Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chapter 25: On Squatties, Yaks, Ranch Dressing, and Roller Coasters

Before you travel overseas for a vacation, short-term habitation, or long-term settling down, here are some things to keep in mind. If this is supremely irrelevant to you, I'm giving you permission to stop reading this and jump back into the hustle and bustle of your everyday life. But even if you aren't planning on doing any of the things mentioned above, it can still be helpful to understand what expats (those who live away from their home country) go through.

(One quick word of warning: I am not an expert on this topic by any means. Many people have much more experience and are far wiser on this topic, but these are some things that I have noticed/"borrowed" from others.)

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Be Ready for the Squatties
Low expectations = high happiness. "Oh, there's no toilets here except squatty potties? Well, I was expecting no toilets at all, so thank goodness for the squatties!" This attitude is hard to have, but if you can culture it within yourself, it is really helpful. It will help you deal with many frustrating circumstances, of which you will have many. The higher your expectations are for a place, the harder you will fall from your sunshiny rainbows and happy little clouds of idealism into the grungy, pungent, and stressful realm of reality - unable to see the positive and beautiful aspects of a culture because you are so upset that it isn't what you wanted it to be.

That being said, once you get over your disappointment (which takes about 9 months), you will grow to love your host culture and really start to see its valuable contributions to your life and the world. 

Know that You Are NOT a Yak
When yaks enter the world, they are able to stand almost immediately. They need some help from their parents, but they are fairly self-sufficient.

You are not a yak. Whenever you enter a new circumstance, you will take time - a lot of time - to figure out how to simply live. All that wonderful ambition about making a difference in the world will come in handy, but it must be tempered with patience. For the first few weeks/months/years, you will be a fleshy lump of a baby, just soaking in the culture well enough to communicate effectively. So keep up your dreams of making a difference, but realize that they will not be realized immediately (or ever in some circumstances).

Reach Out to Others
It's really great if you can get to know someone in the place that you are going before you go there. This will help you understand what the place will be like and give you a new friend. This will also help your expectations to be more realistic.

Also under this category: make friends once you get to your new location. (Um, duh, Warren.) Sounds obvious, but one of the things about being in a new situation is that your personality characteristics are exaggerated. If you are an introvert, you will be a super introvert. If you are an extrovert, you will be a lot to handle in your first few months with all your extroverted energy. If you are an extrovert, try to cool yourself down a little so people get to know the real you. If you are an introvert, step out of your comfort zone and reach out to those around you.

Bring Some Powdered Ranch Dressing Packets
Believe it or not, other places are not America. And even though we Americans are doing our best to spread ourselves over every possible inch of this world, many of the things we assume are standard are only standard in America. This is both good and bad. It is good in that we can empathize more realistically with those who live "without", we can see where we have been wasteful and extravagant, and we can enjoy living in a different style than we are used to. It can be bad in that this makes it that much more difficult to transition to a new place, and we are "forced" to live in a different style than we are used to. It helps a lot to bring things that will make your new place feel like home.

Be Prepared for the Roller Coaster
Even if you know all of these things and more, you will still have to experience them for yourself. And you will have some days of rapturous joy and other days of complete frustration. The key is to remember that eventually, things will even out and the emotional roller coaster will eventually lose its chutzpah. Life in your new location will become more "normal" (By the way, once this happens, you will be perfectly set up for a whole new world - one you may not have known existed: reverse culture shock. But that is another topic for another time).

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What else is helpful for someone moving or traveling overseas? Please contribute ideas freely! Like I said, many of you know the expat game better than I do. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Chapter 24: In Which the Writer Comes to an Understanding about Personal Stress Levels and How They Can Negatively Affect One's Social Life

Holy overload, Baman! This has been a crazy couple of weeks, and will continue to be so. We had a week break last week for Chinese National Holiday. We went up to Beijing for a teacher conference. The day after we got back, we took a staff retreat to Weihai on the north side of the peninsula. Fun, but really busy. And not allowing time for getting my teaching stuff done.

And hooray! This coming weekend we have another trip around the province. With the quarter end next week, I'm starting to wonder why the timing was so close for all of these trips. . .

BUT, even though it's stressful, I'm enjoying my students a lot, and one of the main reasons for my stress is that I'm taking the time and effort to make my teaching more effective (which is rewarding).

At the Beijing conference, a good friend shared about stress as a first year teacher here. He mentioned that we all have a certain amount of stress that we can handle and when that overflows, we snap. The stress overflows. For me, that comes in the form of me dumping mounds of frustration on whoever happens to be within earshot (not a fan of this personal characteristic).

I can sense that I am too close for comfort to that stress line. It might be time for me to take a step back and do that which I hate to do: say no.

I'm not the kind of person that easily says no to social events. In fact I have to basically be at the point where I currently reside (at the borderline crush-your-spirit-and-hopes-for-life stress level (that might be a bit over-dramatic)) to even think about saying no when someone wants to do something.

But I think that the next week and a half will be a time not of sharing laughter and joy around a dinner table, but of sitting down and powering through the stacks of papers that have been building up (That's right. I'm a bad teacher. I don't hand my students' homework back immediately.), planning lessons that still reach every student, and writing a report card paragraph about every. single. student. Uffda*.

*The spell-checker for Blogger clearly isn't from Minnesota. Also, I have taught this word to four Chinese people.