The Overseas’ Survival Guide

images Today’s world is quite different than our parent’s and grandparent’s generation.  In the past, it was not uncommon to finish school, get a job, work the farm, marry, and have children all in the same location.  Nowadays, due to a need to find work, a sense of fun-loving adventure, and a desire to reclaim our own identity, many people find themselves in different cities, provinces, and even a world over.  Some have lamented the fact that this has split up families and whole communities; however, I do not think it is all bad.  To me, there is no greater teacher than life experience and one of the richest experiences you can have is to learn to thrive in a completely new culture.  Learning a new lifestyle and having new expectations helps to clarify some of your core convictions, deepens your sense of who you are, and helps you to establish a greater vision for your future.  Yet, even though there are myriad blessings to living in a completely new context, there are also several challenges.  You may suddenly find yourself crying over a bowl of pho noodles because you wish you could be eating pancakes with maple syrup and bacon instead.  You may suddenly become homesick when you lack the ability to communicate fluently in a foreign language.  You may face a relatively harmless, short term illness, but begin to feel sad because there is no one around to take care of you.  All of these experiences will ultimately make you a tougher and stronger person, but in the interim, they are very hard to tackle.  While I cannot completely solve the problem of homesickness or culture shock for you, what follows is a list of some ideas of what has helped keep me going.  Through it all, I give the ultimate glory to God, because I know that as much as these ideas have been beneficial for me, if it weren’t for being sure that God had called me to this country and to this ministry I would have packed it in long ago.  I hope the following list can give you some inspiration and help you get through those super tough days of missing home.

Pre-Departure: The day has finally come.  You have spent months dreaming of your big adventure, and you have finally received word that it really and truly is going to happen.  You have been accepted into your volunteer/missionary/schooling/ministry/backpacking adventure.  Congratulations!  It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment (and you definitely SHOULD do something grand to celebrate), but before you actually leave your home country, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You will be gone for a long time. You may only be gone for a year or two, or you may be gone for much longer (potentially for the rest of your life), but just remember that even a few months will seem like an eternity to your family and your closest friends.  Therefore, it is important for them to know exactly what you are doing and why.  I recommend the following tips:
  • Send out prayer letters. Before my big trip, I created a Facebok group and sent out letters to some of my closest friends and members of my church who I hoped would support me in prayer.  I briefly highlighted what I was about to do and some ways in which they could keep in touch while I was away.  At first this was a bit awkward because whenever people receive these types of letters they often automatically assume that all you want is money, even though I tried to make it very clear that I was first and foremost asking for prayer.  On the other hand, some people find it a way to show their love to be able to give to your trip financially, and if that’s the case, it can truly be a blessing to you both.
  • Think about how to say goodbye. For about six months leading up to my departure, I had to say so many goodbyes.  This was especially sad because at times I had just started making a new friend, and I knew that I would soon be leaving them.  Goodbyes can be exhausting, but they are definitely necessary to your survival.  I recommend going out one-on-one for coffee with your closest friends, and then hosting a giant going away party for everyone to attend.  These are super fun and you can even get creative.  You can have culinary delights from the country you will be travelling to, play trivia games, watch movies staged in your new country, and have a “roast and toast.”  This definitely will be a memorable night to remember and everyone who takes part will feel like they are somehow taking part in your trip with you.
  • Have a Prayer/Sending Team. One of the best decisions I made before heading abroad was to create a powerful support network in my own country before I left.  I divided my group into two – a prayer group and a sending team.  My prayer group has been invaluable to me while I have been away.  They are a group of awesome guys and gals who have committed to intentionally praying for me and who I can email at any point when I am stressed, overwhelmed or homesick or even when I want to share about all the great things that are occurring in my life over here.  I also try to return the favour by emailing them about what they need prayer for.  This has been a great way to build friendships, especially with some people I didn’t necessarily hang out with all the time in Canada, and it is so important because, trust me, when you are in a brand new places, weird things will always happen (especially at the beginning).  The second group is my “sending group.”  This group is made up of my closest friends who intentionally helped me look at my decision for going abroad.  They shared in my passion and excitement and asked me piercing questions to ensure that I was ready.  Without them, my trip would have lacked a lot of purpose because I wouldn’t have been aware of many of the nuances I was previously missing.
  • Different people have different views on this topic.  Personally, I believe it is so important to know a bit about the culture before you even step onto the plane.  Obviously, you can’t know everything, but at least understanding a bit about their history, geography, social customs, and political climate, will help you be less in shock when you experience it firsthand for yourself.  Also, you may gain respect because people won’t simply see you as an ignorant tourist or “do-gooder.”  On the other hand, one of my good friends who has been a missionary for several years said she intentionally didn’t do any research before heading abroad and this helped her not to have any preconceived ideas.  However, if you do decide to research, the best places to look are at your local library, asking missionaries who have been to that country, and, if at all possible, checking out a local cultural community within your own city.
  • Bring Something Distinctly Canadian (Insert Country Here). Make a homesick emergency kit.  Fill it with some of your favourite things from your own country.  You may be surprised at some of the things you can’t find abroad… so ask your friends who live in that country or missionaries who have been over there what some of those things are.  I personally really enjoyed decking out my journal and day planner with Canadian stickers and bringing a pair of Canadian PJs.  Things like this will amuse your new friends and also make you feel like you took a part of Canada with you.
  • Ask Friends If They Have Friends In Your New Country. Before I came to Scotland, I hardly knew anyone in the U.K.  Thankfully, I met several people who had friends over here and this was really helpful especially in the first few weeks.  I have found that friends of friends are usually more than happy to show you around, host you for an overnight, or teach you something new about the culture.  It’s definitely worth the investment.

Upon Arrival: Your plane has taken off and after several hours of on-flight movies and beverages, you have now hit the tarmac in your new country.  You have arrived, completely jet lagged, unable to understand the local language, and looking like you have just lived through a hurricane.  You have no idea what this year will bring, but here are some ways to ensure that it is the best possible experience for you:

  • Approach With An Open Mind. When you are in a new country, there is invariably a temptation to compare this new culture with your own.  You may think that they are “backwards” or “chauvinistic” or conversely you may think that your own culture is rubbish in comparison with the values this new society seems to uphold.  My best advice is: try not to compare.  Approach with an open mind and realize that you will never learn all the intricacies of this new culture, but by talking with locals and living in this new environment, you may eventually begin to understand many of the things that puzzled you at first.
  • Be a Tourist. This may sound completely counterproductive to your original desire to be more like a local, but let me tell you: a little sense of tourism never hurt anyone, in fact, it can often enrich your experience.  Prior to my trip, I started making a bucket list of all the sights I wanted to see.  When I got to Scotland, I continued to ask the locals and add to my list.  Additionally, I committed myself to taking lots of pictures right from the beginning.  Always having new places to go and new things to check out will definitely help you when you are starting to feel homesick.  It can really motivate you to stay just one week longer because there is just one more thing you want to see in the country.  If you don’t get through your list (which you most likely won’t), it will give you all the more reason to go back to this country and see the sights you missed, not to mention, meet up with all of the new friends you made while you were abroad.
  • Think of the Randomiest/Craziest/Stupidest Goal You Can, Then Go for It. What is one thing you can do in this new country that you may never be able to try again? Going for an African lion safari right in the heart of Africa?  Going on an elephant ride?  Learning how to drive a boda-boda or water taxi?  Eating a live caterpillar?  Once you know what the scariest and coolest dream you have is: just go for it!  When I came to Scotland, I was completely mesmerized by the idea of driving manual on the left side of the road.  In Canada, automatic cars are the norm and it is a pretty big deal if a woman can drive stick shift.  I decided to go for it and try it out.  I did, and it has proven to be one of the coolest experiences I have had abroad thus far.
  • Journal Often. Journaling is such a powerful tool for unleashing your greatest thoughts, fears, and ambitions, yet sadly, it has become a lost art. Due to increased technology, many people find it completely pointless to sit with a pen in one hand, and a stack of paper in another.  Nevertheless, I strongly believe that journaling is one of the tools that has helped get me through some of my darkest hours overseas.  When you are abroad, you often have a temptation to put on a happy front.  Sometimes you may genuinely be happy, you may be having a great experience, and you may have a day when you are so proud because you scaled Ben Nevis and want to share it with the world.  But other times, you may act as if you are happy because you are worried about people in your homeland.  You may feel like if they knew you were unhappy or going through a rough time they would feel completely hopeless because they are so far away from you and you may want all your supporters to think you are having the time of your life so you don’t let them down after they helped fund your trip.  Therefore, your journal can become a really close friend and ally.  It is a place where you don’t have to pretend, you can just fully be yourself.  You can talk about how much you hate eating snake or how you hate not understanding the local dialect.  You can talk about how inadequate you felt when you were the only person who didn’t understand a cultural proverb or joke.  On top of writing down the negatives, though, always try to end each entry with at least one positive thought.  This will remind you that even during the hardest days, there is always some great reason why you were brave (read: foolish) enough to make such an impossible trek.

When you do decide to journal, it is so important to unplug.  Things like Facebook or Whatsapp can often distract you.  You may begin missing home and all the exciting things that are happening to your friends back in Canada or Timbuktu, but journaling time should be distinctly your time.  It is not the place to be influenced by any other pressures or voices.

  • Finding the Balance: An old song I learned in elementary school goes like this: “make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.”  It goes without saying that your friends back home will want to keep in touch with you.  Especially in the first few months, they may message you asking to Skype or chat.  You definitely want to make time for them because you know they will be the ones to sustain you when trials come and when you are back in your homeland they are the ones you will want to invest most heavily into.  At the same time, you are meeting all these new friends and you don’t want to appear “standoffish” or too preoccupied with your friends back home, so what do you do?

In order to remedy this problem, it is important to make sacrifices on both ends.  I am a planner.  This means that I oftentimes get extremely agitated with friends who request to Skype at the last minute, or who tell me they are going to Skype with me and then “forget.”  I get really upset because sometimes I turned down other plans in order to meet up with them, and then in the end of the day it seems like they really couldn’t have been bothered.    Additionally, when you first leave the country, you will likely have many people saying things like “keep in touch” or “we should Skype,” but then whenever you request a Skype date they habitually find some reason why they are “busy.”  Therefore, my first piece of advice would be to figure out who is actually interested in Skyping.  Determine the most reliable Skypers, and anyone who habitually forgets, make them less of a priority.  I know this sounds harsh at first, but it is really about protecting your own time.  After you have decided who you would like to Skype, try to find a time that mutually works.  This can be a bit of a challenge when you are in two different time zones, however, I often find for me that Skyping at 10pm GMT (5pm in Canada) works best.  This enables my friends to get home from work, put their feet up and relax for a bit, and it also means that my day in Edinburgh has come to a close.  If I want to meet up with new friends, but also want to Skype old friends on the same day, I usually make a compromise.  I will tell my new friends I can hang out with them for two or three hours, and afterwards will be Skyping someone from Canada.  This usually makes everyone happy and is a great way to get out of a situation if it suddenly becomes awkward and uncomfortable or if you just realize that you probably aren’t really going to click with this new friend after all.

  • Culinary Delights. Part of the excitement of going to a new country is being able to sample all of the exotic foods you are being offered.  Nevertheless, it may be important to do your research, especially if you have allergies, intolerances, dietary or cultural restrictions.  Being upfront about these things right from the start can really help your host family to provide well for you.  Determine early on what your favourite dishes are.  Don’t be afraid to try something even if it sounds strange at first.  For example, the idea of eating haggis sounds unappealing to many, but in the words of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, “how do you know you won’t like it, if you won’t even try it?”  Likewise, have fun introducing your host family to some of your own favourite foods from your country.  Even though most Canadians don’t eat poutine and tourtiere on a regular basis, I really love giving other people a “taste of Canada” and introducing them to a small part of my culture.  It makes me feel at home wherever I end up being.

And Remember: Once you are established in your country, these initial ideas will simply come as second nature to you.  However, there will always be little snags that pop up, so it is important to remember the following:

  • It’s Okay to Be Sad. There is no denying that you will probably feel homesick at some point.  Some people experience a sudden wave of homesickness right at the beginning, others face it more towards the middle or the end.  Since I had travelled abroad on several occasions before deciding to move abroad, I was no stranger to being in a foreign country for a month or two.  Yet it was during the Christmas holidays that I experienced my most acute form of homesickness.  When this happens, know that it is okay and completely normal.  Don’t rush yourself to get over it.  That doesn’t mean you have to be “depressed” or refuse to come out of your room, but it does mean that you are entitled to practicing a bit of self-care.  When you are feeling in a rut, it’s fine to treat yourself to some nice lotion or a movie.  It’s fine to snuggle up with a blanket and hot chocolate.
  • There is a Pattern. Many missionaries have discovered a pattern.  It looks something like this:

0-3 months – completely loving it! (Everything is great, you love being in a new country, you are enjoying learning a new culture and seeing all the sights)

3-6 months – completely hating it!  (You feel like you’ve just made the dumbest decision of your life, you want to go home, you miss having a nice hot shower or speaking English all day or having reliable internet.  You try to hatch an escape plan.)

6-9 months – reality sets in.  (You realize you aren’t going anywhere.  You are not a huge fan of this new country, but you are also starting to like it.  You still don’t understand many things, but you truly feel like this is now your home.  You even start talking and acting like a local.  You are now beyond tourist phase.  You realize you will survive and come out of this experience a wiser person.)

9-12 months – you think: “how is it possible that this trip is coming to a close so quickly?”  (You feel nostalgic about all the good memories you had and you feel attached to your new friends.  You are looking forward to going home, but you feel like a part of your heart and soul will be left in this new country.  Part of you wishes you could stay forever, but you know that may never be the case.)

This is obviously not the pattern for everyone and some people may experience different phases at different times, however, it does give you a general overview of what you can expect emotionally.  So when you start going through the various phases, remind yourself that it is completely normal and don’t rush yourself to get past them.

  • You Will Offend People – There’s No Way Around It. In the first few months, you are going to look like a complete fool.  You will likely say or do something that makes the locals think you are missing a few intelligence genes.  You may unknowingly make an offensive gesture, or you may tell a joke that no one else thinks is funny.  This is to be expected, so take advantage.  Usually the locals are very forgiving because they just think you are some “dumb” tourist.
  • The Issue of Dating. Oftentimes, going abroad provides a hotbed of people who are suddenly interested in you.  Your accent may add an exotic flare, or they may never have seen a red haired, green eyed beauty before.  At first this can be flattering, but you also need to exercise good caution.  You need to make sure the person is truly interested in YOU, not in your citizenship.  Don’t jump into anything.  If you weigh the Pros and Cons and truly believe it is best to enter into a relationship, do so wisely.  You won’t have as much support from friends and family you can really bounce ideas off of in the same way as if they had the chance to meet him in person.  Additionally, if he happens to be of a different culture than the country you are living in, you need to recognize the subtle layer of complexity dating someone of a different culture from within a different culture is going to provide you with.  It can often lead to heartache and misunderstandings, so it’s best to take it slow from the very beginning.

In the end of the day, your experience will always uniquely be your own.  I can’t live your experience for you, and you probably wouldn’t want me to.  Yet, I hope that some of these pointers have helped you to feel a bit better about being away from your family and friends.  Remember, you are living the dream.  So go out there, be yourself, be motivated, and go get em, tiger!

Have you lived abroad before?  Are you living abroad now?  What sustained you when you started feeling homesick?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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4 thoughts on “The Overseas’ Survival Guide

  1. dear deborah,

    I am so utterly grateful for you, and you sharing your life through blogging! you are very articulate and insightful.

    im actually planning to go overseas in September for a year to the UK to get trained and equipped with jubilee ministries which is currently mentoring our church, life-spring. this will be my first time living and working outside of Canada for an extended period of time, so your sharing is extremely timely as it is a big step for me. i appreciate the advice. I think it provides a good template for anyone considering living/working overseas.

    it’s interesting to me how youre becoming more introverted through these experiences. for me, I’ve become especially introverted during my highschool and college days but im seeking to break out of myself. I think ive been too quiet for too long.

    anyways, love, hugs, and blessings!!

    • Hi Naomi, Thank you so much for your kind words. They truly mean so much to me. Whenever I write I hope it can encourage and bless the lives of my readers. Glad to see that it has impacted you. Thanks for letting me know! Many blessings and best of luck with your overseas’ travels.

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