10 Things I Learned Living Abroad – Part 2

Last week I posted the first 5 Things I Learned Living Abroad, but there are definitely more.

6. How to Drive in Chaotic Conditions

I had thought the way people drive in Morocco was slightly insane (ie, passing 12 vehicles on a blind curve), but North African driving conditions seem tame compared to the subcontinent. One of my Pakistani friends told me, “It’s simple, just focus on what’s in front of you,” and that’s how pretty much everyone drives. Feel like swerving to the right in order to make a sudden right turn? No problem. The people behind you should expect this type of driving and adjust accordingly.

As my husband put it, driving in Pakistan is not so much rule-based as it is relationship-based. Instead of following a system of do’s and don’ts, you are interacting individually with each other driver on the road. This means you need to pay attention 100% of the time.

For over a year I avoided driving, but finally I decided I needed to learn. An expat friend served as my coach and helped me get used to driving on the other side of the road. After just a few minutes, she had me driving in one of the busiest areas of town. Sure I still put on the wipers instead of the blinkers every once in a while, but with practice I learned to be confident enjoy my daily commute.

7. How to Live with Shortages

Before living in Pakistan, I had no schema for “not enough water” or “not enough electricity.” In the US, I would naively just turn on the tap or the light switch and always expect appliances to work. Living abroad made me realize that there isn’t always enough electricity, water or natural gas to go around. At some points, our power was shut off by the government for up to 12 hours a day. This often happened during summer when it was 120 degrees and many people were using air conditioners.

Urdu phrases like “pani nahi a rahi hai” (water isn’t coming), “gas nahi a rahi hai” (gas isn’t coming), and “bijli chali gai” (electricity has gone) became essential parts of my vocabulary.

No water? Wash up using bottled water or from a bucket of tap water that was stored in case of shortages. No gas? Cook food in the microwave or have an impromptu date at a nearby restaurant. No electricity? Go grocery shopping, have a candlelight dinner or fill up the bathtub, put on a bathing suit and read a book in there until the AC comes back.

I can’t say we really “learned to live” with the power outages. The last six months I was in Pakistan I felt like an insomniac zombie woman. I couldn’t sleep at night due to the heat and our neighbors’ loud generators. Power shortages were the main reason we decided our time in Pakistan was nearing its end. If we ever move back, we’ll definitely buy a generator or UPS.

8. How to Cope with Political Turmoil

Mainstream news media, especially media outlets based in the US, present Pakistan as if it’s a country on the verge of implosion. Although what’s happening at a political level may be tumultuous, these changes don’t often affect what’s happening on the ground or have any relation to everyday life.

My husband and I were out for dinner with an expat friend when Musharraf declared a state of emergency. Some other foreigners were calling our friend in a panic and telling him he should rush home immediately. It was around 10pm, and we’d just been served fresh naan bread, delicious lamb handi and some steaming kebabs. The local diners all around didn’t seem worried at all and were continuing on with their evening in the Old City. We did the same.

The best way to deal with the constantly changing political scene was simply to follow the local news. If a riot was planned, we’d avoid that area of town for the day. If streets were blocked off (as they were when Benazir Bhutto decided to stay at a house in the same neighborhood as the school where we were working), we’d leave early and find alternate routes.

We always kept extra phone cards so we could add minutes to our mobiles if they ran out, and we’d check with local friends when the political situation became tense. Only a few times did we actually cancel our plans or stay home because of the political situation.

9. How to be Patient

As a native New Englander, I’m used to a fast pace of life. On the Myers Briggs personality scale, my most dominant trait is a “J”, meaning that I’m hyper organized and get frazzled when things don’t happen in a punctual manner. Living in Pakistan was a real challenge for me, as time was more relative and punctuality often nonexistent.

In the beginning of my time in Pakistan, I would get extremely frustrated when I was told something would be done on a certain day or time and it didn’t happen. I dropped off some material to get Pakistani clothes made with a tailor in Liberty Market, and after going back three times to find the clothes unfinished, I just gave up.

After being in Lahore for some time, I learned not to even attempt to pick up clothes at the tailor until a day or two after the day they were promised, and I’d always call ahead and check to make sure they were done. If I arrived and the clothes were frantically being finished, I’d have a book ready or I’d run out and do some other errands. I finally reached an agreement with my tailor that when my clothes were done, he would give ME a call and only then would I come pick them up and pay for them.

10. How to Expect the Unexpected

This one stems out of all the other things already mentioned. In Pakistan, I had much less control over my daily life than I did in the US. I had to be willing to subdue that super-organized part of my personality and not feel as if my day was “ruined” simply because my routine got all screwed up. Dealing with chaotic driving, shortages, lack of punctuality, certain ingredients not being available in the markets or classes being cancelled at the last minute due to riots helped me become less rigid and more flexible.

My husband would probably say that I’m still a bit of a “time Nazi” – and I do still get bent out of shape sometimes when my schedule is messed with – but I think living abroad has made MUCH more flexible and more able to adjust when unexpected things happen. I’m sure this lesson will be much appreciated when I become a mom!

Share Your Experiences!

What did you learn while living abroad? Did the experience help you learn to be more flexible?

4 Comments on “10 Things I Learned Living Abroad – Part 2

  1. I loved your first list of things learned while living abroad, and was excited to read the sequel.

    I think the matter of being patient is the biggest cross-cultural hurtle for me. I’m a very scheduled person, and being late causes me stress, being made to wait causes me stress, last-minute changes in plans cause me stress. The funny thing is that I never saw myself as an uptight “time Nazi” because people in Canada are by and large the same way; deadlines are inflexible, punctuality is a winning trait, etc.

    I try not to get flustered by delays when I’m overseas, but wouldn’t you know, now when I go back to Canada I find myself to be constantly five minutes late. How did that happen?

    (on a side note, the chaotic driving still scares me. I admire you for meeting the challenge!)

    • Thanks Anne! It did only take me a year and a half to try driving myself…although by then I knew my way around really well so I only had to focus on the actual driving part. Now, funny thing is I’m still terrified of driving in big cities in the US. Last weekend I had to go to a conference in Boston, and instead of going straight there I drove to my professor’s house and had her drive! It’s strange, I’m now scared of having to follow so many rules – or of ending up on a one way street that leads me over a $20 bridge and gets me completely lost.

      I now tend to be a bit late to things, but that is totally due to being married to an Azorean! When I’m by myself I’m still pretty punctual.

  2. I am a Pakistani and I am enjoying reading your words. I’m glad you’ve taken it all positively, although it is not easy for even locals.

    I appreciate you spoke against the general perception about Pakistan. While there are political unstable situations and sometimes minor/serious security issues popping up, tourists can visit Pakistan and I bet, they wont regret.

    I’ve been to China (Shanghai) for work and Singapore and Malaysia (currently working). I see the charm in Shanghai and Singapore and bit in Kuala Lumpur too, but a non-biased judgement can be made that Pakistan had numerous places of interest. On the top, it is more than economical for anyone to visit. I spent about SG 3000 in 3 days time (I stayed at a hostel yet) and I can tell you the same amount is enough to live in Pakistan for at least a month. In fact I pick the same standard of hostel I picked in Singapore, SG3000 will rather last long.

    Media is spreading false impression, in my opinion, for global political reasons. Disregard that. Come to see for yourself.

    Really appreciate your efforts in sharing your experience of 3 memorable years you’ve spend in Pakistan.

    • Hi Kamran,

      Thanks so much for all your thoughtful comments! We have been traveling in the US with our two-year-old, and I haven’t had much time to check these posts since the beginning of June.

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog. Yes, it’s true, Pakistan is a much better choice than Singapore if you want to get more travel days for your money. I spent a few days in Singapore this past October, and wow, was it i expensive!

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