Beginner Expat-How To Cope With Uncertainty When Living Abroad

Dealing with Uncertainty When Living Abroad

When living abroad uncertainty will be your constant companion. For the first few weeks in a new land, everything takes on an air of unfamiliarity. The normal reference points of daily life become completely unrecognizable. The language is foreign and daily interactions morph into weird and awkward moments.  Everyday activities such as grocery shopping, paying bills and riding a bus take on unfamiliar shades as we negotiate our way in a new and foreign place.

We happily accept these levels of uncertainty when we travel. Often the thrill of something exotic is what draws us to explore a new country. The lure of new food, drink, and places to see. We relish the feel of exploring new cities and discovering unexpected things. However, when the move is more permanent, we need to learn to deal with this uncertainty and live in the unfamiliar, without the safety net of an imminent departure date.

How to Cope When Nothing is ‘Normal’

Uncertainty about how to achieve daily tasks can make your new life very tiresome. So, what do we do when we don’t know how to behave in a situation? When nothing is normal to us?

We need to learn how to live with this higher level of uncertainty. Like a young child, we have to become expert observers. Watching how particular foods are eaten, picking up cues from what is happening around us and observing how to react in certain situations. We can quickly learn from observation what words are used, and at what times. As we relax into the unfamiliar we can start to find our bearings as the patterns of behavior become clearer.

Learning to Imitate

The next stage is learning to imitate. Like a young child trying out first words or learning to eat on their own, we need to improve our skills of imitation. After moving to Japan, it was not long before I was bowing whenever I met someone too. What started as an imitation in order to fit in, became second nature.  Imitation can feel false and strange. You may worry that others will think you are making fun of them. Relax and just go with it. Yes, you will make mistakes, but that is all part of the process.

It can take years to a new location to feel familiar. You will gradually learn to work with a certain level of uncertainty. Needing to know every detail might be a trait you have to let slide at times. Accept that you might need more than a little faith that the shop assistant is going to get you what you want, or that the repairman really does understand what is wrong with the air conditioner. If you really need to know the details get a trusted translator to help you out. But for the everyday, let go and see what happens before you worry too much about the finer points.

Learning to live in uncertainty is a tough assignment, but one that will strengthen your powers of observation, imitation and letting go. So embrace the challenge.

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