When I was 22, I started a doctorate in cognitive neuropsychology at John Hopkins University. What I didn’t know was that a year later my advisor would be sacked, my (now ex-) husband would move to Germany, and I would be rethinking my decision about postgraduate work almost from the ground up.
I decided to leave the US for the UK to complete my DPhil at York. Twenty-five years later, now back in the US and facing another surprising and stressful set of life circumstances, I decided to venture abroad once again.
This time I went to Hamburg, Germany, for what I hoped would be a period of recovery and renewal through learning a new language.
Good life choices are congruent with the real you
Nearly every day of the eleven years I lived in the UK, I was asked by someone (and initially by everyone) “Why are you here?” and to say “I’m doing a DPhil/postdoc/working as a lecturer” never seemed to satisfy my questioners.
While I was eventually able to order a round or buy a pint of milk without an interrogation, I was forced to revisit my decision on a regular basis in order to explain pursuing a life and career Britain. Being asked to explain my decision repeatedly meant that I was called to dig-deeply into who I was and how the decision to come to the UK was congruent with the person I saw myself becoming.
While I wouldn’t advocate second-guessing every decision you make, I would propose that you use introspection to find out what really matters to you. Ask yourself what your ideal outcome would be and if the decision to live and work abroad brings you closer to this ideal. Such self-reflection further offers the opportunity to process things independently and autonomously, focusing on your personal agenda rather than on what significant others or society might desire (or demand!).
Thus, when I would look around a bus or train and see other people reading novels, scanning the newspaper or otherwise engaged in some sort of quiet personal communion, I felt that I had found my place. Simultaneously, the eagerness with which people inquired after my choice to live in the UK gave me the incidental contact that allowed me to enjoy the reserved approach on public transport that is so different to the gregariousness you encounter in all but the most crowded rush hour situations in the US.
High hopes, minimal expectations
Late in 2013 I arrived in Hamburg seeking, among other pleasures, the chance to get more comfortable with imperfection and error as I navigated tasks of daily living in an unfamiliar tongue. I had expected, for example, to have problems such as getting one kilo of apples when I wanted just a single one. Indeed, I chose to buy fruit and veg at various weekly markets rather than in a supermarket in order to get the chance to interact in German.
Routinely being tested by situations where I could persevere with my fledgling German skills, try English, or give up, I had to focus on the progress I had achieved and claim my victories where I could, no matter how small. The management of your aspirations and expectations offers the opportunity to examine what outcomes should be non-negotiable and where compromise might be possible.
Don’t look to the world for excuses or after-the-fact justifications, but do examine your circumstances, your environment and the people around you in order to be clear about the real-world constraints that could affect your satisfaction with living abroad. Ask yourself, what factors could make the decision to live and work abroad pleasurable (or at least palatable) and which ones might derail it? Take an especially hard look at those issues that generate resistance.
Scanning your psyche for what support you might need to maintain your commitment to living and working abroad. Staying in touch with your feelings, of joy and of unease, also offers the opportunity to fine-tune what it means for an outcome or situation to be acceptable or desirable. As it turned out, what was harder to adjust to was not the language but a key cultural difference.
Even though in the UK I had been speaking English with other native speakers, my accent stood out and people took it as an invitation to chat. In Hamburg, on the other hand, one needs more of an introduction before conversation takes place. For instance, I was surprised at the quizzical reaction when I asked a man sitting across from me on the train – in German using the polite “Sie” form – if he had been to Minnesota because he was wearing a hat with the name of that state’s gridiron team on it.
The incidental contact that was so frequent that it drove me to develop a mid-Atlantic accent in the UK, turned out to be something that was missing in Hamburg. Identifying this violation of the expectations I developed during my time in the UK allowed me to remedy it. I discovered the joys of purposeful social interaction.
Meetup, LinkedIn and Dialog in Deutsch – a special Hamburg program to help non-native speakers meet other learners and practice German – have each offered me the chance to build my language skills and my friendship network side-by-side.
A Final piece of advice
Finding your way in a new country, culture and/or language is always an adventure. To help ensure that the stimulation it provides is energizing and illuminating, make the effort to focus on what is “good enough” – about yourself and your new or potential home. This can save you from staying stuck while you hold out for that perfect opportunity that likely will never materialize. Here are five tips to keep you on track:
- Start small, be grateful
- See your own development as a journey rather than an endpoint
- Take risks and challenge yourself, and honor others by giving them space to do the same
- Focus on showing up rather than being perfect
- Don’t forget to look in the obvious places for satisfaction and support