Over the years I have found it difficult to explain to many family and friends who have never truly lived in a foreign country what it is like. There have also been comments from family members who were in the military that they had ‘lived’ in other countries and yet when talking to them of my life here it is obvious they do not understand what I am saying so I would like to share an experience to try to explain.
Twenty years ago I married a ‘foreigner’ and moved to his country. When I came here I did not know the language at all. Although his family tried to make me feel at home, for the first two months I had no contact with any native English speaker. Small things became huge obstacles such as grocery shopping, answering the phone or just sitting in a room full of people and you have no idea what anyone is saying. Grocery shopping was probably the worse. The translation books do not always have words for foods so it was like being illiterate. I had to buy things that had pictures on them or things that were fresh that I could see and point at and even then I often bought the wrong things. At the time I was pregnant and visits to the midwife and doctor were very difficult. They asked me things in English but did not always understand the answers. Just sitting in a room or at a café was also difficult because I truly felt alone. For most of us these things are fine when on vacation or you’re just visiting for a few weeks and trying to experience the culture but for me, I knew it was not just for a few weeks. I had made a commitment to this person and wanted it to work so integrating into the culture was important. I did not know when I would see my family again. I did not know when I would see a familiar face or talk to someone who could understand what I was saying. For all I knew, this feeling could go on forever.
After about two months I got a phone call from a member of the church who was an American. He said there was an English speaking branch of our church about a half hour away and they had heard of me and made the call. When I answered the phone and heard the accent and knew whatever I said would be ‘understood’ tears welled-up in my eyes. I couldn’t speak and he asked me if I was still on the phone. I answered that I was still there and he invited me to a church dinner that would be held the following Friday. I jumped at the chance to go if only to just be in a room of people I had something in common with.
Friday evening came and my husband and I went to the dinner. Everyone was friendly and nice and greeted us with smiles. We walked into a hall where tables and chairs were nicely decorated and a buffet table was set-up along the wall. It was then that I started noticing odd things. The table decorations were made of dried flowers – there are never dried flowers here. Fresh flowers is one of the biggest exports of this country so fresh flowers are inexpensive and they are everywhere. No home is without a vase of fresh flowers so why the dried flowers? Then when I looked at the buffet table I noticed a number of bottles of salad dressing that were brand names one could only buy in the States. There were also baked potatoes on a large platter. This may seem normal in a country that loves potatoes but they are never baked here so finding the kind of potatoes you can bake is extremely difficult. I got excited thinking, ‘Wow, I can also find these things here,’ so I asked a woman standing near me where you could buy this stuff. The women looked at me and one said, we get it at the commissary. It was then I learned that most of the members there were living on a local American Air force base and they bought all their food on base. To say the least I was very disappointed. At the time I was pregnant with my first child and had been reading lots about birth, children raised bilingually and various schools. Naturally I wanted to talk about what they did with their children but being on the base they had American schools, only one language (English) and the health care was all done on the base with American doctors and American methods of birthing. It was like talking to my family or friends in the States, which is okay if your in the States but these people were all living in a foreign country and yet they new nothing of life here. In the two months I had lived here in all my ignorance, I knew more about this country then they did in the years they had lived here. One such example of how very ignorant they were was told to me by a woman that very evening.
This woman said she had ‘lived’ here for 12 years. That is, she lived on the base. For Halloween, which was just a few months before, she wanted to decorate the church with ghosts that she could make out of cheese cloth. Most of the material she needed for her ghosts she could buy at the commissary with the exception of cheese cloth. She said, ‘I went to all the stores in the area and couldn’t find any cheese cloth. These people just don’t have any so I had to get my sister in the States to send me some. gueezz!’. I mentioned to her that this country is known for its cheese and exports it all over the world so finding cheese cloth should be easy and asked her if she had asked anyone where to get it. She said, no. She didn’t know the language and was afraid to ask. That very evening I asked a local neighbour where to buy it and she said you can get cheese cloth at any local open market which is held in every town once a week or you could get it at the hardware store. Out of curiosity I looked and low and behold I found tons of it. This woman ‘lived’ here for 12 years! I thought, how can you be so stupid?
To say the least, the evening was a huge disappointment. I realized that although I still had a lot to learn but in the two months I had been here I had already learned a lot. I also realized that I could not rely on the people in the military who had ‘lived’ here for practical help. Through the years I have found that most ex-pats who live in foreign countries temporarily also are the same. They do not need to integrate. They do not send their kids to local schools, shop at local shops or participate in any local community activities. There have been some wonderful exceptions to this. I do have some very dear friends who have helped me and I have helped them in learning to live in a foreign place but they are rare. I have also learned that integrating is a HUGE physical and emotional effort and takes years to truly feel at home. I guess that is why many people don’t do it unless they choose to.
Integrating is very difficult but its also very worth it. I have gotten over many inhibitions and look at people with more mature eyes. When I travel to other countries I have no problem getting around or asking questions even if its with hand gestures. I look at people more as universal children of God and not simply from a place or have a certain religion. No matter what country a person comes from I have great admiration to those who learn the language, get jobs and participate in the country. It is a huge task and a great growing curve. Because integrating is so difficult I certainly don’t blame anyone for choosing not to if they don’t have to however…PLEASE don’t say you’ve ‘lived’ here or there because it’s just not true.