I get a lot of questions about what it’s like working abroad. I guess that’s what inspired me to consider writing this one! Then I took a few polls on my social and it turned out that it is something that people have interest in. I guess what has become normal to me is still a mystery for others. Either way, it really made me think about my situation, how I feel now, and how I felt in the beginning… and it led me to some interesting realizations.
It’s a difficult feeling to explain because I love my coworkers, they’ve become some of my best friends. I love my work, I never wake up and wish I didn’t have to go, it’s never a problem. I love the opportunities and relationships I’ve been able to build with my clients and I cherish every day that I walk out of the office and look at the beautiful cathedral in the center of the city. Yet, there are always and will always be times where it hits me that I don’t belong – whether it’s a conversation that I can’t partake in or a group laughing at something that maybe I don’t understand – it’s inevitable. Trying to shake it off only gets me so far and sometimes it’s just best to let myself feel sad at that moment and then keep getting on with my life. I don’t think this will ever become easier than it already is and I definitely don’t think the way I feel is anything but expected. Learning the language has greatly helped me feel better and more at ease with my surroundings, but until I’m fluent that’s something will never really change.
Starting a new job is always difficult, but starting a new job as a foreigner was far more difficult than anything else I’ve ever experienced in the working realm. But let me back it up to when I got the job. I’d just gotten to Serbia and was beyond stressed out about not having a source of income waiting for me. I wanted to relax and enjoy, but after my first week Nenad was back to work and I was stuck in my apartment for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, bored and lonely. So during my third week in Novi Sad, I started applying. I submitted my third application and about two hours later, I got an email from an employer interested in setting up an interview as soon as possible. I couldn’t believe how soon I was contacted and it was exactly the sort of job I was looking to find – an American company, client interaction, writing, room for growth, small to medium size business…. it was almost hard to believe I’d found one I liked so quickly. I went out for a coffee with my now boss, we talked, and within five days I was hired and an official member of team TechBear.
Initially, when I got the job I was stoked. It was all a roller coaster, to say the least, and although I was relieved to have that weight lifted off my shoulders, the nervousness set in once reality hit me that I was going to start a job completely out of my comfort zone. I really didn’t do anything at that point without Nenad’s assistance and this one was an area I knew he wouldn’t be able to assure my comfort. I remember getting the choice to choose my start date and kind of pushing it as far back as I felt would be acceptable to an employer. After all, I did just arrive, I hadn’t even unpacked all my suitcases yet! But I knew it was inevitable that I would have to start my new job and when the day came I just took deep breaths and reminded myself of my golden rule:
No one likes a know-it-all, no matter where you’re from or where you’re working.
This is really something that I’ve come to live by – whether it’s when I meet people in a friendly environment, professional environment, or whatever is in between. I truly believe saying the words ‘I don’t know’ really helped me settle into this job quicker. I wanted my coworkers to understand that I was happy to have them teach me whatever they could and that I was open to both criticism and expertise. I even went out of my way to ask questions, even if I already knew the answers. I wanted to show that I didn’t believe I was a better fit for this job than anyone else working there, even though I was the first American.
After my first week, I felt semi-comfortable coming into the office and saying hi to everyone. But then the worst part about a new job really kicked in… The excitement of my new surroundings was wearing off and the realization hit me that…
I’m an outsider. Everyone is friends with everyone except me.
Not trying to join the team too quickly is something that’s extremely difficult, because it deals with an emotion that no one wants to deal with – loneliness. I’ve worked five jobs now in the past six years. There isn’t a single one of them that I didn’t experience the awkwardness of coming into a group of employees who are all friendly with each other. With all that said, I wanted to embrace it. I went home, talked it out with Nenad, and got in the mindset that I wasn’t there to make friends, I was there to get a job done. I tried not to assimilate myself into their work culture too quickly and I’m glad I chose that way, even if it was hard on me mentally. I didn’t want to be annoying to people and I wasn’t going to fool anyone that I was familiar with their work culture and customs. I think this mindset kinda bit me in the behind a bit too because then I just came off as bossy. I knew this was one of the situations where I was never going to win, so I chose the road I wanted to go down and I didn’t look back.
I didn’t become close with any of my co-workers until after about 3 months of working with TechBear. Of course, I was acquaintances with everyone on the inside from the start, but when you are close enough to go out with your colleagues, you’re on a different level. It happened so organically and I know in my heart it was because I didn’t demand anyone’s friendship, attention, or respect. Being a leader or experienced in a field doesn’t mean you have to be the center of attention. People are drawn to leaders. My parents always told me that. I just went about my business, stayed out of anything that didn’t concern me, and good friendships formed in their own time. Friendships that I know are going to last a lifetime.
Although there are plenty of hardships to working abroad, there are plenty of benefits too. One of them is how easy it is for me to stay out of anything that is not my business. Problems will happen no matter where you work and staying out of them always proves to be a challenge. When someone includes you on the “inside scoop” it’s so hard to not feel happy that they like you enough to tell you, or that you’re being included in the day-to-day work life. In my case if someone wants me to know something or if someone wants to speak with me they use English. If they’re not speaking in English, I am not listening or involved. I’ve always kind of felt like it’s better to have no friends and get your work done by yourself than to be friends with some and not with others. You don’t have to like everyone, but there is no reason to openly dislike anyone. TechBear doesn’t really have any of that though. I genuinely feel like the environment that’s been created here is the best I’ve ever had or probably ever will have in the workplace.
We’re all friends (I think lol). My colleagues who partake in the hiring process are particular about who they hire. There isn’t any hiring because we desperately need the position filled, even if that’s the case. My company hires people who are going to continue to make the workplace enjoyable and be a good fit for the job as well as the people. This is another thing I feel extremely lucky about. I couldn’t imagine being a foreigner AND working in a place that had constant tension.
Of course, I have a major advantage here as I don’t speak Serbian fluently, and I only can grasp the conversation if I’m actively listening, which I’m almost never doing. Last week I understood a few sentences subconsciously and I was thrilled and nervous at the same time! As I said, there’s not much to stay out of over here, but even if there’s something, most of the time I don’t want to know. My mother always told me, “Always be the last to know.” I never fully embraced that until I saw the other side of that phrase, being the first to know, which I experienced at my last job in California prior to my arrival here. After an experience like that, now it’s a phrase that I fully understand.
Another great benefit is that I have developed a valuable skill set that only comes with working abroad. I’ve adjusted to a completely different work environment then what I’m used to and I think I’ve done it with grace. Well, maybe not grace but I sure haven’t had any blundering mistakes! Working abroad is an experience that shapes you both personally and professionally and it’s one that makes you stand out of the crowd. You have to learn the new norms and abide by them. You have to change your mindset in order to try to understand your colleagues. You have to be patient with language barrier and you have to think outside of the box to explain a foreign concept in a way that your team will understand. I know what I do over here isn’t something that just anyone could make work for them. Some days it can be extremely trying… but I know that my accomplishments are just that, and although sometimes I’m hard on myself, I am unique in the life that I am living.
It comes down to this: I was placed in a situation where it was up to me to make the most of it if I wanted to. I chose to and now, 10 months in, there are so many memories and valuable skills I’ve learned here along the way. I’m enjoying where I’m at right now, especially since I know I won’t be here forever.
If you were ever contemplating working abroad then hear me out. I know it’s scary. I know the unknown can cause a lot of doubt in your mind. I know it sounds exciting but you’re aware that it’s way out of your comfort zone. I know there are plenty of reasons you’d rather stay comfortable in your bubble. But your bubble can only show you so much of the world. Your bubble can only teach you so much about the world. Your bubble is doing more harm than good. It’s time for your bubble to burst!