Friday, 30 July 2010

The Odd One Out: Trying (and Failing) to Fit In

 Living in a foreign country is harder than you could ever imagine.

I'm not referring to the hardship of moving to a new town or city, or the issues associated with buying houses, cars, and other such material possessions. I'm referring to the difficulty of simply fitting in. 

In short, you're a stranger in an alien environment. Your family is absent, you're pretty much mate-less and, unless you do something about it fast, that's the way it's going to stay.

Trying to fit in

In my previous life, I'd spend Friday nights down the local pub with my chums, Saturday mornings in the gym or in town bumping into old acquaintances, and maybe Sunday afternoons catching up with school friends, their partners and, of course, my family. 

In moving to Canada, I created a situation in which I left behind those friends I'd have a 'bit of banter' with.  My family were no longer present, no cousins or aunts and uncles to visit nearby.  I didn't recognise passers-by in the street and heard no warm "hello" from familiar faces in the shopping mall.  Overnight, my social life had died and all self-confidence died with it.

I agree that this was a pretty negative way to start a new life adventure overseas.  In my defence, I was finding it hard to adjust, and I plain and simply missed my family.  I pined for friends and I craved familiarity.  I spent all available time with my wife and two dogs, and made no attempt at meeting anyone else.
I was learning a lot about myself in a very short space of time. I quickly realised that my personality didn't lend itself to confronting strangers and seeking friendship.  And why should I?  I had plenty of good pals back home.  So I didn't join social clubs or make enough of an effort with new acquaintances. Generally shy by nature, I quickly became isolated, suffering intense bouts of homesickness and increasing negativity towards those people I came into contact with. This attitude pushed those people away, no new friends came forward, and a vicious cycle was created.

It's often assumed that, when moving to a new city/state/country, fitting in is easy and happens naturally but here's a word to the wise. It isn't and it doesn't.  The lesson I learned was that you need to leave your comfort zone and put yourself out there.  I didn't and couldn't...  and paid the price by struggling to settle for the early part of my new life away from the UK.

Would you have done things differently in my situation?  If so, what would you say to any expats-in-the-making?

I realise I'm oversimplfying things and a more detailed discussion would include many other factors to consider when assimilating into a new environment but I believe it's as simple as this: do not consider emigrating if you are a shy person or if being active in the local community doesn't come naturally to you.  If you don't like the idea of joining new groups, talking to new faces in the street, or generally approaching someone else before they approach you, then moving abroad is not for you.

I had the support of my wife and extended family and learned from my mistakes.  Over time, I recognised that the key to a successful emigration is not completing the correct paperwork or packing the right boxes but accepting your new life, warts and all, and making a gargantuan effort with the local people that comprise that new life. Fitting in is never easy but then who ever said it would be?

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Friday, 16 July 2010

That Vancouver vibe

What I like most about Vancouver is its vibe.

The culture is vibrant, sociable and very outdoors. The people are friendly, fashionable and completely multicultural with strong Aboriginal, Asian and European influences. The city and surrounds are spectacular from all angles. We simply loved it.

Living initially in White Rock just outside the city limits, we were lured to the suburb of North Van with its proximity to the mountains and to the downtown hub. Yet only 18 months later, we were packing up and leaving our Vancouver home as the lack of relevant job opportunities became too much to bear and improved employment prospects in the National Capital were too hard to ignore.
We often look back and regret having spent such a relatively short amount of time in what was for us the ideal environment to call home. Vancouver fuses the wild, outdoors side of Canada with the practicality of a vibrant, cosmopolitan English-speaking city. It will always hold a special place in our hearts for how it opened up our eyes to an alternative and much improved way of living life. A way of life far removed from our former 9-5 office routine, the obligatory Saturday trip to the local shopping centre, and the painful regularity of the weekend hangover.

This Vancouver way of life was quite different. It involved far less routine and infinitely more adventure. For a start, I went back to university and became a mature student at the beautifully located University of British Columbia perched on the headland at Point Grey. Designed to encompass student teaching within a typically west coast setting, I immensely enjoyed my 12 months of post-graduate study and unique cultural experience offered by a superior North American university.

In a typical day, the Vancouver vibe offered a morning hike before the start of work on the Grouse Grind, aka ‘Mother Nature’s Stairmaster' - one of the decidedly more interesting and intense local hikes. It meant the working day started at 7am, not 9am, and finished closer to 3. It was about choosing whether to enjoy an amazing variety of fresh sushi for lunch or going for the good ole Canadian ‘soup and sandwich’. It was about deciding between an early evening sail on the harbour or a floodlit ski or snowboard at Cypress, Grouse or Seymour mountains.

Weekends were about hiking along the many local forest and mountain trails, a 10km run along the ocean road, or a 3-hour scenic drive up the Sea-to-Sky highway to Whistler. Stop for coffee at one of an endless range of delicious and original coffee houses across the city, drop into an organic farmers’ market or health food shop to satisfy the ‘granola’ in you, or simply pay a hard-earned visit to one of the many micro-breweries on offer across the Lower Mainland.

The vibe in Vancouver also importantly infused aboriginal culture into mainstream society – from the famous totem poles at one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, Stanley Park, to the numerous indigenous carvings at the international airport, and to the architecturally stunning Museum of Anthropology just west of Vancouver with its acclaimed collection of Aboriginal art and artifacts. For Vancouverites, the style of dress is equally important to the overall way of life in Van City, from the obligatory Mountain Equipment Co-op rain jacket or pair of hiking pants to the endless array of winter sports shops replete with Burton this and Quiksilver that.

For me, the vibe wasn't just about what we had experienced. It was the sum total experience of all Vancouverites. It was the end result of mixing a diverse, youthful city with a vast and spectacular picturebook of nature at its very finest. Blending the two together was not just an accomplishment but a means to create a vibe so unique and special that, watching the carnival atmosphere in and around the recent Winter Olympics, I realised just how lucky we were.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Heading home for the holidays

It's fast approaching that time of year when expats begin making preparations for the annual pilgrimage home to see loved ones over the Christmas period. The time for buying airline tickets is well overdue and latecomers will be contemplating extraordinarily high prices when purchasing tickets home, if at all available.

This expat attempts the journey home as often as is possible and, more often than not, during the December/January period. Past experience has shown that flights at this time of year are exorbitantly priced, yet I am often advised that, should I book a ticket outside of this peak period, the prices should halve in value. However, this generally isn’t the case. Aside from the fact that holidaying from November to February simply isn’t feasible, your favourite airlines appear to have wised up to the fact that annual travellers look to these 'shoulder peak' times for regular or reduced fares. They, accordingly, refuse to reduce the ticket price. This peak period of the year has therefore grown from a two-week timeslot to almost four months in duration.

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