I moved overseas, and this is how daily life in a new country continues to surprise me
About 18 months ago, I moved from Australia to the UK. It’s been a mostly fun, somewhat frenzied, and occasionally frustrating time. It’s hardly surprising that moving to the other side of the world means embracing a different lifestyle. There are a lot of big differences – the UK has its own culture, politics, and customs which I’m still trying to slowly figure out.
But often, it’s the smaller, daily differences that catch you off-guard.
Like the fact that they use the word “courgette” instead of “zucchini,” you have to pay a tax to watch TV or to drive into London, and all the buses are double-decker.
1Just because you move to an English-speaking country, it doesn’t mean you speak the same language.
The “courgette” or “zucchini” thing is just the start of it. Many important words like “duvet,” “crisps,” and “hob” are never used in Australia. For Australians, the words “pants” and “trousers” are interchangeable, but in the UK they are not. Here, “pants” are underwear. British English also has a lot of slang, and people refer to national celebrities and football (aka soccer) teams a lot. I found myself often asking “who’s that?” or “what does that mean?” People are happy to explain, but the language barrier sets you apart.
These are all fairly trivial differences which you get used to, but it’s compounded by the fact that there are also a lot of strange pronunciations to get your head around. I live in Oxford, and there are plenty of examples in the area. The place name “Reading” is pronounced like “Redding;” “Wycombe” is pronounced “Wickam;” “Worcester” is pronounced like “Wooster;” and “Magdalen” is “Maudlin.” I actually find the counterintuitive pronunciations (which are so multitudinous in England that there are two Wikipedia articles listing them all) charming, but the language differences makes you both feel and sound like an outsider.
There’s one very common use of language that I still haven’t gotten used to yet. Often, after greeting you, a British person will say, “you okay?” It sounds like they think you aren’t okay, and so my response is always, “Yes, I’m fine! Do I look like I’m not okay?” But in fact, “you okay?” is just another way of asking “how are you?” It still gets me every time.
2You aren’t always up for exploring your new locale.
It’s exciting to be in a new place, but moving is very different from going on vacation. There are many more pragmatic considerations. You can’t just go and have three restaurant meals and go back to the hotel. You have to budget, you may have to find a job, you have to figure out when the garbage gets collected and where the nearest supermarket is. You have to make sure that if you get sick, you know where the doctor is. You also may need to fill out a pile of documents to keep your visa valid. It’s pretty tiring, and so when the weekend comes around, more often than not, Netflix and a microwaved dinner strikes you as a Very Good Idea.
Being in the UK has opened up a lot of travel opportunities – I’m about three hours away from Paris by train and within a two hour (and often fairly affordable) plane trip to many European cities. I’ve taken up some of these opportunities – in the last 18 months, I’ve visited nine different countries with plans to travel more – but from the exact area I’ve lived in, I’ve ventured out of the city to explore my surroundings exactly three times.
3A lot of your friends might be other expats rather than locals.
The city of Oxford has a big international community and as such, most of the friends I’ve made aren’t from around here either. Friends of mine who have moved to other cities such as London, New York, Berlin, and elsewhere notice a similar thing. For one thing, it can be hard to meet locals in a new city because they already have their friends sorted. For another, I think it’s easier for expats to move in crowds of other expats because we can relate to each other a little better. Locals don’t get confused and frustrated by local customs. And they might not know what it’s like to have most of the people you know and love on the other side of the world.
That’s not to say that I haven’t made any local friends, but moving overseas allowed me to meet people with many different cultural backgrounds and nationalities, and made me feel like part of an international community.
4You can still maintain tight ties with people from home.
When I was nine, my family moved to another house. We didn’t move very far, only a few suburbs away from our old home, but all the promises I made to my old friends about keeping in touch and visiting often eventually broke. Our daily phone calls would become weekly, and then subside into almost no contact at all. I was afraid that by moving overseas, I’d just repeat my history of growing apart from the friends I cared about.
However, while it’s inevitable that your contact with people from home is going to substantially reduce, thanks to technology like social media, email, and Skype, I’m still keeping in touch with people. The tricky thing is navigating time zone differences and arranging mutually convenient times to chat. But if you’re committed, it can be done.
5You have to keep pushing to get out of your comfort zone.
I started off thinking that simply living overseas was pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but that’s not the case. It’s easy for a new home to become ordinary – it happens rather quickly. Given that you can easily maintain ties with friends back home through technology, spend the weekends watching Netflix, and eat dinner packaged in cardboard, you have to work at pushing yourself. For me, that has meant getting offline every so often and doing things that I wouldn’t be able to do as authentically do anywhere else.
Last summer, I saw a Shakespeare play performed in the quad of a medieval building. It was fun, and it made me feel like I was using this opportunity to experience something new. In the weeks before my first Christmas here, I frequented a pub and regularly entered a pub quiz with new friends (pub quizzes are a really big thing here), and I drank mulled wine. I’ve taken walks in the meadow and have seen foxes and falcons. And every time I’m walking around town and hear church bells ring on the hour, I’m sure to look up and see the same tower that someone else could have seen in this place hundreds of years ago.
Sometimes, these moments of appreciation surprise you, but usually, you have to make an effort to truly exist in a completely new place.