Tag Archives: Foreign Language

Expats – 5 Questions Before You Pack Your Bags

Are you considering moving overseas when you retire?  Have you asked yourself some of the key questions that can make or break your expat experience?   Moving to another culture, far away from family and friends, can pose some interesting challenges that many people never consider before making the decision to move.

When I moved to Peru, back in 2000, I had done some international travel.  I wasn’t a world wanderer by any means, but I did have a few developing countries under my belt.  Did I ask myself all the right questions before I left?  No. Did I make mistakes.  Yes. Did I wish that I spoke the language better?  You bet.  Was the experience something I regret?  Absolutely not.  Even with those questions and answers, I still wish I had asked myself these key questions.

Adapting and enjoying the expat life really is dependent on your personality, whether you are flexible, adaptable and can laugh at yourself.  These are key characteristics that will help you more easily adjust to and enjoy this great, new adventure that you have embarked upon.  Looking back on some of my experiences, living in both Peru and Guatemala, I identified 5 questions that would be useful for anyone considering the expat life.

Have you traveled outside of the United States – to a developing country?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESMost expats move to developing countries where they will get more bang for their buck, allowing them to live a good life on less money. If you haven’t traveled to a developing country, you may find that living in one is a very different life. Values are different. The clock runs at a different speed. Food will be different. Guinea pig, anyone? English will not be the language of the land. You won’t find your favorite brands of clothing, foods and electronics and, if you do, they will most likely be quite pricey. On the other side of things, you will find beautiful people, a culture calling to you to be experienced, wonderful new friends and endless surprises.  You will be the one adapting to a country and culture, not the culture and country adapting to you.   If you haven’t traveled to the country you are thinking of retiring to, do so a few times before you make the big move.  Spend enough time to get a taste of daily life.  Rather than being a tourist and staying in a fancy hotel and eating at the best restaurants, instead stay in a typical hotel and eat the local menu in someone’s home.  Get to know the country and the people and think to yourself the whole time, “Can I live here?”

Are you patient?   Or at the very least, can you learn patience?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESPart of life in another country, especially a developing country, is that life is lived at a different pace. What might take an hour in the United States may take a few hours or all day in another country.  If you live in a larger, more cosmopolitan city within a developing country, you may find the pace faster somewhat faster, but live outside the city, life moves much slower.  One challenge I had that I never quite became accustomed to was time.  “I am on my way over” could mean I am on my way over, but if something comes up or I run across someone on the way, then I am still on my way over.  I remember I made plans for New Year’s Eve with friends when I lived in Iquitos, Peru.  They said they would come by at midnight to head to the street party.  At 2 a.m. they arrived with big smiles, ready to head out to the celebration.  I said, “I thought you were going to be here at midnight.”  They looked confused that I had expected they actually be there at that time.  They said, “We stopped on the way,” as if this was the norm, and, of course, it was the norm.  I smiled and said, “Well, I’m ready.”  Off we went to enjoy the most amazing New Year’s Eve celebration I have ever experienced.  I could have been upset.  I could have caused a fuss.  Or I could have said to myself, “This is part of the culture, let it go.”  Patience.  Understanding that what you expect may not be what the culture will offer you.  Take a deep breathe and go with the flow.  If you can’t let go of your expectations of life, then you may have challenges living in another country, let alone a developing country.

Are you interested in meeting locals or are you just going to insulate yourself by spending all your time with other expats?

There is nothing at all wrong with finding other expats to connect with when you move to another country.  They can add a bit of normalcy to your life and keep you connected to home.  That being said, my best experiences living outside of the country were with local families and friends. Through my relationships with them, I learned about the culture, family, traditional holidays, funerals, protests and celebrations. If you plan on searching out only other expats to the exclusion of locals, then you may be find disappointment in your expat experience and you certainly will be limiting the full experience of being in another country and another culture.

Can you be respectful of this new culture you have chosen?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESWhen you arrive in a country that you have to chosen to move to, you have arrived in someone else’s home.  You are living in their culture, in their land, in their community.  I remember there were a number of expats in Iquitos who had lived in the jungle for a number of years. Sitting amongst them one evening, enjoying a cold beer, I remember the conversation turned to everything that was wrong with the life and people in the city.  It was harsh.  It was unkind.  And I was embarrassed for the waiter who had to serve these people who were bashing his city, his home, the city they had chosen to live. This was an “Ugly American” moment.  It was a sad example of expats who expected the culture to adapt and cater to them.

Are you ready for an adventure?

Everyday will be an adventure. This is a guarantee. You will learn something new about yourself, about the people of the land, and about this new wonderful culture.  Are you ready for it?

My life in Peru was one big adventure.  Day after day, I was always amazed at what I learned or the surprises that availed themselves that day. One late afternoon, I got lost in the jungle as it was growing dark, in a downpour, wondering where exactly that big cat was that just let out a growl.  I got stuck in the mud on the shore of the Amazon, knee deep in the mid-day sun, as 3 young Amazon guides did their best to pull me out. Sitting on a crooked and rusty metal chair into the wee morning hours, I shared a beer with locals bypassing a community glass, as we talked about life in a language that I was still learning.  I danced in the rain on New Year’s Eve, until the sun came up the next morning, surrounded by thousands of locals.  The most beautiful Christmas I have ever had was in the home of a local family that I had become close with, sharing their holiday meal, just a simple meal. There were no wrapped gifts to exchange, only the gift of friendship and love.

Adventure. Adventure means different things to different people. The new, the different, the challenging and the unknown are all waiting for you if you become an expat, but most of all guaranteed adventure.

Are you ready for an adventure?  Post your thoughts below in comments.


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Ordering Chocolate Cake With Ice Cream…Sort Of

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”


“Caca con helado, por favor.”

I remember, back in the late summer of 1999, sitting in a small restaurant in the jungle city of Iquitos where I had recently moved. I had just successfully ordered lunch in Spanish. Everything had arrived perfectly, as requested.  Un vaso de vino tinto, sandwich de queso bien caliente, y papas fritas.  I was doing good!  My chest was all puffed out with pride.  I was learning the language!  Well, why not have some dessert, I thought.  And, so, in my very best basic Spanish I asked for chocolate cake with ice cream.  Yum!  A perfect ending to a successful dining experience. The server looked at me with a quizzical look and, in that moment, I knew my limited Spanish had taken a nose dive.  “Caca,” I said.  “Caca con helado.”  After a little chuckle, the server smiled and said, “postre?”  I realized immediately what I had been asking for, and it wasn’t cake! Together, we shared a bit of laughter and created a fond memory of my first days there.

Don’t be afraid to try out the language.

It’s the way you learn, make friends and can create some pretty fun memories. Talk to the locals. Put your embarrassment aside. The locals are thrilled to have you try, even if it’s not perfect. I found that many times they are as interested in practicing English as I was their language.  They would speak English and I would speak Spanish.  Somehow, we found a way to communicate and both had a chance to practice the language we were each learning.

Try some non-verbal communication.

A smile, hand gestures, facial expressions and a look of general confusion. a little humor and a few words in their language will get you a long way.  People in other countries want to help you.  They appreciate your attempt to communicate.

Try not to fall into the “Do you speak English” trap?”

It’s easy to do.  You are feeling a little awkward.  You don’t know the all words to communicate clearly.  You are not wanting to feel embarrassed and finding out if they speak English seems a lot easier that struggling through a bad conversation.  Just remember, if you don’t try, you won’t learn, and it shows respect to the person and their culture.

An in-country extended stay is a great way to learn the language.

I found that living an hospetaje in Peru, when I first moved to Iquitos, was a perfect way to learn the language.  I would sit with the cook in the kitchen after dinner and she would talk to me and talk to me and talk to me.  I would listen and think, I have no idea what you are talking about. I had arrived to Peru knowing only a few words in Spanish and and couple of verbs.  I thought I was doomed in the language department until Salina made me her language project.  She talked to me every night after dinner for the 6 months that I lived in that house and, as a result, I became somewhat conversational.  During the 18 months, when I lived in my own place, I was able to sit with local families outside their homes in the evening and talk about life.  Not always sure what the other was talking about, we always seemed to somehow understand to have the best of times, sitting under the stars in a city called Iquitos, in the heart of the Amazon.

Signup for a language immersion class.

Look for an immersion classes near you at a local language school or college or university.  If you want a more authentic experience you can go to a program in another country where you have the opportunity to practice speaking with the locals.  Antigua, Guatemala and Cuenca, Ecuador a two cities that offer language immersion programs. There are many programs around the globe. If experiencing the culture while learning the language appeals to you, research the programs in the country of your choice.

Take a class at your local college or online.

Purchase an online or computer language course.

There are number of excellent online language courses available and also lessons on CDs/DVDs that guide you through the process of learning a language.

Translator Program and Apps

There are language translation apps for both iPhone and Adroid phones, as well as electronic translator devices that provide you with phrases in the language of your choice.  Initially, these can be useful when you are just learning a language by helping you to say a complete phrase or sentence when you want to use more that a few disconnected words. This option can be useful when it is important that your communication is clear.

Have you learned a second language?  What worked well for you?  Do you have any fun stories about trying to communicate in a foreign country?  Please share below.