I remember the first time I really felt what it was like to be a foreigner. I was in Nicaragua working as a volunteer and living with this crazy American nun. Seriously … she was legit likely clinically insane. That’s a story for another time, however. I had gone with my American roommate to a shop. She wanted to try on a bra and the employee wouldn’t let her. We were curious as to why she couldn’t.
“It’s probably because you’re an extranjera (foreigner)” said the sister when we explained it to her later. “They probably think that you’re dirty and haven’t showered.”
A lot of foreigners that come to Nicaragua do so to backpack. They often wear loose-fitting hippy pants because of the hot weather. It was amusing to me that that is likely the stereotype that many Nicaraguans have of us gringos. They’d likely be amazed to find people in three-piece suits back home.
This moment was quite interesting for me. It was the first time that I really felt what it was like to be the foreigner. Like “oh wow, now I’m the foreigner. No longer am I in my home country.” Up until this time, my only interaction with the word foreign were the many foreigners I knew and befriended in my own country. While I have always thought myself to be a caring and empathetic person, there was a level to which I couldn’t fully understand. I had never walked in their shoes.
Fast forward to Spain
I now find myself living in Granada, Spain. While I am no expert in being a foreigner, I have had many more moments like the one mentioned above. One of my favorite things about being a blogger is giving people a window into my experiences. As I have said time and time again, there is a huge difference between traveling and living abroad. If you think you can understand someone’s experience of living abroad because you traveled here for two weeks or there for three, just stop now. You’re flat out wrong. I find in life it’s better to just say “I cannot fully understand” rather than pretending you can.
So here are 7 things no one tells you about being the foreigner. I also want to note that this post will be heavily based off of my experience living in Spain. It’s the only country where I have truly settled into a daily life as a resident. I am aware that my experience of being a foreigner in say Saudi Arabia would likely be incredibly different.
Anyway, here we go …
1. You will almost always be first identified by where you’re from
When you’re living in your home country and meet new people, you will likely introduce yourself by what you do for a living or what your interests are. You may say where you’re from if you say are from Cincinnati but live in Charleston (the life of my best friend). While that might warrant a few questions, it likely won’t be a focal point of conversation for the next 20 minutes. And likely whoever you’re talking to won’t be utterly amazed like “WOW OHIO!”
When you’re the foreigner, it’s basically always the first thing people focus on. One of my best friends here always introduces me to people like “This is Nina. She’s American.” This reminds me that I should probably tell her to stop. Or if it’s not that, they hear me speaking Spanish with an accent and ask where I’m from. Since the United States isn’t the normal response, conversation will likely be focused on this for the next 5-20 minutes.
There are some days where I’m really in the mood to answer a million questions about my country, my idiot president and whatever the f they have seen in this movie or that. However there are other days where I simply don’t have the energy. Like if it’s been a long and I’m just trying to carry out a kebab, I really don’t feel like telling the kebab guy my entire life story.
I’ve also never really been a big “USA USA USA” kind of girl. Furthermore, I really don’t feel like I fit the stereotype of an American. So it can just be frustrating that I get labeled by my place of birth before anything else. Friends if you’re living in your home country and have a foreign friend, do them a favor. Next time you introduce them to someone, say something different than where they’re from. After all, just like you, they are more than their place of birth. They will love you even more than they already do.
2. Culture shock will happen … anywhere
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the ways I was experiencing culture shock in Spain. The responses were quite interesting. I got comments like “wow I traveled to Spain for two weeks and didn’t feel this way at all.” Yeah … that bit about how traveling and living are different. In general, it seemed like people assumed that if two cultures are Westernized, you won’t experience culture shock. Furthermore, Spain is beautiful and full of amazing food. It seems as though people assume if you have a great vacation somewhere, you won’t experience culture shock either.
What I learned is that culture shock comes in many forms. There are so many levels to a culture and you only peel the first layer of the onion by traveling to a place. What I learned is that culture shock can happen anywhere and about a whole multitude of things. It’s best to just expect to have some culture shock and when you do, take care of yourself.
3. In a new group, it can feel like you’re a show
I love meeting new people. I always have and I always will. However when you meet a new group of locals and you’re the foreigner, it can feel like you’re a guest on a talk show … or the inquisition. I use both of these analogies because it will literally feel like one some days and the other other days. Some days you’re in a wonderful mood and you joyfully answer all the questions. “No, life is not like the movies always.” “Yes, lots of school children do eat PB&J.” “I do like Spain … the people are wonderful and my job is fun.”
However other days you just wish the group would move onto another topic. Yes, you’re not from these parts. Yes, you might be the most interesting thing happening. But you would rather just sip your beer and contribute to the conversation instead of answering 1,02902,038302.23 questions.
4. You get to explain politics … yay
Did your country decide to leave a certain continental union? Did your country elect a cheeto with the maturity of a 7-year-old? Well guess what? You get to explain that … a lot.
I got the luxury of living abroad during and right after we elected Donald Trump. How did I get so lucky? When a big and shocking thing like that happens, the entire world is watching. News stations and publications all over the world are reporting it from their cultural lens. So when you’re from there, everyone wants to ask you about it. It can get draining.
The thing that made me the saddest after the election is how we would be perceived. I was afraid that the world would think that all Americans were racist. So I remember that I had three talking points basically nailed down to a T in Spanish. The first one was a general explanation about the electoral college and how he won. I explained how half of Americans didn’t vote and that she won the popular vote. I explained how the electoral college works. This gets them to see that it’s really more like 20-25% of my country who actually supports him. The second point was how many protests against his presidency happened on his inauguration day. There were a lot. The third point I would bring up is how much opposition his Muslim ban received. I would talk about the protests at the airports and lawyers working for free for the families of those detained. Overall, I just wanted Spaniards to really understand how un-liked and unsupported he his.
Nowadays, I get less Trump questions. I most often just say “I don’t support him and I really don’t want to talk about him.” Being the foreigner has taught me that if I don’t want to do something or discuss something, I don’t have to. If they persist, I can simply tell them “look you can ask me questions but I have told you that I don’t want to discuss it. Please respect that.”
5. It’s easy to stay in the expat bubble
This one really only applies if there’s a big expat community where you live. Some of my friends who teach in Spain get placed in small towns where they might be one of 5-10 foreigners in the whole town. In that situation, locals are your only option for friends.
However in my experience, there are lots of expats who live in Granada. We have a Whatsapp group for other English teachers who live in Granada. There are 68 people in the group. Furthermore Granada has a huge university that brings in a lot of Erasmus students (European study abroad). In general, there are lots of foreigners.
Some of my favorite people in Granada are fellow expats like me. However I always knew that if I wasn’t careful, expats would be my entire friend group. That is the story many foreigners have. When you’re new to a place and they are too, it’s just easy. The other English teachers in my program are always going out for drinks, having people over and whatnot.
In my case, however, I moved to Spain to really integrate myself into Spanish culture. Improving my language skills was one goal of course but not the biggest. This is one that I think people get sometimes don’t understand. When I talk about how important it is for me to live with Spaniards, other expats often say “oh well I’m already fluent in Spanish.” Dude … that’s not even the half of it. Also, I’m already fluent as well.
I just knew that in general, I had to purposefully put myself in situations where I would make Spanish friends. Last year, this meant hanging out with my Spanish friends more than my American ones. This meant meeting up with Spanish people who wanted to practice English. My old Spanish tutor Daniel with Coffeeshop Spanish taught English in Logroño, Spain for a year. He had a real good group of Spanish guy friends who he met through joining a soccer team. His experience in Spain was so vastly different because he chose to put himself in a situation where he would befriend locals.
Befriending locals takes some effort. Last year, I wrote a post about how I broke out of the English bubble. Basically, you just have to put yourself in situations where you’ll meet locals. It will vary from culture to culture. I do feel lucky that in Spain, Spanish people are very open to hang out once you do meet them.
6. You realize what you love about your country
So before I mentioned that I’ve never been much of a “USA! USA! USA!” kind of girl. While I still wouldn’t consider myself that kind of girl, I was surprised at how I started to appreciate my own country. No country is perfect. As you settle into life in your new country, you will start to see the good and the bad. The honeymoon phase will fade away. I of course still think Spain is amazing. I just no longer see it as perfect.
Spain is in a huge financial crisis. From my perspective, Spanish people just want to find a good job for themselves and live comfortably. That’s what most of us want in the world after all. Here that means that a lot of people are after public sector jobs.
In the US, we are taught that we can be anything we want to be. We are taught to take risks and follow our dreams. We have a super strong entrepreneurial spirit. Out of that spirit, we have created some amazing things. That was how Silicon Valley happened. That’s how Hollywood happened. That’s how QCA, the company my grandfather started from nothing turned into a successful business that afforded both my father’s family and our family (my dad took over the business when he retired) a very comfortable lifestyle.
It’s so funny to me. I never thought in a million years that the American entrepreneurial spirit would be the thing I grow to appreciate.
7. The long-term can be hard
It always surprises me how easy some people think it is to move to another country. Like they think all you need to do is buy a plane ticket and apply to jobs. Wrong. As the foreigner, you will always need a visa. The only big exception to this rule is if you’re from a European Union country and want to move to another EU country. The EU has this agreement where any EU citizen gets a work permit to any other EU country. It’s super nice for all who have EU passports (jealous).
For the rest of us, we need a visa to live long-term. Yes, we can travel to many places with just a stamp in our passport. However that is usually only good for 90 days. Anything beyond that and you will need a visa.
My best advice here is to just do your research if you want to live in a certain country for a few years. In the case of Spain, for example, the government hosts a huge teaching program and it’s easy to get into. You have to be a native speaker with a college degree. They support you with a visa as well. While I don’t necessarily see myself teaching for the rest of my life, I had experience in teaching and didn’t mind to do it. It was a great ticket to living in Spain. Other countries might offer a working holiday visa to young people. Others might have a shortage of professionals in a certain field. You just never know.
If you wish to just apply for a regular job, the company will have to sponsor your visa. This is not the most common thing ever. There’s a law here in the European Union that says a company can only hire someone from outside the union if they can show that they had no better candidates from the EU. The United States has that same law regarding Americans vs. foreigners. I do not agree with these laws at all. But they are what they are … and they can be quite a hurdle to navigate.
The other way to stay long-term somewhere is marriage or domestic partnership.In the US, Uncle Sam forces us to walk down the aisle. However Europe offers residency if you have a domestic partnership with someone from the EU. Have you downloaded Tinder yet? I joke but yet I don’t.
In the end it’s amazing
At the end of the day, I really cannot get over how lucky I am to experience life in a foreign country. This experience I know will only shape me for the better. If you have ever considered moving abroad, you really should do it.
If you want to learn more about my story of moving to Spain, you have to download my free e-book!
Have you ever lived abroad? If so, what things surprised you about the experience?