10 Things That Change When You Start Living Abroad

Kimberlynn Boyce, the author of a popular blog for expats, provides some great insights into the experience of living overseas. Living abroad is in some ways, of course, a privilege. Even if you don’t do it for very long, it can completely change your life for the better. This is because it’s just so different to everything you’ve ever known before. Here are ten things that, Kimberlynn tells us, are guaranteed to change when you move to another country.

1. You are constantly learning and unlearning language

It seems that it’s possible for your brain to regularly shut the door on certain native-tongue-vocabulary words, leading you instead to the word you’re looking for in the newly acquired language. That’s not a problem…unless you were really hoping to find the word in your native language. It’s one thing to feel a little embarrassed when you don’t know the word for something in the language you’re still learning. It’s a whole new level of embarrassment when you’re talking to close friends and family members and can’t seem to find your own word to express what you’re trying to say. It can be genuinely humiliating when you’re desperately trying to find the right phrase, only to let the sentence depart from your lips: “I forgot how to say it…”

2. Life is regularly lived out of a suitcase

For some reason, we always think that our suitcases would start collecting dust once we made the big move across the world. You might even have thought to yourself, “Wow, what are we going to do with all these suitcases now that we’ve arrived at our final destination?” Well, now you know. You keep on using them. The suitcases are continually taken down from the top of our bedroom wardrobes as we make visa trips, medical trips, business trips, and the occasional vacation sprinkled throughout each of the aforementioned trips. We know the airline luggage allowance and how to get the most use out of luggage space like it’s our national anthem. If unloading your bags and pockets, walking through a metal detector (while also herding and maintaining control of your children), and then recollecting all your possessions on the other end were an olympic sport, we would likely take home the gold year after year.

3. This is your life, not a trip

Once you’ve packed your life into the allowed amount of suitcases, hopped onto a plane, and then started from scratch in a new land, you automatically start making this key distinction. Last time I checked, I’ve never had to repair my own toilet or pay bills and rent on any of my trips. Nevertheless, you will still be asked “How was your trip?“ when you return back to your home country for a visit every now and again. Your lips might get blistered from biting it so many times. Sometimes you might want to yell from the mountaintops, ”I haven’t been on a trip!“ Sometimes you might want to snap back with a question of your own, “I don’t know. How have the past 3 years of your life been?” But in reality, the person asking the question means no harm or offense. Instead you give a quick, honest, and polite answer: ”So much has happened the past 3 years. We’ll have to sit down sometime so I can share some of the highlights!”

4. Exchange rates are always on your mind

When you’re in the kitchen, you’ll have your recipe set out and your conversion app opened up on your phone. When you’re out grocery shopping and see vanilla extract, your joy is quickly followed with disappointment once you’ve calculated the exchange rate in your head. We change currencies so frequently, you might be the dumbfounded customer at the check-out counter searching frantically for the numbers on the bills and coins because you haven’t had time to memorize “the look” of the money. Cue the kind cashier woman giving you a nod of reassurance when you pull up the appropriate bill.

5. The line between normal and strange has blurred

Every culture has it’s clear distinctions on what is acceptable and what’s not. However, to the outsider coming in, who brings with them a set of different, but still clearly marked, cultural “dos and don’ts”, it can cause quite the clash of viewpoints.

6. Time is measured differently

It becomes harder and harder to measure things by calendar measurements. You tend to gravitate towards unique mile markers that help you remember how long you’ve lived in one location or how many times you’ve moved or where all you’ve lived. Sometimes a visa situation causes you to make an unexpected move, temporary or permanent. Sometimes you live in one location for language school until you’ve passed all your tests and can move on to another destination. You are never sure how long you’ll be able to stay in one spot, so you just throw calendar days out the window. Instead, you measure time with things that stick out to you most.

7. The word “routine” is not in your vocabulary

Whatever predictable outcome you once had for any given set of events has now been removed as a possibility. In fact, you now put it in the category of “miracle“ if something happens the way you once thought it should happen. It’s no longer out of the ordinary to devote an entire day to paying two bills. You don’t expect electricity and water each day. You always have a back-up plan for that ”just in case” moment when you’re suddenly without electricity and/or water. Your senses have sharpened because of your need to be on your toes at any given moment for the unexpected…because those moments happen a lot more frequently than they did before you moved abroad.

8. Material possessions do not equal happiness

You don’t have to move overseas to realize this, but there’s something about the nomadic life that makes you really stop and consider what you hold on to and let go of. The possibility of moving to another country is always in the back of your mind. In many cases, you’re better off not shipping a crate of all your belongings due to the fear of it being held up in customs for a year or more. This means that things might have to be sold again and dwindled down to the essentials that can fit in those suitcases of yours. You stop gathering and collecting, and start making mental notes of what’s most valuable and worth hauling to another far-away land. You come to find out there are a handful of things that make this adventure of yours so great and everything else is expendable.

9. Anything seems possible

Before you moved overseas, you didn’t think it was possible to pack everything you wanted to take with you in a few suitcases. But you did it, and now you can’t remember half the stuff you left behind. Cooking seemed like such a daunting task with all the substitutions that were required to make it work. Now you’re able to whip up some of your old favourites in a flash, and you’ve since added some new, local recipes to your collection (so no substitutions are required). You’ve kissed your comforts goodbye, and you’ve survived. You might even be thriving in your new culture.

10. You are different

You leave marks on people and people leave marks on you. Some things don’t matter to you as much as they once did and other things matter more. You’re continually humbled as you frequently find yourself in a position of needing help and guidance…sometimes from a complete stranger. Almost daily you are in a position where nothing is so familiar that you’re able to take it for granted. You knew you would set out on this new adventure as a learner of language and culture, you just didn’t realize exactly how much, in turn, you would learn about yourself.

’If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.’ — Elizabeth Gilbert

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