Whether you are retired, an expat working abroad or a long-term traveler, adjusting to life in Southeast Asia can be an interesting experience. There are the obvious communication problems, but deeper problems of understanding are the ones that will likely cause you to have the most frustrating moments. You can sometimes experience feelings of isolation- you can’t vent your anger because the locals can’t seem to understand why you are feeling frustrated. To make matters worse, you know that losing your cool and displays of anger in Southeast Asia will only cause embarrassment and loss of face for you and those around you, so how can you deal with these little moments of cultural miscommunication?
Adjusting your attitudes and expectations
This does not mean lowering your standards or accepting bad behavior. Instead, it means that you should consider that there are different cultural norms and expectations. What you may consider inconsiderate, might be looked at differently.
Take punctuality for example. You may be upset that your local friend routinely shows up 20 minutes late when you have arranged to meet. In Southeast Asia, meeting times are often only suggested times. For some cultures, it is even acceptable to arrive up to 15 minutes late for business meetings. The point here is that you can’t bend their culture to your suit your expectations. They can’t all be wrong when you are always correct. They have their own way of doing things and you would be well advised to try and adjust to their way, otherwise you will find that you are constantly fighting an uphill and losing battle.
I don’t mean that you should develop an insatiable lust for alcoholic beverages, actually quite the opposite. Often when someone moves to a new country, they are initially excited by the new culture surrounding them. There is so much to explore and everything is a new adventure. Once you get settled in, that can wear off and people can start feeling homesick. The cultural quirks that were so interesting before, can begin to frustrate you- so stay thirsty for new experiences. Seek out new adventures, explore new places and dig out new pieces of your new homeland to enjoy. I recommend trying to learn some of the local languages, or learning to cook the local cuisine. These types of activities open up all kinds of cultural experiences to keep you wanting more.
Another interesting way to stay thirsty for new experiences is to keep a travel or photography blog. This will keep you in constant search for something new, and sharing your experience with the world makes it even more rewarding.
Make friends with the locals too
Expat communities can have some very interesting and colorful characters. For most people, their first friends in a new country will naturally be other expats. Make sure to find out the local expat hangouts and find yourself some new friends as soon as you get there.
The expat circle can sometimes be a closed environment- a bubble of sorts. Try and step out from that occasionally and make friends with some locals. This can provide you with a host of experiences that most visitors never get to see- the true cultural experience. You can often get invited to dinners, family functions, weddings, festivals and other social events. It’s a great way to grow your social circle and start feeling comfortable in your new home.
If you have married a local, you will already have a whole new set of experiences and family members who can teach you about their culture and traditions. Embrace it!
Learn to appreciate what you have
Being in a developing country can move you up the social ladder quite dramatically. Where you might have been middle class back home, you are now counted as at least somewhat wealthy. This has clear advantages that you didn’t have back home, that you can really get accustomed to. If you take some time to reflect on this, you should realize just how lucky you were to be born into such privilege. Try making a list of things you are thankful for and post it somewhere that you will see it. If you focus on being grateful for what you have, you realize that you don’t need to sweat the small stuff. This is a great thing to do, no matter where life takes you.
They say the smile is universal, but that goes double in Southeast Asia, and triple if you are a foreigner living there. In a region where saving face is so important, the smile saves us all. Ever heard Thailand referred to as the Land of Smiles? or seen the smiling faces everywhere in Cambodia?
Communication barrier? Feeling frustrated? Need to meet some new people? Awkward situation? A smile can take the edge off any of those situations.
Learn to be less particular
In the western world, we are bombarded with choice. Marketers work around the clock to teach us how to distinguish between all the different brands out there, and what each offers. Great care and detail is paid to the small difference from one product to the next, hoping to establish brand loyalty, so that you will stick with their product.
You might be dismayed to discover that your favorite brand or products may not be available abroad. Don’t get into a panic though, I can assure you that you will find a way to survive. There are often local solutions that they have used when faced with the same problems. You might even find that spending less time worrying about the particularities of different brands feels like a weight off your shoulders.
Sound appealing? Great, now apply that same philosophy across the board for other things in life.
You need to be proactive
You need to be proactive about adjusting to life in Southeast Asia. The good life doesn’t just fall into your lap. If you have made the move abroad, you have already shown the drive and desire to live life on your own terms.I have never understood expats or retirees who have come this far and moved to a foreign country, and then sit and complain about things they don’t like about it. If you don’t like it so much, then why stay?
Why not get out there and get things going the way you want them? Learn to turn things to your advantage. All the tips above will help you on the way to a happy life in your new country.. but the key ingredient is that you need to be proactive and make them happen yourself.