A Guide to a Better You: How to be a Good Expat

I was not a very good expat when I first arrived in Vietnam. There were instances when I resisted and fought against opportunities to better myself and act with compassion. I ignored my privilege and viewed differences as things that were wrong instead of just different. I compared the culture which I grew up in to the culture which I was immersed in. Thoughts permeated throughout my mind that echoed the ideas of colonialism – thinking that my way was the better way. Expectations festered inside of me and detracted from my experience because everything became a comparison. Some of these deplorable traits were probably aspects of culture shock. I quickly challenged them and encouraged myself to quiet down and to listen and observe this new culture around me. I found that by seeking to understand and accept differences as just differences, I became a better version of myself. 

These are some of the lessons that I have learned throughout this journey and ideas on how we can all challenge ourselves to be better expats while living abroad. 

Recognize Your Privilege

First and foremost, we all need to recognize that simply the ability to move abroad is a huge privilege. Without this recognition, I think we are more susceptible to negative perspectives and developing a willingness to treat the locals of where we move to with less compassion. Especially for those of us who move to poorer countries where we will generally be able to experience a higher quality of living than we would back in our home countries. I am not blind to the knowledge that I make significantly more money than the average Vietnamese person and am afforded a high quality of living. So again, it needs to be emphasized that this opportunity is an incredible privilege. I understand what it is like to experience something different and out of sync with my expectation of ordinary. Even so, I also recognize that this new ordinary is an interwoven part of my experience living abroad. The good, the bad, the different – all privileges that we get the honor of experiencing. We need to remember that. Always seek to understand and then act with compassion.

Stop Comparing Cultures

This one is hard. I have struggled a lot and have had to do an insane amount of self-reflection to end this habit of comparing the culture that I grew up in with the culture that I am immersed in. Living in a new culture is always going to have its challenges. Social expectations and norms are sometimes drastically different, and I have to continuously remind myself that that’s okay. It is toxic of me to come to a new country where I know virtually nothing about the culture and the history, and then try to impose my cultural understanding on a culture which I am a guest in. Differences are okay. For me, this was one of my core reasons for traveling. Though, I often caught myself in moments where I compared what I knew with what I saw. I knew how to behave and what was expected of me back home. Vietnam is a whole new pond.

It is not fair, nor does it really do me, or anyone, much good by comparing my culture to this culture. Instead, I am working to shift my perspective and challenge myself to be more present and flexible. I am not here to change the culture of Vietnam, and I am not even here to necessarily be changed by the culture of Vietnam. I came here to experience and to learn what I can. When energy is spent comparing and complaining about the differences you experience, you do not allow yourself to be fully immersed in the life you are living. Instead of caging yourself amongst venomous comparisons, just be present. Look past the confusion, ask yourself what you can learn, and let go of the frustrations.

Resist the Temptation for Expectations

Before I moved to Vietnam, I allowed stereotypes I had heard bleed into expectations for what life would be like here. My expectations were wrong and caused me significant hardship. Expectations set you up for disappointment when they are not met by your experience. Though, I learned a very valuable lesson – There is no such thing as ‘common sense’. The concept of a ‘common sense’ is founded in your cultural upbringing and is often not transferable between cultures. My expectations and the act of projecting my idea of a ‘common sense’ led me to becoming judgmental and overly critical. I was faced with the realization that the expectations of the locals did not match that of my own. There was a tendency by me to view some of Vietnam’s cultural norms as wrong instead of just different. 

It took me a while to nip that habit in the butt and to put down my expectation lenses. I saw that what I was doing was culturally insensitive and not appropriate. Now, I willingly and actively make the choice to learn and challenge myself, to understand and accept that my expectations are misguided distractions that detract from my overall experience here. Expectations cloud your mind and can throw off your experience abroad. Let them go. 

There is no such thing as a perfect person, let alone a perfect expat. There will be challenges to living abroad, things that irk you and that won’t make sense. This is part of the experience. Instead of complaining, disregarding, and challenging the culture you visit, focus instead on shifting your own perspective. Try to understand the reasons that things may be different. Every culture, every person has a reason behind their actions. Some you may learn, others you may not. Regardless, it is not our place to criticize that which we don’t understand. Find the beauty in the uncertainty. Find the fun in letting go of your expectations and simply experience the moment. Living as an expat is a privilege not to be taken lightly. Recognize and respect this opportunity granted to you. Everything else – toss it to the wind. 

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