Let’s warmly welcome Samantha, from the travel blog My Tan Feet, as the latest adventure seeker to be featured in my Expat Living Interview Series. Originally from the United States, Samantha moved to Playas del Coco, Costa Rica for love. How romantic is that, folks?
All About Samantha.
I’m an Asian American girl who is slowly exploring the world with my Costa Rican boyfriend. I’m obsessed with dogs, fantasy and sci-fi books and am learning photography. I’m a true beach girl at heart with an adventurous spirit.
Where are you from?
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona and grew up in Olympia, Washington. My family is from Taiwan and immigrated to the United States during the 1980’s.
Where are you living now and how long have you been there?
Have you lived anywhere else around the world?
When I was young, I lived in Taiwan and then Arizona but only remember bits and pieces. I moved to Olympia when I was 4 years old and lived there until I was 18. Then I moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.
Do you plan to stay in your current location or move somewhere else in the future?
I’m currently living in Costa Rica with my boyfriend who is Costa Rican. We’re actually planning on living in Taiwan for a few months this fall; we bought our tickets and everything!
After that, we’re not sure if we want to come back to Costa Rica or go somewhere else. I’d love to live in a few different countries before we settle for good somewhere.
What’s your personal story? What made you decide to take the big leap and leave home?
Love (just like fellow expat Erin, an American who now lives in Spain)! I met my boyfriend in 2010 when I went to Central America for a veterinary volunteer trip and he was actually one of my trip leaders! As cheesy as it sounds, it was love at first sight.
I was still finishing up college at the time so I flew back to Seattle after the two week trip was over. Unfortunately he had trouble obtaining an American tourist visa so I returned every chance I could, which was every 3 or 6 months.
After graduating college and 2 years of having a long distance relationship, I decided to take the big leap and move to Costa Rica. I was so tired of us being apart.
Do you ever miss home? What do you do to cope?
I do miss home. I was so used to having my best friends and family around me all the time that it was a huge change for me to suddenly be separated from them by 3000 miles.
I cope by Skyping with my parents, friends and even my dog. Sounds silly since obviously she can’t really recognize that I’m on screen but it makes me so happy just to see her. She does recognize my voice though!
How do you blend in and be accepted by locals?
I’m incredibly respectful of the Costa Rican culture. If I see something that may seem odd, I don’t get all excited and freak out like many Americans do here. Instead, I ask questions and try to understand why they do what they do.
Although I spend most of my time with my boyfriend and our Italian friends, I try to interact with the Ticos as much as possible. I don’t speak to them in English (unless they ask) and I eat what they eat whenever we go out.
However, there are very very few Asian people who live in Coco. I’m actually just one of two so it’s impossible for me to blend in. I spent my first year here getting used to being pointed out on the street, being called “china” and having people asking me where I’m “really” from. Some of them have never seen an Asian person before! Once they started recognizing my face around town, they knew I was going to stick around for awhile and that I wasn’t the typical “gringo.”
Did you have to learn a new language? If yes, what? How did you go about learning the language and how long did it take you to become fluent?
Yes, I had to learn Spanish. I wish I could say I’m completely fluent but that hasn’t happened yet. When I first moved here, I knew just a few words – hola, gracias and estoy perdido (hello, thank you and I’m lost). I tried to learn more before I left but I was incredibly busy with final exams and work that I didn’t have time.
I’m a visual and tactile learner so to go out and start talking to people didn’t help, as I couldn’t remember 90% of the words they taught me! I started using an app called Duolingo to help me learn. Once I started reading and writing words and understanding the rules, I was memorizing a good handful of words each day.
It took me about 6 months to get to the point where I could actually understand everything that was going on in a conversation. Before, I would sit at dinner without the faintest clue what was going on but now I can understand what they’re talking about and join in.
I’m still practicing talking, learning verb conjugations and expanding my vocabulary which is why I don’t consider myself completely fluent. I’m fairly proud of myself for learning as much as I did in 6 months without going to classes or school though. My Costa Rican/Spanish slang is pretty good!
What has been the most shocking thing you learned about the local culture?
Costa Ricans are really friendly and even treat strangers as their own friends.
One of the things that shocked me quite a bit was that they don’t call before they go over to a friend’s house, even if it is very late at night! I was taught to be polite and always call before you go to let the other person know and it would be disrespectful if you didn’t.
Here, you see people knocking on doors at 5 AM and sitting outside somebody’s house waiting for them all day. It’s so normal for people to just drop by without notice and even if you don’t answer the door, they’ll walk around the side of your house to knock on your window.
What is your number one tip about how to live life as an ex-pat?
Have an open mind. If you go into it thinking it’s going to be a piece of cake, then you haven’t done your research.
You’ll probably be in for a huge shock when you realize that things aren’t done the way you’re used to.
If you move to a new country with a closed mind as in not learning the language or the culture and not mingling with the locals, you might find yourself struggling to fit in and feeling accepted.
What do you love most about living abroad?
How much I’ve learned during my time abroad. I can’t even express how much personal growth and change I’ve gone through. It’s not that I was incredibly sheltered before or was very naive, but I was kind of living in a bubble.
Living abroad has opened my mind, taught me how to embrace things with grace and to be more appreciative of the life I was given.
Did you make the move solo? Or are you with a spouse or significant other, other members of your family, or friend(s)?
I made the move 100% solo. I had my boyfriend to welcome me so I already had somebody in Costa Rica but besides that, it was just me and 3 pieces of luggage.
What do you do work wise? Did you have a job before you arrived or did you look for work when you got there? If you didn’t have a job, how did (or do) you land work?
I did a bunch of random things when I got here.
At first, I wanted to find an official English teaching job but I had some other opportunities and took those instead. I was lucky, as through my boyfriend and his friends I found work.
I worked at a hotel, veterinarian clinic, clothing store, as an English tutor and now work full time online with our blog and other projects. To be honest, my real dream is to open a dog rescue center but I love my blog and that it’s my full time job. I hope to one day incorporate the blog and the dog center together.
Are you living abroad and would like to be included in the Expat Living interview series? Send an email to email@example.com and you could be featured just like Samantha!
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