Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why Living Abroad is Good for Your Ego

Making the decision to move to a new country entails a tug of war of sorts between our sense of adventure and our ego. We imagine that our willingness to venture off the beaten path will be rewarded with some form of enlightenment. On the other hand, we're aware that leaving behind what we know almost guarantees that we will eternally be humbled by our own ignorance.

One of the most underestimated obstacles in living abroad is the language barrier that many people face once they've reached their destination. Potential expatriates give serious consideration to their job opportunities and living arrangements but often overlook this pesky little step. Interestingly, and maybe naively, English speakers assume that everyone is likely to speak at least passable English. This is, of course, a myth. However, even if it were true, anyone who has lived abroad for an extended period of time will tell you that you cannot fully understand and connect with a culture and its people without learning (or making an attempt at learning) the native language.

Being Egyptian myself, and more of a repat than an expat, one would think that my transition to Egypt would present only minimal challenges, language being the least of my worries. This is true to an extent. Arabic is not quite foreign to me. Perhaps not foreign at all. But the truth is my Arabic gives me away almost as soon as I begin to speak. In some ways, this can be more frustrating for an Egyptian than for a foreigner. I look like I belong here; so why don't I sound like it?

Of course, my Arabic has improved a great deal since I first arrived. But perfection (or anything in the vicinity) is elusive and perhaps not worth attaining in the first place.

...Which brings me to the title of this post. I suppose it's somewhat misleading, as I don't believe that living in a new place is a means of inflating one's ego. Rather, I think that the cultural missteps and awkward moments that come with living abroad actually force us to swallow our pride, get off our "first-world" high horse and connect with the people around us.

Here's an article about an interesting study done at UC Berkeley that explains how embarrassment actually allows people to warm up to you more easily. We all need to be humbled from time to time; living in a new place just creates more opportunities for it. So go ahead and embrace the awkwardness!


  1. I totally agree and try living in a country that has 3 official languages like Luxembourg (French, german & Luxembourgish) there are many embarrassing moments and I swallow my pride a lot!!