Living in another country halfway around isn’t for the faint of heart! It takes some resilience and courage. Having done this once before 15 years ago, I was a bit overconfident. Having worked in schools my entire career and speaking a decent amount of the language, I didn’t worry too much about it. Yet, being tired from extended travel, and out of my comfort zone, I’d forgotten how much work it is. I spent many hours dreaming, working, sacrificing, planning this into existence with my spouse and had help from our loved ones to make it come true. After all that, and at the same time, it is both wonderful AND hard.
Wonderful & Hard
I don’t write this to quejarme—(complain) but only to recognize it’s okay to feel what I feel and grow from it. I write this guide since I couldn’t find it anywhere else and to comfort myself when I feel like a fish out of water to gain some healthy perspective. At the end of the day, I realize I’ve got a rare and wonderful opportunity to give and learn! 🏫
I’m grateful for befriending some of the kindest and most hospitable people on the planet.
And to do this with my spouse is a dream come true! Yet, language immersion can be grueling! It’s taxing mentally and physically, but thankfully, it gets easier every day. You surprise yourself at the growth you make, just like a body training for a marathon, it gets stronger every time you run. 🏃
Self-Care in Action
This experience is 100% practice of being gentle with myself, not taking myself too seriously and being vulnerable enough to learn. Three scenarios that we don’t often willingly put ourselves into. I’m appreciative of it and yet compassionate with myself enough to recognize the fortitude it takes to be intentionally uncomfortable.
I tell you, there are days where I feel like the world’s biggest idiot!
At first, in a few emotional moments, I’ve thought, “Here I am, a 35-year-old professional that left my job to volunteer around the world and feel like a 5-year-old. Why?!??”
Below is my ongoing guide for emotional/mental strength in sometimes uncomfortable situations:
If you feel like an AWKWARD Adult Child…
Sitting in my room alone, on one of the first nights, having unpacked, I felt REALLY awkward and useless. I overheard only tidbits of a conversation from another room and I immediately assumed it must be going something like “Why is this weird adult staying with us? She doesn’t understand us and barely speaks to us in English. Why doesn’t she go home??!”
After such dark thoughts that only made me feel worse…
The only thing to do was to dive in and get out of my head! I brought out a deck of cards and my phone and we played BS, Spoons and Ellen Degeneres’ Heads Up guessing games. We laughed and took turns joking and attempting to speak each other’s languages.
The absolute worst thing I could’ve done in that moment is to sit in my room alone, sulk and wrongly assume all that I really didn’t know.
Overthinking and entertaining negative thoughts was really a waste of time! It just stirred up my fears and discomfort when I felt out of place. So, to combat the weirdness, I HAD TO dive in to the deep end of the pool with rubber ducky floaties and all!
Honestly, I googled, “topics of conversation while getting to know someone” and all sorts of tips for living abroad. It seemed a bit forced or clumsy… but eventually, the interactions flowed in order for me to relax! There are still moments when I feel like the pieces just don’t connect, but jumping in always seems to scare those inner doubts away.
If you feel like a burden…
At first, I felt like a big kid being taken to school by my family and sticking to them like glue. I didn’t know my way around or feel comfortable to come and go as I’d please yet. I felt so silly learning to use the bus for the first time as an adult for my main system of transportation. I’ve driven myself anywhere I’ve needed to go my whole life! Depending on others is humbling.
As I’m a volunteer at a school and they take an exchange teacher in for free, it made me worry that they didn’t have to take in a total stranger. Or absorb the expenses of feeding another adult in their house using electricity, water, food and precious time. They didn’t have to inconvenience their family to accommodate an extra person. Having an exchange teacher (albeit and adult) can be like having another kid in the family. Someone else to clean, cook, watch out for and spend lots of time patiently talking to…
So, why do it??
As Wayne Dyer says, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.
Upon further reflection, I realized that we ALL can feel like an adult child at some point being out of our comfort zones. Having to rely on others for help can suck. 😕 Yet, it’s empowering to experience compassion for oneself when feeling embarrassed or having to rely on others. And what a beautiful thing to grow empathy for others that go through tough life situations that they don’t always choose to be in.
It’s a privilege to receive the generosity of my family and school sharing with them my language and culture as they do for me.
Witnessing the value they put on education and hospitality for their kids to learn more English is inspiring! Although it’s extra work, to experience a culture that shares so easily for their families to grow and learn is impressive.
Even though I feel out of place at times, I must remember the honor it is to be surrounded by such incredible scenery, history, generosity and growth. After taking a breath and seeing the big picture, in a few moments, I forget my worries.
Years from now, I’m certain this experience will be one of the best things I’ve ever done!
If you feel ignored in a conversation…
With as much as I understand and speak, at times, real life flow of conversation occurs at a rapid rate. There are many contexts and levels of communication that happen within various social situations and I’m not up to speed on all of them. Sometimes, while sitting in a work lounge, dinner table, car ride, meeting, bus ride or social event with very nice and well-meaning people —I can feel ignored. At times, my eyes and ears race back and forth like a flying ping-pong ball trying to track all of the conversation. Often, others try to include me in it, but as it sometimes happens, real life conversations flow in real time. And sometimes I get lost in the dust. When this happens, I realize I have two choices:
- Dive in the deep end of the pool
When choosing to dive right in, sometimes I do a perfect dive and other times a belly flop. When diving, all I can really do is follow the conversation as best as I can. I can ask questions, give an opinion or read the body language and tone of the conversation and participate. Sometimes it is lively and I’m an active participant commenting on a scenario and offering my experience or knowledge. I may ask a question at least to interject and try to swim with the conversational tide.
By sunbathing, the role is to actively listen and write down words I don’t know. There are days where I catch the joke and laugh or shake my head emphatically at some jerk we can all agree is terrible. Or sometimes the best that happens is just an enthustical and emphatic head nodding, “sí, sí ” repeatedly while following along in the dialogue.😊 It may not be such a deep level of debate, yet I take a deep breath, laugh and remember it takes real ass-kicking skills to put myself out there and grow! I know much more than I did 3 months ago!
If you feel like you’re the topic of conversation…
This can be tough in any language or especially when feeling sensitive, tired, or just overall crappy. There’s so much context involved in communication that it can be difficult to know how all the pieces fit in another language. The more I let my mind wander and make up stories, the worse it seems to be. It’s always best to brush it off and ignore the cackling dialogue of fears in my mind.
Remember that ultimately:
“Whatever anyone has to say about you is none of your business.”
I determined that if valid concerns arose from people I knew and trusted that required action, then, it’d be best to:
- Insert positive intent with speakers. Generously assume that they have more things to worry about than me. They have struggles like anyone and most conversations are about that. If something regarding me is really of concern, they’ll let me know.
- Outright ask if there’s anything I can do to help at home or work, or if there’s anything they’d like to do and gauge appropriate responses.
- Let it go! Go distract myself with something to do and forget about it! (This is the same for people I don’t know or have any connections with and I may just misread a conversation).
If you feel silly/ridiculous/stupid for…
having JUST missed the bus home that was passing by in the opposite direction.
having walked around all of downtown to find a store only to end up at the EXACT same location I was an hour ago.
having locked my family inside or turning the key the wrong way to engage all the locks rendering it impossible to open without a wrench
ordering a slice of pizza and ending up with an entire one!
catching a new bus and getting off a stop early only to miss the one you need, thus I had to walk the last mile to get home.
repeatedly pushing the 1 button on an elevator when rushing to get to the bus and it wouldn’t go down. I thought it was broken! Only later did I realize that I’d have to press 0 to go down. Totally different numbering system than back at home!
…any multitude of situations in a day…
I take a deep breath and try it another way. People learning languages do it all the time. LAUGH! Remember I’m far from the first or last to flub up. Just as in running a marathon, I’m 100% farther and faster than those who stayed on their couch.
If you feel isolated/homesick/not making sense…
As occasionally happens when not in my normal realm of life.
I’d reach out to my husband or other friend (if he weren’t here) and vent not holding back in the expression. I’d journal or text a friend if need be to get perspective on a situation. Sometimes just getting it out can help when feeling overwhelmed. I ended up very lucky that my host family is awesome and I feel comfortable enough to share my doubts. 😊 I understand more and more every day and it’s muy chulo to be speaking a language I love and have my husband to share the details with.
If you feel like my language level is that of a 4-year-old…
My lovely and patient host mom listens to me as our dialogues sometimes go like this:
Me: “That book!”
Her: “Yes, the book. What about it–?”
Me: “That book that I told you about yesterday…”
Her: “Right, I remember–”
Me: “The book that I told you about yesterday, was from that guy on TV.”
Her: “Sure, of, course!”
Me: “That guy on TV who I told you about yesterday from the book, he has a really long beard!”
Stick with it!
I’ve learned I get through the bumpy and weird moments the more that I try it and massage out the choppy word globs to find fluid conversations.
They start to eventually flow, and with some topics, I can zoom through quickly like any fluent speaker! Other times, it’s like walking through heavy, thick mud merely trudging along. When I fling it off with common verbs and basic vocabulary, the exchanges start to cascade on. I’ve started looking up vocabulary in certain situations I know I’ll be in (like a winery this weekend) to help the conversation spring.
If you feel like my tongue weighs 100 lbs. when you try to speak…
This happens on days where I just want to stay in bed. The night before I could’ve interpreted a conversation for the queen 👑and the next day I feel like everyone is speaking martianese. 👽
I had to realize that this happens! And, it’s okay! I try to follow my routine like normal, take a nap, watch something to distract myself (watching Christmas Hallmark movies dubbed in Castellano on Youtube has been awesome😀), go for a walk, do something to not take myself so seriously. I’ve jumped in to help in the kitchen and the action of doing something often makes me feel better and forget all about that boulder I have in my mouth preventing me from speaking! I’ve bought a whiteboard to write a question of the day on to get us talking and we may read a children’s chapter book together to get more conversations surging.
If I just don’t know how to hang in there…
When I’ve had a rough moment and couldn’t positively talk my way out of a dark cloud to see the sunshine and forest through the trees. Or when I just felt like I couldn’t hang in there until the end of the term and I felt that spooky voice saying I wanted to go home…
I’d REMEMBER that what I was doing at some points is HARD! Intentionally making myself vulnerable is hard. Certainly not everyone does it.
Although a healthy dose of big picture perspective (how lucky I am to be here) is helpful and necessary, I acknowledge its truth, but go light with it. I didn’t need to beat myself over the head with it. I know it’s true and also, at the same time, acknowledge my own personal struggles about this (and any) adventure.
As I post pictures of this incredible scenery, I have to remember where I am and know that this opportunity is magical. Pretty soon, these feelings pass.
Something deep inside knows that I really end up getting more than I give.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS—
I must return to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these will have a way of helping things to look up and fast. (These questions seem to ring true in any challenging situation in life.)
Are you hungry? 🍲
I found much solace in my new environment. I’ve adored the quantity and quality of fresh seafood, little snacks that everyone gets after work. Indulging in some of the newfound treats I’ve found really perk up a mood! This hot chocolate, is really like a thick dipping sauce for some desserts!
Being out of your comfort zone really has way of reminding you how we’re all more alike than we think and have wonderful things to share with each other.
Are you thirsty? 🚰
Besides making sure I’m drinking enough water, I’ve LOVED un corto con limón o gas. A little shot of beer with some lemon soda or some carbonated water. They give you these ALL the time at various little bars/cafes at various times in the afternoon.
Are you tired/getting sick? 😷
I’d been running too hard and getting sick and it was time to rest up and perhaps watch a movie. Stay in and take a nap. Nap all day. I have to not be afraid to not do EVERY social invitation that comes up when I’m getting run down.
Do you feel like you belong? 🐻💖
As helpful as it can be to stay in when needing to rest up, sometimes a push to get out there and accompany someone on a trip around the block to the store or their sister-in-law’s birthday party helps to dissipate feelings of isolation or awkwardness. Making some connections is easily done if I’m willing to get out there a bit and be interested in what other people are doing. Soon enough, I find myself surrounded my new friends and with my spouse here, life is golden!
Ultimately, if all spoken communication fails in a moment… I know that the people here supporting me want the best for me! If I do my best to communicate, show respectfulness and appreciation, those transcend any language!