I had an epiphany the day I learned the Chinese word for China. Of course! Zhonguo or “center land” is their center in the same way Meiguo (“beautiful land,” America/United States) is mine. Their people are Zhongwen, just as native Americans referred to themselves as “the people.” We all gaze upon the world from our vantage point in the middle.
Living abroad so far from my center, I found myself both reveling in cultural diversity while devising ways to maintain my balance. Here are my tips for staying centered at the edge of the world.
Walk – I’m a walkaholic, so walking is my first line of defense. We lived on the 14th floor of the Hyatt in Tianjin for six months, trapped in a sooty city of ten million. I centered myself by using the stair wells and waving past the taxis to walk the streets for hours. In Belize I traveled by foot or on horseback, rarely setting myself on the seat of a vehicle. On Guam, Little Corn Island, Nicaragua and Kumasi, Ghana I walked until I owned the streets, alleys, shortcuts and cattle paths.
Stay in Touch – Letters, cards, occasional flights home and as technology progressed, email and skype helped keep those close to me within reach. My family and friends never left my side during twenty years of serial expatriation. We shared the wondrous and mundane, our fears and delights, our hearts.
Read – We always stuffed a few books into our bags before boarding a flight. Paperbacks were our currency in trade with visitors and other expats. In China we discovered Utne Reader magazine in the English section of the public Library. On Guam, fellow expats handed us a worn copy of Oliver Sack’s The Island of the Color Blind and initiated our love affair with his incredible legacy of insight. Thanks to the wonderfully literate owners of the lodge we managed in Nicaragua, we enjoyed an inexhaustible supply of classic and contemporary literature. By the time we moved to Africa in 2012, the Kindle had been born and we arrived with dozens of titles loaded in our hand-held pal. Wherever we went, we deepened our experience by reading of that place, Mayan and Chamorran history in Belize and on Guam, Asante culture and post-colonial literature in Ghana.
Find Fellow Expats – If you look you will find them and sometimes they will find you. While I felt enriched by my relationships with the locals, there were times when I could no more struggle with a foreign tongue than change my facial characteristics. We were six months into our stay in Africa before the local expats stumbled upon us. When I saw my first white woman across the yard, we headed straight towards each other and nearly vaulted into each others arms. These friendships endure beyond circumstance because they are born of a common need. No one understands an expat like another expat. Not the locals. Not your friends back home.
Eat Comfort Food – In China, Bob and I frequented the Cozy Cafe where they served an extensive Western menu including macaroni and cheese, shepherd’s pie, grilled sandwiches and french fries. In Belize I augmented our local diet with spaghetti and home baked bread, and in Africa our comforts were chili, grilled cheese, Kentucky Fried Tofu and weekly trips to a wood-fired Pizza oven. Do not underestimate the power of a home-cooked meal, even if it is merely tuna salad on a baguette in a room on the fourteenth floor of the Tianjin Hyatt.
It’s great to immerse ourselves in a new culture. Heck, it’s why we travel – to shake up our world and get a glimpse of ourselves and our home culture from a new vantage point. However, too much new can be unsettling. Find your center and keep it nourished with the comforts that help you feel at home.