Saturday, 9 August 2014

Expat Revelations: Self Esteem as an Expat

What happens when you take an introverted and somewhat shy twenty year-old who has never lived more than 120 miles from her place of birth, put her in a country where the people speak a different language and are not renowned for being immediately open and friendly, and expect her to do a job that she has almost no training which involves standing up in front of hundreds of people every week and talking? Today I'm joining Holly at English Girl, Canadian Man for her Expat Revelations link-up to explore the sometimes surprising answers to that very question!

English Girl Canadian Man


I remember thinking during my first year in France that being a foreigner, and especially one who has a different mother tongue from the host country, is probably as close as I have ever been to understanding what it is like to have a physical disability. It's not that life is impossible, but you feel as if you depend so much more on the kindness and understanding of strangers to help you get by, hoping that they will speak slowly, make that extra effort to understand you and not assume that you are an idiot just because you made some grammatical mistakes. And it's not just langauge: the way you dress and behave also give away instant visual clues that you don't belong which can lead to, at the very least, stares, and at worst, perceived or actual danger. (I lost track of the number of dodgy men who used "you're not from here" as an excuse to harass me on the streets of Paris and elsewhere.)

So far, so damaging to the ego. Add to the mix whole classes of eight year-olds correcting your pronuncuation of "hamburger" (and that's an English word!), endless hours of smiling and nodding as you desperately try to catch the gist of conversations between people that you would actually quite like to be your friends, not knowing that you're supposed to kiss your sports coach at the beginning of a training session and six whole months of telling your neighbour he has a nice ass because you mix up the pronounciation of beaucoup and beau cul, and it's amazing that you don't just go and hide under the duvet and not come out until its time to go home.

Amazingly enough though, that was not my experience in France. Admittedly, for the first three months, I often hid under the duvet and mostly did just want to go home. But after that, I started to get that ego boost that comes from the massive sense of achievement when a sentence actually comes out correctly, you understand a joke in a foreign language or you relax enough at a party to actually appreciate the wonderful food, drink and company around you. And in a funny way, I think not speaking perfect French actually pushed me to get over my shyness because, knowing that the battle to be just like everybody else was already lost, I decided I might as well just open my mouth and say things anyway. And finally, while all the same old jokes about haggis, men in skirts and the Loch Ness Monster start to wear a little bit thin after while, at least being a foreigner provides a good opening topic of conversation.

I also think that I was lucky to have my first experience of being an expat at an age where so many aspects of adult life were new to me anyway. I think that people who first move abroad when they're older have more difficulty accepting that they don't know how to rent an apartment, open a bank account or declare their taxes because they are used to doing all of these things so easily at home. I also didn't have any professional pride to lose - I muddled my way through as best I could and that was that. And I was lucky to have a group of friends who where in the same boat with whom I could laugh off the embarrassing experiences over a glass of wine in the evenings.

More than anything though, I felt that my first year as an expat opened doors for me, in some ways practically, but even more so psychologically. Up until then, I was someone who had followed the normal path through school and university, partly because I wanted to, but mostly because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. In France, I started to be aware of choices and have more of a sense of what I wanted to do in life. I felt that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere (thanks, Frank Sinatra!), and that gave me an incredible sense of freedom.

(I'm aware that this post focuses on the positive aspects of what can often be a difficult experience. Obviously, in eight years of expatriation, I've faced my share of challenges and fears as well and I'm looking forward to joining in the next three weeks' topics to explore these in more depth. Thank you to Holly for organising the link-up - it's been really interesting so far!)

8 comments:

  1. Oh yes, I hear you! I face similar challenges in Canada. Not being able to express myself well was incredibly frustrating. Not understand basic local etiquette and unspoken rules was an humbling experience as well.

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    1. Unspoken rules - oh yes, and then that cringing moment (that sometimes comes years later!) when you realise what a faux pas you committed!

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  2. I love how positive this post is! I totally agree that age must have a real impact. For me, I moved at an. Age when I was becoming set in my ways so it is no wonder it really shook me to the core! I hadn't thought of it that way!

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    1. Yep - old age must be setting in for me, because although I'd love to live in more different countries, I'd find it really hard to move again now!

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  3. It's strange with me, moving to France killed my confidence. The longer I stayed, the worse it got. And I even arrived with a decent level of French. In fact, I never really had problems communicating.

    I try to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. I mean, I love living in Bordeaux, and I'll continue to try and spend as much time there as I can in the future. When I left for Denmark I felt much better, but as soon as I went back to France it was back to 'old times'.

    I think that maybe it's because I live out in province and that when I came here for good I wanted to make something of myself professionally. Yes, that must be it because I don't remember feeling like this when I was an Erasmus student in France. The problems started afterwards.

    About the age aspect: sometimes I wonder what it's like to be an adult living in Canada. I left for good before I turned 20 and it was exciting for me to live as an adult for the first time and to do that abroad. That's so strange, this gave me confidence but going to France didn't, and I lived in other non-English speaking countries before going to France which boosted my confidence as well.

    I'm glad that France has changed you for the better and that your confidence has improved thanks to your move.

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  4. I've definitely found that feeling happy professionally plays a huge part in self-esteem. (I loved my first job in France, but my second not nearly as much, and my second year was much more difficult - maybe I need to write a post about that!) You're right to try to pinpoint exactly what's not working out for you because it's so much more constructive than just deciding that your whole life is horrible. How are things working out for you on the job front?

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  5. It's an interesting comparison with being disabled - I don't have direct experience of what that's like either, but I get what you mean about not being able to do things the same way you used to and being dependent on others for help. It's always super frustrating to me when people treat me like I'm stupid just because my French isn't perfect. Although it's stressful too when you have people visiting and they expect you to take care of everything and know everything because you speak French (even when you're somewhere that you've never been before).

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  6. Clearly you are a lot more resilient than me! I am blown away at how positive your experiences are despite having the language barrier. I think you are right about age being an issue, I was 37 when we emigrated and at that age you are just supposed to know everything you need to get through life so having to learn about basics like driving on the 'wrong side' can be tough.

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