It’s all too easy to fall into the Complaining Foreigner trap. Living in another culture pits you straight against stuff that is going to rub you the wrong way. After a while, the irritations can become all you think and talk about. (Actually, you’re probably also thinking and talking about everything that suddenly seems so gloriously good about your home culture.)
Constantly griping about the host culture is not a healthy way to live in another country, though, especially if you’re there for the long-haul. You’re going to need to reach deeper, past all the things that irk you. Look past the homesickness and the rose-colored memories of things in your home culture. You’re going to need to find things you love about where you are.
1. Find Something You Love about the Culture
So, find something you love about the culture and country you’re in. Not something you tolerate. Not something you kind of like. Something you LOVE, all caps. Something, perhaps, that is even better than it is in your home culture. (And, for best results, go beyond food in your list.)
Here’s part of my list of things I love about China and Chinese people.
- I LOVE the way Chinese people adore children.
- I LOVE the way they respect the elderly, and seeing people on jump up to offer their seats when an older person boards the bus.
- I LOVE that the whole neighborhood comes out after dinner to sanbu (walk/stroll).
- I LOVE that my neighbors greet me with “Where are you going?” and want to discuss today’s vegetable prices.
- I LOVE learning and dissecting Chinese characters. I think they are beautiful and fascinating.
- I LOVE the insanity of fireworks on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
On a bad China day, I can get sucked into thinking that everything here is horrid, but remembering this list reminds me that there are plenty of things about this culture that don’t annoy me.
2. Find a Hobby You Love
Although I’ve often quoted this, I don’t actually know which wise person said it: “Find something you love to do in the host culture. You can’t grit your teeth for 30 years.”
Oftentimes, our move to another country takes us far away from the hobbies we once enjoyed. It might be impossible to go skiing in the subtropics or find hiking trails in a flat urban area. It may not have been feasible to take your cello or quilt frame with you. However, if you think about the types of activities you enjoy, you can often find a “cultural equivalent” in your new country. So, playing tennis becomes playing badminton, painting watercolors becomes doing Chinese calligraphy, planting a big vegetable garden in your backyard becomes growing herbs in small pots on a balcony.
Your host culture might even offer you things you had never considered having as a hobby before. What about joining a traditional dance group, learning to cook regional dishes, or stargazing in a place with little light pollution? Be on the lookout for something that not only brings you refreshment, but helps knit you to the culture.
3. Find Someone to Love
I’m not talking about “I came here to just love on the people.” That’s good and has its place, but is too vague and far removed from the reality of that neighbor who annoys the love right out of you. You can tell yourself you want to love on the people, without actually loving any one of the people. Do you have a local friend who you are actually good friends with? Someone you really click with, someone you can laugh with, someone you can pour your heart out to? This kind of relationship takes time to develop and often is one of the rewards of deeper language learning.
When you have a close friend in the culture, it is a great vaccination against stereotyping. If I’m tempted to rant about how [fill in the blank with a maddening characteristic] Chinese people are, I quickly remember that my friend is not that way. Of course, this works best when you have many friends and acquaintances in the host culture whom you enjoy, so get out there and meet people.
Once you’ve got these three loves in place in your life, it will anchor you to the culture in a healthy way. Thinking about the things you love about the culture, the things you enjoy doing in the host country, and the friends you have in your transplanted home will help you ride out those days when annoyances and frustrations seem overwhelming. Best of all, it will keep you from becoming the Complaining Foreigner.
What have you learned to love in your host culture? Who have you loved and has it helped to help you to thrive?