Friday, September 3, 2010

A Foreigner's Guide to Surviving the Foreign

Having to adapt to a new place is hard. Having to do so all alone is absolutely terrifying. I know veyr well that navigating a place that looks and feels different to you takes a lot of strength, calm, and courage.

Since I have been here in MA, I feel like I have been successful. I have never been here before, and no one in my family has lived here either. One of the reasons I was feeling so damn anxious earlier is because I knew that I didn't know who to call if I ever got lost or...something worse. The truth is, it's really worrying when the people who can help you when you are in trouble are either a) Many miles away or b) acquaintances. I completely understand the uneasiness of being alone. I was very lucky to have good friends help me settle in - but that is not always the case for people first living on their own.

Of course, being in a new place is also extremely exciting! This is your place now. But first, you have to make it yours! Here is my little guide to surviving a new area on your own and doing exactly that. Keep in mind that I am sticking to a place which has a population of people who speak the same language as you.

1. Rely on experience

If you are trying to navigate a place for the first time, think back to any travels that you have had before: have you ever taken a vacation abroad with your friends, family, or by yourself? Have you ever been far away from home for a prolonged amount of time? What precautions did you take? Remember your past experiences; especially the moments where you screwed up. I am going to be the first to tell you that I hate remembering my cringeworthy experiences, but you have to learn from mistakes. You have made them before and they will be made again. Don't worry about it. Just make sure you remember not to repeat them.

If you have never travelled on your own, or have never had to stay in a strange place for too long, don't worry. Listen to other people. They have plenty of stories of their own! Talk to family members and friends about travelling itself (what it is like at an airport, what to expect when sitting on a bus for 6 hours, etc.) and also about how to use public transport in the area that you are going to. Even if they have stories of countries and cities that are not the one you are going to, don't worry - anything they tell you can give you an idea of how to reason with a new place; how to deal with challenges.

2. Understanding public transport means understanding the layout of your city/town

Public transport is a wonderful thing. You spend less money on gas and car maintenance, it is better for the environment, etc. It is also designed to be convenient for people who need to get to important places. Bus and train stops are usually based on landmarks that are used to help people understand where they are in relation to other landmarks.

Do you see where I am going with this? You can use google maps all you want, and drive to each desired location, but the truth is that you will not learn the about the soul of the city unless you understand its places of interest and public transport. Another thing you will learn is the nature of the people who live and breathe the city already - are they courteous, friendly, abrasive, or cold? Of course every person is different, but you'll get a general idea of what people are like in public - something that everyone going to a new place should know.

3. Use the resources around you, including information kiosks and local authorities

If you are extremely proud, introverted, terrified of people, or ashamed of yourself, you just have you grit your teeth and bear it. No one really likes to ask for directions or help, unless they are trying to distract or flirt with whomever they are asking (trust me on this one). However, you will need to do it sometimes. People who are just walking by may have things to do, or may not be willing to help, so if you see someone like a policeman, or someone who works for the transportation authority, asking them might be a better idea.

The reason I say this is because it is their job to help you. No question is a stupid question, I promise. Even if the answer seems obvious to them, so what? You're new here. It's okay. Please throw your pride out of the window and throw a little caution to the wind - if you are lost, or if something bad has happened to you, for the love of God ask for some help.

4. Keep in contact with people who care about you; you might need their help

Now this one is going to make me sound like a douchebag, but hear me out. Your family and friends love you (most of the time). You know who you can trust, and who you can't. You also know who you would immediately take a plane over to whenever they needed you, if you had the money and the means. Because you are sure of who you really appreciate, let them help you in your direst hours.

You darkest times aren't always about being lost or out of money; or anything to do with practical matters. When you go into a brand new place, you will need some kind of emotional support. You cannot do everything on your own.

You are sometimes going to feel very lonely, especially in the first few days or weeks when you don't have any friends in the immediate area. Even if you are a loner like me, sometimes you will want to rant about silly things just like you used to be able to when you had friends or family closer to you physically. Don't let the distance bring you down. There will always be somebody willing to listen to you, if you call the right person.

Sometimes the person who listens to you and is there for you isn't who you think it is. Don't be disappointed by the neglect of whomever you thought it would be - focus on the other person who surprisingly showed a lot of kindness and warmth. Use media you wouldn't normally use, either: Facebook and phone calls don't always work.

5. Write about your worries and fears in a coherent manner

Now you can probably see where I am going, and why I am writing this! You don't have to start a blog in order to write about how you are feeling. In fact, I think it is much better to write to a specific person with whom you feel more comfortable; someone who actually knows you well. If you don't really have that, then a blog might be a good idea - I know it has helped me! Or, perhaps, you could write a note on a social networking site like tumblr or Facebook - even tweeting about things can be therapeutic.

We all hate the narcissistic fools who tweet and Facebook constantly about their stupid woes and their nonexistent problems. However, being alone in a strange place is not a dumb reason to write. In fact, it is one of the best! Even if no one reads it, writing it down in a way that is understandable to you and other people helps you figure out what is really bothering you. The process of writing or rereading it might make you realise a) how small some of your problems are and how easy they are to fix, or b) how badly things are going and how much you need to figure it out now. Realising either of those things for yourself is the key to surviving.

6. Let yourself be a little overly prepared if you need it

Some of us are worrywarts who freak out at the smallest thing. We are the people who are scared of being lost, losing our keys, getting hassled in a bar, etc. Some of us are completely the opposite - we thrive on adventure, and let our hearts lead the way despite the dangers.

A little something I have learned through various means, usually religious, spiritual, and health-related is that you need to have balance in your life. You cannot let yourself be scared of everything, otherwise you will not get near enough to the water to test it. On the other hand, you should not throw yourself right into the pool if you don't know whether it is empty or not. You need to have the courage to put your toe into the pool to check the temperature (or presence of water!) but the rationality to not take it too far, or do it too fast. If the water isn't there, or it is scalding hot, you need to know when to get yourself away from the pool.

Okay this water/pool analogy is going on for too long. Basically, if you think you need to write down every little direction you read on mapquest, as well as print out a copy of the map with directions, and THEN keep repeating the directions to yourself and constantly checking all three are the same - go ahead. You'll look really silly at every intersection and on the bus, but you know what? At least it is getting you somewhere. After a few times on the same route, you'll get it and you won't need your safety blanket anymore. Safety blankets are not bad at first, but to create another corny analogy, they shouldn't keep you wrapped up for too long.

So, that is all I have to say for my survival guide. I am sure there are many other little things I could tell you: be careful with money, keep a phone on you at all times, etc. but those are things you have probably heard before. I tried to write about things that were just a little less obvious to the new traveller.

I think everyone should go to a foreign place, whether they know the language or not. The language barrier can be a fun and difficult thing to deal with, something I will write about another time. However, even with people who speak the same language, things can still be foreign to you as it is still a complete unknown. For those who fear the unknown, you will find that the best way to eradicate fear of what you don't know is to learn about it. Then, the unknown becomes...well...the known!

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