After the initial elation and novelty of living, working or studying abroad cools down, the frustration of having to adapt culturally can sometimes be overwhelming. Minor inconveniences for some people are huge obstacles for others and overcoming your North American expectations can require patience, resourcefulness -- and a good sense of humour.
So, the question stands: How do you know if you're cut out for an extended sojourn abroad? While there are no rules about who is likely to sink or swim in an unfamiliar culture, you may not be ready to let go of the edge of your own backyard pool if you can't deal with these sorts of things:
At home, you're probably used to a phone that works, relatively fast Internet service and mail that is actually delivered within a few day's time. In many countries, these services can be somewhat less reliable. Your cell phone may not work and there will be times when payphones eat up your money without delivering the goods (and there may be no operator to help you out). Or the telephone card you just bought doesn't connect for days on end and then, bingo! it works. Regular post might take weeks to arrive. The point is, arm yourself with patience!
If you just can't live without familiar name-brand or processed food you may find yourself on a diet. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to learn to eat according to the customs of the country where you are residing. This might mean developing a taste for raw fish or hot spices, but in the long run it will be cheaper and easier (and maybe even healthier)! Remember, in great part, culture is cuisine.
Are you expecting to spend just an hour for lunch? What about an extra 20 minutes just to pay the bill? What happens if the people at the next table, who came in after you, get their food before you have even ordered? While this is not always the case, do not be surprised if local services require you to wait longer than you are normally accustomed to. Be patient, and go early if you wish to avoid rushing.
Resorting to body language when the new lingua is not flowing
In most places around the world, you will be able to find someone who speaks English - right? WRONG! Language is culture and you will not penetrate beneath the tourist level of a country until you do your best to learn to speak the language. While you are learning the language, you will almost certainly have an opportunity to play charades with the person at the front desk to tell them about the hot water not working, or with the doctor to tell her where it hurts.
In general, North America is heavily regulated - other countries are not. This is one of their big advantages in many cases, but there are some downsides. If second-hand smoke, scantily clad girls loitering on your corner, or other differences (such as customers entering restaurants with their pets) bother you, then you may have some problems adapting. In some countries, behaviour or dress that we think nothing of may be frowned upon or even illegal. Learning to follow these new customs will take some adjustment on your part.
One last word of advice: learn to trust yourself and your own judgment. Just last week, we stopped a half-dozen times to ask directions to our hotel in Spain. We were given, with confidence, six entirely different answers and pointed to every corner of the city. We finally found a map... and made our way to the hotel ourselves. When things get tricky, often you are the only person that you can rely on.
Jill Arcaro Gordon is a journalist and founder of BEST Language Services in Madrid, Spain.Add this article to your reading list