We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.
It’s not easy to put some expat experiences into words. I am always surprised when I realize that I have been changed by the world around me. Sure, you can say, “I just made a new friend,” but does that really tell you how a shared smile or experience became a conversation? Or that moment when you realize you just spent an entire evening speaking a different language?
If I were to sum it up to a friend back home, I would use words like “culture” and “community” and “customs.” I would try to explain through examples the energy of a local festival or celebration. I would try to make connections to some of the things from their experience. I might also share some photos or videos to illustrate my points.
The truth is, though, these all fall short. Experiencing a new culture is a 360° participation in the moment. Learning about, and embracing, cultural differences is a key component to a successful expat life. For me, meeting new people and sharing experiences is a powerful part of my journey.
The culture in the United States is cobbled together from centuries of history, beliefs, practices, and ideas. To live in a place where some of those cultural antecedents formed is a powerful reminder of the need for human connections. To make my own connections, I have learned a few tricks to help you in your journey:
- Prepare for cultural differences. That means learning something about another culture and attempting to experience it personally. Is there a local food specialty that you can try? What about a festival in your neighborhood? Where can you go to see more than tourists might observe?
- Learn the local language. This is not easy, but it is tremendously rewarding. Learning even a few phrases, and pronouncing them properly, can often open the door to deeper experiences and connections with others.
- Participate in events that are uniquely local. I’ve attended festivals, watched parades, and visited what we might call “block parties” in neighborhoods. Each time I have participated in an event, I leave with a feeling that I know the culture, and myself, a little better.
There are some unexpected benefits that come from embracing a new culture, too. I’ve learned much more self-confidence when I have been exploring on my own. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process, too. I’m not afraid to speak another language, or tell someone that I don’t understand (this happens far more than I wish it did). I have tried to be more of a local than a tourist.
I have learned to treat my expat experience as a curriculum: in every week I have language lessons, cultural experiences, and events that become evaluations for my progress. You can grow in your own expat experience by taking language classes, finding a language partner, learning about local customs and traditions, watching and listening to people speak your new language(s).
The Clever Expat