A common affliction of mankind is to pine for what one cannot have at the moment, to want to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.
Surely the grass must be greener on the other side!
One would think this sentiment is particularly true for expats, especially repeat or serial expats. People who are constantly yanked from their surroundings and have to rebuild their lives elsewhere might be excused for not embracing each new place equally well. It would be understandable if they thought the pastures “on the other side” were indeed greener – because, after all, they might have already seen the other side – and to put all their efforts into getting there.
But interestingly enough, I’ve observed the opposite. The more seasoned an expat you’ll meet, the more they seem to be happy wherever they are at that moment.
Part of this is attitude. I’ve written about how a positive attitude is a key ingredient for How to Be a Successful Expat. And, if you don’t start out with it, how a positive attitude can be learned through, you guessed it, expat life itself. It’s a bit like a chicken and the egg thing: You need a positive attitude to make it as an expat, but you often only learn to affect a positive attitude through the experiences you gain as an expat.
In other words, happiness and success don’t just happen on their own. It’s not, it turns out, the color of the grass that determines whether you’re going to be happy in a place or not. Or, rather, it IS the color – we all know grass looks the best when it’s green – but WE are the only ones who can make it that way.
You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green.
A fellow expat full of wisdom once uttered that phrase, and I loved it enough to go in search of a blog post to fit around it. There is so much of life’s beauty in that one sentence. If one lived by no other mantra, one could become a good and content person by making it one’s guiding principle. Buddhism in its entirety might be distilled into that single observation. It’s both an appeal to your diligence, so that you might not sit on your haunches and expect things to happen without hard work, and to your autonomy, meaning you have control over your own happiness if you do the right things.
What are the right things? How do you best water the grass?
Much like watering grass, watering the figurative expat grass works best in small but frequent doses. It’s not scoring one giant coup, like negotiating an awesome deal with the company that’s sending you abroad. It’s not finding the perfect country, the perfect house, or the perfect school. All these play a role, no doubt, but you can take little steps every day that ensure your overall happiness in a new country.
In the Wall Street Journal’s The Good Expat: 5 Steps to a Successful Expat Experience, I’ve gone into more detail what kinds of step these are, like making sure you get out and about as soon as you’ve arrived in a new place, participating in the local life whenever possible, keeping an open mind about things, laughing about the things that are awful in spite of your open mind, and perhaps even writing about your experience.
All of these are best accomplished by setting small goals for yourself and your family: Explore one new store each month; plan a family outing to a place you haven’t yet seen every other month; volunteer at a charity once a week; host a dinner or organize a joint activity each time a new family arrives at your school, pick up at least one new hobby in your new country, have your kids try out at least one new sport. The possibilities are endless.
By no means do I advocate for an overscheduled calendar with all these new activities. Chances are, your life may actually slow down because the pace has changed by moving continents. What seemed so urgent before is now perhaps something people don’t care about as much, so you adapt. Nothing cures you of your Western-style Type A obsessive-compulsive workaholic tendencies as well as life in a slower-paced (perhaps but not necessarily 3rd World) country.
What I’m saying is that you have to work at your happiness. What you put into your expat assignment (or, really, life in general) in terms of time, outreach, curiosity, and friendliness will be returned to you many times over, I can promise you that.
You water the grass wherever you are, and it will turn green.
Some expats are happier than others, and it’s often the ones who seem to cling to their habits and activities from home that struggle the most. Going on home leave every opportunity you get, enrolling your kids in the school that’s the closest replica of the one at home, driving them for hours so they can keep playing the sport they already know versus the one that’s played five minutes from your house – these are all akin to straining your hose so you can spray the yard five houses down from you. The precious water will be spread too thin, and you will end up on a dry patch of land.
Most expats have learned the art of watering the patch of grass they’re endowed with – maybe not the first time, but surely the second and third times. They’ve learned that most everything in life is temporary, and that it’s important to start living right away rather than later.
I’d venture to guess it’s almost harder for non-expats. If you’ve stayed in a place all your life, you might get awfully tired of all that watering. It just never ends! If that’s true for you, perhaps it’s time to move to greener pastures. Sometimes that’s a chance to Remake, Refurbish, and Improve yourself. But if you do, don’t simply arrive and expect a lush oasis, just because you’ve heard good things about a place. The drudgery of daily life is going to catch up with you no matter where you are, and you might wake up one day in a parched and dusty landscape.
Wherever you are in life, don’t forget to water the grass around you.
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