I’m writing about this subject early on in my 31 days to embrace expat life series, because it can be so hard to master. And yet it’s important, and it’s become a bugbear of mine when I’m in conversations with other expats.
We live in a society of comparisons. We compare our own lot with others’ from the moment little Susie comes into playgroup with a prettier My Little Pony than us. We compare belongings, we compare figure and fashion, we compare boyfriends and girlfriends, we compare grades, we compare education, we compare career paths, we compare values and religious opinions, we compare approaches to parenting and approaches to marriage, we compare recipes, we compare homes, we compare income, we compare lifestyle…
And then we move overseas and we start comparing this new place to that old place.
Comparing at its basis is a normal human processing mechanism. It’s a way of evaluating what’s in front of us, seeing whether anything else in our experience or context can inform or explain it better. I compare prices on tins of tomatoes at the supermarket to get the best deal. I compare two routes to my destination to figure out the quickest or cheapest way there.
But comparisons can quickly become damaging to our own contentment and happiness. I start to look around me at what others have that is better, or what I did have that I lost. And I am envious and dissatisfied and frustrated.
Judith Orloff wrote in an article on comparisons, that “Interestingly, it’s more common to feel inferior to those with “more” than to feel grateful compared to those with “less.”" When we start to compare, we’re usually comparing ourselves and our own situation unfavourably. And that rarely leads anywhere satisfying.
In an expat context, this can come out as a tendency to look back on our previous home, previous country, and see it with rose-tinted glasses.
Why does it take so long to get anything done in this country? There is no such thing as customer service here! There’s just not the same atmosphere. People are really quite cold and rude to strangers here. It took days to get my internet installed. As soon as they hear my accent they ignore me. Why will no one ever give me a straight answer? It was so much better back in…
It’s an easy pattern to fall into, especially when you first arrive in your new country and everything is new, confusing, unexplained. The fear of getting it wrong, of being on the outside, of not being understood can lead us to take a defensive stance against this new place.
But can I suggest a different approach?
Give your new country the benefit of the doubt. Give yourself time to understand why something is the way it is. Try not to go on the defensive.
And you know what? Some things really will be worse than the last place you were. That is the reality of living in such a diverse and unique world. Instead of complaining, embrace it. Embrace it all.
Embrace the efficiency of the public transport together with the apparent rudeness of the bus drivers. Embrace the dynamic growth of this city together with the poor basic infrastructure. Embrace the lack of energy and buzz you find in the big cities together with the easy access to nature and the surrounding countryside. Embrace the early closing hours of shops together with the brilliant work-life balance that is actively supported by the government.
There will be good things and bad things wherever you live. By being open to all of it, the good and the frustrating, you can really be present in your new home, truly experience everything is has to offer. And you may be surprised at how much you prefer it here.
After I’d written this post I was chatting about it with Rasmus and he said something which I think was really important: be careful about listening to the comparisons that other expats are making around you. We quite frequently hear expats saying negative things about living in Brussels. But for us, it was a fantastic place to live and we miss it many days. Your experience of a place is always unique, so drop the assumptions and pre-conceptions and approach any new country or city with an open mind.
Yesterday’s post – Start Talking.