By Amanda Denney
I’ve lived and worked abroad for three years: two in a rural village in sub-Saharan West Africa and one in a vibrant university town called Leon (Burkina Faso and Nicaragua, respectively). I was asked to compile a list of tips for women because I kind of had my stuff together (but if you asked my roommates who saw me ugly-cry a million times, they may disagree) and I’m a female (it’s true, you can ask my doctor).
This list is somewhat hard to write — not because I don’t have something to say, but because it’s complicated to explain. I find myself getting (probably irrationally) annoyed at so many bloggers because they like to paint some tragically romantic picture of their “struggle”. Living abroad is not without its difficulties, but if anyone tries to tell you about how hard they work to learn to do without while posing in a picture next to a kid who’s never been to a dentist or had access to clean water, take their advice with a grain of salt. Living abroad, you’re going to have plenty of bumps in that (dirt) road, but the positive opportunities and experiences you encounter along the way happen far more often, and they’re all the sweeter. During my time in Nicaragua, I never found myself lacking anything I could find in the states. Even high-end goods and services are there, but they may be more expensive than what you’re used to paying.
My biggest hesitation in writing this article is that I’ll perpetuate the myth that the developing world is a place to be pitied and feared. Let me be clear: most of the things I’ll be discussing here can be applied to big cities all over the world, and some of them apply to women and men alike. I don’t want to give the impression that this list is a steadfast representation of what all foreign women deal with because 1) you’re adults, capable adults who are capable of forming your own opinions independently, and 2) the issues some women face can’t be painted with a broad brush- they’re multi-layered and unique to each woman. So again, this list is based on my personal experiences and those I observed from close friends and co-workers. That being said, this is how I respond to the curious few who want to know what my time was like:
- Make friends with your neighbors- Probably the best part of anyone’s time abroad is the memories they make with locals. This is valuable not only for cultural exchange or personal connection, but it’s also going to keep you safe and happy. No matter how long a person lives in a country, they’ll never understand the culture and history quite like someone who was born and raised there. Host country nationals are invaluable sources for explaining social exchanges, alerting you to holidays/festivals/cultural events, and telling you where to find the best (insert needs here). More importantly, they’ll keep you safe by warning you to avoid certain areas or people. Because of language barriers and ignorance, you may not always be able to separate the creeps from the rest; your friends and neighbors can.
- Do your job and do it well, ignore the rest- Listen, the cold, hard truth is- some men are b-holes toward women, some are bystanders, and some are allies. You’ll find each- without much variance in proportion- in all countries. The hard part I found about working with *a few* individuals is not being taken seriously because I’m a foreigner. It’s harder to earn respect as an outsider for several reasons: some may feel you can’t do the job well because you don’t know the culture or the system. Some may lump you in with the drunken tourists who, depending on your proximity to popular vacation spots, far outnumber the working professionals. Some may assume you (like people who came before you) will drop your responsibilities and leave in a matter of months and don’t regard the job as seriously as they do, for whom it is a livelihood and not a means to travel. And the reason I’ve chalked my experiences up to stereotyping and not out-and-out sexism is that you’ll find no shortage of powerful women who are well-respected and revered in the community and the workplace. So what do you do? You show up on time. Be over-prepared. Be enthusiastic. Contribute. Solve problems. Remember that you were hired in good confidence, and your boss has faith that you can perform well- be worthy of this. Your work will speak for itself.
- Protect your name- Everybody talks, and don’t you forget it. Depending on how big your town is, you’re going to be super-noticeable, especially if you decide to stay beyond a few months. People will just know things about you; it’s bizarre, but you’ll find yourself just knowing things about other people, too- good and bad. Your reputation in the community is easy to create and so hard to change, so give strangers the best version of yourself. Be personable and polite; be respectful of others and your environment. What you do can easily make its way back to school directors, landlords, and parents of students. It’s not fair at all, but it is true, and it happens a lot. Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of for the sake of saving face, but do remember that your ability to work and integrate hinges (to some degree) on what people say about you.
- Do as the local’s do- So here I’m thinking specifically of how you dress, though it applies to manners and etiquette. I read once that shorts and tank tops should be avoided in Latin America because it invites sexual harassment and catcalling- like men can’t control themselves if they see your knees and shoulders. Aside from this being some thinly-veiled racism, it’s not true. Living in a tropical sauna twenty minutes from the beach- you do what you need to do to survive the heat. I will say this- people judge the crap out of you based on looks anywhere you go in the world. It’s not right, but it happens. If you decide to disrespect a location (like a cathedral or fancy restaurant) or event (like a theater or work-related gathering) by dressing like you spent the last month buried in the sand next to a Jimmy Buffett- themed outlet mall, people will look at you differently. If you’re in a fancy place, dress the part. If you go to a church, cover up. There’s a dress codes in the states and abroad, and some assimilation is required. Ignoring this shows ignorance and apathy for your new home.
- Use big city common sense everywhere- This is definitely a do as I say, not as I always do tip, because you’re going to get comfortable and let your guard down. Many places in Central America are statistically safer than the US. Leon saw less crime than NYC, Chicago, LA, even probably my hometown of Murfreesboro, TN. You don’t need to fear these places as hotbeds of robberies and assaults and gang-violence. That being said, practice common sense. Don’t flash your smart phone around in crowded places. Don’t go walking around after dark. Watch your drink in bars and clubs. Guard your purse. You do that at home anyway; do it abroad. Also, listen to the advice of people who have been there awhile- don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re more street-savvy or tough or cool with everybody. Criminals don’t discriminate; they’ll seize any opportunity they can, so avoid giving them out.
- The language barrier is fun and sexy, and then it’s not- When it comes to dating abroad, you’re going to have your hands full navigating the different expectations each person has for his or her partner- what is acceptable, unacceptable, expected, whatever. There’s no way to really comment on these expectations because they vary tremendously for each individual, regardless of nationality. I will say, however, that communication is the most important factor in any relationship. The language barrier is cute for about two weeks, maybe three if you’re both good at hand gestures and facial expressions. After that, when real issues arise, it gets hairy trying to effectively express yourself. Do you need to know the language to survive and do your job? Probably not, but if you want to have lasting, meaningful relationships with the locals, you probably need to pick up a dictionary.
- Be the girl friend you need- As many local friends as you have and depend on- no matter how close you become- they’re not going to commiserate with and understand your perspective the way your ex-pat friends will. What’s weird to you isn’t weird to them. What’s rude or frustrating or hilarious or beautiful won’t touch them in the same way because it’s old hat. You need your friends from home to have a supportive ear to share experiences with; and they need you. Be good to each other. Don’t compete – support. Don’t shade – celebrate. Let each other know when you’re having a rough go, and listen to each other. You don’t need to solve each other’s problems- in fact trying can often make things worse- but you do need to be an unselfish, true friend and ally.
- Remember who you are- You are about to embark on a crazy, amazing journey; you’re going to be tested and rewarded in ways you can’t even think of yet. You’ll be thrown into the unfamiliar and dig out a life and a job and friends. You’ll feel crazy. You’re not! You’ll feel at times like you’re bad at your job or undeserving of opportunities. You’re not! You’ll feel dumb (and if you’re as lucky as I am, be told you’re dumb by socially inept twits) because you’re not fluent in the language after a few months or you make some mistakes. You’re not! Your experience is your experience, and it absolutely cannot be compared to others’. Do yourself a favor and be patient and kind with yourself. The people who want to criticize you are struggling, too- trust.
In closing, I’d like to point out that every country and province and city is different, and so is every individual who chooses to live abroad. Most of what you encounter will be shaped by your unique attitude (insert image of a kitten hanging onto a tree), so it’s not always fair to listen to any one person…or ten people, or even me. Go have your own experiences and see for yourself; good or bad, it won’t be at all what you imagined.
Amanda is a licensed teacher in the US, traveled to Africa with the Peace Corps, and decided to get TEFL certified in Leon, Nicaragua. After falling in love with Nicaragua, she taught for one year in Leon before returning to the US to start her Graduate degree.