Living abroad will shock you at times, stress you out, leave you in tears and will also be one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling experiences of your life. Maybe you’re thinking of living abroad, maybe you already do or maybe you just like hearing about what others are up to.
The series is called Expat Chitchat, where each month I’ll interview an expat blogger who will share what life abroad has been like in their corner of the world. For the June edition of my new series, I’d like to introduce you to Matt from Confiscated Toothpaste. He’s an Australian blogger living in Portland, Oregon, and I discovered his fun blog when a friend shared this post with me on his strange observations of America — which is absolutely worth a read!
Expat Chitchat June
Diane: Where are you from, where are you living now (and for how long have you been there) and tell me about your blog please.
Matt: Born in Sydney, Australia. Lived in Portland, OR for two years and now splitting my time between Portland and Sydney.
I’m a scientist in the solar power industry. Over the years I’ve also lived in Delaware and Finland and worked for companies in Germany, Korea and China. My fiancee is Brazilian. I’ve traveled to over 30 countries for both work and pleasure and often both. Over the past 10 years I’ve had some crazy adventures, some intended and some unintended and many of them quite bizarre and funny. I noticed the bemusement that would occur when I’d be casually telling family or friends about something that had happened. I love writing and storytelling so I started my blog, Confiscated Toothpaste, to document these adventures, entertain people and inspire others to travel.
D: What do you miss most about home?
M: Can I say something silly here? The laksas and pearl teas I get from the Asian restaurant on campus at UNSW where I work. Good Asian food (particularly Thai) in general, as it’s harder to come by in the US. Being close to world class beaches and the ocean — swimming and surfing all the time. Growing up on the ocean I feel as though I need it to be at peace. And my family of course.
D: What’s your favorite part of where you’re living (can be somewhere in your neighborhood or a room in your home) and why?
M: In Portland, my apartment. It’s on the 13th floor, has an awesome view of the West Hills and the baseball stadium, has cherry floorboards and is the most pimping place I ever lived in. And it’s cheap — in Sydney I pay more than double for a 1-bed apartment in a decent location. Everything in the US is so cheap. You can live like a king here for not much money.
D: How do the people act toward you? Do Americans think you’re British ever and why do you think we have such trouble with accents?
M: As I mentioned recently in my article, “18 Strange Observations of America (from an Australian Living in the USA)” everybody is really, really friendly. I’ve found people are curious about me and want to hang out, chat, and so on which is great. I have found more great friends on the East Coast; however, I think people from Portland tend to be a little flakier, but it’s a more laid-back lifestyle there. I’ve met great Americans in Portland and all over the US though, especially in the South, which again was a big surprise for me. As for the girls, well I am off the market now but before that I wished the girls would be a little braver. They’re curious about Aussie guys but I think there’s an element of fear of the unknown there as well!
People do sometimes think I’m British. I’m not sure why as British is nothing like Australian!
Confusing an Aussie for a Brit is like confusing an American for a Brit.
More surprisingly, and I think this is due to the popularity of Flight of the Conchords, I’m often getting asked if I’m a New Zealander. This is more understandable because the Kiwi accent is similar to the Aussie accent, but the vowels are different. It’s like the US and Canadian accents. I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble asking people “so what part of the US are you from?” only to have them say “actually I’m from Toronto” or something……. Now I always ask them to say “out and about” before I judge. Likewise you can tell the difference between an Aussie and a Kiwi by the way they say “fish and chips.”
I think Americans have a bit of trouble with accents for two reasons. Many of them are not well travelled. That’s somewhat understandable, because there’s a lot to see and do within the US. But then I hear a lot of people say things like “ah, I want to go one day, but it’s such a long flight!” I find this really surprising.
You can be in Europe in 8 or 10 hours, or even Australia in 13 hours from LA or San Fran. That’s half a day on a plane for the experience of a lifetime — not a big ask.
Secondly, US pop culture is so pervasive. American film, TV and music are all really strong cultural movements. There are a lot more good Aussie actors in Hollywood now and a lot of good Aussie music making a mark in the US so this may be beginning to change.
D: What was the most amusing/funny/stressful/culture clash/misunderstanding moment in your new culture?
M: There have been many, but I would have to say going for my driver’s license in Portland. On the instruction sheet there was a rule that you couldn’t have a firearm in the car during the test. I thought this was pretty amusing and chuckled at the fact that they had to explicitly mention that in the States. But then my car broke down on the day before the test so I had to borrow my work colleague Dan’s car. As I was driving out of the parking lot at work I noticed two pistols in the door pocket.
After protesting to Dan that we couldn’t have them in the car, he informed me that the rear of the car was full of rifles.
Taking all the guns into the office obviously wasn’t an option so we ended up placing everything under a towel and Dan promised me that none of them were loaded. Even still, every time I went around a corner in my driving test I could hear them rattling about. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, the driving examiner was more interested in telling me about his displeasure at Obama’s policies and swearing at poor homeless people on the side of the road than actually watching me drive or giving me directions. The whole experience was somewhat surreal. I passed though!
D: How has living in the US changed you? Do you find yourself living a more fulfilling life than before?
M: I do. I first lived in Delaware at the age of 27 and although I had done a lot of backpacking prior to that time, this was the first time I really got to know the locals, attended a college, lived in a house with people from a different culture. I absolutely loved it. In the US you can meet loads of people from other nationalities as well, so I now find that when I go traveling, even in Europe, I spend more time hanging out with a local group of friends than I do staying in hostels or hotels. My life is all the more fulfilling because of the international exposure.
Perhaps more importantly, these experiences enhanced my appreciation of home. I must admit by the time I was able to first travel at age 21, I was somewhat disillusioned about Sydney and felt somewhat untethered.
Now that I’ve lived in other cultures, I know what the great things are about home, I know where I’ve come from and I know where I am going.
D: Have your perceptions changed about your own country and how?
M: I appreciate more the local environment and culture, and it’s strange to say it but I feel more comfortable at home now. I think it has something to do with scratching the itch — although there are still many things I want to see around the world, I no longer feel the urgency like I did before. I’ve experienced several other cultures now and I have challenged myself and I defeated that challenge so that it’s no longer challenging me. I still have my mind blown whenever I go traveling, but I’m more likely to have my mind blown by things at home now and not feel so bored.
D: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from living abroad so far?
M: That I am capable of anything. It’s a great confidence builder. You think, holy crap, I just totally moved to another country, got a job, rented a place, made friends, had adventures, I totally did it. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment and a confidence booster. I read those stories of the great explorers, you know Vitus Bering, James Cook, Roald Amundsen and the like and you think wow, they were really living lives, those guys. Now I’m not pretending that moving another country is quite the same thing as getting on a ricketty wooden ship and sailing off the edge of the map…. but dammit it made me feel better about myself!!
D: For others looking to move abroad (and possibly to your country), what would you say to them or caution them about?
M: There will be challenges but it will be worth it. Probably the hardest thing is that you have to get used to spending a bit more time on your own than you might be used to. Listen to my story if it helps but know that yours will be different. So just do it. Plus we’re a friendly bunch in Oz. We don’t bite — hard.
D: Anything you know now that you wish you knew before you moved abroad?
M: Non-metric measurements! I still can’t tell you whether 60 degrees Fahrenheit is hot or cold, and I still don’t know what an ounce or a fluid ounce is. It reminds me of these Bible stories we’d learn in school where the angel would tell Noah that the Ark needed to be 40 cubits long or that it was 400 leagues from Jerusalem to Damascus. But seriously, I think one of the joys of my living in the US were the little discoveries that surprised me. The bums that would come up and talk to me in the park and tell me that my shoelaces were untied. Or the warmth of people in the South. I think you can never really be 100% prepared, but that’s part of the fun. You just go for it.
And for non-English speaking parts of the world, I wish I learned more languages in school. I ditched all my language studies as I considered them a waste of time and went hardcore with all the maths, physics, chemistry, woodwork and things that I considered “practical.” I don’t regret those things because I became a scientist and an engineer and I love it, but I wish I could speak other languages and wave my arms around a bit less when traveling.
D: Anything else?
M: Iced tea. I got hooked on iced tea and free refills when I was in the US. I crave it in Australia!