When the Expectation Balloon Popped

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Sometimes you have to hate something before you can love it. Sometimes you have to be disillusioned before you can contribute. Sometimes you have to consider packing up your belongings before you can stay.

Do you remember the early days of your cross-cultural journey? Maybe those days when you were packing and announcing your plans to friends and family and saying some hard good-byes. But those goodbyes were overshadowed by the excitement to come, the realization of a life of significance, the answer to a call, and the promise of helping others possess a better life. The goodbyes were made easier by the expectation of the journey.

Do you remember those days when your idealism and zeal took up most of the space in your suitcase? Those days when a white heat seemed to radiate off of you and your plans for the future? Do you recall the time when the weight of your convictions propelled you to the next step in the journey and the weight of your certainty left deeply formed footprints?

But here is the big question—Do you remember the day the balloon popped and your idealism, zeal, convictions, and certainty floated up in the air and you were left holding a string that led to a knot and a piece of tattered balloon?

Maybe it was the day that your coworkers didn’t adopt your great idea, nor did they give it a moment’s consideration. Or maybe it was the day that the monsoon rains flooded your house. Or maybe it was when the person you had been working with—the one you had completely trusted—robbed you. Or maybe it was the when it took you three days to accomplish a very simple task. Or maybe it was the day that the immigration official in your host country asked for a bribe. Or maybe it was the day you got amoebic dysentery. Or maybe nothing in particular happened that day but you recognized that you were feeling empty, isolated, frustrated, and holding some pretty angry questions in your heart.

The truth is, the balloon-popping-event is a significant and positive event in the life of cross-cultural sojourners. We all have to get past the pain of the balloon pop. We all have to experience holding onto the string of our unmet expectations and unrealistic idealism to find the “reality” of our situation, calling, host culture, and life. Sometimes you have to hate something before you can love it. Sometimes you have to be disillusioned before you can contribute. Sometimes you have to consider packing up your belongings before you can stay. Sometimes you have to re-evaluate everything you hold dear before you can define reality. And learning to define reality amidst your bias, your prejudice, your preconceived ideas, your ethnocentrism, and your idealism is key.

One of the big landmarks on the road to “I think I can make it” is learning to manage expectations. For example, I long ago learned that most baked goods in the host countries that I have lived in might look incredibly delicious but are in fact dry, dense, insufficiently sweet, and rather tasteless. I now know if I see a bun that seems to have chocolate on the inside, chances are, it is red bean. And for those who have never had the pleasure of tasting red bean -- all I can say is, when your taste buds are expecting chocolate and you receive red bean instead, it is an unwelcome substitute. Ahem.

More importantly, we must learn to manage the expectations we have set for others -- namely, our expat coworkers and our national coworkers. Friendship might look differently in our host country. Miscommunication is a given and moving past miscommunication requires deliberate generosity and forgiveness. It also requires a recalibration of social cues and signals. 

The most important expectations that we have to manage are the expectations we have of ourselves. Living in another country requires multiple skills, but one of the top-required skills is flexibility. Nothing will go according to plan. It doesn’t matter how good the plan is, there will be a break down in the plan—whether it is due to a translation malfunction, a cultural disconnect, bureaucracy, weather, or some other unforeseen event—you will find yourself executing plan Y. You will feel exhausted by the sheer effort of trying all the other preliminary plans, to no avail. Your frustration will be high and your patience will be low. You will think this wouldn’t have happened at home.(Not a healthy practice.) You might feel incompetent. You might feel overwhelmed. Or you might be that rare person that feels exhilarated by the challenge. Again, it is important to be generous with yourself and realize early on that accomplishing tasks and executing plans will look different in your new country. Manage your expectations. Talk to those who have been in the country longer than you have. Don’t be afraid to appear stupid or foolish or unknowing. That fear will send you home in a straight jacket.

Get. Over. Yourself.

My experience has been that most people are very happy to share their hard-earned local knowledge with others. There are a few who are territorial and protective of the knowledge they have acquired—but they are the minority.

For me, my balloon-popping moment happened when I was in Honduras. I had just moved and had only been there a few months. I was pregnant with my first. Someone had broken into our house. We didn’t have electricity, so it was easy to see where the intruder had gone. There was a trail of burnt matches thrown on the floor that I followed like breadcrumbs. The person had stolen my mother’s wedding ring. He had stolen other things as well, but what mattered to me was that ring. I had been counseled prior to leaving for Honduras to not take anything of emotional or material value, but I didn’t listen. And now that ring was gone. Forever. Suffice it to say that I had a major meltdown.

Yet, this experience was important. It was milestone-worthy. I realized that people didn’t see me as Mother Theresa. To them, I was a rich American who could easily replace what she had lost. I learned that just because I was obedient to a call—it didn’t mean it would be easy. In fact, it was very difficult. I also had to check my personal motives—why was I there? It was a huge moment for my big, fat, pregnant, self-absorbed, sorry-for-myself, self. I grew up that week and had to lean hard into some deeper truths. It was through this event that I began to understand poverty and the desperation it brings. This put me on a lifelong journey of resetting my expectations.

I would love to know what happened the day the balloon popped for you. Would you share that experience for the benefit of others?