Adapting to Life as an Expat

How easy is it to adapt to life in a new country?” Well, the answer is going to be different depending on who you are and how adaptable you’re willing to be.

I’m a planner by nature. You know, one of those people who likes to make lists, check things off, and know that all is going according to plan.

Winging it is fine in certain situations, but when it comes to major life changes I feel better knowing that all of my I’s are dotted and my T’s are crossed.

I’m no stranger to travel and moving or the adjustments that come with them, so when it came time to move to Ecuador I did my research and came up with what I thought was a smooth transition strategy. Start learning Spanish… Check. Get in shape to better deal with the higher altitude… Check. Mentally prepare myself for a slower pace of life… Check.

So did my move go as planned? Well, yes and no. All of the things I prepared for came in handy, in fact every one of them helped me settle in quickly and feel at home. But there will always be things you aren’t ready for. Often small and trivial sounding, they can add to the effects of culture shock to make your first few weeks that bit harder. Three years ago when we arrived in small-town Ecuador it was cell phone radios spewing static-filled dance songs on the bus…the early cry of roosters…the lack of shoes that fit my size nine feet…

Your first few weeks and months are intense. Your life is in transition and in dealing with all of the adjustments that a move of this magnitude brings, it can be difficult to get beyond those little unexpected details. Luckily I was able to move on and truly enjoy Ecuador as I had intended by putting into place a few key practices.

First, I focused on those things that initially drew me to Ecuador in the first place. By channeling my attention towards the friendly people, the awesome beauty surrounding me, and the myriad of other wonderful aspects of the country, I simply paid less attention to the small stuff.

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Adapting to life in a new country like Ecuador can come with challenges, but for every challenge, there are many rewards.

For every challenge that comes your way, ten bliss-filled wonders will offset it if you keep your mind open. Anyone with a positive attitude and a healthy sense of humor can’t help but succeed wherever they end up in this world.

My first few months abroad came with a steep learning curve and it wasn’t just my new country that was educating me; I learned a few things about myself as well. For instance, I found that my desire for good old American comfort food would sometimes outweigh my love for new cuisines. I found that my patience for seemingly unimportant bureaucratic requirements has a limit. And I found that my penchant for punctuality is actually a disadvantage in such a laid back country.

But whenever I would feel the frustration setting in all I had to do was take a look out my front window. With two regal volcanic peaks looking down on me, lush green-pastured hillsides, and friendly neighbors on all sides, it was the perfect reminder of why Ecuador was now home.

My ability to laugh at myself got a workout as well when I found my Spanish was not quite as polished as I had hoped. Ordering “grilled chicken lettuce” (lechuga de pollo) instead of a “chicken breast” (pechuga de pollo) made for a confused waitress, but we all shared a good laugh when I realized my mistake.

I also drew on the wisdom of those who had come before me. Just hashing it out with other expats was cathartic and they all had their own stories to draw on. Every one of them experienced a bit of cultural surprise in one way or another and they assured me that they got through it and I would, too.

The biggest remedy it turns out is simply time. You need to give your mind the chance to let go of your old lifestyle. Expecting to immediately adapt to a new way of living is a recipe for disaster and a sure way to sabotage your move abroad. Once you learn to let go and just wait it out you’ll find that sliding into a new culture becomes so much smoother.

It’s not uncommon to meet newbie expats who have built up such high expectations and got so giddy in anticipation of their new life that they forget that no matter where you live you still need to go to the store or market, that bills still need to be paid…that in short—life still has its ups and downs. They are impatient and as a result find adapting to their new lifestyle that much harder. It takes a bit of time to find your niche and the daily routines you really enjoy, the park you like to walk in, and maybe most importantly to make new friends. The fact of the matter, though, is that all of these things come in time and with them enormous rewards.

Everyone has their own experiences and yours will not necessarily mirror mine. But one thing is certain: Every expat will find surprises along the way—so expect them. Just don’t sweat the small stuff, focus on the “big picture” and most of all be willing to give it some time. If you can do these things, then your move abroad will be one of the highlights of your life.

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