Learning to be foreign.

I recently had a short exchange with a friend of mine who’s out in Vietnam for a few months.

Some of the things she’s shared recently about her homesickness jibe with my own experiences living abroad. Namely: the feeling that you’ve lost control of your life in the midst of baffling and often spontaneous social situations.

It goes like this: someone invites you out to do something. Or they abruptly pull you into doing something that you hadn’t planned to do, and you go along with it because you’re worried you’ll give offense if you turn them down. Next thing you know, you’re committed to spending an unspecified amount of time engaging in a cultural activity that you may or many not understand, and you have to pretend to enjoy it even when you’re really uncomfortable because otherwise you will fail at integrating with this new and exciting culture you’ve come all this way to learn about.

This is not a thing you experience as a regular tourist. When you go to a country for a week or two on vacation, you are, first and foremost, on vacation. This is not your life for any meaningful duration of time, and you’ve largely cleared your schedule specifically for the purposes of having these encounters.

But when you go to live in a place, and you’re there to form relationships with people and really immerse yourself in their culture, this kind of thing happens a lot more and is super overwhelming.

I imagine this is how many shy and socially awkward people feel when their more extroverted friends drag them off to some party or another, although again: not exactly the same thing, because you’re still in the same culture. You know what to expect, even if you don’t like it.

The good news, however, is that this is something you can get better at as you do more of it. You learn to accommodate the unexpected, to accept the unnerving, to be at peace with your own awkwardness.

You learn to be foreign.

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