Now, I like to think of myself as having an at-the-very-least-average level of political awareness, as an Australian who has spent much of the last few years watching Q&A, Mediawatch and The Insiders, as well as reading The Monthly and the Saturday Paper (which reminds me - I must renew my annual subscription). However, in the last few months, living in Europe and working alongside people who have spent their lives as specialists in political affairs, I've learnt to keep my opinions to a minimum, lest I get this response...
I expressed this to a colleague today, and their consolation was, "Well, at least you're not American." Great. But when it comes to matters of politics, I try to leave my Australian-ness out of it. Our government's attitudes to the comparatively minuscule volume of asylum seekers travelling by boat is now legendary across the world, as is our attitude to climate change, the global Islamic community, and marriage equality. But at the same time, it's Australia. They're on the other side of the world. Let them be a bunch of narrow-minded bigots, and play their petty political games. Here in Europe, there are bigger problems closer to home.
But I do consider how much my perspective has changed over the past year. Living in South-East Asia has increased my awareness of many of the social issues that plague our neighbouring countries, with problems of poverty, migration, corruption, environmental pollution, poor communication, media bias, the plight of ethnic minorities, and so on. And then, living in Eastern Europe, there's the impact of the Syria conflict and widespread poverty and unemployment that leads to mass-migration. There's national economic collapse, and the wider effects on the European Union, whilst other nations want to buy in as a way to stimulate their economy and bring about prosperity. And then there's poor education, social inequality, inter-ethnic tensions, and, again, the plight of ethnic minorities who will always be at the bottom of the pecking-order of society.
It's a lot to take on board, and at the same time, it really feels like the tip of the iceberg. And this all overwhelms me. And then I'm faced with first world problems and triumphs, and I feel bad that I'm not over the moon like everybody else is about marriage equality in the US, because, really, Canada has already had it for ten years, and meanwhile there's a massacre on a beach in Tunisia, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers roam the land looking for sanctuary, and conflict situations and human rights violations continue to rage on around the world. Factory farming industries inflict ongoing cruelty to animals, palm oil industries destroy forests, kill wildlife and pollute the air, plastic bags fill our oceans, and carbon emissions fill our air, slowly poisoning this planet.
And then I have the gall to worry about myself, and my career, and whether I'm really happy with my life, and how I can keep myself both professionally and creatively stimulated, and worry about when I'm going to go swing dancing next, let along whether I'm ever going to own property or start a family because, y'know, that shit is important. It's really fucking important, otherwise what the hell is my purpose in life here?
This is how my brain works, and it really scares me sometimes.
I'm mindful to know that it's not healthy, but at the same time, it's also completely normal. We all live in our own bubbles, where we get so caught up in our own problems (and yes, First World Problems are still valid problems) that we completely lose perspective. But trying to maintain perspective is even harder. It's too hard.
How do we even live with ourselves?
Ugh, okay, this post was originally meant to be about learning to survive when living and working away from home... except, obviously, I let my brain derail my train of thought. Let's try to get back on track:
10 ways to stay sane when living overseas in a developing country.
1. Be mindful of your own mental wellbeing. Constantly check yourself, and give yourself a break from time to time.
2. Exercise regularly. Not because you think you're getting too overweight, or whatever, but because your body needs you to stay active and healthy now more than ever.
3. Stay social. Make the effort to go and make conversation with colleagues at lunchtime. Ask people out to dinner, or to meet up to watch a movie. Whatever it is, just keep making social connections.
4. Take pride in your work. You might be the only person who appreciates what you do, and that's probably the most important reason to do so.
5. Try to make some real friends. This is a tricky one, because you'll often be living amongst a transient population, and if you're anything like me, the number of people that you meet who truly "get you" will be few and far between. When you meet one - don't let them go!
6. Maintain momentum and direction. Set goals for what you're trying to achieve and what your next step in your life will be, so that you have something to work towards, and don't lose sight of it.
7. Don't drink (too much). It may seem like a valid coping mechanism, but it'll make things harder, especially if you're already not exercising enough.
8. Read books. I shouldn't have to explain this one to you. Trust me, I'm a librarian. I know.
9. Take the time to appreciate what's around you. Whether it's taking a weekend trip to the countryside, or just walking down the street and appreciating the lively colours, sounds - even the smells. You'll miss it all once you're gone.
10. Know when to walk away. Living and working in a developing country changes you. It changes your perspective on the world. It changes your priorities in life. But it's not without its challenges, and some of these will be insurmountable. By all means, take them on, and achieve what you can, but also know that you can't save the world. You can only do your bit, and eventually the time will come to walk away and pass the baton on to somebody else. That may seem like a cop-out, sure, and maybe it is. But if you have opportunities in life, don't waste them entirely. Not everybody in the world else has the luxury of choice that you have. Look after yourself, but do it with some semblance of grace and compassion as well.