Traveling With a Bear

As anyone who has ever lived overseas can tell you, sometimes things happen and they suck. They suck because whatever happens is typically unexpected, and the culturally smart way of dealing with the suckiness is often drastically different than the way you’re used to.

That big ball of suck kind of sums up this last week for me. But instead of crying about it, I decided to do something a little bit different. I packed up my childhood teddy bear and went on an adventure.

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The Virtue of Being Alone

As a pseudo extravert and a verbal processor, being alone can be difficult for me. If I spend too much time in my own head, bad thoughts begin to grow like mold. I slowly begin to listen to those internal doubts and fears if I don’t find some way of shedding light on them. 

Yet as an expat living overseas I’ve spent an increasing amount of time by myself. Whether I’m on the way to work, going to a film, or walking around the city, most of the time I do it by myself. While I still struggle with this alone-time, I’ve discovered some virtues in the solitude. 

The greatest thing about being alone is that I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want. Two years ago I went a short weekend trip to Vienna all by my lonesome. I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be lonely or afraid? Instead I had the best  vacation of my life. I visited monuments on my time. I spent stupid amounts of time in art museums, book stores, and cafes because I could. Who was going to stop me? That’s exactly the vacation I wanted, and it was nothing short of amazing. 

Fast forward two years to a short weekend in London with my friends. It was a good trip. I had a pseudo-religious experience eating cream tea for the first time in my life. We faked British accents with the other Americans in the group. But I didn’t enjoy my time as much when I was alone in Vienna. I was carted around and shepherded from one sight to another. I chatted with friends the entire time instead of sitting back and observing in silence. It’s not that it was a bad trip. I just knew that I would have enjoyed London much more if I’d explored it alone first. 

While being alone affords you a kind of freedom, it can also be incredibly lonely.  I get to see all these great things and have no one to share it with. Occasionally that still bums me out. Still, I’ve learned that loneliness can create a desire to share my experiences, and this desire is an asset. It makes me stretch beyond my limits to find other people with the same passions as myself. It’s the reason I speak to people on the internet about books and character development. It’s also a good excuse to find a mutual friend on Facebook and ask them out for coffee. 

Being alone isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, it can help you to know yourself better and drive you outward towards new things.  But even though there are times when we need to be alone, there are times when we need to be around people. If you can learn to spot the differences between the two stages, then you’ll be gold.

So yeah, there are still days when I wish I lived in a place where I could call up friends and crash at their flats for the evening. But I’m learning how to be alone in the best way possible, and so far? It’s not the worst. 

Say Yes to Being an Expat

So many people around the world are dying to leave their home country and explore new ones. Only a handful of these adventure seekers are going to actually move to a new country. I always knew that I’d be one of those people, and it was never an option to just stay where I was. Yet there was a lot about being an expat that I just didn’t realize was going to happen. What was culture shock, and how was it going to affect me? Who knew the culture in my new home was going to be that different from my own?

Being an expat is an invaluable experience. But before you go bounding off into the great mysterious somewhere, here are some tips I wish I’d heard before I left.

1) Try Out a Small Trip: Being an Expat Isn’t for Everyone 

There’s a world of difference between visiting a place and living there.  It doesn’t matter how much you prepare for your new home, the reality is still going to be different from what was in your head. That’s why a two or three week visit before you commit to anything is a great idea. It’s enough to figure out if your love affair with Paris is the real deal, or if it was all in your head.

2) That First Year is Going to SUCK 

With every single expat I’ve ever met, the story is always the same. The first year in your new home is going to suck. You might have awesome experiences, but you’re also going to have your lowest moments. Culture shock is going to hit you hard, at least twice during this year if not more. The language barrier will seem impossible. You’re going to feel like an idiot more times in that first year than you ever have in your life. But if you can stick with it, then by the second year you’ll have your feet firmly planted on the ground.

3) The Locals Are Going to Treat You Different

Every website I viewed about my new home assured me that it was a magical land. Honey flowed from the water taps, the people would always be hospitable, and most everyone spoke English. Now that I’ve been here, this image seems to stem from the Tourist Areas, not the rest of the city.

It’s not that my new neighbors aren’t hospitable, or that they don’t speak English. It’s that once you actually decided to live somewhere, the locals see you in a whole new light. They love you for loving their home enough to move there. Yet there’s always that lingering feeling that you should be trying harder. You want to live here, right? Then you have to be exactly like the locals, or else you’re not trying hard enough.

4) What You’re Doing is Super Cool, but It Won’t Always Feel Like It

The dream of living in a far away land and the reality of it are two different things. When people tell me how awesome it is that I work in Europe, but I live in Asia, I just smile and shrug. “It’s not that cool,” I think. “It’s just my life.” No matter what kind of weird stuff happens to you while you’re away from home, after a while it’s all going to become normal.

That doesn’t mean you should start to take it for granted though! When you look back at this point of your life, make sure it’s with a lot more fondness than regret. Take advantage of where you are, and try to experience everything you can. You don’t know how much longer any of this is going to last.

5) Never Be Afraid of Square One

My worst nightmares is that one day all this is going to go tits up and I’m going to end up back in America working at a Starbucks. If I’m lucky, I’ll get some soul crushing office job where I have to wear pencil skirts and cut my hair conservatively. I’ll be someone who chased after her dreams but never actually made it, someone who never changed from the way she was when she left.

The good news is that this fear is irrational. As soon as you and I took that first step towards our dreams, we changed. We became people who listened to the voice inside that said there was more out there. There’s no possible way we can ever return to Square One after that. We can get stuck, we can stop trying to reach for more, but we can never return to Square One. The person at Square One never tried, and we did.

6) This Is Going to Be Hard

I wish I could actually tell you how hard it’s going to be, but there’s no way that I can. Your experiences, views, and struggles are going to be different from mine. What I can tell you is that at some point you are going to have to make the choice to either go back home or grit your teeth and make this work. Sometimes going back home, or just moving to a new country, is the healthiest choice. It’s a good way to recharge or get out of dangerous situations. Look, if you fear for your mental health and safety, then please go back home. Get the help you need.

But if that’s not the case, then you should stick it out and learn to adapt. It will be incredibly difficult, but in the end you’ll be a better, stronger, person for it. I’ve learned so much about myself overseas that can never be taken away from me. That alone makes all the crazy crap that’s happened worth it.

Becoming an expat is a wonderful, life-enriching experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. If you think you’re adventurous and flexible enough to roll with the punches and adjust to a new way of life, then more power to you. If you’re already living the expat life then please feel free to comment and add your own tips. Remember, we want to encourage and equip our fellow future expats!