Travel Magazine

The More I Learn

By Russellvjward @russellvjward
NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches
We’re back - four intrepid souls who swap guests posts each month from the far corners of the globe. We are:
North: Linda in the Netherlands (
South: Russell in Australia (
East: Erica in Japan (
West: Maria in Canada (
The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let the examinations begin! Our theme this month is self-knowledge - or what expat life has taught us about ourselves.
At Expatria, Baby, I learned to trust my gut and remain true to my values in my search for a fulfilling expat life.
At I Was An Expat Wife, Erica learned that tolerance is much harder in practice than it is in theory.
Here, at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Linda learned that the more she actually learns about expat life, the less she knows.
At Adventures in Expatland, Maria learned that within her timid exterior - deep, deep within - beats the brave heart of a gambler.
Please do read our stories and share some of your own in our comments sections. We’d love to hear what expat life has taught you about yourself. And remember I'm over at Erica's site in Japan - Here's Linda's post, titled The More I Learn...
Self-knowledge is a beautiful thing.
It takes time and effort and patience to learn this simple truth. Some of us never quite do. But for most of us, as the clock ticks and the days pass, we find ourselves thinking more and more about where we've been and where we're going.
The More I LearnSome of us are blessed with an innate need to sift through and ponder and analyze and decipher. Then there are those of us who soldier on in life, rarely taking a moment to consider our path or our fate (or our role in either) until blindsided by a life lesson too big to be ignored. Humbled by Mother Nature, Father Time or both.
The better you understand yourself, the more you recognize patterns in your own behaviour, the deeper you delve into the reasons why you think and feel and act as you do...
then the greater the chances that you can silence negative thoughts when they rear their ugly heads.
Or bite your tongue when irritated or frustrated.
Or speak out on behalf of someone not able to do so.
Or choose tolerance over taking offense and forgiveness over holding a grudge.
Or channel your energies into making improvements to the world within your four walls, as well as the world outside your door.
Beetje bij beetje.
In Nederlands that means 'little bit by little bit'.
I use the phrase all the time, usually in conjunction with explaining that despite my Dutch language skills being average, I keep trying anyway. Lately I've been employing it as my mantra to maintain calm and restore equilibrium.
I wrote an article for publication the other day in which I shared some insights about what I've learned living in a different country and culture. I was making the point that 'culture shock' is a very real phenomenon and isn't necessarily linear.
[Due to different experiences, backgrounds and situations, no two people are affected by culture shock in the same manner, but essentially the phases most of us tend to go through while learning to adapt to a new culture work out something like this: the honeymoon (seeing things for the first time, excitement about what's new and different); frustration and disillusionment (our cultural adjustment starts to unconsciously overwhelm us, or we realize we're still carrying the same old issues with us despite a change in locale); bottoming out in a period of loneliness, alienation, feeling out of sync (and for some, sadness and even depression); and finally coming to terms with where we are, accepting it and getting on with our lives.]
I mentioned that despite truly enjoying the life I live here in The Netherlands, one of the nuggets of self-knowledge I've come to appreciate is that on any given day it may only take two or three frustrating or unsettling encounters and wham! I'm reeling, suddenly feeling like an outsider.
Recently I hit one of those difficult patches. Taken individually, none of the examples was particularly off-putting:
  • learning under varying circumstances from no less than three people, all from different countries, how unattractive they find American accented English;

  • arriving at a veterinary appointment at the proper time only to be told that it was an hour earlier, complete with knowing glances between the two administrative assistants that of course I was mistaken because clearly my Dutch isn't that good (despite my having made the appointment at the later time because of a prior engagement earlier in the day, my repeating the time twice in Dutch and once in English to confirm, and yes, I do know the difference between twee and drie, thank you very much);

  • being interrogated for the umpteenth time on American domestic and foreign policy by people less interested in trying to understand and more interested in informing me how ignorant/unintelligent/immature these policies are. And no, I'm not going to waste my breath defending popular culture coming out of the US either except to say that, as is usually the case elsewhere, it's neither as popular or representative as one might be led to believe (heavy sigh);

  • being yelled at by a Dutch woman who lives down the street for supposedly taking her garbage can after the garbage collectors left it sitting in front of my house. She's lived here far too long to not have noticed the weekly traipsing of neighbours up and down the street trying to figure out where their garbage cans have ended up this time;

  • being corrected on my Dutch yet again, in a highly dismissive tone, by someone I consider to be a friend, when she overheard me speaking to someone else. [Seriously, she might consider the patient and encouraging approach of so many others I interact with on a daily basis.]

Bundle them up in a three-day period and they can irritate the heck out of you, rattle your self-confidence, and remind you that this isn't what you're used to.
And the cold truth hits you: sometimes you just want to go back (in time and place) to where you don't have to think twice when conversing, you intuitively understand the cultural nuances, and your behavior is generally in line with that of everyone else.
Where you aren't 'other'. Where you belong.
Then the second wave of reality crashes in: there is no such place.
You can't go back. Nor would you really want to, given the chance. People change, places change, situations change. You change.
The only way is forward.
When it all gets to be een beetje too much, I do what I need to do. I retreat and withdraw from the outside world for a little while. I soothe my ruffled feathers and bruised ego, regroup and let it go.
Then I move on.
So what to make of all of this? What great insights do I take away?
In learning about others, we tend to learn far more about ourselves: our boundaries, our limits, our 'tipping points'.
As I seek to learn more about the world we live in, I'm prepared for people thinking and feeling in ways I might not expect. No surprise there, since we all come to the table with different historical, political, cultural, social, economic, religious, psychological and emotional backgrounds and experiences.
In coming face to face with how others view you and your own culture, sometimes what we learn isn't particularly pleasant. Yet in experiencing and acknowledging that, it stretches us. We learn to let go.
I can't change someone else's behavior or mindset; only they can do so. I can only control my own behavior and actions, reflect on my own perceptions, consider the views of others and adjust my own attitudes if need be.
Self-knowledge is a beautiful thing.
Sometimes it seems that the more I learn, the less I know.
And that's okay. I'm learning to live with that.
[Image credit: alvimann,]
What has expatriation taught you about yourself? Can you relate to Linda's situation?

The More I Learn

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches
Image: digitalart portfolio 2280

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