5 tips for thriving in cross-cultural living

Calvin Hanson

Calvin Hanson

It can be very difficult moving to another country for medium- to long-term emotionally, physically and spiritually. We’ve lived cross-culturally for longer stints in countries in Latin America, Asia and Europe.

Each location has presented different challenges in adaptation and culture shock. Is it possible to thrive and feel more alive in another culture? We think so because we have experienced it! Here are our best tips:

#1 Keep an attitude of humility and learning

So many times I’ve caught myself saying, “Why do they do that this way—it is much easier to do it this way like in America”. This can relate to public transport to hygiene to language or cultural norms! For example, the size of coffee cups outside of America are so small! Why!?

It can be so frustrating if we fight the new culture we find ourselves in. It is much easier to let go. Adopt a attitude of learning and humility and you will save yourself a lot of pain.

It actually was very tasty ;)
Is that an eyeball?? It actually was very tasty 😉 – I took the photo on a fish farm in Mexico

#2 Dive into the culture, but also splurge on “home culture” time on occasion.

It can be hard to get out of bed when you know EVERYTHING you are about to do will be more difficult because of culture and language barriers. “I just want to buy some frickin’ fruit and not get a headache from straining to understand language and bartering!” These moments can lead into a downward culture shock spiral where you isolate and eventually leave a country. Diving into the culture means going against your emotions and fears and accepting the challenge of the day.

If you are deep in a spiral and your emotions and fears are all over the place, sometimes all you need is to find a local place where expats hang out and talk in English like never before, drink Root Beer and eat Reese’s Pieces (although you didn’t even drink or eat them much in the States—funny how cultural cravings are)!

#3 Engage with people at the intersection of your interests, but also try new (to you) things from the culture.

Whether its music, sports, hiking, photography, or whatever you enjoy doing, try to find those in your new country doing the same. It takes the pressure off language and cultural differences and opens the door to friendship. I played basketball, did language exchanges (I am a geek, yes) and went cycling and met new people along the way.

It’s also life-giving to try new things like cooking a national dish, joining a local club or playing a popular national sport.

The countryside of Catalunya, España (Spain)
Enjoying the slow tour of the countryside of Catalunya, España (Spain)

#4 Learn the language.

This is a big one! If you want to feel like you are connected to a culture, dive into the language. You miss so much cultural insight without the language. It makes your day to day life so much easier and it DOES get easier.

Friendships can go beyond surface level, government stuff becomes easier (although lets be honest, it’s never easy), and the day-to-day tasks become normal and even fun! If you are already in the country, I’d recommend some formal training to give the foundations. It can make a world of a difference.

We played this bingo type game at a hot dog stand with the owner's kids.
We played this bingo type game at a Mexican hot dog stand with the owners kids.

#5 Celebrate your little successes.

You bought groceries, awesome! You mailed a package, amazing! You talked on the phone in a foreign language, someone get you a beer! If we slow down and see every activity as an opportunity to learn and succeed even one step forward, we will look back and see we have become better, more patient people.

The tips above are the ones that have helped me the most in my longer stays in another country. I hope they are helpful to you as well!

What about you, do you have any tips to share or comments about living in a different country?

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