WHAT IT TAKES TO LIVE IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY
Finally, I worked up the courage to get water. As expected, it went terribly wrong—in the best way possible. And, as I write this, I still wait for the water to be delivered. I have no idea what’s happening.
On my way to get water, a woman who lives in my building passed with a small child on her shoulders. I swear the little boy said, “Who’s that?” Because she definitely answered, “It’s a foreigner.”
Yes, I’m a foreigner. Thanks for the reminder. And as an outsider in a foreign country, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to survive. Simple, small tasks suddenly become the biggest deal.
Seriously, sometimes I literally have to force myself to leave my apartment to do something I absolutely need to do. Like get water to drink. Gone are the days of being able to drink tap water. We don’t even cook with it. We have to buy cooking water too.
A feeling similar to stage fright consumes my otherwise bubbly and outgoing personality every time I’m in a public space. All eyes are on me. This is Yangon, Myanmar. Not Chicago. Not Iowa. Not South Korea. Not even Guyana, South America.
I used to dream of being famous. I no longer have any desire to be a celebrity. I know exactly what it feels like to never be able to go anywhere or do anything without everyone knowing your business. This concept is what expats often refer to as “living in bubble”. I’ve experienced it many times before. It’s something everyone living abroad has to deal with.
|Jugs of drinking water for sale in Yangon, Myanmar. January, 2014.|
For the past few weeks, my roommate, Don, and I have been trying to figure out how to buy 20-liter jugs of drinking water. We’ve been purchasing smaller, plastic bottles from a convenience store which is much more expensive, and not very good for the environment.
Boys go up and down our street selling water all day; however, these jugs are from businesses in other neighborhoods. We have to wait until the particular boy comes back to get more water if we want to use the same jug. Plus, it’s expensive. You have to pay a bottle deposit in addition to the cost of water.
The first time I bought water from a street seller, a neighbor lady observed the entire transaction take place. I could sense she was trying to tell me something; however, she didn’t interrupt. After, she talked to the boy who sold me the water. It seemed as though she was checking to make sure he hadn’t ripped me off.
After purchasing the water, I realized what she was trying to communicate. She was telling me to buy water from a place on our street. And that’s where I headed to this evening. It’s practically next-door.
The neighbor woman, who observed me get water before, appeared at the “waterhole” shortly after I did. She must have seen me go. I had already caused a scene, so I was thankful she came to my rescue. Her smile and genuine concern was welcoming. Thanks to her, I got everything figured out.
I wasn’t allowed to carry the jug on my own, even though I insisted. That’s why I sit here, writing this post while waiting for it to show up. I just waved to my neighbor lady from across the road. She’s watching to make sure it gets delivered as well. Our apartments are on the same level, so we face each other. I’m sure she’s seen some of my solo dance parties.
Reminder: Stop walking around naked. Or, invest in curtains.
After successfully buying drinking water for the first time, I felt inspired to do more. Once my jug was delivered, I went to our street market and picked up some fresh produce. I interacted with locals. I bought flowers on my way home, and even walked to the gym. It felt so good, so freeing, and almost normal! However, as soon as I opened the door to the gym, all eyes were on me. Everyone literally stopped working out to stare.
The space to exercise was no bigger than a studio apartment, so I was basically in their living room. Eventually, several men came over to help answer some questions I had about pricing and such. The awkwardness subsided, and I felt comfortable and confident once more. I think I’ll even go back.
My neighborhood is incredible and colorful and full of life. Not scary like I let myself imagine it to be. I can’t wait to explore more, and get to know as many people as possible. All it took was getting a jug of water first. And the best part is, it wasn’t only me who had a successful day of integration. Don figured out how to properly dispose of our garbage. Success!
It takes recognizing small successes are actually huge accomplishments to live in a foreign country. It takes humility, a sense of humor, and a lot of extra effort to fit in. It takes understanding no matter how hard you try to fit in you’ll never actually fit in. It takes remembering you’re an example of your country while living abroad, and what you do—or don’t do—does matter.
Lights. Camera. Action. Smile!
After living overseas for the majority of my 20s, one would think I’d have this down by now. But, every new experience is like starting all over again, no matter how much older or wiser I may be.
|Pigeons on power lines along Sin Min Street in Ahlone Township, Yangon, Myanmar. January, 2014.|
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