Expats need Mindfulness by Zeynep Ağacıkoğlu
Adapting to a new country may not always be as smooth as expected, however mindfulness may ease the suffering.
Living abroad is exciting for sure. Learning new cultures, new languages and meeting new people… It is a chance to discover the world. However, things may not always be that easy. Expats can have difficulties adapting to a new country and may suffer from loneliness, cultural differences, access to healthcare, cost of living, finding proper schools for children, learning the language, and relationship problems.
There are various recommendations to ease that adaptation process on expat web pages. Although those recommendations seem helpful, they might be difficult to put into practice in many circumstances depending on the country, character of the expat, or the time you have to relocate.
Can we avoid those problems? We cannot avoid them all, but changing our perspective can reduce the suffering and stress.
A difficult relocation during the pandemic
As we have been overwhelmingly experiencing for the last 3 years, life is unexpected and full of surprises. Let me give you a personal example: in July 2020, in the midst of covid-19, while my family and I were expecting to be relocatedback to Turkey from Switzerland, we were informed that we had to move to Saudi Arabia. It was a huge shock for all of us and the first challenge was deciding what to do with our personal belongings in 16 hours, because the removal company who were supposed to carry our belongings to Ankara was waiting outside and about to leave soon. We realised that probably the worst thing to do would be to panic in that moment. Getting into the fight/flight mode would be no good for taking a skilful response. So after the first shock and a bit of whining, we accepted the fact. “Ok, we are moving to Saudi Arabia”.
Three weeks later we flew to Turkey and put our stuff in storage, then prepared our luggage for Saudi Arabia. We bought our gifts and lokums (Turkish Delight) to give to the school director while praying that they would accept our son to the school where term would be starting in 2 weeks.
Finally, at the beginning of September I was sitting on a special flight with government permission to travel and flight attendants in hazmat suits, armed with my worries, excitement and questions. At that time, I was about to start my teacher training with the OMF which I had applied for months ago when I was in Switzerland. In the first week of the classes I was in Turkey packing for the flight and in the second week I was sitting in an empty house in Riyadh, appreciating the fact that at least the house had internet.
Could mindfulness help?
As we landed in Saudi Arabia, our new life was ahead of us. I was definitely out of my comfort zone as often happens with each relocation. There were many different things to learn, from language to culture. I could have found myself in a spiral rumination that would take me down to depression; “This country is so hot to live”, “This work is not for us”, “What am I doing here?”, “I will get covid while I am away from home”, but I didn’t. Just stopping for a moment and choosing not to believe those thoughts created a space for me to take a skilful response and saved me from getting into that dark thinking space.
As I stepped out of the airport, the hot weather welcomed me. That was one of the things that I could not change and had to accept. Without judging, it was time to learn how to live in a desert climate. Was is hot? Yes, it was. Did I complain? Sure, I did. However, as I had experienced from our early relocations, the climate feels harsher in the first year and by the second year our amazing bodies adapt to the climate, as has happened in Saudi as well. I am also very grateful for the marvellous air conditioning units.
Then I arrived at our new house for the first time. Luckily there were already people caring for us and welcoming us to Riyadh. It brought a warmth into my hearth from the first moment. With that energy, right from the first day I wanted to turn that house to a home, where I could feel safe and warm. I chose not to focus on the things I was lacking, but appreciating the things I had. After a few months and plenty of visits to the malls, our home was ready to spend time in.
On the first morning, I was also welcomed by 3 kittens waiting in front of the garden door looking into the house. We had no intention of having a pet but it was a start of a wonderful friendship and taking on caring responsibilities for the stray cats and dogs. I felt so much love and appreciation for them during our stay in Riyadh. I took care of them and found homes for some of them.
After that I needed to get out of the house and get to know Riyadh. This was time to explore our neighbourhood and to socialize with our new neighbours. I met many people in Riyadh, I had wonderful friends despite the covid precautions. Circumstances dictated that I meet people outside in nature. This meant exploring the desert. With curiosity, my husband and I joined an adventurous desert-group. In that way I explored the sand dunes and felt like I was in a movie scene, even savouring the sand in my mouth. We spent some nights in the desert which was an amazing experience for me. I always felt grateful to everyone in that group and the things they taught us about how to survive in the desert, how to drive on the dunes, and how to get the car out of the dunes when it is stuck.
Being in a new country requires engaging all the senses and coming out of autopilot mode to fully experience the new surroundings. Eating the local food for the first time with all my senses, walking in a new street and observing the scene with full awareness changed my attitude and as a result my experience. Maybe that food or the street were not for me, but I couldn’t know without experiencing it with full and open awareness.
It also helped me to remember that when I faced a problem, – something that pushed my buttons, for example someone being unfriendly -, it was not necessarily about who I am or where I came from. There may be other reasons why people are unfriendly, maybe they are just having a bad day. Stopping before reacting saved me from some big misunderstandings. At the end of the day, we are all humans living in different countries with worries, desires, future plans and the need for safe connections. When I could choose to be awake and aware, then I had a chance to choose what is best for my and others’ wellbeing.
After 2 years in Riyadh, I am writing these words in my warm house in Ankara, Turkey. In short, I spent my time as best I could during my stay there accepting all pleasant and unpleasant moments.
I have to admit that nothing was easy. Like everyone, I had some hard times. Those times connecting with family and friends and being compassionate towards myself were life jackets for me. Moreover, my consistent mindfulness practice was always there to help me feel grounded. By adopting mindful attitudes such as acceptance and letting go, I stopped the aversion that might have made my stay miserable from the first moment. On the contrary I found things I could do to savour life.
I was open to receive what that country could bring me and my family during the pandemic: such as a new culture, new friends, different foods, a chance to discover the extraordinary bit of nature that is the desert! Something I have learned through my 6 international relocations and living in 4 different countries; it is not about the country we are living in but mostly about the mind set we chose to adopt that supports us in staying open to experience and moments of joy. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, I couldn’t stop the waves, but I could surf them, to the best of my ability.
Zeynep studied industrial design at university and holds a master’s degree in graphic design which led her to work on expat’s adaptation as a project. She has worked in the technology sector for 8 years. She is married to a diplomat and has lived in a variety of different countries over the past 14 years (Bangladesh, Switzerland (German part), Turkey, Switzerland (French Part), Saudi Arabia, Turkey). Zeynep is also a yoga instructor and an OMF-trained mindfulness teacher.