When you move to another country, especially one with a culture so different from your own, it is easy to be swept away by that which scares you.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by how much you feel you stand out; how everyone dresses differently than you do and how they live at a different pace than you and aren’t you just the culturally insensitive American living in the corner eating crackers and oatmeal?
When you are the only American around, like I am, you feel doubly lost. You can feel that it is you vs. the world. You don’t see anyone besides those who actually fully belong here. You remember all the things that the other Americans said back home about how they view Americans in Southeast Asia. So of course you feel even farther removed.
And when you feel these things, this isolation, this palpating ignorance of the lives of those around you, you have two options, really.
You can contact those back home and complain. Complain about the clothes you have to wear, the food you have to eat, the way you have to get around. You can vocalize all of these things, and you know that you will be met with pity and sympathy.
“You’re being brave and courageous and I can’t imagine what that is like and we support you of course,” they will say to you.
They will aid you in your pity party. It feels good. It feels good to feel like a martyr. You brush off the crumbs from your shoulders and straighten yourself a little bit because, yeah, I’m awesome. I chose to come here.
When you choose option 1, you step out the door a martyr in your own mind.
And thus do you become one. Thus do you become even farther removed from those around you.
You can choose gratitude over pity.
When I am afraid or lonely or sad or feeling any kind of emotion that traps me within cages and locks the door tight, I choose to actively remind myself of what someone told me before I went to Austria. Something that has helped me break from these cages more than anything else:
You can’t be afraid and grateful at the same time.
You can’t be lonely and grateful at the same time.
You can’t be sad and grateful at the same time.
I brew myself a cup of tea or make some more oatmeal and snuggle up underneath a blanket or in my favorite sweater. I listen to music that sets my beating heart at peace and I set about to compile the biggest list of things I’m grateful for that the world has ever seen.
Sometimes I make it a competition. Can I add more things to my list than I did yesterday? Can I make it longer and deeper and more rich than the one before? What is the smallest thing that I have or see that can make me grateful?
I am thankful that I brought my hammock with me, so that I can use it as a sheet to sleep under
I am thankful for what writing does for my soul
Thankful for a part-time writing job that I can do from abroad
Thankful for Ms. Tyrine, my Indonesian mentor teacher; how sweet she is and for the packet of tea and box of crackers that she gave me today
When I dare to make eye contact that people smile at me
Sometimes, as the list goes on, the items become very specific.
That a company like Jif exists in the world and that they craft the most perfect Natural Creamy peanut butter.
That dogs have soft fur.
That I don’t permanently live in a cave.
That I am not afraid of snakes anymore.
For the shade underneath trees.
Sometimes, when I run out of items to be thankful for, I just start writing down the names of people who have added so much value to my life.
Mom + Dad
Sam + Laura
Sometimes, when I run out of names to add to my list, I just start writing down the things around me.
Stray cat meows
Tarzan of the Apes book
And when I’m really being competitive, I write down my favorite things.
Jules Verne books
Allen Ginsberg’s poetry
Dry red wine
A blank sheet of unlined paper
Jif’s Natural Creamy peanut butter
Long train rides
When I choose gratitude, I can’t be afraid, lonely, sad at the same time. It’s not about being…unrealistic, or living in a dreamland. It’s about telling myself what I am going to see today. How I am going to feel about my surroundings. How I am going to feel about me. It reaffirms who I am. That I am a human, not a machine, and yet I can program myself, too.
“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception,” writes Ryan Holliday in The Obstacle is the Way. “There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about that event.”
Both options involve me consciously shaping my own perception. Ultimately I determine what my reality is going to be. I determine how I am going to step out the door.