Last night I gave my last Toastmasters speech here – probably my last one ever. Here’s what I said:
Toastmasters, ladies and gentlemen:
I am here tonight for my last speech to you, maybe my last Toastmasters speech ever. Of course, for this special occasion, I needed a topic that is important to me, so I’m going to talk to you about How to be an Expatriate. I know that a lot of you have worked or studied abroad, so you can tell me afterward if you think I got it right.
Here’s my rule #1: “Don’t be afraid of looking stupid.”
You’re going to anyway, so you may as well just accept it. There are so many things that “everybody knows” that you just don’t know, and it’s even worse if you don’t speak the language. If you’re willing to look silly though, whether it’s by sounding like a three-year-old or by using body language, at least you can manage to communicate. I once figured out how to ask for mosquito repellant in a pharmacy – I was going to go like this:
[use one hand to imitate a mosquito buzzing down onto my other arm, biting, then flipping over dead]
I have to admit that I felt even stupider when it turned out the pharmacist spoke English!
Being willing to look stupid can also help you with learning a language. The problem is that when you’re studying one, you feel a little silly if you imitate the teacher too closely – it feels almost like you’re making fun of her. But that’s what you need to do. You all know I can’t speak much Chinese, but I’ll give a simple example: if I meet a new person in the office, I might say, “Ni hao. Wo jiao Paula. Ni yao he koffie ma?” If you’re an American, the temptation is to say that the way you would in English – but if you do, you come out sounding much sillier to the ears of Chinese speakers. [In monotone] “Ni hao. Wo jiao Paula. Ni yao he koffie ma?” [I tried to make it really blatant and did get a laugh]
Rule #2 is, “Don’t be afraid to not be in control of your life.”
When you grow up in a society, you know how it works: when you get into trouble you know how to get out of it. You know how to deal with the local government and businesses; you know where to go to buy things you want, how to find your way around, and what sizes you wear in clothing. When you move to another country, you don’t have any of that, and you can feel like you’re not in control of your life any more. The best thing to do is just relax; accept that everything is different. Trust yourself and other people to get you through anything that happens. (I’ll talk more about trusting other people a little later.)
You also need to accept that other people are going to do things their way, and they aren’t going to change for you. Take restaurants: if you’re eating in Taiwan, even if you’re eating at a Western restaurant, the courses may not come out in the order you expect, and don’t expect everyone at the table to be served at once. If you’re at a restaurant in the Netherlands, you’d better plan on dinner taking two hours, because it’s going to take that long whether you want it to or not.
Rule #3 is, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
There’s an old movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, whose most famous line is when the character Blanche Dubois says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Life as an expat is a lot like that, except that you will also be depending on the kindness of your friends and colleagues. I think for most people, it’s very easy to offer help to others and very hard to ask for it for yourself. But when you don’t speak the language in a place, or you don’t understand how things work, you need help a lot more often than you’re used to. What I try to do when I need help, is to think about whether it’s a favor I would be happy to do for anyone who was a visitor to my own country. If it is, I don’t feel bad about asking.
Of course, this is easier when you’re in a place like Taiwan – I don’t know if you realize it, but Taiwan has an international reputation for being kind to visitors and foreigners. In fact, I don’t even have to give you an example of asking for help, because over the years I’ve been there, I think I’ve asked about half the people in this room for help of one kind or another.
Everything I’ve said here really boils down to one statement: Don’t be afraid. Or at least, don’t let fear stop you from doing what you want to do. Moving to another country is a big deal; it involves a lot of work and it can be very scary. But if you dare to do it, it can be one of the best experiences of your life.