,” but recently I found myself spouting back good how you going. Every time I leave out the “are” I feel like somewhere across the world my English major mother is cringing.

That’s all from OZ folks…