Adjusting to the Expat life is not always easy, especially when you are moving away from your family and friends. Even though I am talking specifically about Lebanon in this article, I’m sure that many points are applicable to other countries as well.
I moved to Lebanon after living in Boston for 5 years, but I grew up in South Africa and lived there till I was 19 years old. Many people asked me if I found the move to Lebanon very hard and if it was a big culture shock for me, and to be honest – not really. In a way, I was already quite used to chaos, corruption in government and some general rule-breaking in South Africa, so there weren’t too many surprises when I first arrived. I adjusted quite well to the expat life, and I think it would have been a bigger shock if I had lived in the United States for a longer period of time (where people are more afraid of breaking the law [especially on the roads] and where there is a bit more order). There were a few things I noticed immediately, and you definitely have to get used to certain quirks of the Lebanese culture right from the start:
- They are tremendously hospitable – if they’ve invited you out for dinner, they are paying. Don’t try to pay in secret, they will get mad. You have to “invite” them in return on another occasion.
- People’s obsession with telling you that you’ve gained/lost weight – no matter if you’ve been horribly sick for months, they will tell you straight to your face that you’ve gained weight right after asking you how you are doing. It’s probably not coming from a malicious place, it’s their way of telling you that they care enough to notice the changes that you are going through.
- Lebanese people are extremely opinionated – if they don’t like something, there’s no sugar-coating something. They will tell you immediately.
- They clap every time the plane touches down, no matter if it was a horrible landing.
- Everywhere else in the world, they are able to follow normal protocols of standing in queues, but the moment they get back to Lebanon, the concept completely eludes them – it seems they don’t have the vaguest idea of what a line is.
Some tips I can give you about surviving have expat life are ones that helped me with adjusting to my new life.
- No matter how scary it is, get used to driving. It’s your sense of independence. You don’t want to be taking taxi’s every time you have to go somewhere (especially not for things like grocery shopping!).
- Learn the language, or at least some of it, so you’ll know if they’re talking about you and understand what they’re saying. The look on their faces when you answer them in their own language is beyond priceless.
- Stop comparing your current lifestyle to the one you had before. Yes, you might have lived in a house with a nice garden before, and now you are living in an apartment with barely a patch of grass for a dog to pee on. Yes, you probably took public transportation to work every day and now you have to battle through 2 hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic daily. There will always be negatives…
- Get used to your friends and family telling you they heard Lebanon isn’t safe and is still war-torn. Show them the latest #LiveLoveLebanon tourism videos, that should shut them up quite quickly!
- Carry a small pocket map with you, so you can point out to ignorant people who failed Geography class in school, that Libya and Lebanon are not even on the same continent.
- Expect chaos and disorder whenever you have to get any official documents processed. I love South Africa, but I will be the first person to admit that it has many, many faults. However, I never thought I would be proud of our Department of Home Affairs! At least the South African system is computerised when you apply for a passport or a new ID! In Lebanon, this is what you experience:
- There are no signs pointing to various offices (if there are, they are simply printed on computer paper in Arabic, and so small you can’t see it [or read it if you don’t read Arabic])
- No one speaks English
- Everything is hand written
- There are no queues, it’s first-come-first-served and people push in like you cannot believe
- They still use physical stamps, paper clips and staples
- There is no filing system whatsoever – pray that your documents don’t get lost
For a country with so many refugees, you would think that they have a better, more streamlined system for keeping track of people and applications, but apparently not. One thing that you will notice immediately is the Lebanese Pride and their sense of resilience. They just keep going no matter what! The nightlife never rests, the food is always amazing and the Arak never stops flowing… Lebanon is a place to see if you haven’t visited yet – you won’t regret it!