You’re not In Kansas anymore: Some tips for adjusting to expat life
Editor’s note: Karla Freeman, expat, traveler, tango dancer, writer, currently lives in Cuenca and is the author of Creating Magic in Midlife: 101 Questions and Answers to Reinvent Your Work, Relationships and Life! Available on Amazon Kindle and in Carolina’s bookstore in Cuenca.
By Karla Freeman
Every year, thousands of people uproot themselves from their home countries and, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” have found themselves in a new place, beginning a new life in Cuenca or Buenos Aires or Bogota. Each one of us has a story.
No, I didn’t really live in Kansas. I lived in Santa Barbara, California. (What the heck?) Who wouldn’t want to live in Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful coastal cities on earth, you might ask? I had friends and a successful career as a psychotherapist and adult education teacher. My life there looked good on the outside.
Even so, I was depressed, dying a slow death of boredom. I needed a big change. I wanted more. I wanted to travel, dance tango, try living abroad, speak a foreign language.
So off I went to Buenos Aires for two years, immersing myself in a new culture. I became a tango dancer, an expat and a Spanish speaker (well that might be stretching the truth). I traveled to Chile, Brazil, and to Uruguay. I even tried living in New York again for six months after being gone from my New York roots for over 20 years. As part of my journeys, I visited Cuenca several times and liked it. For about five years I traveled to new places with only suitcases (… oh, my!) Finally, I was tired and needed to settle in somewhere. I chose Cuenca for my home base about three years ago.
Many of you have experienced starting over or want to try it. Some have made “the move” overseas.
SOME CASE STUDIES
Once upon a time a woman named Dorothy landed in a place very far from her home in Kansas. In shock, she said, “ Oh, my God, what have I done? What is this place?”
Another Dorothy sat in the living room of an apartment she had found online with her hostess Sally, another “gringa.” Sally was very nice. She patiently answered Dorothy’s questions about Cuenca.
Sally advised: Yes, it is generally safe. Be careful to not go alone by the river at night. It is easy to meet people. You can go to some of the places that expats go and if you are friendly you can meet new people. Food is mostly safe and inexpensive. Dorothy became excited and started to relax a little.
Daniel was panicked. He arrived four months ago, paperwork in hand, after finding Cuenca on the Internet through websites that promoted the expat life. Now he was trying to live somewhere new after never having traveled outside his native North Carolina.
Inez was a Cuencana woman who had recently returned to Cuenca from her life Queens, New York. Her experience in the United States was exciting for seven years. But she missed her family in Cuenca and decided to come home.
Each person’s reasons are unique. Some have been world travelers and are used to coping with starting a new life. These folks have learned to expect discomfort and really enjoy adventure.
The Dorothys and Daniels who never left Kansas or Quebec or France or Brooklyn, feel more vulnerable and uneasy. As well they should. Maybe they never have experienced this type of disorientation. It can be dizzying! Life has become exciting and scary at the same time.
So if this is not Kansas, or whatever city or country you are used to, how does one make his or her way? Here are three tips that might help you adjust to your new life in your new home.
CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE
Living in a new culture requires patience. Patience with yourself and others can save your day from frustration and open the door to something more useful: a sense of adventure! Maybe, like me, you think you want to get comfortable fast. You want to feel like you belong. You want to communicate and make friends. That’s all well and good. These are normal desires.
ORIENT YOURSELF TO THE NEW ‘HOOD
Walk around the block and look and smell and taste neighborhood, and say hola. That may take a day or tow. Maybe you will spend 10 days or even a month learning to be comfortable with the new streets. It pays to take time to orient yourself. Like a plant uprooted, we need time to see things and feel our feet, and to set new roots. We might think, “Where is Trader Joe’s?” (forget it). It seemed like a small goal, but I feel at home because I can find my way around. And it took longer than I thought it would.
I found that the first year was not only about getting used to my new city but also about letting go. Of what, you might ask? The pace of life in Cuenca and other foreign cities might be slower. This can be a good thing, right? But it may mean we let go of rushing and of experiencing the kind of stress you may have been accustomed to before. You can remind yourself that you are not in Kansas anymore and that this might be a good thing.
Although I wrote a book titled Creating Magic in Midlife in 2006 about how to reinvent yourself, I discovered later that I had not followed my own advice. I am now learning to:
- Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and then focus on what makes me happy
- Detox from the attitudes and actions that exhausted me
- Be quiet and listen to what is being offered by my new culture
- Recover more quickly from the bumps and see my resiliency
In future columns I will share stories, ideas and tools about the reinvention process like how to look at who you are now and who you want to be? Don’t you agree we are lucky to live in Cuenca or Quito or Bogota or Paris and have this opportunity?
Hope to see you in a local park. I am the one smiling. And please say Hola.