Tips for Adjusting to Life in a New Country

Denae D’Arcy, Associate Instructor of Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
2015-2016 Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Sri Lanka

The learning curve is steep when you move to a foreign country. My husband and I weren’t exactly sure what to expect even though we’d both lived abroad before. Hopefully this blog post will shed a little bit of light on how we dealt with the language barrier, a little bit of culture shock, and settling into life with your significant others.

As soon as we got in the car to go to our apartment for the first time in Colombo, Sri Lanka, James and I discovered that the English language was not as prevalent as we thought. After talking with the concierge, the hotel desk clerk, and the driver of our car, we realized that either our street didn’t exist or we were using an English name that was unrecognizable to Sri Lankans. I began to panic. Maybe it was a ruse? Our first month’s rent was gone! In fact, as time went on, we realized that not one driver in all of Colombo, could locate our street, Hedges Court. After many awkward rides, I finally figured out that we needed to tell the tuk-tuk drivers to go to Norris Canal Road in Colombo 10. Tip #1: Attempt to direct drivers to landmarks rather than an address in developing countries.

As hard as we tried that first day, our driver could not find our apartment. We had never been there and even with giving him the address and a cross street, we couldn’t communicate where he should go. My husband finally pulled out his iPhone and attempted to direct the driver. This wasn’t easy because, again, we’d never been to the place and the traffic was horrendous. We used Google Maps with spotty service as a guide to get there. The driver eventually went to a hospital (near our street) and after gesturing and encouraging him to keep going we finally arrived at the apartment. We were losing our patience with the situation, the driver, and each other. Tip #2: It is best to remain calm and breathe when you first arrive to your post. Things will be confusing and you might be jet lagged but try to see the humor in the situation. It gets easier!

Upon first impressions, I was very happy with our new location. The building was a sort of “high rise” and when we pulled up, we noted the presence of a security guard and a nice lobby. It was clean, with new furniture, but unpretentious. The owner of the apartment, Vaj, met us at the door. That was another relief – Vaj is a savvy businessman who frequently travels to London and spoke English. We communicated easily. He even helped us with our bags and took us to the fourth floor to our two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. As we entered our new living space, my husband and I stood up straighter. The air conditioning worked and the furnishings were comfortable.

Beyond being grateful that our apartment was livable, I clearly remember that it was so hot on first full day in Colombo. Unbelievably hot! We both had sweat rolling off of our faces while we tried to look normal talking with our landlord. Tip #3: You may have to adjust to your new climate. Take precautions to stay hydrated and wear sunscreen.

For my husband, it was perhaps more difficult to adjust to our new life. I was excited to be there, and thrilled to have an opportunity to research journalists who covered the Sri Lankan civil war. He wasn’t too keen on the whole Fulbright appointment to begin with. We had at least two passionate discussions about the adventure before agreeing to go together. I don’t blame him. Sri Lanka is a growing nation and while there are many things to do, going as a spouse who is there to solely give support to a spouse for three months is not everyone’s dream job. Because we arrived on a Saturday, the Wifi was slow and I think he was at his wits’ end. He went into the second bedroom and shut the door. I felt devastated that he was upset but I stayed calm and collected and didn’t try to engage him. This was a wise move that I employed a couple of times during our stay in Sri Lanka. Tip #4: If you are traveling with a spouse or partner, give them time and space to adjust to the new country and living venue. They may not be as excited as you are about the adventure and need to grasp some normality.

During that initial, stressful drive to our apartment, we found that we were located near Norris Canal, close to a small grocery store called Cargill’s Food City (we called it “The Little Store”). After we unpacked our belongings, and I got over the initial shock of not having an oven, we ventured out to buy some essentials. We purchased coffee, milk, tea, eggs, pasta, cheese, and crackers. When we sat down to dinner that evening James and I looked at each other with a feeling of relief. Moving to another country without extensive knowledge of the culture is difficult but it is an amazing adventure. Even the first few days contain some encouraging moments that will be remembered forever as a way your family rose to the occasion.

After getting over the initial culture and climate shock, James and I both fell into a pattern. I conducted research, presented media training and lectures, and prepared meals. He walked the mile to the grocery store in the heat and bought supplies, and did the cleanup work. James also became interested in seeing Sri Lanka’s many amazing national parks. We decided to take a few weekends away from Colombo and toured parts of Sri Lanka. This was a great decision for both of us because James found something to put his energy into (travel planning and photography) and I could experience the vast and lush green areas of Sri Lanka. Now we have incredible memories of seeing wildlife (elephants, leopards, exotic birds), touring UNESCO World Heritage sites, and sharing those special moments together.