The Forest For The Trees: Reflections On Living Abroad

photo by Tanisha Christie 

On Friday, I spent most of the day in Belmopan taking care of business for a volunteer permit. It required a lot of running around – talking with people at the Ministry of Labor, getting photos taken, gathering documents, and sitting in the police station waiting to receive copies of my record – on a 100-degree day. I did all of this with my friend Simone, who is helping me secure a permit with her women’s organization so that I can provide mental health consulting.

It was one of those days when I found myself exasperated and caught up in the details. Just a few days earlier, I got my nine-month visitor’s permit stamp on my passport in Belize City. It was quick and easy, as it always is when I go to the immigration office for my monthly extension. I’ve heard stories from people about being asked all kinds of questions and being required to show extra documentation by the immigration officers. I count myself lucky because, for the most part, my ability to stay in Belize has been painless.

Still, at times like on Friday – when I’m having to deal with unclear protocols and systems to secure a bit more stability, when most of my questions are met with another question, and when it seems like situations such as my own are handled on a case-by-case basis – it’s incredibly frustrating and tiring. It’s been difficult to get clear and direct information about how to work here, and things are further complicated by the fact that there is no mental health care system in Belize and there are no equivalents here for my degree and license.

Having lived abroad before, I am familiar with the process of figuring these things out as I go, and am aware that the best way to navigate the situation is to ask a lot of questions and enlist the help of native friends. I often find myself straddling the line between being receptive and respectful of the way things are done in Belize, and being direct and assertive when it feels necessary. Sometimes things need to be moved along or clarified, and in those moments I turn up the black New Yorker in me. And in doing that (and usually receiving the desired response), I am aware of my privilege.

I reflect on my privilege of living abroad quite a bit, on being able to leave the States and always return, and on being able to settle into this country simply because I can afford to. And that helps me keep perspective about living here and prevents me from complaining too much about having to jump through hoops to have access to the things that Belizean residents have. As much as I can argue that I have a lot to offer as a therapist and mental health counselor, the bottom line is that I am not from here and I don’t get to decide what the country does or doesn’t need.

Even with the adjustment issues I’ve been dealing with, I have never for one moment regretted moving here. I am grateful every day that I get to live in this country. I am reminded daily of why I chose this place, and am presented with endless examples of how it continues to choose me. I have met and made friends with folks who express gladness about my being here, who are encouraging me to stay, and that feels awesome. Work authorization and red tape aside, my experience in Belize has been wonderful in so many ways – from the art I’ve made and the relationships I’ve formed, to the huge improvements to my quality of life. The culture in Belize is rich and full, and I’m thrilled to be part of the flavor.


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