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Six subtle ways living overseas makes you a better person

1. You bounce back from embarrassment/ shame/ humiliation faster

If you want to live overseas or in a different country, especially if that country speaks a different language, you have to be prepared to look stupid hundreds- nay, thousands- nay. millions- NAY. BILLIONS- of times.

For example, in English- speaking countries if the weather was hot, you would say “I am hot.” In Spanish, however, you would say you have heat- “tengo calor.” The direct translation of I am hot is “estoy caliente.” But here, that basically means “I am horny.” It’s basically a right of passage for any traveler to come to Central America, walk into town on a hot day and announce to her new friends “I AM HORNY TODAY!”

And though you might want to crawl into a hole and die after one of these wipeouts, you can’t. You have to keep moving. Why? Because you have about a million more of these mistakes living overseas to make before you can somewhat stitch a conversation together in your new language. You were trying to talk to your friends abuela about the ‘la cola’ (the traffic) and you just called it ‘el culo’. (The butt.) Yep. That happened. Now onward and upward. . 

2. You get over yourself… a little

If you want to live in another country, you have to accept your sense of identity is going to take a beating. Maybe in your home country you were a university educated woman having many opinions on intelligent, nuanced, worldly things. And that made you feel good about yourself. Here, you are a spastic little toddler trying to sing your ABCS and recite the days of the week. You’re stomping around like a wide-eyed baby lady, new to this world, amongst so many things you don’t yet understand.

With any luck, you’ve made some local friends or you’re in a community that will tell you when you’re about to stick your finger in a power socket, or at least laugh at you.

This forces you to humble yourself a bit.

Yes, you are an intelligent, resourceful, capable woman. And, here, living overseas, things work differently. You’re going to have to learn how to do the ‘daily life’ thing all over again.

Here in El Salvador, your grocery shop is shooting out of bed at six.am so you can catch the bread dude. He’s on his bicycle going apeshit on his little airhorn as he pedals quickly past your house. It’s getting the vegetables off the food truck in town, as it rips through the Main Street with his megaphone going ‘papas papas papas papas tomate tomate tomate tomate’ (potatoes potatoes potatoes potatoes, tomato, tomato, tomato.)

3. You come to understand that there is no such thing as “normal.”

Most houses in Central America, at least where I’ve travelled, have something called a pila. It’s basically a big concrete basin that holds a bunch of water, with a scrub board attached. You can use it to clean your clothes, dishes, or stand alongside it and dump water over your head/ body to bathe.  I live on a hill, and the pila in our house sits near the bottom of the hill. This means the pila is always able to be refilled by the water tank, even when the water tank is almost empty. The shower, however, sits on top of the hill, and so runs out of water frequently.

When this happens I have to ask the caretaker of the house to refill the tank all the way to the top. When my Australian sister and my Australian friend was staying in the house, I had to call on the caretaker more frequently to help me fill the tank, to keep water in the shower.

“Why don’t you just use the pila, and save all this trouble?” He asked, puzzled.

I was stumped. How did I explain in Spanish THE WHITE GIRLS NEED THE WATER TO SPRINKLE ON THEIR HEAD, DON JOSE?! THE HEAD SPRINKLES!

There’s no right way of doing daily life. There’s just different.

4. You learn to live in community

In Australia, and from what I’ve come to understand about other countries in the Global North, it’s very easy to live in a little self-contained box of you and you. We can wake up, cook breakfast for ourselves, head to the bus with earphones in our ears, or jump in our box on wheels, head to work, head to the gym, put your earphones in your ears again, head to the supermarket after gym, cook by yourself at home, then go to bed.

If you move overseas to a place like Central America, it’s near impossible to live in a self contained little box.

If you walk down the street, you have to greet everyone and stop for at least a few lines of conversation. Then, if you see them again a few hours later, you have to do the same thing. Walking down the street with your head in your phone pretending you can’t see someone… isn’t an option.

If you’re wanting to travel short or long term or live overseas kind of on the cheap cheap, you will have to live and coexist with other people. Privacy usually has a pretty high price. And if you spend an extended amount of time with any human on the planet, you can’t keep appearances up for long. The mask has to slip. You have to let yourself be seen, as you really are, with all your little quirks and habits and idiosyncrasies. But usually, this is when true connection starts to form. And connection is kind of the whole point of it all, isn’t it?

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5. You learn to surrender

Through all this, you learn to surrender.

Surrender your need to control all the time.

The need to be right all the time.

You surrender the need for people to like you.

And surrender the need for things to happen an exact or particular way.

6. And all this ultimately leads to you strengthening your character. Your confidence grows, your humility deepens, your perspective broadens. You become curious and open to life around you. You learn to flow with it, a little better.

So, if you have ever wanted to live overseas, I say do it because you’ll never regret it.

About the Author:

Caitlin is a journalist and writer from Australia. She’s into collecting and sharing the stories of other human people. Mostly women’s stories. You can find her at @caitlincreeper

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