Five Ways to Have a Smoother International Experience
“This is your host family”
I remember those words as clearly today as I did back then. As a foreign exchange student I remember feeling the thrill of the adventure as I stepped aboard the plane on the day the trip came. All the months of talking and planning was finally here. Now suddenly we landed and I was getting my host family assignment. It hit me- I was going to live with 4 complete strangers.
I was 17 years old, in a program sponsored by my school to study in a local university in Mexico City. Even though I already knew Spanish, I still suddenly felt extremely unprepared for this. It felt unfamiliar, unnatural and well, lonely. I felt alone in a home with strangers, even though they were very nice people. Similar to how young international baseball players feel every summer.
This was my first international experience with transition, but already it was preparing me for the work I currently do to help athletes transition to the highest level of sport.
Back then, we had no internet (can you imagine??!), so there was no Facebook or Instagram to see what these people looked or lived like. You just had to trust that the people who put this whole thing together did it well and hope for the best. It was like that. No turning back.
Transition is a funny thing. As people we crave the familiar, no matter how adventurous we are. New situations are uncomfortable because we have no frame of reference- no memory to help us figure it out. The transition of going from the familiar, to the unfamiliar, then making it familiar, is a cognitive exercise. The brain has to adjust everything (stress hormones, emotions, executive functions, etc.) in order to survive and thrive. This process can be fast or slow, painful or not, depending on the support system and preparations made ahead of time.
So if you decide to travel or live internationally, you may benefit from knowing these five things to help you with a smooth transition;
- Prepare with the right mindset
It’s one thing to pack the right clothes, but completely another to pack the right mindset. The right mindset is one of positivity, flexibility and imperfection. Know that you will be off balance for a few days or few weeks. Make a list before you go of the things you will need to help you feel “normal” and map those out the first few days you are there. For example, if your daily routine includes going to the store and the gym, find a store and a gym near you as soon as you get to your destination. Food, routine and the independence that you are used to are key to feeling good about your stay so make sure you take those in to consideration when planning.
- Trust in people
You will most likely find a time when you won’t know how to do something. You will have to ask for help. Learn to read people and trust that someone will help you. Learn how to say please and thank you and use them often. It’s also a great idea to learn one or two slang phrases- it is the glue in the puzzle that connects people.
- Embrace the culture
Some of the best experiences I ever had internationally came from locals who offered to provide a meal at their house or show me something special about their country. These nuggets are what make up the culture so don’t bypass it if given the opportunity. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your own culture, it just means staying flexible when you are standing in the middle of a new one.
- Do something good
When you help someone else you forget your own troubles. Try offering a hand of help or support when you feel off balance- it takes the focus off of you and allows you to be a better ambassador of your native country, family and humanity itself.
- Educate yourself
If you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before, learn about it. Learn how things work, how to communicate, how to work effectively, what the values are, etc. This will help make things less unknown and give you a greater sense of familiarity.
As you read through these points, you will see that they can apply to any type of transition, not just an international one. Transitioning to a new school, job, home, or new family dynamic is a part of life and we can eliminate mountains of stress when we lean into the change rather than push back against it.
When my studies were over and I came back to the United States, I knew I had changed. The grass looked greener, the trees looked more beautiful and the people I loved were like celebrities to me. Why? Because now I had another filter to see through. That’s what transition does for us. It gives us more of an understanding of who we are. It makes the old sweeter and the new an ornament of confidence.
Even though it’s not easy, we need transition in order to meet our full potential and for us to open up and allow strangers to become friends.
Only then can we really participate in the fullness of life.