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…

Turkey Day in Oz

Being an expat is exciting. Every day has some element of “newness” to it. Even today. Even ten months into this whirlwind of an adventure I find something new each day. There are the lunchtime debates surrounding the proper way to eat a sausage (why do they not like hotdog buns here??), the horrible screeching sound some of the birds here “sing,” the highly suggestive ice cream bar commercials, the animal character adorned icy pops, the tongue twister worthy outer suburb names, and so on and so forth. It’s all new. It’s still new. And as fun as it is…it’s also challenging.

For every new discovery, there’s an unfamiliarity. There’s no history, experience or memory associated with at least half of the things I’m experiencing here. Which is great! Talk about a crash course in broadening your horizons. Consider me officially dunked in the proverbial pool of cultural awareness. It is hard though. The best way to describe it is like being on the outside of a constant stream of inside jokes. Only the jokes aren’t jokes–they are a candy. And they aren’t called candy. They are lollies. And then when you go to share your “insider information” on your country’s oddities, there are blank stares and you become very aware of the fact that you are an American. And you are not in America.

I’m sharing this not to make the expat experience seem less exciting than it is, because, as I said, it’s pretty exciting. I just wanted to shine some light on the other side of things. Sometimes we get so caught up in sharing the new and exciting that the whole experience loses some of it’s authenticity. Hopefully by shedding some light on the challenges associated with this expat life, the other moments are able to shine just a little brighter and carry a bit more weight. Take Thanksgiving, for example…

This was my second thanksgiving that I spent without my Papi who passed away last year, and my first without any of my family. Let me take a second to say how blessed I know I am to have had 25 years of never missing a thanksgiving meal with my family. I was so worried about spending this time of the year away from home because I have been completely spoiled with love, memories and amazing food on thanksgiving for 25 years of my life. I am very thankful to say that absolutely nothing changed this year. Well. Sort of.

I am in Australia, not the US. I was homesick for the first time since I got here. I spent my week working at Uni rather than sitting at home with family. I had to track down a turkey. When they only had frozen ones (and TINY 4kg ones at that), I had to thaw it out over the course of a week. I actually had to COOK the turkey, and not sleep in while my mom or Nana did the work. I had to bake the pies and organise the food, drinks, dishes and people. I had to plan ahead and do a grocery shop at the only american food store in Melbourne to collect a few “key” turkey day items. I had to host the meal outside because I had 16 guests and a small apartment.It was work. It took time. And I could stop here and leave thanksgiving as this, but let me back up and tell it properly.

I am in Australia, not the U.S. So every time I spoke about thanksgiving, everyone just got really excited about this whole holiday they never experienced. Expectations were high, and it honestly made my holiday mean a bit more to me to have so many people so excited about it too. I was really homesick. There’s no way to sugarcoat that one. It was a hard week and in years past, the week of thanksgiving is the easiest most relaxing week because you just sit at home with family!

I did have to find a turkey, but when I did and realised they were only 4kgs, my other American friend here stepped up to cook a second turkey. Then I ended up grabbing another quarter turkey. So all in all, thanks to Australia and their teeny tiny turkeys, I set a new personal record for number of turkeys at one thanksgiving at 2.25.

At home the pies are one of the highlights of the meal (duh), so I was very nervous to take on this task. Luckily I didn’t do it alone. One of my best friends here spent a very late friday night baking pies with me. It was quite a task because the ovens here are 1)in celsius (boo!) 2) are fan forced (which just really destroys any confidence I have in my cooking). I also did not make the process any easier by proclaiming the pies burnt every 5 minutes. I was entirely obsessed with “oven watching”–I swear that night it might as well have been my television. You know you have a good friend when there are flowers, cookies, wine and patience in response to my complete and utter pie meltdown. They turned out delicious by the way…

I did have a long trek to the one and only American food store, but, as is the theme of this story, I wasn’t alone in that either. Not only did one of my guy friends drive me down to the shop, but he even walked away with a few goodies too (though I did advise against the twinkie purchase). ha. Here are some of the items only available at the American food store!

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He also took on the ultimate thanksgiving challenge by tackling the stuffing. After an awkward conversation about what stuffing ACTUALLY was, he emphatically took on the task. (when I said stuffing he thought he was going to make what was going into the bird. I had to explain that in America stuffing is a side dish and does not necessarily get shoved into the turkey. He then started calling it dressing, which was equally confusing, but I’d heard the term before so I was convinced at this point we were at least talking about the same thing)

Stuffing is my absolute FAVORITE part of thanksgiving. He was well warned of the importance of his mission, and I’m proud to say he surpassed all expectations. He left the recipe up to me, so I went non traditional and assigned him a beer bacon and cheese stuffing. That dish disappeared immediately on thanksgiving. So good.

Back to prep. I did have to cook the turkey. There was no getting out of that one. Luckily another friend came over to cook his banoffee pie (never heard of this before, but it was another fan favourite) the morning of thanksgiving (we celebrated on a saturday), so he got roped into turkey baking as well. I played my whole “it’s burning, thanksgiving is ruined” game again for a while, and ended up with a beautiful turkey. I have no idea why I didn’t take a final pic of the turkey, but here’s the quarter turkey (a quarter of a very large bird) and the turkey carving.

Sixteen guests meant the party was not going to be a traditional sit down because my apartment is way too small. Instead we moved the party down riverside. It was perfect. The weather was beautiful, we set up on a picnic table, brought out eskys (coolers), and waited for the guests. Everyone really came together for the event, bringing a dish and drink to share. As is traditional, all guests were required to share a thing they were thankful for before the meal.

As cheesy as it was, we all shared some semblance of a statement about being thankful for each other. But you know, I hesitate to call that cheesy. In that moment, that’s all that came to mind. All week I had been so stressed about not being home and then about making this meal perfect and as I was standing there all I could think about was how thankful I was for that moment. For those people. For that day and memory.

So you see, in a lot of ways this Thanksgiving was nothing like the last 25. I am in Australia. I’m away from family. There wasn’t one giant turkey. I wasn’t seated around a huge table. I wasn’t home. But you know what? Nothing important changed.  I have been completely spoiled with love, memories and amazing food on thanksgiving for 26 years of my life.

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