Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Adapt to Living Abroad: Part 1

One comment I frequently get from family, friends, and acquaintances about living abroad is that I must be so brave. Honestly, the comment puzzles me because I don't feel particularly brave. Granted, I enjoy living in different countries. I find it exciting and stimulating. But I also think that there are skills you can develop to help you enjoy the experience. Here are some of the skills I think are essential to not only survive in a foreign country, but thrive.

1) Accept that life will be different in a foreign country.
I know it sounds silly to say that because you probably all know that. But understanding that on an intellectual level is not the same as accepting it. Life in a foreign country does not have to be the same as your home country to be good. You will experience differences all the time. You have a choice when you acknowledge those differences. You can allow those differences to oppress you or you can acknowledge them, adjust to them, and move on with your life.

2) Accept that you can dislike (even hate) things about the foreign country, but still enjoy living there.
There were things that drove me crazy about Sweden. But I loved living there. The same can be said for Saudi Arabia. There are some things that disturb me deeply. But regardless of those issues, I still like Saudi Arabia. I guess I can still enjoy life in Saudi Arabia because I know my time here isn't permanent.

3) Take the opportunity to explore the country, learn some history, and learn some of the culture.
You need context when you live in a foreign country. Cultural practices which can be very baffling make more sense when given context. For instance, while I don't love wearing the abaya, understanding the context behind it--religious, historical, and cultural, at least gives me some background. Sometimes things about Saudi culture seems so contradictory and confusing. It helps me immensely when I place those confusing things in the scope of the short history of the nation of Saudi Arabia (which is actually a relatively new country--though a very old culture.) Consider this: in your own country there are things that would be difficult to understand if you didn't already know the context. You have to learn the context when you live in another country.

4) Try the local foods.
You don't have to try everything, and you most certainly don't even to have to like what you try, but do TRY some of the local foods. Local foods actually tell a lot about a country's history and culture. For example, many of the food traditions in Sweden stem from religious practices during the Middle Ages. When Sweden changed from Catholicism to the Lutheran church, they still retained many of the food traditions. When I eat pea soup with pancakes on Thursday, I'm actually eating a bit of history and culture. The same can be said for food in Saudi Arabia. The food reflects the agriculture, trading, and historical practices of the region. Even the food in the U.S. reflects interesting things about our culture: the multi-cultural nature of the country, historical practices that stemmed from huge social changes following World War 2, and the role that big corporations play in our diet.
So consider trying the local food as a means to understand the culture better.

I'll continue this series in later posts.

What skills have you developed traveling or living abroad? What do you think is essential to not only surviving but thriving in a different country?


  1. I really enjoyed ready this and I TOTALLY agree with everything you said about the accepting, taking opportunities & experiencing all that we can in any foreign country. Everywhere my husband & I travel, we are learning, seeing & experiencing something new & sometimes exciting. Even here in Riyadh we discover something new every day.
    I am always telling my family, my friends and anyone who asks about my life in Riyadh that regardless of where you live in the world, life really is what you make it.

    Thanks for sharing,

  2. I totally agree to your points, I would also like to add also that you need to learn some of the common expressions, vocablury of the country u are living in. It is funny from an Egyptian who is speaking Arabic to say so. But even though I speak Arabic I found words in KSA that mean something totally different than my country . Like for rent in my country means 'lileegar' in KSA, for rent means liltaqbeel and if u translate this word literally in the dictionary it means ' for kissing'. When I was in the States last summer, people working in the shop, make a certain sign to say the shop is closed. This same sign in Egypt means I will kill u! So I think it is important to have a little background of the common words, signs and expressions of each country:)

  3. Dee 9th July 2012July 9, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    This is very interesting Tiffancy and so true. We have to be accepting of the new culture whilst not necessarily liking everything. I also found it useful to focus on all the good things every day and there are lots to be found.

  4. Culture shock is a funny thing. In the 70's when my family moved to Naples, Italy, my parents were given a cultural orientation class by the US gov. The "warnings" from the class terrified them and they lived the next two years in fear of being mugged or cheated. While I, as a clueless teenager, had a great time in Naples oblivious to the potential dangers.

    On a more local note, as a child I thought each new state we moved to every 2 years in the Air Force was an exotic adventure. New accents, new foods, new sights to see, changes in plants and animals and weather. I wonder if America has become more homogenous in the past 30 years? Is regionalism gone and today every grocery store, every mall, looks exactly the same regardless of what US state you're in?

  5. I've seen how fluent English speakers have much easier time being an expat almost anywhere in the world. Even if they cannot speak the local language, they can easily make friends and receive support within the international community. Those who don't speak English have to struggle more to get used their new life. They end up having to focus on learning English (more than the local language) in order to expand their limited circle of friends from their own countries (i.e. Japanese, French...)

    1. Totally agree with everything what I read. My point of view and my advise to all newcomers (though not long ago I was a newcomer as well): we can not change traditions, people, style of life of the country we are in (and we don't need it), but we can change our attitude to the situation, take it like an amazing adventure and enjoy our staying wherever we are. :)

  6. Thanks for sharing such tips on how to help someone live in a foreign country. One must accept that a lot of changes will occur, some are easy and some are not. Treating these changes as challenges to improve one's self will certainly help.

    Rachal Dworkin @ Best Law Associates