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August 03, 2012, Friday

Why live abroad?

The answer is obvious to those who have done it. Living abroad is a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and see many interesting places. Let me share a few points I have learned.

This past week I decided to take some time to do some sorting and filing and declutter my home. After all, less is good, isn’t it? Downsizing is easier said than done. Many of the things in my home are knick-knacks that have been given to me by students, friends and acquaintances I have met on my travels and in my work abroad.

As I worked my way through the stacks of cards, letters and things, many memories began to flood my mind. Of course, this slowed the process down. When I realized how long this job would take if I continued at the pace I was going, I set some strict ground rules for myself and tried to stick to them. By getting rid of things I had not really used for over two years -- you know, the excess baggage -- I began to feel like I did when I first moved overseas with two suitcases. I felt less cluttered. My home began to take on more of a calm retreat feel. I decided to journal the things I would get rid of or give away so the memory would remain even though the item was gone. This worked for me. You might want to try this approach, too.

Living abroad is not only an adventure but an opportunity to learn what you are really made of and discover just what is really important to you. You will probably find that some of those things you took for granted back home you can do without abroad. On the other hand, for me, some values I learned while growing up, such as driving and shopping etiquette and showing gratitude, are things I took for granted back home but miss overseas. Some of the challenges an expat faces when moving to a different country are learning to do the day-to-day routine, which includes errands and chores. For those of us who are of an independent nature, let’s face it, this can be hard. In the initial months it can be almost like being a child again and you have to learn how to do things the local way. It’s hard when you can’t really communicate and understand the language.

Having brown hair and blue eyes helped me not stand out when I lived in Glasgow. It was when I opened my mouth, the secret was out that I was a Yankee. Every culture has its own way of doing things. Even living in Scotland, I had a couple of initial adjustments to make. The first was getting used to the dry sense of humor such as Monty Python and Mr. Bean, and the second was drinking lots of tea with milk. In the 1980s coffee in the UK was not as common as it is today. When it comes down to it, most British people believe that the best response to every problem or disaster is to make tea. Death in the family? Loss of job? Missed the train? They put on the kettle and have some tea. I learned quickly living abroad to be open-minded. I found that I could not expect the UK or anywhere else to be exactly like home. Adjusting is the key. Your time abroad will go a lot smoother if you respect its ways and accept that you can learn from them. Staying positive with your new surroundings is important. Accept the tradeoffs.

Whitney Cox, in her article “10 Important Life Lessons You Learn From Living Abroad,” elaborates on the following helpful tips. Here are 10 points:

How to get used to almost anything:

Learn to cook.

The importance of sharing a meal.

How to ask for help.

How to answer the status quo.

How to have fun anywhere.

How to throw things away.

How to talk with strangers.

How to handle pressure.

How to empathize.

Here are a couple of final conclusions I have come to from living abroad: The first is that you’ll soon realize what you’re gaining in exchange for what you lose is an invaluable experience and you’ll remember it for life; and the second is that in any environment connection comes from unity, not uniformity.

You can read the full article, which has some great links and wonderful fun photos to illustrate the 10 points. Go to:

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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