Far from home, for better and worse

Posted By on 31/08/2012

This is the fifth post in a series about one expat's experiences. You can read the previous posts here, here, here, and here.

Living outside my home country is exciting and maddening. Culturally and practically, the distance between the United States and Colombia sometimes feels very small and sometimes feels very large. The large differences are the ones I notice more—sometimes because they make me happy and other times because they leave me wanting.

In some ways, life in my adopted country isn’t very different from life in my home country. Many fundamentals of society and culture are similar across much of the West. I also moved from one very large city, New York, to another, Bogotá, so the daily rhythm of life in the latter was familiar as soon as I arrived.

More practically, my new home is in the same time zone as my old home, so keeping in touch with friends and family is easy. And living in this century has made it even easier: Not only has email kept me in instant reach electronically; thanks to services like Skype and Google Voice, I can also talk on the phone, and even call cell phones in the U.S., for close to nothing. Some relatives back home on the East Coast of the U.S. joke that I feel closer to them in Colombia than I would if I lived in California.

But of course there are times when I feel very far from my home country and the things that are most familiar and comforting to me.

Some of that is, of course, social. Colombians do things Americans don’t do, and vice versa. For example, I can’t stand “Colombian time,” the habit of Colombians to arrive late—sometimes incredibly late, by my standards—to appointments, even professional ones. As an independent worker who charges by the hour for my teaching, writing, and editing, luckily my income doesn’t suffer when clients are late: I charge them for the agreed-upon time, even if they are late. But when I meet people socially, or for business meetings I’m not charging for, and they show up 15, 30, or 45 minutes later than they said they would, I’m simply waiting and losing time, so I have to try hard to hold my anger in.

Being an outsider cuts both ways. It’s often disappointing to sense that many people I meet feel great distance between us, but sometimes my being different is nice. Some people are fascinated by me, eager to get to know me, or quick to trust me because of my special status. Others, on the other hand, clearly disdain me, will never be interested to know me, or wish to prey on me. None of that would happen so often or so predictably if I were just another American surrounded by Americans.

But some differences are purely positive. Every day I am thrilled to see, feel, and experience new things. Simply being someplace different means learning and constant, if unconscious, engagement with the surroundings. In the U.S., I can keep my eyes closed and make it through the day. In Colombia, where life will never be as familiar or comfortable, I have to be far more aware of everything going on around me, or else I will miss out on opportunities, perhaps offend or be offended, and fail to learn what I need to learn to live more successfully tomorrow.

And while I had previously understood the concept of competitive advantage, nothing drove it home as well as moving somewhere where my skills were in far shorter supply. That’s a difference almost every expat can appreciate.