“It is a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.”
I knew from the start that moving to another country would change me. In fact, one of the reasons I moved is that I did not like the person I had become: a crazy workaholic who yelled at her kids all the time. After the months of preparation and surviving the early transition of expat life, I have learned some good lessons.
1) Patience is a virtue. I was used to having every aspect of my life well-organized, meticulously planned out, and clearly detailed. Moving abroad has put an end to that. Details and schedules are not the norm in Costa Rica. You may ask a question and not get a detailed answer. Time is also a fluid concept. If someone tells you that they will be to your house at 3 pm, it may be 1 or 2 hours later. Tico time tends to fall into an abyss that most impatient gringos don’t seem to understand. After living here for a few months, I get it. Let’s say I make plans to meet a friend for coffee at 11:30 am. On my way walking to the coffee shop, I could run into several people I know, and it is rude not to stop and chat. So 11:30 easily turns into 11:45 or noon or even later. Of course I text or call to let the person waiting that I am running late, and hope they understand too. Another reason you have to learn to be patient in Costa Rica, is that things don’t happen fast here. For example, sometimes the internet can be down for days or you have to go into San Jose, which is a 4 hour bus ride away, to repair a precious electronic. You just have to roll with the punches and be patient and know that things will happen when they happen. If you don’t adopt patience as a virtue, life in another country is going to be very difficult.
2) Talking to strangers is a good thing. We came from a big city where you could meet someone and know you would never see them again, where talking to strangers was dangerous, and you did not want to make eye contact with the wrong person. I quickly learned that is not the case in Monteverde, where the whole area has about 6-7,000 people. If you meet someone, you will see them again, and they probably know a lot of the same people you know. There are no strangers here, and if you do not say hello on the street, you are considered rude and snobby. We have been spending the last few months “re-programming” the children so they assimilate to the local, much more friendly culture. I don’t want them to be known as the “malcriado” American kids. In the end, adapting to the local culture of openness has helped us in many ways and prevented us from isolating ourselves. Who would have thought that it is OK to talk to strangers?
3) Have a good sense of humor. A few weeks ago, I found a dog on our yard mauling a pig’s head. That’s right! A pig’s head. After the initial shock wore off, I laughed about it. Today we walked to 3 different shops, while it was pouring rain, asking if they were able to do passport photos, which we need for our visas to Brazil for our upcoming trip to the Pantanal. No one at the pharmacy, bookstore, and graphic shop could do it. We realized that we have to go to make the 4 hour bus trek to San Jose to get visa photos. While at the pharmacy, I looked for Selsun Blue shampoo, which Kara and I use to treat the bad case of itchy scalp that has afflicted us since moving to Monteverde. Guess what? They were out, so I decided I would just check the grocery store next time I go. And I laughed about it. Moving to another country teaches you to have a great sense of humor. Without it, you will be a very unhappy person.
In the few short months I have lived here, I have learned to be more patient, friendly, and my sense of humor has sky rocketed. My children have even noticed the impact of expat life on me. When Tristan spilled hot chocolate in the kitchen a few weeks ago, I shrugged, and calmly asked him to help me clean it up. Kara was shocked and said that before that would have sent me into a screaming tirade. I think the reason I take these things in stride now is that I have more time. Before, having to clean up a spill was an added stress on an already overwhelming day. Nowadays spending a few minutes to clean up a spill is not a big deal. If at the end of this experience, all I have gained are these 3 lessons from leaving my birthplace, then this bitter-sweet move would have been completely worth it.
What have you learned from becoming an expat? Share in the comments below!