Saturday, January 12, 2008

Adjusting to Living in a Foreign Country

This subject was on the list of special requests from my friends who read the blog. If you have asked me to write about something and haven't seen it it, please remind me, either in the comments or by email.

My only claim to any expertise on this subject is the experience I have had living in countries other than my own. I have drawn from my mistakes and observed the things that seemed to bring comfort and contentment, which I will relate as best I can, here.

Living in a foreign country is much, much different than visiting it. While I lived the first six months in the country that adopted me, I thought it was an adventure, and enjoyed every minute of it. It was summer, which is usually the time tourists first observe a foreign country. The weather was wonderful and we were carefree.

After 6 months of glory days, our family had to get down to the business of ordinary life, it was a different story. Had we been merely touring, we could have gone home after awhile and nothing would have come of it but good times. Life became very trying to us, for the following reasons:

- People stared us, and often make coarse remarks about our own nationality. In one particular country, many people hurled out rudely, "You are a no-good Yank." This felt shocking, particularly since we had been taught never to insult anyone with comments that would demean them. Later on I learned that "Yankee" was an Indian word for "hard-worker." The American Indians, observed how the pioneers coming west were so industrious and busy, and named then "Yankees," a name that stuck. At the time, however, we did not know this, and the cruel attitude that accompanied the remark was keenly felt. We noticed that these same people were rude to all other foreigners as well. Disparaging remarks toward foreigners became a daily occurrence and as a young woman, I never figured out how to respond to this.

These are some of the things just about everyone, including those who come to the US will have to consider and adjust to. They are largely just the differences between being around your own family and the familiar activities and town you live in, and being without them. I hope this helps those who are living away from their friends and loved ones, to see that the home is still where the real culture will be and where you will get the most comfort and contentment.

We did not live like the people we were around. We did not go to drinking establishments or participate in the partying that was always accompanied by drinking. In one of the smaller countries we were in, the social life of most of the people around us, always involved drinking and late night partying. It took us a long time to find a like minded family.

-The locals were not sympathetic with our plight. Having never been in a foreign country themselves, they did not understand our need for a "cup of cool water," or the hand of friendship. Whereas we had come from a culture that extended hospitality to strangers, some of the countries we lived in did not practice it. Not understanding the adjustment one must make in a foreign country, there were very few people that warmed to us. There was one family that took pity on us a few times and invited us to their home, sharing the national food with us and helping us to appreciate it more.

-Food was more expensive than we were used to, plus the fact it did not taste the same as the food we were used to. In the culture shock we were experiencing, even a good old toasted cheese sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate with a marshmallow, would have been a great solace. We were missing our homeland, our friends, and our family members. Grocery shopping means a great deal to a woman at home, and if it becomes a major source of stress, or a challenge just to find the kind of markets she needs, the days can be very trying.

-Fabric stores were non-existent, and we girls missed our hobby of sewing our own clothes. We reluctantly bought some of the local clothing but felt uncomfortable in it. It was of poor quality, usually made cheaply in another country and shipped in. We had to learn to find alternatives in other types of fabrics not usually used for sewing. One lady who was a Christian heard us talking about missing the fabric stores. She took us to a fabric factory, quite a long way from town, but the fabric was mainly being produced for draperies and upholstery. We did manage to find a few remnants that we made clothes from. We heard that 30 years later this country finally got some very nice fabric stores for the home sewer.

-Even the church members in some foreign countries had a completely different understanding of life than we did. When we had hoped to find like-minded people, who loved the home and family, we often found them to be as worldly as the world, which seemed to add to our sadness and increase our longings for home.

Our house was very uncomfortable, lacking in normal things that we were used to in our own country. In one home we had no washing machine, and in another, no hot water. Another one had no water if it did not rain into the tank connected to the side of the house. These were all things, though not the end of the world, that had an effect on our adjustment. Occasionally we met with a house that had no personal facilities in the house. We had to walk to another building to use a shower or sink.

-One country we lived in seemed to have a national attitude of continual sarcasm, which was hard to get past. Many of the citizens passed their time finding fault with us, or mocking whatever was good, pure and lovely in life. We really learned what it was like to be "in the world but not of the world," when we were reminded daily not to adapt to or adopt a lot of the local customs.

Though these things seem unimportant to people who have never been away from home for a long period of time, it is important not to judge the foreigner in your midst for wanting the comforts of home. When a person is uprooted from simple things like their own kind of tea, reading materials, friendships and routines, it can feel as though the land has been pulled out from under you and you are walking alone in space. I don't expect everyone to understand it, as not everyone is the same and not everyone can adjust to everything.

Although English was the spoken language in some countries, the accent and meanings could be entirely different. Having to filter every thought and every response through this second language was trying and sometimes exhausting. Not only were our taste buds and our tastes uprooted, our thought processes were being taxed. While most people have fun visiting foreign countries, they often do not understand how anyone living in a foreign country could have adjustment problems. There is a lot of distance between being a tourist and enjoying the surface life of a country, and being a resident enduring many of the hardships.

In one of the schools I attended, my spirit sank so badly that during a lunch hour I went into a room and cried. When I came out to attend the next class, someone commented on my puffed, red look. "Allergies," I said, and in a philosophical way, this was true. I was very allergic to some of the attitudes and customs in this foreign country. Eventually, though, our family found ways to adjust, which I will reveal here.

Sometimes we felt so depressed at the prospect of staying so long in some of these places, that there was only one way to turn: laughter.

We stayed up late at night relating to one another some of the experiences we had endured during the day and made up poetry about it, or told long fictional stories embodying the attitudes and experiences we had encountered. We laughed heartily til our stomachs shook. We laughed at ourselves and what would become of us if we succumbed to some of the beliefs of the cultures we were in. In all this, we never resorted to returning insult for insult and never let anyone know just how hard it was for us to adjust. We didn't want to be a burden on anyone and we didn't want anyone interfering too much in our lives with their "help," which sometimes became something that was detrimental to us.

In adjusting to living in a foreign country, I would suggest that first of all you preserve your home, and in that home, establish a culture of your own. I can remember once visiting some other Americans who were living in the same foreign country, and feeling oh-so-at-home, that I just let out a sigh of relief as I sank down in a comfortable chair in their home. This woman had put pictures in her house that she liked, and had a few things from home that were familiar. She had hand made things from her own family, arranged around the house. She served us food that we were familiar with, even though it did not taste exactly the same as we were used to.

Inside her house she kept a Bible and she and her husband often read it. She said that the most important thing to her was carrying on the Christian virtues within her family. They had shielded themselves from the outside world by creating a culture of their own inside the home. She kept the music they liked and the family reminded each other of who they were and where they came from and what they enjoyed. A friend sent her a favorite magazine regularly.

No matter what happened "out there," the family members could depend on familiarity and changelessness inside the home.

In her house, we felt we were back home. At night when it was dark outside, we couldn't even tell we were living in a foreign country. It was a GREAT comfort to us. So, if you are moving to a foreign country, I would strongly suggest you take things that will give your home an atmosphere of familiarity; things that reflect your loves and your tastes and your values, whether it be picture frames for your photos, table cloths, your own dishes, or your favorite books. Inside this woman's home, I felt I had "come home" and I was always blessed by visiting her.

Most of the time when you have to live in a foreign country, you cannot take very much. It would be nice if you could bring your own furniture, but you usually can only take small things. Therefore, I would suggest you take things to drape over the furniture you will use in that country: a quilt for the back of the couch, cloths for the tables, your children's own blankets, and all the things that begin to mean a lot in daily life.

It is amazing how much we take for granted those things, and how much you miss them when you move away to a foreign country. The church members ought to start a new type of "shower" for the lady who is having to move to a foreign country, and fill up little suitcases full of the niceties of life that she will surely miss when she gets there. Like I stated at the beginning, the first six months may not make you feel any kind of homesickness or sadness or lack of adjustment, because that is the time when you are having fun taking it all in. Once that part is over and the day to day life starts, you start missing your family, the church, your friends, your favorite shopping areas, and so forth.

We developed a strong, inner culture of our own. Though we attempted from time to time to adjust to living in a foreign country, we knew we would never really fit in, and we began to create more of a home life. We loved to sing, and spent a lot of time singing and making up songs. We wrote long letters to our friends back home. We immersed ourselves in reading, studying, art, sewing, and other things.

Once, while living in a place far from home, I grew tired of missing home, and decided to make the best of it. We were home schooling our children and decided to have a couple of weeks of activities as though we were attending some great events. We had a speech night, and each child was assigned to a topic. They had to dress up and be presentable. We learned to serve a formal meal and practiced our manners at the table. We had a fashion show, an art show, and role-played certain conversational dilemmas, which turned out to be more enjoyable than we had ever envisioned. These were things like: how to guide a conversation that was going in an unwholesome direction, how to handle a contradictory person, how to make others feel at ease, and how to respond to cruel remarks. We also had our own choir and singing practice. Some rainy days we pretended to be on the ark. The world was flooded but the house was floating. We shut all the doors and windows and enjoyed the storm. We had Bible studies and drew out character reform from the scriptures. We discussed these at length and sought ways to practice them.

Making a culture inside your home first and foremost, and keeping your own nationality, for the sake of your own stability and the development of your children, is important. However, you can bring in interesting things that are good, from the culture of the country you are in. You never know if you will use something you have learned in that country, when you get back home. It is in my opinion, very important to keep your faith in God, read your Bible daily and assemble for church services. If there is no church nearby, you can have your own services at home. I remember how lonely it felt at first, and how much I missed what I thought was "real" church back home, but our home church services in a foreign country became the richest experience of my life. It was these times that sustained me the most through many trials of living in foreign countries later on.

My mother in law was uprooted continually in her life, as she had married a preacher. Her husband's ambition was to preach in as many states and countries as he could, and her diaries reveal the adjustments she had to make. Some of the entries tell how lonely and sad she was. However, the diary, or journal itself was part of her stability. She knew that no matter how difficult things were every time they moved, she would be writing in that little book at the end of the day and recording every thing she could remember that happened. Later in life, she told many interesting stories and was able to laugh at how hard life had been for her. Her diaries also showed her that nothing was permanent and she would get out of the situation eventually. Nothing lasts forever, although, when you have small children, the days are long and the time seems to be agonizingly long, especially when confronted with the problems of adjusting to a foreign country.

I will share with you some of the things that my mother in law's diaries show that she did in all these different places she lived. It seemed she usually looked for an opportunity to visit someone. Sometimes I wondered if she did this not just for the benefit of the other person, but so that she would have something to write in her journal at the end of the day: "I introduced myself to Mrs. Meade today. She told me about her family and served me some cake. I got the recipe from her." (The diaries begin in the 1930's). Of course, back then, people were a lot easier to visit, as I can tell from her diaries. The women were home, and it was considered quite normal to drop in and visit, or to answer your door and invite in a visitor and serve them tea.

Another thing she did is write often to her own relatives: her mother and sisters and her in-laws. To the younger ones she wrote suggestions for a good life, and included little poems and sayings, and to the older ones she reported her daily activities, small as they seemed.

Her home was her life, and so her routine was important. She bathed and dressed up each day. I still cannot recall ever seeing her depressed or hanging around in her nightclothes. She always got up, unless she was sick, and dressed up, put on an apron, made a cooked breakfast, and served her family. In an unfamiliar place, these routines never changed. The family knew that no matter where they lived, their mother would always be dressed for breakfast, cheerful and delighted in her role.

She washed the dishes afterwards and sang as she cleaned up the kitchen. Then she had certain things, depending upon what day of the week it was, that she did. Every Monday, she put the clothes in the washer, and while she waited for the dryer, she caught up on all her correspondence. She sat at the kitchen table that she had just cleared after breakfast, with a little box where she kept recent letters and blank paper, envelopes, stamp and pen, and wrote to each of her correspondents.

One day a week, she went visiting, and even if the visit-ee was not very friendly or interested, she at least spoke to her at the door and left some cookies and a Bible study booklet or some other offering. There were other days she did other things, and this kind of life, although it may seem somewhat mechanical to us, seemed to give her and her family a feeling of dependable stability.

To sum it up, I think if you worry too much about adjusting and fitting in to the foreign country you have moved to, you might end up at war with yourself. Instead, you should preserve your own culture within your home, while allowing whatever will enhance and enrich you from the culture around you, providing it is Biblical. You should look for opportunities to share your faith in God and encourage those around you if you can.

It is interesting that we give up when we get no response, but did you know that if you could be depended upon to have the same goals and say the same things, eventually people will expect it from you. I once knew a lady in New Zealand who lived alone. She set the table for two every Sunday, because she had prayed that one day there would be a church of Christ in her area, and she wanted to be sure to bring someone home from worship services and feed them after church on Sunday.

After about 10 years, and many letters that she wrote to missionaries, preachers and other Christians, someone came and helped a church to be established there. She invited the preacher home for dinner that day. By then, she was quite elderly but when she told the preacher that she had set the table every Sunday and he was the first one to come, he used that story in his repertoire for years and years as a sample of working faith. I really admire people of the past because they had an understanding of persistence. It meant first of all that you were doing your duty. You had to do the right thing, no matter what the results. It was always possible that your persistence would not ever pay off, especially in a foreign country where people were not responsive or were downright hostile to you. But it was for certain that you would never get any results if you had no persistence at all.

In adjusting to living in a foreign country, I think it is important to do things that once had meaning to you at home. Do you like scrap booking? Writing? Cooking? Quilting? Having Tea? Also, although having new things and starting over at every foreign location is fun, especially if you are young, it is really very important to have a familiar home. I knew a military wife whose home was almost the same from location to location. She enjoyed unpacking it all and arranging her house to be her familiar home. She started a ladies Bible study in her home and guided other young women to understand the women's role in the family and the power they have as wives, mothers, homemakers and teachers of good things. She missed her mother and sisters and all the things of her homeland, but she made her home like her homeland and those around her enjoyed a peek into a different culture.

Since we have the web, a wonderful resource, and possibly a "last frontier" of enterprise and friendship, it may be possible to locate women within the area you live, in the foreign country, who might enjoy visiting you or talking to you. It might be possible to "find" them and you may be surprised that someone might be just a block away from you who would be open to friendship. Some people thrive better with social contacts, and others do quite well on their own with just their families.

Once while having quite a struggle adjusting to a foreign country, I read a little poem, that helped me a lot:

"Why search so high, for things close by?
Don't worry; never mind it!
For happiness, like something lost,
Is always where you find it."

I knew then that God had given me a resource right at my feet: my home. I could do something there of significance and I could live a rich and full life if I concentrated on being the best wife, mother and homemaker, lover of hospitality and teacher of good things, that I could. If I could find no other person, I could write it all down. At least I would be prepared if I was ever called on to serve other women. Right there in my own life, I could create the kind of familiarity of home that I longed for.

Packages from home were always my greatest delight. I just loved the smell of special soaps, my favorite toothpaste, and the feel of fabrics, and the quality of a set of measuring cups with a special cookbook. I liked opening up a package from a friend that only had stationery in it.

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. In some foreign countries, the lights literally go out and they roll up the street and put it away after 5 in the evening. While we are used to going out and enjoying the hustle and bustle and looking at the products at the grocery stores, some foreign countries are much different. Without these pleasures, we resorted to telling and writing our own stories and novels, and creating the very things we missed from home. We even had plays with scripts and costumes. After such an event, we pretended to wait outside the back stage so we could meet the famous actors.

It is helpful to remember that Abraham was a stranger in a foreign land, and Joseph ended up most unwillingly in a country that was not just foreign but unfriendly to his faith. The apostle Paul travelled from country to country and was housed by brethren he often only met for the first time. Noah was all alone with 7 other people, and other people like Elijah and Moses were sure they were homeless and rejected, only to find that there were many others just like them scattered here and there. Jesus said he had nowhere to lay His head. Everything we experience has been in some way, experienced by someone before us. There has to be a way to use those experiences to help others.

While we still have the freedom of the web, we ought to be able to use it to make connections we need to adjust to life in a foreign country. I have heard of people who were homeschooling and needing the fellowship and encouragement of other like-minded people, finding someone on the very same block in the same neighborhood, just by doing a search for others like them, on the web. I certainly wish I had been able to enjoy the privilege of the internet in days when I was having a struggle adjusting to this or that foreign country, and I hope others will use it to their advantage and find the support they need.

Painting: Joseph in Egypt

Like Joseph in Egypt we can remind ourselves while in a foreign country that we can shine like the stars in a dark world and bring the culture of Christ, contained in our manners, in our dress, our words, our conduct, in our homes, and in our daily life. When we leave, and finally go home, we want those we left behind, to have seen a picture of what is good and proper in the life of a woman dedicated to the happiness of her family.

If you are reading this and you recognize yourself as a foreigner but you are still in your own country, I have to say I know exactly how you feel. Our country has become foreign to many of us who have experienced life before everything got so wacky and wierd. When I talk about the fact that many of the wordly things that go on in our society today were not as prominent 50 years ago, people stare blankly as though I imagined it. But like the person in foreign land, we still have our home life, in which we have the freedom to create the world we enjoy. We at home are still obligated to be a shining light to others by the way we live.

To students who go to foreign countries: the situation in your case will not be the same as the family that goes to live away from home. For one thing, the home and its customs and beliefs is like transporting a mini-country to reside within the borders of a larger country. In the family, an order will remain of father, mother and children. The children will be in the care of their parents, and the wife will be a helpmeet for her husband. Just because they go overseas, does not mean the family will abandon all the things that a family stands for. The wife cannot go out drinking and the husband cannot forget that he is the protector and provider for his family.

Living in another country can provide special challenges and drawbacks, but there can be a lot of joy in discovering the history and geography of that culture. I have lived in and visited foreign countries and found that being with my family, and the families of people in that nation, provided the most comfort and adjustment. Somewhere in that country will be the kind of families you need to be associated with.

While on the subject I'd like to greet our friends in Dubai, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. These are hardly "foreign" to me but still are away from home. From experience of living and visiting many countries, I know that living in one for a long period of time is much different from a visit. I hope you are all finding ways to feel the comforts of home!


Anonymous said...

We had friends who moved across the world to teach, and the church we attended liked to send them anything they needed but could not find-- things like their favorite foods or hot cocoa packets or even chewable vitamin C! They appreciated these familiar things until they were able to find out where to purchase these things. It had to have been a brave to go wandering around a foreign city, trying to find these items. Let's not forget those who are overseas with small comforts like these!

Lori ~ The Simple Life at Home said...

Thank you for this post. We will soon be moving to the Middle East. It's a daunting task ahead of us, but your post has given me some ideas of what to be prepared for, as well as ideas on how to strengthen the family through it. We are looking forward to our "adventure" but I do realize that there will be many challenges on the road ahead. I appreciate having your experience to draw from.

The Chatty Housewife said...

This was a good reminder that even in the United States, we can make our home feel like HOME compared to the world around us. It should be a safe haven away from the things in the world that are displeasing to the Lord Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lady Lydia,
As one who has made her home in my husbands country I know what you write here is so true. I was married and moved to a totally new country, culture and language immediately. My first baby arrived 9 months later. I was alone all day, in a lovely home, but without neighbours or any form of local social network. I drove 90 miles to take my baby to an English language Moms and Tots group just to see someone during the week! The English Church was a lifeline I could never have made it without and I got involved in everything they did! Ten years later I am settled and secure, but not integrated. I am an at home mother and feel privileged to be so, but there are no others around me, and no one who understands why I should want to be so. The arrival of the internet is a tremendous support and resource for me in my homemaking and family life. I am so grateful for the kindly words and friendship available through blogs such as yours. Gill.

Lydia said...

One thing that is important to know is that you can adjust and be content through the comforts of your own home and through keeping a semblence of order around you, paying attention to the things that are important to you. YOu can ajust to a foreign country without adopting detrimental habits or losing your Christian beliefs. Even in ones OWN country, it is a good idea to keep the home a refuge and not indulge in every known vice just because it is part of the culture. When a family goes overseas, they really need each other to be strong and maintain a strong home life. It is very lonely, and many students who are overseas soon succumb to the drinking and carelessness in friendships, just to escape the loneliness. Families will fare much better, but only if they take in what is good from that country and refuse to be part of anything harmful. Even in our own country, we have to live like this.

Lydia said...

In any country, there are areas not safe for families and also there may be a language factor. In one country we learned that one our expressions, innocent to us, meant something completely different to the people of that nation. There were a lot of other things as well, to adjust to,and a mother at home can be a great comfort to the family if she concentrates on making it the best home possible.

Anonymous said...

Greetings from New Zealand! Thank you for your wonderful writings, they are so refreshing to read. I very much enjoy learning from your blog and being inspired by the customs and practices of yesteryear. We live in a small town, with few like-minded families, so there is a big lack of Titus 2 teaching and mentoring. It is wonderful to be able to learn online from you. God Bless!

Anonymous said...

I've never been to a foreign country. But when we moved from the city nearly 10 years ago to a small mountain town, it was a huge adjustment for me.

I'd just begun homeschooling and was having a hard time with that because of having been conditioned to be concerned with what everyone else was doing.

I fought the perceived isolation of our environment and the 'differentness' that we carried with us due to homeschooling, being Catholic and my husband working from home.

Now we had to move to the next town 12 miles away, and we don't fit in here and would all really like to go back "home." This town is twice as big, so it's still very small. But the faster pace, the more conveniences, don't reflect our way of life at all. It's also very New Age-y oriented, non Christian....

And the church down here while more populated, is full of worldlings that are no different than much larger cities.

Our home is our refuge. Thank you for everything you said here Lady Lydia.

I think this amounts to not being attached to the world...but to things that matter: faith, family, home (not the house), but the home you create.

Mommy Bee said...

Thank you for this post! We will be moving to England this summer, so it could not have come at a better time. I appreciate all the advice you have given.

May I also say that I love how your posts are so lengthy and detailed? I think it's fantastic, and I love sitting down to read your beautiful essays during the day--it's such a nice respite!

Lydia said...

In case it did not sound very clear, I hope to distinguish between several kinds of experiences: a visit doesn't take as much adjustment; a single student will have different kinds of difficulties in the culture of the country to which they go, than a whole family. Taking your family is a completely different kind of adjustment, especially if you have a baby, the language is different, or they are hostile to the word of God in the Bible. There are ways though, of bringing the blessing of Christ to the world, wherever you may be. Although I did get an objectionable letter about the fact that I came from the US, I would like to say that anyone who lives here will experience the kind of culture shock if they do not surround themselves with the things they love at home. It helps a lot to bring the things which are familiar, in any country. I mentioned a quilt because I like quilts and they add brightness and warmth to any living condition.The Bible says that a Christian is an "ambassador," and as such, represent their "Father," the one who created the heavens and the earth. When this dictates your life, there will be less confusion about what you should or should not accept in any culture, even your own.

Kim said...
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