Your body is there. Is your mind, too?

So you’ve moved to another country.Perhaps you have been relocated by your organization. Or, perhaps you made the choice to move on your own. Regardless of whether it was an active choice or not, you are now there, which means that you have to come to peace with the decision. Without having read the book, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “wherever you go, there you are” comes to mind.

The reason why I love this quote so much, and the reason why it got me thinking without ever having read the book, is the many meanings that it implies. In fact, this statement is so objective that it could mean almost anything:  you are now there – deal with it. Every place can be the right destination. Being in one particular place doesn’t determine whether or not you are happy – it all comes from within you. How you interpret this sentence really depends on your own subjectivity, and the degree to which you are happy with your decision to move abroad.

It is fascinating how differently people are processing their experiences of living in a foreign country. It goes all the way from people who are absolutely amazed by their experiences, to people who are almost feeling a sense of resentment about the place they are visiting.

If you are unsatisfied with your situation where you are, I am asking you: you have moved your body to the new country, but have you moved your mind too? Or is it still ‘back home’?

Have you explored all the places where only locals go? Have you eaten the food locals eat? Have you immersed yourself in local traditions and rituals? Have you learned about the local religion? Have you learned to speak the language? Have you joined a local community organization?  Have you learned to cook local food? Do you have more local friends than foreign friends? Have you learned about the county’s political, cultural, and social institutions? Have you read up on the local history? Have you observed the people’s behaviour carefully, and reflected deeply on the values and beliefs of the people?

If you have answered no to many of these questions, then it doesn’t surprise me much that you are not excited about living in the new cultural environment. Because honestly, if you don’t immerse yourself in the new cultural environment and make every day a new learning experience, then all you are experiencing is the ‘loss’ of your old home.

In that situation you have only lost something – but you haven’t gained anything.

Without curiosity and a desire to learn, living overseas is nothing more than a hassle.

It just makes your life harder, but you don’t take away anything from it. Be honest to yourself – do you actually have a desire to learn? Because if you don’t, then probably it is better for you if you go home now.

For me moving to Australia was a required part of my university program. I didn’t start out being particularly interested in the country as such. To me living in Asia was what really fascinated me, because it is just so extremely different from the European culture. These differences were what motivated me, because they were what kept me learning every single day, what kept me inspired in my writing and my personal development.

I ended up in a down-period after three months or so in my stay in Australia, because to me it just felt too much like ‘home’ and that was not what I was looking for. It felt almost too… European.

On first look, neither the values nor the behaviour of the people seemed to be too different from what I knew from Germany – at least not compared to what I had experienced in Indonesia. And yet I was surprised to hear over and over again that many Europeans moving to Australia experienced culture shock pretty intensely.  I was clearly missing something here, but what was it?

I had clearly created a trap for myself by holding belief that ‘Australia and Europe are very similar, therefore it does not offer that many learning experiences for me’. It happened simply because the cultural differences between Indonesia and Germany are far more obvious on first sight than the one’s between Australia and Germany. As a result, I didn’t seek all these experiences that can make the differences obvious.

For me, what it took to change that situation was to join a local community organization. In this case, it’s the start-up community. Once I made that change in my life, my learning of the country got an incredible boost and I started to get a similar feeling of excitement to be here compared to my stay in Indonesia.

Before you actually join a real organization, it is often difficult to get a appreciation between the differences between your own country, as well as the country you have moved to. Simply interacting with your friends and with people you meet in your day-to-day life just isn’t the same. It doesn’t give you the in-depth experiences you need in order to start building a deep understanding of the value- and belief system of the new culture you are exposed to.

This might also be one of the reasons why the spouses of expatriates who are sent on an overseas assignment are much more likely to be dissatisfied with their stay than their partners. Since they aren’t embedded in a local organization and they might spend a lot of time with other expatriates, they are not gaining anything from the experience. They are only loosing access to the environment that they are used to, familiar with, and in which they are feeling comfortable.

Often are not feeling a sense of excitement about our stay abroad because we are moving only physically, but leaving our mind behind in what we call ‘home’.

Personally, I have learned to never let this happen again. I strongly believe that every country has something amazing to offer. And because I have this belief – my behaviour also completely changes. For instance, I know that one of the next countries I will be moving to at some point is Persia. So what I do now is to start preparing myself for this stay there – by reading up on the culture, the history of the country, and by starting to learn the language.

The result: I am already extremely excited to go there.

When you are honest to yourself – did you do everything you can to immerse yourself into the local culture of the country you have moved to? And if not, what steps can you take to start your journey of learning from now on?

Tim

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