About 10 years ago, I was still a teen. A group of Canadian volunteers came to South Africa on an exchange programme where they were placed in various NGO’s for a year where they could make a difference, absorb a new culture and experience the adventure.
There were some who engulfed themselves in the rich African culture- they braided their hair, had sleep overs in African homes, tried out the notorious taxi services, danced to the African beat. They would have certainly enjoyed a good meal of pap and marogo, or maybe a braai with some perfectly spiced boerewors and chakalaka. And when their year had ended they were heartbroken, enriched, enlightened and more developed than a year before. They loved their expereinces thoroughly.
On the other hand there was this one lady that I recall. She was painful, in agony, depressed and miserable. She drained those around her with her complaints and negativity. “Back home things are like this”, “back home this is better”, “back home the public transport is effecient”, “back home…back home …..back home”. She could not wait for the time to come for her to get back home. I actually think she left before her contract was up.
The differences between the above types of peeple are that those who enjoyed the adventure CHOSE to enjoy it. They chose to be POSITIVE. They CHOSE to make the BEST out of every situation they encountered and took it all in their stride. While the later CHOSE to be miserable, she CHOSE to look for the flaws and cracks in every situation. She CHOSE to leave one foot in Canada and the other one dragging to South Africa. If both your feet are in the same place, how can you be comfortable?
All these interns experienced similar things, the same culture and country but their outlooks were vastly different. And yet, hearing the two stories you may be certain they were sent to completely different areas. The incredible difference is the choice each made in how they would perceive to experience what they would.
Watching these interns as the year unfolded turned out to be one of the greatest lessons I would learn, a lesson that would teach me how to survive being an expat, where you become an unknown, you dive into something completely foreign. Its culture, its people, its rules and regulations, its norms and values. All very contrasting, some really frustrating, some extremely challenging from what feels normal and right to you.
I made the choice to make it work, to seek out its advantages, its pleasantries, its uniqueness and rise above the very challenges that would test me, break me and push my boundaries.
Now the expat life is not all rosy, as people back home assume. They assume you travel, spend, socialise, and live a life far beyond theirs. One of the greatest challenges is being away from family, especially in times of grief such as death, illness, etc. The other challenge is that in your home town you have established networks, a reptation and a name that poeple may know you and your capabilities by, whereas the expat needs to start from scratch to build up a reputation, and sometimes force themselves to get out there and unnaturally meet people, to form relationships.
However all these challenges are steps towards your own personal growth, pushing your own comfort zones, and seeing how much you can achieve without all the cushions padding you. It is an incredible feeling of achievement and sweetness.
You can choose to make your expat experience work for you for the duration you choose to be one. Find the fun, the adventure and the positive aspects because they are there if you allow yourself to find it. You may have to scratch beneath the surface but doing this is well worth it.