Quality of Life, Prawns. Part 3: ‘You Are Not Riding Off Into The Sunset’

Some prawns' mothers are bigger than other prawns' mothers.
Some prawns’ mothers are bigger than other prawns’ mothers.

“In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset.” (Carol Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Robinson, 2002)

In this short extract, Carol Dweck, the psychologist who brought us the dichotomy of the fixed and growth mindsets, is applying the fixed mindset to relationships. I would argue that a mindset fixated on perfection, on creating happy endings (then sitting back to enjoy the aftermath), will quickly come a cropper on the international circuit.

So far, in Parts 1 and 2, we have dwelt upon practical matters such as whether a move abroad would suit your family and financial situation, and how to choose a school that suits your expectations (and how to avoid so called ‘toxic’ schools). In the final part, I’d like to prepare you for the aftermath of your decision: the point where, having said your goodbyes, the sunset does not materialise and the story continues regardless.

I remember, having travelled for 24 hours straight, being driven in a school bus from the airport to a hotel in our new city, our new country, our new continent. It was night time, the air was thick, orange and dusty. The houses that we passed were blocky and ramshackle, the top storey of each building was incomplete. The electrical and telegraph wires that lined the streets were thick and drooping as if heavy with their carriage. My eldest daughter groaned: “This doesn’t look like the photos in the guidebook.”

My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. I felt like I had made a terrible mistake in bringing my family to this new place.

The following day, we were sitting in the gardened atrium of our hotel and saw a hummingbird, static, feeding from an orchid. The four of us were transfixed, entranced, calmed. I felt wonderful: vindicated in bringing my family to this new place.

My despair in the bus; my joy in the atrium; both were symptomatic of my heightened ‘fight or flight’ instincts in this entirely new domain.

A few days previously, in a cellar bar in Central Europe, cupping our beers as if they would keep us warm against the bitter winter, a dear friend and colleague advised me on my impending move from a small school in Central Europe to a large school halfway across the world. “It takes seven weeks,” he said. Seven weeks to adjust, to emerge with a half decent sense of perspective.

That statement was invaluable to me; it sustained me through tears, regrets, and the inevitable culture shocks. And, what’s more, he was right. After seven weeks, I wasn’t Mr Happy Clappy Sunshine Smile, but I was in a much fitter state to judge the quality of our collective decision to decamp to a very different world.

So, what does ‘seven weeks’ mean in practical terms? It does not mean that you spend those seven weeks evaluating your new environment. Is my Internet connection fast enough? People drive too recklessly here! I can’t get Marmite or HP Sauce! Urgh, I have to put toilet paper into a little bin!

Those seven weeks are for you to allow yourself to transplant into your new environment, without making pointless, negative judgements. You may have signed up for a year or two in this place. It is important not to pass judgement too harshly and too quickly in those first seven weeks.

Bear in mind that you are moving into a fully functioning culture and society. If you encounter practices that jar you, that are very different to those back home, don’t rail against them; just say to yourself, “Ah, that’s how things work here.” That’s all – just accept and move on. Believe me, the longer you spend abroad, and the wider the range of cultures you experience, the stranger (and more endearing) you will find aspects of British culture.

I’m not suggesting that you morph yourself into the ultimate sociocultural relativist. Indeed in some countries, you may encounter social stratification that truly appalls you. For example, stratification that is based more on race than ability. But, think about it: that social structure predated your arrival in that country. The only thing that has changed is that now you know about it. It may even tell you something about your native country. The more you see of the world, the more of a work in progress it will seem to you.

It is your choice: reject what you see around you because it doesn’t conform to your expectations; or engage with the people around you, become a part of your new community and allow your principles to shape and be shaped through dialogue.

The question is: is it worth it? The wrench of the act of transplanting from one country to another; the grappling with new languages and sociocultural norms; the feelings of separation in leaving family back in your native country. Who would inflict this upon themselves and to what end?

The answer to the question (Is it worth it?) is quite simple: at which point in our lives will there be a valid answer to that question? We answer the question with another question, and we recognise that, in having put ourselves in a situation where we have been forced to address the question, we have a dynamic perspective, and we understand that life is not the animation of a series of still images (of stories beginning and ending). Life is flow.

It needn’t take moving abroad to come to that conclusion, but for me it has. And that is what makes it all worthwhile. I have disrupted the narrative of my life and exposed the artifice in thinking of my life as a narrative. That frees me to get on with the business of living.

Those seven weeks were not easy. But the prawns and the hummingbird pulled me through.

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