It was already dark when I took the tram to go from Gent Sint Pieters station to the hotel for the very first time, on the 21st September 2012. I had no idea about how Belgium could look like. I didn't speak the language, my English was very bad and I left the 26 degrees of the south of Italy to meet the 12 degrees of Gent. I felt disoriented, misplaced and at the same time enthusiastic and full of energy for the new adventure ahead of me. I was determined to make an impact and grow personally and professionally. What I didn't know was how I would respond to the new culture, rules and mindset. I knew what I left behind and who I was in Italy. I had no idea of who I would become by being exposed to a completely different environment.
After I found an apartment and took care of the bureaucracy, I could finally get acquainted with my new country. What I didn't take into account was that by the time I was ready to get out there, it was the end of November. The Belgian weather tends to be chilly around this time of the year, and winter 2012 was exceptionally cold. My enthusiasm to get out and explore dropped proportionally to temperature. I felt increasingly sad, lonely, out of balance and not belonging. I spent most of my time working at home.
When the thaw finally came, I started hoping to build a social life. I attended meetup events and I got more active on social media in order to meet new people in person. I became part of a big expat community in Gent and I felt good. At least that's what I told myself. Truth is that I still didn't feel at home. I couldn't say that I clicked with Gent. Looking back at my old self, I can say that I had a lot of resistance at that time. I didn't want to learn the language because I thought that Dutch was way too difficult for me to learn. I constantly compared my italian lifestyle with the new one. I tried to bend Gent to my expectations.
As a result, I left Gent angry at the culture, with the belief that I spent four years of my life looking for belonging where I couldn't find it. I moved to Sydney and my sense of belonging didn't improve. I moved to Spain for a little while and then life brought me back to Belgium. This time I wanted to do things differently.
I looked at the patterns that occurred during my 8+ years abroad and I discovered that a lot of obstacles I experienced during my integration process were all living in my mind and heart. I would love to share with you my insights so that they can help you moving toward a more accepting point of view. Acceptance of yourself within the new context and acceptance of a new culture.
1 - Curiosity towards the new
Be curious about the new country. Try not to be stuck in harmful comparisons between your old self and the new version of yourself. Life is a constant flow of events that bring change. Change is the most natural state then. Even though you remember your old lifestyle to be idyllic, chances are that you can't be completely objective because you already feel lonely. You long for good memories that can make you feel better. Acknowledge your memories trying not to feel overwhelmed. Treat yourself kindly and get curious. Who you were doesn't exist anymore. Look at who you are now and nurture healthy curiosity towards what can be a truly exciting experience.
2 - Forget about stereotypes
Stereotypes build up walls because they create false expectations. As a practical consequence of being curious, abandoning stereotypes will improve your openness and availability to other human beings. Stereotypes are tricky. I caught myself more than once thinking about what Italians do or how Italians behave when it was convenient to me. When we decide to forget about stereotypes, we should be ready to not take advantage of the good ones. Be curious about people as individual entities, not as part of the herd.
3 - Don't blame yourself if you like the new
When we embrace curiosity and get rid of the stereotypes, what is left is pure discovery. During the process we can really like some aspects of our new life. There is nothing wrong with it. It is normal to like a familiar place as soon as we develop our routine. Some expats can feel like traitors of the country of origin if they admit that they like the new country more. That's a poisonous attitude that can really hold you back from integrating in the new culture. You are allowed to question the reasons why you moved abroad and what you liked and didn't like about your country of origin. Embracing a new culture doesn't mean that you are completely rejecting the one you were born and raised in. You can discover how beautiful it is to belong to two or more cultures, being the crossroad of different points of view that merge to stimulate a creative identity, yours.
4 - Your impact goes beyond your country of origin
In my experience, expats are inclined to believe that only when they are fully integrated, they can make an impact. That's far from the truth. Whenever we engage in a human relationship, we make an impact that resonates regardless some geographic borders. So stop believing that you first have to speak a new language like a native and know all the national holidays by heart before you can start even thinking about making an impact. You can start contributing right now by exercising compassion, kindness and openness.
Embedding the four attitudes in your daily life comes with two simple acts: smile more and let go of all possible expectations.
If you are ready to boost your life abroad, book a free consultation where we can explore your case and see how I can help you.