You need to plan.
Think Trajan. Think Patton. Think Hannibal Barca (but without the elephants). Most people set out to learn about another culture with a positive frame of mind, aware that differences will arise. But when the differences show up – they are so, well, different. Strategy, people, STATEGY. Kum ba ya is not going to get you through. Channel your inner Miltiades surveying the plain of Marathon. Tactics, people, TACTICS.
I present for your delectation a meeting I was forced to attend at another company’s office. I am in a positive, accepting, hug-the-world mood until I arrive at 7:30am to find that there was no coffee table set up for a day-long meeting. Yes, read that sentence again. I arrive at the registration table at 7:30am to find no ‘hospitality’ coffee and (just as bad) no snacks. This is a problem of epic proportions. You do not want to see me, talk to me or be within slapping distance of me without caffeine in the morning. Set down the triple latte and back away slowly.
But, somehow I will cope because this is not DEFCON one or anything; I am in the Middle East, an area famous for its coffee. So I ask a few other attendees for the nearest coffee shop. One kindly decides to walk me and two Brits to the building’s café. Which is not open. Because it is now 8 am and what café opens that early? It opens at 10am. The Brits hung up their lyres.
I wandered around in a daze, it’s past 8am in an area full of buildings and people and there is not a drop of the elixir of life available. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? GET ME COFFEE. NOW. OR DIE.
I ended up going to the first ten minutes of the meeting, slipping out, getting IN A TAXI, going to nearest shop, having the driver wait while I rushed in bleary, barely coherent and shaking to buy a small coffee, a large coffee and snacks. On the way back I gulped the small one and hid the snacks in my purse. Then I sauntered back into meeting holding a large coffee and slipped myself snacks until the10:30 am coffee break. Was that the ghost of Wellington in the corner silently applauding me? Yes, it was.
Three specific points:
1) Make sure there is someone to send you stuff – especially something exceedingly stupid – when you first arrive
One of the givens of moving overseas is that you will arrive and immediately begin pining for something that you never thought you would want and maybe didn’t even like that much when you were home. Pinkie-swear with someone that they will send you, express if necessary, some large, heavy, expensive, useless object that you will obsess over. Living in a world of next-day-delivery, sometimes you can forget that distance can mean DISTANCE. Trust me rose-petal, your subconscious will survey all options and light onto something to miss that is 1) not available for over 2,000 miles and 2) difficult to ship. Get that good friend on stand-by.
2) You are on Display at All Times
Goodbye anonymity – everyone knows everyone and everyone knows someone who knows someone who say what you did. Leave the house looking professional every time you leave your house. Never hissy fit in public. Never say “these people.” You will lose it – not to worry, ma petite chou, you will lose all shred of dignity, this is a given. Just don’t lose it in public. Wear sunglasses and retreat to your car where you can blast good music through your earphones and scream all the words you learned at your expensive Swiss boarding school (which is the only reason one goes to an expensive Swiss boarding school).
3) Say Goodbye to Shopping Therapy (for a while)
First you need to go around to shops to see what they have – it is normal to have to go to three different grocery stores to get what you need for dinner. People NOT overseas will chirp at you about the difficulty of living without alcohol or pork – that’s not exhausting. What is soul-crushing is trying to find good hair mousse, chocolate, stain remover, a decent frozen pizza, doughnuts, cheddar cheese or raspberry danish. After a few months, things will even out but even once you have the basics down, stores will mysteriously 1) run out of products for months at a time and 2) move products around so that every grocery store visit is an epic quest.