What is it that constitutes feeling settled in a new place? Is it when you start thinking in the local language, when you’ve gotten the hang of basics, such as queuing and ordering food at restaurants, or when they know your name at the local Starbucks? Is it when you get the jokes on late night TV shows? I suspect there are as many answers as there are expats. And for some, feeling settled never really happens. However, I think most of us strive for that sense of belonging and knowing – of understanding the cultural codes of our new country. It’s quite exhilarating when it does happen!
There are two instances that stand out for me as moments of when I started to feel like I was getting the hang of things. The first time was when my old car broke down on a busy road during rush hour traffic. I had my one-year old in the back seat and could have easily panicked – cars were coming from all directions and I was at a bad spot in the middle of a curve. I was terrified, but I stayed calm and I knew where to call and what to say in order to get help. In addition, I knew which car shop to get towed to (sadly, the car had already been in a few times). I felt oddly empowered by the experience and I knew that if I could handle that, then surely I could handle most everything else in this foreign country.
The second “event” was gradual and had to do with understanding cultural references on the TV show Seinfeld in a way that I never had before. I had been a Seinfeld fan since the beginning and I always thought it was a funny show. But after having lived in the US for a year or so, I started to experience the show in a different way. I had a more nuanced context for the setup of the jokes and so they took on a different meaning. I don’t know that the show got funnier, but it did get more interesting.
There are things that I will never fully adopt or get used to in the US. For example, I still, after over 20 years, convert in my head from Fahrenheit to Celsius to make sense of what the temperature actually means in practical terms. Because I have no intuitive feeling for what 60 degrees Fahrenheit feels like, I am left wondering: do I go for a light jacket or bundle up? 15 degrees Celsius however is something I know, something my body knows – light jacket on!
Same thing when it comes to measurements; I gravitate toward the metric system in order to truly make sense of how long, wide or heavy something is. Inches, feet and pounds will always be a mystery to me. To be honest, I don’t know how anyone can make sense of this system, and I will admit I have pitied my kids on occasion when they have had to learn and work with this in school. I think it’s safe to say I have not been of much help in that department.
I don’t know that you have to feel fully immersed in your adopted country in order to declare your relocation a success. What I do believe is that it’s a great thing to feel at home in many different cultures. There is something to being comfortable and intuitively aware, as opposed to always having to try to read a situation, be it at work, the grocery store or the bank. This quote from HSBC’s annual expat survey sums up expat life pretty well: “(It’s) challenging as you must always be learning something new but that is also what is exciting about it”.
By: Felicia Shermis