A Reflection on Living Abroad: Language Barriers, Cultural Differences and Being Out of my Element

My biggest regret in college was never studying abroad.  I love to travel, but was never able to live abroad because I was running a company from sophomore year on.  When Jesse and I saw the opportunity to live in Chile for six months, plus get money to fund Entrustet, we knew we had to do it.  It may seem obvious, but living abroad is completely different from traveling.

I arrived in November 2010 and stayed for six months.  I decided to return to Chile in September and now have been living here for 9 of the last 12 months.  I’m back in the US for a combination holiday/business trip and as I’ve met with my friends, family and new people, most want to know what’s different about living abroad compared to the US.  These nine months in Chile have been some of the most fun, amazing, rewarding months of my life. They’ve also been the most challenging and certainly the most frustrating.

For most of my life, things have come very easily for me.  Being immursed into another culture forced me out of my comfort zone and made me learn, grow and examine things from new perspectives.  It’s certainly made me a better person.  I’ve developed a deep respect for the culture and empathy for people who immigrate to other countries.  None of these differences make the US or Chile better than each other, just different.  I’ve already covered nearly all of the things I love about living in Chile in previous posts and wanted to share some of the things I struggled with while living abroad.

The biggest difference between living in the US and abroad is that in Chile, my brain always has to be turned on.  I learned to speak decent Spanish and understand nearly everything thats going on, but I can’t coast through mundane situations.  My brain always has to be focused, engaged.   I have to really pay attention to do things I take for granted in the US:  interact with waiters, my friends, business meetings and random conversations going on around me.  I find myself focusing for a much higher percentage of the day since I can’t just do things on autopilot.  It’s mentally draining.

The first thing I notice when I get off the plane returning to the US is that I immediately understand all of the conversations going on around me.  I process them all without any effort.  I’m immediately more relaxed because I don’t have to pay close attention or think about simple things.

The next thing I notice is banter.  Even with my decent spanish, I still struggle to tell descriptive stories or be funny.  While in Chile, I realized that most of my humor is based on quick word play, being sarcastic and witty turns of phrase.  It really hit me when I was at dinner last night.  To order I said something like “I’ll have the braised pork and that comes with sweet potatoes, right?” The waitress gave me a big smile and said “ohhh great choice! That’s my favorite!”  I answered back with a joke which led to a short conversation and fun banter during the meal.  I lose that in Spanish.  In Chile I’d say “I want the braised pork” and if the waitress replied the same way, I probably would say something like  “cool” and smile back.  End of interaction.  In Spanish, I’m focused on just getting things done and I’m still not quick enough yet.

The same thing happens when I’m with friends or in a business meeting.  In the US, I’m used to being a leader, the one who’s making plans for my group of friends and being in the middle of everything we do.  In Chile I found myself taking a backseat to my Chilean friends.  In the US, things come easily for me.  Living in Chile, most of the time I was the “weakest” one and it was nearly impossible to take on the same role that I do with my friends in the US.  I didn’t know the cool places, the upcoming parties.  My friends had lived in Santiago their entire lives, I didn’t know much in comparison.

I can keep a conversation going with 1-2 people in spanish, but once theres more than that, its gets much harder.  I still understand what’s going on, but its hard to break into the conversation.  Add in loud music, drinking, people getting excited and talking about people and things I don’t know but they all do?  Now add in tons of slang that could mean multiple things?  So frustrating.  The absolute worst part is when I want to add something to a conversation, or I’d have a great story to tell, but by the time I figured out what I wanted to say and try to break in, the conversaion had already moved on.  I found myself being quieter than normal.

An example: I was at a bbq with one of my friends and people started talking about a new business idea.  The beer was flowing and people were getting excited.  I’d researched a similar idea while in the states, but couldn’t break into the conversation very often because people were talking so quickly.  I got a few words in, but nothing like I would have in English.  So frustrating.

The third big adjustment is cultural differences.  Living abroad made me rethink things that I’d always taken for granted and see very different perspectives. I pride myself on being observant and many times I’d notice that people would react to my actions very differently than people would in the US, but I couldn’t figure out why.  I’d realize that something was different, but wouldn’t get the significance.  I wouldn’t even know the right question to ask so a friend could explain the differences.  I’d try, but friends either wouldn’t understand what I was asking or they’d just say “oh thats how it is.”  Some examples:

There are many cultural differences: being on time, splitting checks at meals, making plans, dating, class interactions, gender roles, business deals and so many more.  For example, multiple times, I’d ask friends if they wanted to meet up on a Friday.  They’d say, “im busy, im going to my friends party.”  I’d make other plans with other friends.  My friends wouldn’t end up going to their friend’s party and be curious why I didn’t invite them to whatever I did.

Another interesting one was a friend would invite me to a party on Saturday.  On Saturday, I’d call and say, ok what time are we going.  They’d say, “oh no, we’re not doing it anymore.”  At first I thought some of my new friends just didn’t like me that much, but most of my foreign friends saw the same things over and over.  In the US if someone says they have plans, they have plans.  If you make plans with someone, it’s rude to cancel.  In Chile, plans are much more fluid.

I’m not sure what to call this, so I’ll just go into an example.  One day, I set a meeting with a potential partner.  He told me to show up at his office between 2pm and 4pm and call him when I arrived.  I got there at 3, called.  No answer.  I waited around, calling and texting every so often. No answer.  Finally at about 430, I found his assistant walking out and asked if he was in.  The assistant showed me right in.  The guy I was supposed to meet was sitting in his chair, cell phone on his desk.  He didn’t act as if anything was out of the ordinary.  I just thought he was being rude, but this type of behavior happend fairly often.

A friend of mine got an xray taken by a doctor who was a friend of a friend.  The doctor told him to come to his office between 10-12  the next week and he’d come down to the lobby to show him his results so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the visit.  My friend arrived, called and texted the doctor, no answer.  He got frustrated after waiting awhile, called the doctors office, scheduled an appointment for 2pm, went to lunch.  He walked in and the doctor greeted him warmly.  He didn’t even mention ignoring the calls and texts and acted like they were best friends.  After awhile, we all got used to this and took it in stride.

There are huge cultural difference between dating in Chile compared to the US.  I could fill an entire post with all of them.  I’ll share the one my good friends found the most ironic: if you’re at all serious about dating a Chilean girl, you have to formally ask her to be your girlfriend and do it fairly soon into the relationship.  I didn’t realize this until I’d been in Chile a long time.

In the US if I’m seeing a girl for a few months and I ask her “will you go out with me? or I want you to be my girlfriend”, she’ll either laugh and think I’m incredibly cheesy or it would lead to a fight along the lines of “are you serious, what do you think we’ve been doing for the past month or two?”  In fact, that’s exactly how I reacted when the girl I was dating brought it up.  It wasn’t until I talked with more Chilean friends that I understood what was going on.  I look back on all of the differences and try to laugh about them now, but going through it was so frustrating.

My biggest frustrations living abroad were when the language barrier interacted with cultural differences. If I misheard something in spanish, people would assume I didn’t really understand much and talk much slower and more simply around me.  They’d think because I wasn’t talking much, I was bored or uninteresting.  The absolute most frustrating is when people form an opinion of you based on cultural misunderstandings and language barriers.  There were so many times when people thought I was being rude/weak/unfunny when I was doing the “right” thing in the US cultural context.  I did the exact same!  There were so many times when I thought people were rude/weak/unfunny when they were doing the “right” thing in Chilean culture.

I’m thankful that I’ve gotten the chance to experience living abroad.  It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I’ve learned a ton about myself muddling through learning a language and the cultural differences that come with living abroad.  I’ve made close friends that I know I’ll keep for life and seen places that I’d only dreamed of.  I wouldn’t change anything, besides starting to learn Spanish before I arrived and asking more questions of my Chilean friends from the very beginning so I could understand more quickly.

Have you lived abroad?  What did you learn while living in a foreign culture?  Did you have similar experiences to me?

  • Pingback: My 2011

  • Mike

    Great post. I found your blog while researching Chile for a visit in September 2011. My wife, kids and I are in Serbia and exploring Europe until then. I can completely relate to what you say about incorrect perceptions due to the language barrier. Everything you mentioned (except for dating) has happened to me!

    We run a software testing company and are looking for a second home base to use (Serbia being the first) during the Northern hemisphere winter – we hate snow!

    Anyways, thanks for the post! Maybe we will see each other in Santiago!

  • http://www.sciencetech.com/ Jean-Guy Rens

    I could have written every word of your blog: it is entirely right. Being French and living in an English-speaking environment requires twice as much attention with mixed results. The good thing is when you are in a crowd of uninteresting people, you can easily turn off the listen mode… But it a small advantage!

    • http://www.nathanlustig.com Nathan Lustig

      Thanks! It’s true, there are some advantages. Tuning out when you don’t want to listen, or pretending you don’t really understand what’s going on to get into an event you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

  • Gope

    Wow, I’ve just read my own life last year. Swap Spanish for English, and Chile for Denmark & US, and you got exactly my story.

    Yeah, definitely agree with our culture of time. If time was money, Chileans traditionally behaved like millionaires. I’m amazed at howmany people don’t care wasting the whole morning in lines on banks, or getting late to everything, etc.
    As more and more foreigners come in, and the economy grows up, more Chileans are starting their own businesses and interacting with foreign clients/partners, so they’re quickly realizing the link between time and money that’s basic everywhere else. We are already regarded as hurried folks by our more laid back neighbors, though as I see from your story, some Chileans might want to learn some manners when it comes to business meetings.
    That guy that left you waiting on purpose on that meeting was definitely rude and insecure, even under Chilean codes. If he wasn’t really interested he could have cancelled the meeting and save his & your time. It remainds me my GF’s brother after attending a job interview: same case, same opinion.
    You had incredible patience -I’d waited 10mins before leaving.

    I’m also another member of the Leaders Club: In Chile used to banter, play jokes and be the funny guy everybody wants to be around. But as soon as I hit the English waters, my language skills become dramatically asymmetric, seemed like half my brain died in the flight to Europe: I could listen and understand almost in real-time, even think in English, but when I comes to reply to a joke or a funny comment, I was the 5yo kid that smiled & nodded ans said. Frustrating.
    Sometimes an inner voice saved me from epic fails, just like “all right, shut up, don’t make youself look worse”, etc. And of course the listen & smile/nod mode always on.

    The good side of this is, the faces of people struggling to understand you and being kind/respecful are just epic, and are exactly the same whatever the language. It’s so uncomfortable at the moment, but looking back 1 year, it’s kind of funny.
    Believe me, the reactions you saw in our Chilean bars are exactly the same I saw in the NY airport and Danish restaurants.

    Cheers!

    • http://www.nathanlustig.com Nathan Lustig

      Awesome comment, thanks for writing!

      ” If time was money, Chileans traditionally behaved like millionaires.” is a a great quote.

      Re-reading my post now, after living in Chile another 6 months was really fun. I’ve learned a ton more, but still am not the same person I am in the US compared to who I am here. I think I went from being the 5 year old you talked about when I arrived to maybe 15 now. It’s a process.

      There are still tons of things I don’t understand or just can’t get used to here, but I feel like I have a pretty good handle on why people act the way that they do, even if I don’t agree with it or think it’s the right way. It makes things much easier.