One of the more popular comments we get from people about living overseas is “You are so lucky! You are living my dream! What an incredible way to live!”. They’re right, it’s pretty darn amazing. When we made the decision to move to the Philippines, we knew there would be issues, inconveniences, and life would be far from perfect, but all that was glazed over by the (mostly self-imposed) promise of adventure and life-altering experiences in store. At about six months, the rose colored glasses began to come off, and reality set in. While venting with a fellow foreigner who has been here for several years on a rough day, we asked, “why didn’t you warn us about this?”, and his reply was, “I knew if I told you, you probably wouldn’t come!”. Awesome. Now I know that people probably don’t intentionally withhold information, a lot of it can be chalked up to amnesia from years of not knowing otherwise, and perhaps there is a bit fiendish pleasure of seeing others go through the same struggles we faced when fresh off the plane. Then it’s labeled as “a learning experience”. All that said, forget the adventure, forget the warm weather and the lure of a far off land for a moment, and just take this advice. After talking to countless missionaries and foreigners over the last few years, here are 20 things no one will tell you about moving overseas:
1. You will love fast food, even if you didn’t before. We rarely ate at McDonald’s in the States, but here, it just tastes like home. I have several friends who never stepped foot in a Starbucks until they moved overseas. Food is familiarity, something we all need once in a while. As bomb diggety as the local food is, we all need a fatty burger and a latte sometimes.
2. No matter how “easy” it is on paper to start a business, get a visa, make a major purchase, or start a “government approved” ministry, government bureaucracy and red tape runs deep. Multiple sources gave us similar timelines for achieving these things, but when we finally got them wrapped up, months after our projections, the response from others was, “wow, that was really fast!”. So, taking twice as long as expected is “really fast”.
3. You will not become a different person. You will not be super person. You will grow and change, but dont expect to climb off the plane and be instantly a new improved you. This is a biggie. I think on short term trips, people are more willing to step out of those comfort zones and stretch themselves, since there is a “now or never” mentality. If you weren’t serving or involved at home, chances are, you won’t serve overseas. If you weren’t an evangelist at home, you will not magically transform once you clear customs. And it’s OK. Missions and ministry takes all forms, the body needs all parts to function. Find your niche, and do YOUR best. However, this is not an excuse for inactivity. Since time is more infinite, and tomorrow is always a possibility, it’s easy to settle for a lower standard. Don’t. Push yourself everyday, stretch yourself everyday.
4. Your local circle of friends will be more like a revolving door. People come, people go, some stay long term, but friendships need to be held with an open hand. God brings people into our lives for seasons, and it’s important to invest in those friendships while you’re in the same place. If you make the effort, they will bridge the miles later.
5. Speaking of friendships, you will get jealous of friends at home! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and good old email are phenomenal tools to keep in touch, but they are also tools that can cause jealousy, loneliness, and doubt in what you’re doing. While your friends long to be in your pictures of the beach, or surrounded by adorable foreign kiddos, you look at their pictures of birthday parties, holidays, and wide open spaces and feel a pang of “I wish I was there!”. Remember, social media shows the highlight reel of our lives, not the daily grind.
6. It’s very hard to vent or debrief with friends back home. Even your closest friends, family, and allies. People will not understand your complaints, they often see it as a long term missions trip. They see you living in a fairy tale. They don’t see everything on this list! It’s important to find someone, a friend, fellow foreigner, or mentor who will listen to your complaints and frustrations without judging, laughing, or sarcastically saying, “wow, must be hard to live your life!”. Yep, sometimes, believe it or not, it’s hard.
7. Things take longer, and are done at a lower quality standard. The rest of the world moves at a slower pace than us Westerners. Which is usually a good thing. It results in lower stress and better relationships. It also results in repairs and other services taking twice as long. We sit back and wonder, “Why doesn’t this guy just invest in a power tool for cripes sake?!? It’s taking him two hours to chisel that hole that I could do with an air tool in seconds! Arrrgh!”. Those are the times to come down off the ethnocentric pedestal and remind yourself that 1) Power tools are expensive and 2) They have been doing it this way for ages, and while we don’t get it, they are fine with it, and the end result is the same. Usually. Work quality is far below what we’re used to, and while it’s frustrating to take the car in to have the same repair done four times, it happens. Guess what? You’re living in a developing nation. This is not the United States, or even “US Light”. You need to adapt, not them.
8. Things (aka luxuries!) are more expensive. People will tell you how you will live like royalty, how you can live on $20 a month, and life will be just grand. False. While it’s possible to live “locally” and spend a lot less, most foreigners spend about the same here as they did at home. That said, housing is less, local (market) foods are less, and entertainment is less. But, if you’re craving that McDonald’s, or basically any food that comes from somewhere else, you’ll pay about the same, or more. “Extreme” luxuries, such as tools, kitchen appliances, cars, clothing, etc., will usually run about double. And speaking of clothing…
9. It will be hard to find clothes that fit. The majority of the world is much smaller than us tall, husky Westerners, and anything over a size 6 is a bit of a novelty. If you can find “plus size” clothing, for women at least, the styles are usually styled after Miami Beach retirees, if you get my drift. Eventually, all of your clothes will have holes, stains, and will be thread bare due to the harsh environment, lack of stain removal products, and hours of drying in the sun. When friends or missionaries return for a visit, and they look like they’ve been living on the street, it’s not a fashion statement. It’s all they have. “Holey underwear” spans the entire missions community, not just the Mormons if you get my drift. 😉
10. You will get tired of being stared at. Even after being here a few years, we get daily stares when we leave the house. Everyone wants to be your “friend”. Seriously, and at the risk of sounding narcissistic, I can understand on a minor level what celebrities deal with. There are days I just don’t want to leave the house, or run to the store to pick up two items, for fear of the constant attention. It’s amazing how people study your every move, and watch what you put in your cart. Yes, we buy toilet paper and bread too! Isn’t that just crazy?!? and Andrew, our 14 year old, garners a lot of attention, especially from giggly girls, and as of now, is completely oblivious to it. Other missionaries have said that their kids never “got it” until returning to the States, then they wondered why they didn’t get constant, undivided attention.
11. You will never fully grasp the culture, no matter how long you are in one place. Just like you physically stick out, your attitudes, beliefs, and roots are deep. You can adapt, and accept, but there are things you will just never fully understand. And it’s OK, as long as you accept that things are done differently than you might have chosen.
12. Learning the language takes time. I love movies where the foreign character arrives in America, doesn’t speak a word of English, and within two weeks is fully fluent, complete with pop culture references and obscure idioms. There are exceptions, some people are hard wired to pick up languages, but for us normal folk, it takes time. Years. You will make mistakes, and the locals will laugh, but I promise, they will appreciate the effort. Don’t get discouraged, practice as much as you can, ask questions about vocabulary and grammar, and it will come.
13. You will be confronted with realities firsthand that are hard to imagine. Problems that were faraway and didn’t bare themselves in the “clean” western world will smack you in the face. In the last two years, we have narrowly missed three major typhoons, a phenomenon that before only appeared to us on international news. Privacy is not part of the culture in the majority of the world. This leads to personal tragedies being viewed by all, out in the open, exposed and vulnerable. Grisly car and motorcycle accidents are not covered up or cordoned off. Prostitutes walk the streets openly at night, and dirty, begging children aggressively approach cars at busy intersections. Disease and disfigurement are not covered up. I hate to say “you’ll get used to it”, because that just seems to minimize it, but you will adjust to the shock over time. It doesn’t make it less tragic, but it’s necessary to find a way to cope.
14. People back home may expect it, but you will not save the world. But, for a few, you can change their world. This falls under the “super human” category. Supporters will send $50, and say, “Here, now you can buy seeds, and start a completely sustainable farm for a village, for life! In one weekend!” Oh, how I wish it was so easy! Projects take time, relationship building, training, and yes, financing. Even the smallest project costs more than expected, and takes time. If you have enough confidence in the person to help fund them, you must have confidence in their ability to be good stewards of what they’re given, and make good, prayerful decisions.
15. You will eventually surrender in the war against the insects. All the bug spray, organic mixes, bug traps, and secret formulas that Grandma swore by will not completely eliminate bugs in the majority of the world. Do what you can, seal you food as tight as you can, check your holey clothes before putting them on, and move on. Extra protein, right?
16. When you return home for visits, high on all your experiences and full of stories, just know that not everyone will be as enthusiastic as you are. And that’s OK. We all have interests, and travel is not for everyone. Just spend time with those you love, be yourself, and when stories come up, great! Remember that people at home will have stories too, life didn’t stop for them once you climbed on the plane. Don’t come home expecting all eyes and attention will be on you, remember that only happens when you’re overseas 😉
17. You will lose your temper, and have “ugly” un-Christian moments. We all do. As a missionary, or even an ex-pat, yes, we are supposed to constantly walk around with a smile and a Bible in hand, without a care in the world. Not true. We all have bad days. Just like everyone else in the world. We’re supposed to be “representatives” for our country, and the Kingdom of God, but we snap, we say things, and openly express our frustration. This applies to sales clerks, government officials, the street kids that relentlessly panhandle after firmly being told no, and our own families. Fortunately, most people are forgiving, as is our God. Apologize quickly, forgive quickly, and move forward with a smile. Then go home, scream into your pillow, and call your venting buddy.
But it’s not all bad news!
18. You will find strengths you never knew you had, or develop strengths you didn’t have before! All these “refining” experiences will grow you, if you let them. Your patience, endurance, creativity, and faith will grow in ways you never thought possible. If you want to be successful, all these attributes are necessary for survival.
19. You will find sentimental connections with your adopted culture, and will really miss things if/when you return to your homeland. While you’ll never fully adopt the culture of your host country, you will build deep connections with parts of it, and the people that are a part of it.
20. You will meet people on every economic level and background, and soon learn how alike we all are. Instead of going to “help”, you learn you have come to “partner”. You will learn that other lifestyles are just as fulfilling and legitimate as the “American Dream” we are all brainwashed into thinking is the pinnacle of success.
I know not every one of these will apply to every person, but if you’ve been overseas for any amount of time, I’m guessing you can relate to at least one. Or maybe two. Relating to any of these does not mean you’re a failure, and unable to cope, and ungrateful for your “dream job”, it just means you’re a mere mortal. And that maybe you even throw a temper tantrum on occasion. But know that I can guarantee you’re doing a great job, and having an impact on others.
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