It’s the Small Stuff

23 Oct

Isn’t there a book called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff”? I’ve never read it, but I’m betting the author never lived abroad.

Why? Because when you live abroad, it’s the small stuff that wears you down the most.

It’s having to remember to say “lolly” instead of “candy”. It’s having to think twice about which lane you’re turning into because you’re driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s having to strain to understand what people around you are saying because their accents are so thick they don’t even sound like they are speaking English.

I was talking with another expat recently, Stacey from South Africa, and we’ve both found that there seems to be this perception that if you, as an immigrant, speak the language of your host country, then integrating shouldn’t be a problem for you, that feeling at home should come easily.

Yeah… right… That couldn’t be further from the truth.

While I can imagine how much more difficult it is to move to a country where you don’t speak the language and are from a radically different background. the truth is that even expats who speak the language and share a similar culture to their host country also face plenty of challenges. In some ways, I think it might even be harder.

Take for example, the refugee or asylum seeker from a third world country. Everyone knows he has come from a disadvantaged background and that he’s probably led a pretty crappy life without many opportunities. It’s taken for granted that he will have a hard time as a new immigrant and as such, people will cut him some slack and expect less of him. Furthermore, he’ll be given loads of help by various charitable and governmental organisations to help him get settled. Of course it will still be hard for him, but everyone else understands that and treats him accordingly.

For the English-speaking expat to Australia, the assumption is that Australia can’t be too different from where we came from, so there should be no problems whatsoever. Sure, we don’t face the same challenges that the refugee does, but that doesn’t make us any less prone to feelings of isolation and depression. That’s something I don’t think people who haven’t been there can understand. Even my own husband doesn’t get it.

I’ve written before about my difficulty in making new friends and general feelings of loneliness, and recently another blogger did as well. Stacey told me that she spent the entire first year in Melbourne living on South African time, trying to keep up with her old life there, and almost never leaving the house. Like many of us, she wasn’t immediately eligible to work or study and found it hard to make new friends. Six years later, Stacey says she still feels like an outsider, as most of her friends are native Australians who have no concept of what it is like to move abroad.

So while the challenges an English speaking expat to Australia may face aren’t as glaringly obvious as the challenges other newcomers may face, they are still there.

They’re all little things, small stuff. But after awhile, it wears you down psychologically. Everything that was easy and automatic before now becomes something you have to think about.

Ordering a side of fries becomes a conscious effort as you remind yourself to order “chips” instead and then find yourself hoping they will actually bring you “fries” and not “crisps”.

It takes you forever to cross the street because you have to stand there and figure out which direction you should be looking for traffic or you creep through every intersection because you can’t remember how hook turns work.

You’re constantly trying to convert the weather report into Fahrenheit so you know if you should bring a sweater or not. Oh, sorry… I mean a “windcheater”.

And you make your husband call to order a pizza because you get embarrassed that the pizza people can’t understand a thing you say on the phone and you can’t understand them, either.

Or, if you are from South Africa, like Stacey, you might suffer extreme guilt from causing your friend to miss a turn by telling her to turn right at the “robot”, instead of at the “traffic light”, and wasting valuable time explaining what you meant by that strange turn of phrase.

They are things that, as a short term visitor, would be only mild annoyances and inconveniences, with perhaps one or two major faux pas thrown in for good measure. But when you’re staying for the longer term, those constant frustrations start to wear you down and make you feel depressed because all of it is a reminder that this isn’t home and might never feel like home.

Because while America might have the same green coloured street signs, they’re not surrounded by eucalypt trees. Nothing looks the same, feels the same, smells the same. The only part of home you have with you is what fit into your suitcase; maybe a favourite outfit or some small heirloom, if you’re sentimental.

But your family and friends don’t fit into a suitcase. Neither does your comfy bed. Or that oak tree that provides such nice shade in the summer. Your hometown definitely won’t fit, along with all of your memories from your “old life” that you had there. And if you try to pack snow to save for Christmas, it will either melt or be confiscated by customs.

No, you pack your suitcase with your “essentials”- some clothes, some applicator tampons, a laptop- and off you go. You take the small stuff, things with minimal power to make you happy, and you leave behind all the big, important stuff that you love. All in the name of adventure, of a better future.

I think a big reason why expats tend to form their own communities and cluster together the way that they do is because it’s so much easier to cope with the challenges of living abroad when you know there are other people who feel the same way you do, who talk the same way you do, who are going through the same things, and who understand what you love “back home” and why it was worth leaving behind. Another expat will always understand what it’s like to miss the things you left behind and also why you don’t “just go back home if you don’t like it here”.

After several years (like 10 or 20), I’m told you don’t sweat the small stuff anymore and you only sweat because the summers are so stinking hot. Eventually all those things that frustrated you in the beginning because they were different just become normal and you make your peace with the small stuff. Here’s hoping!

13 Responses to “It’s the Small Stuff”

  1. Chelsea Wellington October 23, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    I know exactly what you’re going through!

  2. Tony Martin October 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    I hope to soon know what you’re going through. (Yeah, I’m delusional; I admit it.) I do, nonetheless, appreciate getting your perspective. Although my planned move out of here is intended to be to another English-speaking country, I do try and be honest with myself about how unimaginably challenging it will be.

    Always though,

    Carpe diem!

    • housewifedownunder October 24, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

      Where are you moving to and where from?
      Don’t let my negative posts get you down! I sometimes have bad days where the frustration really gets to me, but on the whole, moving abroad has been a really positive experience. I hope it will be for you, too. 🙂

  3. josephinedayco October 29, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    10 or 20??? Oh dear…I don’t know if I can even hack it beyond three. I’m coming up on my third year living down under this December. For me, these last few months are always the worst time of the year. I get so terribly homesick, and I’ve been extremely homesick lately because my husband is away. But reading your post was such a breath of fresh air and made me feel like someone understood exactly what I’ve been going through. Thank you, and as usual, loved it. 🙂

    • housewifedownunder October 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Do you get homesick because of the approaching holiday season? This will be my first Christmas here and I just know I’ll miss the snow and my family and all the Christmas goodies.

      It is nice, though, to know that someone else understands what you’re going through, isn’t it? It doesn’t really fix the problem, but at least for me, I feel a little less alone and isolated just knowing that someone else feels the same way.

  4. Cosette October 29, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    I sympathize. Back home, I rarely ate fast food, but here I actually crave McDonald’s because it’s familiar. Everything is different here – everything – even the pizzas and burgers. But when I bite into a McWhatever, it tastes like home.

    • housewifedownunder October 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

      Ew, McDonald’s?! Seriously?! I have to say, that’s one thing I definitely don’t crave. But you’re right- it tastes the same everywhere in the world!

      I don’t really like Australian pizza at all. I’ll eat it, but sometimes I want a big greasy, cheesy pizza loaded up with gourmet toppings and they just don’t make them that way here. I haven’t tried Australian Domino’s yet, but I’m suspicious.

      A few days ago, I tried Krispy Kremes and while they were good, they didn’t taste like the American ones. Too cakey and not as “melt-in-your-mouth”. 😦

      • Homesick and Heatstruck October 31, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

        Hello ladies – I couldn’t agree more. I’m a Brit living in the Middle East, but the comfort of the familiar seems to be universal. I’ve just started up my blog today and – weirdly – that’s what my first post is all about! Loving your work, housewifedownunder.

      • housewifedownunder November 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

        Thanks for stopping by! Being an expat definitely presents some unique challenges. It’s always nice to know that you’re not the only one out there going through it. That’s why I started blogging initially. I have a bunch of other good expat blogs linked on the right sidebar that you might enjoy. I hope your adjustment to your new home is without too many troubles. 🙂

      • Emme May 17, 2013 at 6:34 am #

        Australian Dominoes is better than any American pizza chain (I just had Pizza Hut on my visit to the US and it was not edible) but that’s all I can say about it. Also, I was sick for nearly two weeks from all the additives, corn syrup and grease in American food. Ugh. That’s one win for Oz.

      • housewifedownunder May 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

        Really? I like Domino’s in America, but haven’t had it here. We usually get a pizza from a little shop near us and it’s a bit tasteless. Pizza Hut is gross no matter what country you’re in! Too greasy!

        But yeah, American food in general can be hard on the digestive system if you’re not used to it. It does make me feel sick now when I go back because I’m not used to it anymore.

  5. Dee May 16, 2013 at 2:54 am #

    I lived in Scotland for a time and was planning to make it my home (long story). The first few weeks I just nodded and smiled a lot ’cause I didn’t understand four out of five words (you think us Aussies have colloquialisms) and after about a week I picked things up, pants are underwear not trousers (do not forget), keen is know, bairn or wein is a child, when I go to work ‘I’m away to my woorrrrk’, aye = yes, coo = cow, etc etc. I never felt isolated or unhappy. I purposely stayed away from Australians and only spent time with Scots. I never felt that things were better here than there, just different. In Australia we used to be able to afford to go out for dinner now and then (it was a while ago, back when we really were the lucky country: ) but in Scotland the ordinary person can’t, but we’d make something and sit in a park looking up at the hills, it was different but still wonderful. I loved every minute I spent there and would go back in a heartbeat if I could. Perhaps if you try to see it as different rather than not as good then it might be a bit better?

    • housewifedownunder May 17, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      Hi, Dee. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you didn’t suffer from typical expat symptoms like isolation and unhappiness. I think some people are more cut out for that sort of lifestyle than others. I know that I am not one of them. Don’t ask me why I keep doing it when I don’t like it! I like travelling, but I don’t necessarily like living in a place that is filled with daily frustrations for me. The nature and scope of my dissatisfaction has changed since I wrote this post and I’m starting to wonder if it’s actually just Melbourne that I dislike rather than Australia as a whole.

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