Being an expat is a lot like being a five-year-old.
Spoiler alert: I have the most adorable trilingual five-year-old at home and I’m head over heels in love with him. Having said that, there are some solid lessons he can teach me and fellow expats around the world.
No, I’m not talking about the desire to take a nap regularly or the crying when you can’t find something you know you packed. That, too — but I’m talking about something much more specific and exciting.
As children, we quite literally experience the world for the first time. Every single step, breath, and bite of food we take is an experience as foreign as possible to us too — but we do it, we get better at it, and soon, it’s easy as, well… walking.
Sound familiar? I thought it might. You get pretty much the same thing when you uproot your life and move to a foreign country.
Here’s the problem, though; being older than five and putting “expat” in your job title instead of “expert walker” takes things out of context. After a while, we forget how to be the best expats we can be because we forget how to be children.
Luckily, my five-year-old is here to give us a newsflash.
Trial and Error Are a Good Thing
When you arrive in a new country with a new language, the first thing on your mind is getting settled in and not screwing it up. Figuring out how to pay the rent with a brand-new bank account in a new currency is pretty top priority, but inevitably, we’ll make a random gesture that means something a lot more interesting than it does at home — and, boom, we’re in for it now.
What does that blaring sign above your head say? Oh, yeah — “failure”.
But that’s rubbish. When my five-year-old tries to say a bigger, more complex word and completely bastardizes it, I don’t look down my nose and think “failure”. I think “persistence”. Most of the time I’m just amazed at how much he can learn and how quickly he adapts. The same applied when the “oh, ovens are hot” experience came around.
Whether you’re five or fifty, trying something new and messing it up is normal — and can actually result in something new and fantastic. That person you accidentally insulted? They found the incident funny, you became friends, and they’re now giving you language lessons. Awesome!
New Customs and Rituals — You’ll Get It Eventually
Okay, it’s time to get real here: five-year-olds? Social manners? It’s a love-hate relationship. Even with all my best efforts, there are times where my children pick their nose in public or cough without covering their mouth. I, as an adult, go, “Really? Really? Isn’t it obvious?” But every expat has probably committed a similar social sin.
For example, I live in Paris, where each building has at least five trash bins. You should have seen me the first week of our arrival, manually going through our garbage bag to dig out the paper boxes for a separate bin, with the gardien d’immeuble checking over my shoulder.
Here’s the best example, though: slippers are the footwear of choice throughout Japanese establishments and are generally worn at all times — except when they are not. At first, it seems endlessly confusing, but “normal” slippers are actually culturally forbidden in Japanese bathrooms! That’s what special “toilet slippers” are for.
As an expat, you’ve no doubt run into the same thing on your side of the globe, and it’s hard; really, it is. But the good news is one day my five-year-old will learn that coughing means covering your mouth and you’ll pick up the new cultural customs as well. The important part is to keep an open mind and be open to corrections from others.
Enjoy the Newness
When I take my five-year-old to a new playground, I can promise you there are no thoughts of “Should I even be here?” or “Oh, what if I don’t like this playground as much?” There is just sprinting for the nearest swing set.
Hello, expats, this is for you and me. Often times it’s easy to get so caught up in the details of moving, adjusting, and working within a new environment that we forget the best part of living abroad — we’re somewhere new and exciting! Take the chance to do a little wide-eyed wandering and enjoy the actual perks of being an expat.
There’s No “Absolute Truth” — Get Curious
Ever talked to a little kid? Their sole and favorite retort is “why”. Expats should totally jump on the “why” train. A sense of curiosity is crucial when you explore the world and sail into uncharted waters, because it encourages you to try something that’s never been tried before.
In brief: you can kick conventional wisdom to the curb by taking after a five-year-old and asking one simple question: “Why?”
More importantly than anything, a five-year-old is still growing and learning — and so are you. Rather than going through the motions and just accepting things, without making an effort to change and adapt, you can embrace your inner child and get out there.
You’re an expat, for all the mystery, funny mistakes, and incredible experiences that this entails.
Rita Golstein-Galperin is a multicultural expat in Paris. On top of her love for exploring the world, learning new things and enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, she is also an author, entrepreneur, speaker and career makeover strategist for expat women.
(Image credit: iStockphoto)
The “why”-phase is great in the beginning to help understand the new customs, to laugh about the “oops-moments”. But this attitude asks for a certain distance to the place you are and to what happens around. But after some years this distance shrinks and the “why” doesn’t help anymore as it doesn’t happen the other way round. And a need for being accepted as you are becomes greater, the longer you stay in a place. If the language skills are good then, “oops” where not forgiven anymore.
abdul maannan says
Corinna Lehming says
Beautiful and so true. I deeply enjoyed your funny ‘down to earth’-style.
The best way of learning is with this childlike openness without judgements, labels, expectations. Not so easy to get rid of that old stuff inside, but it is so worthy to embrace it all. Joy, playfulness and fun are comeing naturally along with the change from inside. I love it so much.
I moved from NY to Cuenca Ecuador and believe me, at first it is exciting as anything, until you realise not knowing The language can be very, very frustrating and in my case not realising that at 8500ft above sea level, I’ve found it difficult to breath. Other than that, it is a wonderful place!
Mike Langford says
Excellent article & so true in all senses – our daughter turns 6 on Sunday 🙂
Cindy Vandecasteele says
Great article! Having recently moved from Melbourne, Australia to NYC, I recognize it all. I love this whole phase of discovery, exploration. And yes, we all have “oops” moments, but they are hilarious family stories to be told for years to come.
It’s very nice your blog with a significant information. I am in a training about using media for behavioural change in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Love this analogy ! Nice treatment too 😉
I am and have always been a five yr old ! No shame at 50 and trilingual.
Always open and eager <3 savoring the magic of each amazing moment of discovery (thanks for sharing the reminder !)