Monday, April 16, 2012

6 Ways Living in a Foreign Country Changes Your POV

I'm noted on here before that I enjoy occasionally delving into the ridiculous, but funny, annals of For those who don't share my hobby (if you visit, be warned: its humor can get dirty), one of the hallmarks of their website is their list-format articles. For instance, the two stories currently leading on their homepage are "The 7 Most Insane Ways People Legally Avoided Paying Taxes" and "5 Things Flight Safety Presentations Should Mention."

I like this format. And, just now, I feel inspired to try it out. So, apart from the literal change in view that comes from being on a different side of the globe, how does living in a foreign country change your POV? Well...

1. All your holidays become multi-day events

I've written about this, I believe, at every holiday I've experienced here in Taiwan. Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter, rolls around. "Aw," I think, "Another holiday away from home! Time to have a search for a turkey meal/Christmas Eve service/Eggs Benedict-making fest to compensate." I have said festivities, miss my family, but do the best I can to have a good holiday. Then I go to sleep.

And the next morning, surprise! It's still Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter! Yep, due to the wonder of time zones and the fact that my hometown is a solid 15 or 16 hours (depending on Daylight Savings Time) behind Taiwan, my family is usually having their big celebration right around the time I'm eating breakfast and driving to school the next day.

Let's take Easter for our first example, since it happened most recently and my family was disappointed because I (whoops!) forgot to Skype in with them for the holiday. But, as I figured out afterwards, there was a reason for that. See, my family celebrates Easter in the early afternoon, like, say 1pm-4pm or so. Which, in Taiwan, would be 4am-7am. And, on any given Monday, my alarm goes off at 8am. So...yeah.

On the more successful Skype holidays, say, Christmas, for example, I Skyped my family three times over the course of two days: noon on Christmas (Christmas Eve at home), late at night on Christmas (Christmas morning), and afternoon on Boxing Day (Christmas night). Or, take Thanksgiving, which found me Skyping in the next day at lunchtime, with my Subway turkey sandwich, as my family cleaned off their Thanksgiving late-night snacks. It's bizarre, but it's something you eventually adjust to: holidays are as fluid as time zones when it comes to when they're celebrated. And you'd better be there for all of them.

2. Everyone's online at the wrong time.

All this talk about time zones brings me to my second point: you know all those people who've hassled you your whole life about not staying up too late? You know, the early birds who consider staying up past 11pm or sleeping past 9am to be some sort of freakish abnormality, not to be tolerated under any circumstances? Well---they are now your most reliable contacts.

On the flip side, never have I felt more rewarded to keep an abnormal sleeping schedule than I have since I moved here. Want to talk to someone? Better be okay with staying up till 2am. Want a lot of people to read your blog? Well then forget about posting before midnight, it's best if you wait till at least 3am to maximize readership. (True numbers there: Google Analytics tells all.)

And, really, developing dual communities on opposite sides of the globe just means you have twice as much stuff to do online, and doing it in sync with the local community necessitates more and more hours spent there. At this point, just about every time I open my Facebook I have a notification or four waiting--after all, while I'm sleeping or teaching, my friends back home are in their late-night Facebook mode! And then, on top of that, once I'm in my late-night Facebook mode, so are my friends here in Taiwan.

So I'm not actually complaining about this shift. It really works out pretty well for a night owl/online addict like me. But still, time zone shifts can be confusing, especially when you're dealing with facts like...

3. You have to re-memorize all publication schedules

This may not be a big deal for other people. And, truthfully, it's not *that* big of a deal for me, most of the time, since I had no functioning television in my house last year and so relied exclusively on Internet versions of shows, which always come out later to begin with. But. You still get used to certain release dates; you still (if you're me) know *exactly* when Bones will be up, and *exactly* when The Office will be. You also have to get used to the fact that none of the reputable sites you know and love are licensed for use where you are.

And there are websites that get updated on a time schedule, too--usually something like Monday/Wednesday/Friday, yet now rendered Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. Or, if it's a daily site, perhaps it will seem to be updated twice-daily, since it posts directly in the middle of your viewing session.

So it's a mixed bag of good and bad, and it makes Internet content completely unpredictable until you master its patterns (which I haven't), and unfortunate fact given that, living in another country, you are 100% dependent on the Internet for everything, from translations to communications to media to procrastination. Take your normal dependence, multiply it by 100, and you've got a rough idea.

Now take into consideration that you don't know when stuff will be available. Of course, 'not knowing' is a normal state of being while living abroad, which leads us to how...

4. You acquire a deep empathy with all immigrants, ever.

This is actually the number 1 reason why I truly believe that EVERYONE should be required to live somewhere they can't communicate at some point in their lives. Preferably while they're young, since it's easier then and it avoids years of misunderstandings.

See, if there's one thing I've realized since moving to Taiwan, it's that living in a foreign country is hard! You don't know your way around, you don't know the culture, you know next to no one, and, to top it off (in my case, at least), you can't even find the answers to these things because you don't know the language.

Let me give you an example. When I was in high school/the beginning of college, I worked for Jamba Juice. And I remember, some of our best customers were foreigners from Asian countries. They would come in, looking earnest, and spend what seemed like hours studying the menu before coming to the front and ordering, pretty invariably, an orange-carrot juice. Asking size was a struggle, and when they had finished ordering and paying--usually in cash, with a $20 bill, you could see the look of relief on their faces as they stepped back to wait for their juice.

I'm not going to lie, as employees, we hated this: orange juice and carrot juice come from two massive, hard-to-clean machines which would sometimes otherwise go a day without being used; beside that, these customers always seemed to come right after we'd finished cleaning both machines for the night. It was pretty annoying.

Well...I'm pretty sure I now am that person. I think of them every time I step foot inside a coffee shop, or a juice shop, or a restaurant of any kind, and stare unknowing at the massive menu of indistinguishable words which must, I know, be the dishes I'm supposed to be ordering. I'll stare, and stare, pick out the few words I recognize, and then, usually, place one of my stock orders--drinks: latte (hot or cold; hazelnut or almond), watermelon juice, or milk tea, and meals: beef noodles, hamburger (if it's a Western place) or, more frequently, "this one," with a point at the menu. I feel accomplished, and happy, if I can pull this trick off without a hitch. Anything beyond it is unthinkably hard.

I then pay--always in cash, and quite frequently in the local equivalent of a $20 bill (ie the one most ATMs use), a 1,000NT (~$30USD) note, because that's how my money comes to me. Hopefully I'm not inconveniencing the employees with a notoriously hard order, but truth be told, if I were I would have no way of knowing, and they would have no way of telling me.

In another side story, I remember foreigners U-picking at the orchards I also worked at in high school. They would frequently come back with fruit they weren't supposed to have picked, and I remember one of my co-workers in particular getting very frustrated over the fact. Sometimes it was an honest mistake, but sometimes--and you could tell the difference--they were just playing the "I don't understand" card.

Now, I know that card. I love that card. It really is true, too: not knowing the dominant language in the country you're living in (or not knowing it well enough) is a HUGE get-out-of-jail-free card. Not literally, of course, but the fact is you can get away with quite a lot when you really don't know the rules, or have any way of finding them out. Playing the foreigner card can come in quite handy and, previous frustrations about it aside, it's actually pretty wonderful.

See, all these little things bundle together to make you know, in pretty good anagram, exactly how immigrants feel in YOUR country. And, while it's easy to write people off who can't speak your language at home (You're in America! Learn the language!), it's much more difficult to do so when the situation's been reversed, and you see firsthand exactly how difficult it is, and, more importantly, how long it takes, to do so.

This also applies to ethnic enclaves, another phenomenon I never quite understood until I moved here, and realized that, while living abroad...

5. You develop a sudden, simultaneous love for and mistrust of all things 'foreign'--aka, from home.

I've written about this before: whenever I go to church here, or, really, whenever I see a foreigner here, a little alarm goes off in my head. What is going on? What is/are he/she/they doing here? Why are there so many foreigners in one place? Something is not right!!!

See, when you're living in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb, you go through a couple of phases. 1: WOW I am seriously the only white person in a 10-mile radius right now. 2: Well obviously I'm the only white person in a 10-mile radius right now, this is TAIWAN. 3: Yes, I'm the only white person in a 10-mile radius right now, move along, folks.

Right around when you hit that third stage, it becomes absolutely shocking whenever you're proven wrong. It happens occasionally that I'll draw some stares when I'm out on my scooter or on the MRT (I learned to ignore it sometime around stage 2 above), but when I see a white person in a similar context, I full-on stare. I can't seem to help myself. All memories of how much I dislike being stared at go out the window as I grapple with the unnerving realization that there's more than one of us here! It actually makes me quite uncomfortable, a fact which bodes interestingly for when I go back home in July...

And of course alongside this is the sudden idolization of all things American. We're going out to Western food? Fantastic! There's a Starbucks on that corner? Hooray! They serve red meat there? My day is made!

It's an odd juxtaposition, really, this love-hate relationship you develop with 'home,' and one which I suppose reinforces somewhat the idea that...

6. The whole world suddenly seems like it's just a whim (and a few saved paychecks) away

Obviously, moving across the world is a huge step, and one that involves a TON of planning, paying, and travel time. But, once you've done it, it becomes remarkably apparent just how feasible it is to do. Pick up and move to another country? Sure, why not!

As an outgrowth of that, then, travel becomes the most natural thing in the world. Want go to Thailand for a week? Sure, why not! How about Australia? Why yes I would, sign me up!

I've yet to determine whether these impulses come solely, or just primarily, from living abroad, or if they're more a product of having a full-time job (and salary) for the first time. But, for me, at least, I can't help but think it's probably largely because I'm living abroad. I mean, really, my wages are pretty low by US standards, and flight prices don't vary based on local cost of living (a bum deal, really), but even so it seems 100% natural and easy to travel widely while I'm here.

At the core of it is the realization that long plane rides really aren't that long, and that international travel, if you can keep a cool head about it, is pretty easy. And, especially once you've adjusted to living in a culture in an infantile state of non-knowing, it doesn't really matter where you display your ignorance; beyond that, you've developed the very specific skill-set necessary to navigate an unknown location using only hand signals and whatever level of English whoever you're talking to happens to know.

It's liberating, really: when you known nothing, and know you know nothing, you can go anywhere. Now that's a sentence I never would have written before moving here...oh, the joys of a fresh POV.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog, Bekah. Without the links, this would make a great article to publish. I think you should send it to the Falcon or ???