5 Things No One Tells You About Living OverseasPosted on Thursday, January 28th, 2021
By David Gee
Figuring out how to live overseas and use your gifts abroad after college is only half the battle. Once you get there, the real fun begins. Only, fun may not be the right word for it. Living life overseas is a rich and often enjoyable experience, but sometimes you get blindsided by the fact that there are tons of things you didn’t expect the experience would entail, and it’ll often leave you scratching your head in the middle of a foreign street lamenting, “Why did no one ever tell me it was going to be like this?”
Well, here’s my attempt to be that one who does tell you “it’s going to be like this” via these 5 things no one tells you about living overseas. Except, now I’ve told you, and you’ll have to discover other things no one told you. Make sense? Great, let’s go.
1) The Food is Great, Not so Much the Side Effects
This one is chronologically inspired because one of the first things you’ll realize within days of being in a new country is that you were woefully deprived of the diverse array of flavors the world provides, as well as blissfully unaware of what those flavors would do to your body.
For me, I ended up serving in the Middle East for two years. I quickly realized that it was a tragedy that I had lived 23 years of life up until that point and never realized the magic that happens when you combine chicken, garlic sauce, pickles, and then stuff it all in a pita. I grew up in the South, so the only way we ate chicken was fried. But, within days of moving to the Middle East, I became the biggest Texan advocate for chicken shawarma the world had ever seen.
However, as delicious as the food was, which was more or less to be expected, I wasn’t expecting the absolute havoc a completely new diet would wreak on my body. We won’t go into details, but let’s just say I was more or less on voluntary house arrest the first month abroad for fear of getting too far from a toilet.
It’s unpleasant, but it’s part of what it means to adjust to a new place. And the good news is, that once you’ve adjusted, the food doesn’t get any less tasty.
2) Cleanliness is Relative
You really don’t realize how much your home culture informs your standards of cleanliness, hygiene, and even bathroom etiquette until you’ve gone abroad. You’d think doing your business, washing your hands, and what to do at a dinner table is pretty straightforward, but to be honest, when living overseas you’ll likely have to relearn some things. Furthermore, it turns out what you think is clean and polite is entirely relative to your culture. What you think is rude your host culture might not bat an eye about, and what you think is clean might seem bizarre and unnecessary to them. Talk about a crash course in humility.
Let’s start with toilets since we were just talking about them anyway. In the Middle East, I was quite surprised to learn that toilet paper was really only a second line of defense when it comes to bathroom business, if you catch my drift. Instead, locals relied on what was called a shattafa. I like to describe the shattafa as a toilet’s water hose. I’ll spare you the details of how exactly it works, that’s best left for a google search, but as an outsider, I thought it quite strange that this was everyone’s preferred method of bathroom hygiene. Not only that, but I also realized the hard way that if you hit the wrong lever at the wrong time, well, the toilet could very well attack back.
All that to say, when I first arrived at my placement, I found myself having to relearn the basics of human existence. This process usually oscillated between joy and fascination to frustration and anxiety. However, these types or processes are, ironically, one of the things God uses the most on the field to form and refine you.
These types or processes are, ironically, one of the things God uses the most on the field to form and refine you.
3) It’s Not Right, It’s Not Wrong, It’s Just Different
Growing up in America, we’re kind of obsessed with learning right from wrong. We tend to believe there are right and wrong answers to a problem, right and wrong ways of doing things, and right and wrong relationships to be involved in. Overseas, you quickly learn this isn’t the case, namely because you will see tons of people doing something that you think is blatantly wrong and inefficient, yet in their mind that couldn’t be farther from the truth. These things include gender-segregated classrooms and faulty bureaucratic systems, as well as lesser issues like a hesitancy to wear seatbelts and a refusal to take money when it’s offered by a left hand.
It’s often a temptation to lash out and get angry seeing these things, only, you’ll discover at the end of the day, these things are not wrong, they are just different.
This reality applies to literally everything from justice work and ministry to making friends and changing a tire. There’s seldom one right way of going about things, but learning and embracing that truth can be quite uncomfortable when we were raised in a culture that often worked hard to define these things.
I remember seeing a clear example of this when my brother visited me while I was living overseas. I had already been living in my Middle Eastern megacity for over a year at that point, and I had gotten all too used to riding around town in microbuses. Microbuses are these rickety 15 person passenger vans used for public transit that were infamous for disregarding all traffic rules and always looking like they were on the brink of death.
Now, my brother was from suburban Texas. Not only had he never seen a third world microbus before, but he had also never used public transit anywhere. As you can tell, it was a tragedy in the making.
You see, an interesting thing about microbuses is that no one, literally, no one, ever shuts the doors of these things. The bus stops, a passenger will heave the sliding door back, disembark, and disappear into the crowd as the bus darts off again with the side door wide open and riders only inches away from falling onto the asphalt.
This drove my brother mad. We grew up in a culture where closing the door behind you was a common courtesy. In my host country, closing the door only meant complicating things for other people trying to enter and exit the bus. And at the end of the day, closing the door didn’t really matter because the driver would end up slamming on his breaks within the next 30 seconds anyway, and the door would roll shut on its own. If everyone kept taking time to shut the door behind them, it would just be overkill.
There’s nothing inherently right or wrong about leaving a door open when you leave. The same goes for heating rice with your hands, bathing with a bucket, and men being more verbally affectionate towards each other. It’s just different, and life overseas is full of things that are just different.
4) Exhausted is the New Normal
One thing no one told me as I was preparing to move overseas was just how tired I would be. I don’t mean an “Ahhh, it’s 9 PM and I’ve had a long day” type of tired, I mean a “Yo, is it ok to take a nap at 11 AM?” type of tired.
The thing is when you’re adjusting to a new place, especially a new place where you haven’t mastered the language yet, even the most mundane tasks suddenly become an Olympic sport. You're constantly overstimulated, overwhelmed, and it’s not uncommon to be constantly in and out of ‘fight-or-flight mode’. This takes a toll on the body fast, and the most menial tasks become ten times more exhausting than they ever were in your home country. Take, for instance, going to the grocery store.
First, you have to navigate a new transportation system. Then, you spend an hour simply scanning the shelves only to realize peanut butter doesn't actually exist here. Third, you fight to remember the word for “ground beef” and clumsily stumble through a conversation about it with the butcher. Afterward, you have to fight your way to a cash register because orderly lines aren’t a thing here. And finally, you find yourself staring blankly at the foreign currency in your hand because you still can’t count by second nature, and all the while an old woman is prodding you in the back with her cane because you’re taking too long.
We’ll leave out the part where you haul all your groceries home by foot only to realize you forgot to buy table salt and launch into the whole process all over again.
But you get the point. Things will be really clumsy when you first get overseas, and that’s ok. After a few months you’ll be bus hopping and crowd surfing grocery lines like a pro, but in the meantime, just expect to be tired and allow God to use it to teach you to rest. As one of my fellow Goers put it, “You do not magically become a super human when you take on this title of being a Goer. You will need more rest and more grace.”
“You do not magically become a super human when you take on this title of being a Goer. You will need more rest and more grace.”
5) It Will Change You For Life
Anyone who has gotten to live overseas for a longer-term can attest that it changes you for life. This change is good, but it comes with a weight and a depth that is often hard to put words to. You’ll learn to live and walk with the Lord in a way that produces a hard fought joy you hadn’t known before, but you’ll also experience a lot of the pain and brokenness of the world you hadn’t counted on either and that will mean coming face to face with your own pain and brokenness as well.
One of my colleagues who worked in the Middle East as well recently reflected to me how, even though we go overseas willing and expectant to see an external change in the country that we move to, it’s actually our own change and transformation that begins first. The long-lasting change we want to see in others to the glory of God takes time, but it begins in our own hearts and souls first.
It’s important to bring God in on the changes a new place will form in your heart. I remember becoming really disillusioned working with refugees and migrants. Their needs, situations, and cultures were complex, and working with them often held up a mirror to my own shortcomings that I didn’t want to look in. There’s a temptation there to harden your heart, but if you keep God in on the process, you’ll find your heart softening instead and the Lord bringing new fruit out of previously untoiled ground.
As God uses difficult places and circumstances to point out the broken corners of the world and our own hearts, we have to be careful to let those things soften our hearts and for God to work new graces in them, instead of hardening them and becoming cynical.
That process is painful and hard, but once you reach the other side you will find there is no going back. Even if you end up back in your host country (which I have), everything is different. You see God and neighbor in new ways.
It’s incredibly worth it. You’ll likely speak an entirely different language afterwards, and with it be able to connect to immigrants in your own backyard. It’ll allow you to peer behind a curtain into another world that many Americans never realized was right next door. You’ll have a new perspective on politics and world news, because these places are no longer far off and strange, but instead are near to your heart and story. And finally, you’ll have a new grounding for what it means to follow Jesus. For me, I found that while it often includes sacrifice, it remains nothing less than an honor and privilege to be included in God’s work around the globe. At least, that has been my experience, and it all started with deciding to follow God in living overseas after college.
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