Three months ago, an Alaskan Husky named Magda burst into our lives. And as we adapt to life together, I see parallels with my previous experiences crossing cultures.
You have to experience it for yourself
The first time I went overseas, I encountered a gap between the idea of it and the reality. You can read about places, but until you go, you don’t know what it will be like or how you’ll respond. It’s the same with a dog: it is one thing to research a theoretical dog and another to have this dog.
You have to climb the learning curve
We faced a steep learning curve, both in owning a dog and in her particular breed. What harness should we use? What toys would she like? What should she eat? How to keep her safe? What training techniques were best for a husky who was a puppy and a rescue?
This reminded me of living in Poland. I studied the language and country ahead of time, but faced many questions on arriving. Where to buy groceries? How to wash our clothes? How to open a bank account? How to express myself? I knew about the country from afar – but living in it thrust practical needs to the foreground.
You have to leave your comfort zone
Since I hadn’t spent much time around dogs, I knew it would stretch my comfort zone – but that still challenged me (and I didn’t always like how that felt). The same is true when crossing cultures: You don’t always feel competent, and others may notice that you don’t have a clue. Yet instead of pretending the ugly duckling stage isn’t happening, it’s better to embrace it as an opportunity for growth.
You need what’s workable, not what’s perfect
After a few weeks of devouring every article we could find, we were exhausted. Instead of careening between techniques, we needed to pick an approach that was reasonable and stick with it. And after “expert” general advice backfired, we shifted to guidance tailored to primitive breeds. We also let go of notions about what we thought our dog should be and began to embrace the one we had.
This mirrored our experiences abroad. Information about crossing cultures abounds, but it’s of varying quality and utility. Culture-general advice is “generally” helpful, but you also need insights about the place you’re in (and experts on London might not “get” Cusco). You should also relinquish unrealistic expectations about expat life and your host country, so you can make reality the best it can be.
You need to adapt
When we moved to Poland, my American smile, small-talk, impatience, and task-orientation didn’t fit. I needed to adapt if I wanted to stop pulling my hair out and putting my foot in my mouth. Now, years later, the dexterity I developed there helps me adjust to our dog.
For example: My English is lost in translation, so I find other ways to communicate. Because she scans my emotions and tone, I’m mindful about indirect messages I’m sending. And, since I’m building a relationship with someone who sees the world differently, I engage in empathy and consider her perspective (even if I still make decisions she doesn’t like). I have also modified my life to incorporate her, rather than maintaining my old life with her tacked on. In both situations, the key was to admit that life had changed – and to change with it.
You need to let go of other people’s judgments
Speaking of change: it’s natural to want to share it – but remember, not everyone is able or willing to celebrate with you.
When we moved to Poland, people were skeptical. Why were we going overseas – and why Poland? Some evaluated our sojourn less on its merits and more on their feelings about it. (If they were upset or if they were afraid of the world, then it was a bad idea).
It is similar with Magda. The most supportive are those who have dogs or want them. The least are those who have never had dogs, did not enjoy having them, are afraid of them, or are upset about what our dog means for them (e.g., we are less flexible because we have to factor her into our schedule). In both cases, it’s a life change that creates ripples and upends our existing paradigm.
You need to proactively build community
Yet if these experiences disrupt existing bonds, they also promote new ones. Whether by making an Irish friend in Krakow or getting acquainted with neighbors while walking our dogs, both chapters have infused our interactions with joy, purpose, and motivation.
Perhaps these communities are so powerful and necessary because we all have a desire to connect over something in common. Expats are isolated in foreign lands; dog owners are living with creatures they don’t always comprehend. Both groups can be misunderstood and criticized by onlookers who don’t understand the nuances of their lives, and both have a desire to dig into minutia that is uninteresting or inaccessible to outsiders. By finding each other in-person and online, we can seek (or serve as) a sounding board, commiserate, get practical advice, laugh, and share in the novelty of life abroad or life with an animal. In some ways, then, these experiences bring out what is most human, and perhaps most universal: the desire to belong.
There are, of course, many important differences between crossing cultures and having a dog, but perhaps the lessons from one can inform the other. Each nudges us to embrace change, learn new ways of being, expand our communication repertoires, shift perspectives, step out of our comfort zones, build new relationships, and enhance our understanding of this world we live in. Whether you’re a culture crosser who has never had a puppy, a puppy lover who has never been abroad, or a lucky duck who has done both, I hope you’ll continue enjoying the richness of life. Thanks for tagging along!