Moving to a new country is the Long Island Iced Tea of life experiences. It’s a cocktail of a lot of strong emotions, served up all at once in a big glass. If you’re lucky, you even get a fancy straw.
I recently ordered this life changing cocktail myself and traded in South Africa’s wide open spaces for China’s busy, yet exciting streets. This is what the first month of moving across the globe felt like.
[Day 1] – Survival.
Word to the wise: sleep on the plane. I know it seems self explanatory. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be too excited to sleep. My mind was racing between what it would look like, what the food will taste like, what the people will be like and whether or not I’ll love it or hate it. But traveling is hard work, I soon realised. I didn’t think that sitting on my arse for 14 hours straight would be so tiring, but boy was I wrong.
By the time I hit Beijing’s Airport, I was seriously sleep deprived and dehydrated. But I didn’t notice. How can you? You’re supposed to find your luggage in an Asian airport and check it in from scratch. Plus, there’s no time to think about what you feel like while security checks you for the third time, because you just look so much different and thus suspicious. Needless to say, I slept like a rock on that domestic flight.
Taking off and landing are two completely different feelings. Taking off from your home country, you’re filled with excitement and anticipation. Before (finally) landing, you’re filled with frustration and relief.
Suddenly, I wasn’t that excited anymore. There was only three things on my mind: litres of water, a hot meal and my hotel bed. Nothing else mattered. You know you’re still going to wake up in the same place; you can be excited again after your nap on a big, fluffy bed, legs stretched out straight.
(Imagine my disappointment when I realised that people in Asia sleep on bamboo planks covered in mattress material.)
[Week 1] – Admin Adrenaline.
The first day in a new country is so special. Your first coffee, your first taxi ride, just crossing the street. It’s similar to being in love. It feels like you’re experiencing everything for the first time, through new eyes. It’s all bright and new, warm and fuzzy. Even the office buildings are beautiful.
But after my first day of floating around like a butterfly, caught up in the magic of the moment, I realised that I am, in fact, still a human being with very basic needs. Where the hell am I going to live? I mean, I moved to this country. It’s not a holiday. I need a home, not a hotel room.
And so the admin begins. You get an agent to help you find an apartment, you meet your coworkers, figure out what bus you should take to get to work, what your responsibilities are. My personal favourite kick was getting my Chinese cellphone number and bank card sorted out. It makes it all just seem so official. My heart gave a little skip when I held it in my hand. I have to memorize a new number. I have a new bank account into which my salary (in a new currency) will be deposited. It feels like a fresh start, a clean slate.
But it’s still stressful. You have to pick the right neighbourhood to live in, one that is walking distance from all the shops you may need, but still affordable. And it was a big surprise when I realised that I have to pay two months deposit, as well as three months rent upfront. (Because in China you pay your bills in three-month increments. They work according to the seasons).
My old bank account was starting to look as empty as my new one.
[Week 2] – Lost in translation.
Hopefully by this time you’ve found the perfect little apartment, made at least one friend, figured out what they expect from you at work and tried at least one local (and strange) dish. Like The Eels would sing: Hey, man, now you’re really living!
From here on out you kind of feel like the toad in the boiling pot of water. You have to adjust slowly. My skin was taking a beating and I realised that cheese is the most expensive commodity in China (absolute torture). I only recognised about half of the fruits and veggies in the stores.
This is when you buy salt instead of sugar and skin whitening face wash instead of a wash for sensitive skin. My personal favourite was buying flavored milk instead of plain. It took me days to figure out why my coffee tasted so bad. Luckily I forgot the carton on the counter one night and gave it a sniff in the morning. Real a-ha moment.
This is also the part where Google Translate becomes your best friend. I needed it to ask for directions, I used it to translate menus and cooking instructions on packaging (the real-time translation tool in the Google Translate app is super handy by the way).
You also realise the major differences between your home country and the new one. I always bumped into people, because I was used to going left, while everyone else is used to going right. Speaking of driving on the right hand side; I learned that there’s a rule that a car can turn right at any given time, even when the light is red! Shock and horror, I tell you. You learn where you’re allowed to sit on the bus; elders and new moms in the front, working people and kids in the back. When a taxi’s light is green, it’s taken. When the taxi’s light is red, it’s vacant. (I know, right?)
There is a myriad of customs, sights, sounds and smells (don’t ask) that you have to get used to. Not to mention the weather. But in the end, it’s mind-blowing what you can get used to and how quickly, too. I have a new found respect for my ability to cope and adjust, as well as a new found respect for other people of a different culture. It’s amazing what will happen when you’re a little open minded.
[Week 4] – But what else is there?
After the first three weeks, I started to really settle in and feel comfortable with my immediate surroundings. By then you know where the nearest supermarket is and what you can expect to find there. You know the route to work and back, so you no longer sit in your seat like a Jack Russel, checking for familiar landmarks.
By now I started to wonder where the locals prefer to eat. Where would be a good place to grab a beer? I heard it was Cherry Blossom season and I desperately started looking for a park exploding with pink blossoms. I expected to see trees that look like candy floss. I found one and it was teeming with locals looking for the same experience. It was a bit disappointing, I must say. And that’s the other important thing. As a traveler, you will inevitably be disappointed at times. You form expectations and build it up in your head and when you get there, it’s a little, well, not what you expected.
But other times, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Like when I reluctantly joined a team building exercise and we ended up seeing the most beautiful rural village just outside of the city. An authentic Chinese experience. Or the time I got munchies at twelve and ended up befriending the convenience store owner downstairs, after I discovered that he speaks quite a bit of English. George now always gives me a free taster of something new he’s selling every time I pop in for some eggs.
After the first month, I started feeling more confident and curious. And I capitalized on that feeling by taking Chinese lessons and occasionally forcing myself to go get lost somewhere in town. As long as you have your address saved on your phone, you can always catch a cab home. It’s literally foolproof if you’re in the mood for discovering. Trust me – get lost.
[Month 2] – Well, shit.
This is where it gets really interesting. Not that it was ever boring. But this is the part no one expects. I know I didn’t.
By now you’ve sorted yourself out by catering to all your basic needs, you’ve orientated yourself and pushed yourself to see new things. And you’ve adapted and adjusted. So well, in fact, that nothing feels new anymore.
Yup, low and behold, I got used to my new life. And I’m not saying there won’t still be challenges or major differences and that I’m completely comfortable. But you do get into a routine of going to work, shopping, eating, sleeping (or not sleeping) and before you know it, you fall back into the same little habits that you had before you moved. Moving to a new country changes you, that’s a cold hard fact. And while things may feel new, you aren’t actually a new person. You’re the same person experiencing something new.
During my second month I had to ask myself a whole set of different questions, compared to the first month when I just asked myself where I wanted to live and what I wanted to eat. I now had to ask myself why I moved in the first place. Why wasn’t I happy with my “old” life? Was it because I got bored of the same old routine? Because now I have a similar routine. Was it because I didn’t push myself to achieve my goals? Then why am I STILL lying in bed watching YouTube videos without end? Sure, I might be in a new country, but I’m still doing the same stupid things that I didn’t like when I was back home.
And that’s when it really happens. The moment you realise that you can stay the same anywhere in the world, you also realise that you can change anywhere in the world. It’s just a choice. You don’t have to move across the globe to have a new life. You can just change what you do every day.
But I’m not saying you shouldn’t move across the globe. It’s still the single most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and one hell of a roller coaster ride. You get slow ups, fast downs and feel slightly terrified all the way through, but afterwards you can’t help but think that it was extremely fun.