I spent over 10 years abroad until the pandemic made me settle in Germany (for now, my traveling spirit is still as hungry as always ;)). Naturally, many people have asked me over the years how I’ve changed and what were some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. It’s actually quite a hard question to answer, and I’ve sat on this post for a while, continuously adding new points to it.
Nevertheless, here are some major points I’d like to highlight. I hope you find them insightful!
It’s impossible to predict what opportunities will present themselves in your future
I remember writing a letter to myself when I was 12 years old, describing my future life. I haven’t been able to find it, but I’m sure I’d describe it something like this: “I will live next to my hometown with 2 kids and a husband in a house with a garden.”
…which is not exactly where I am today…
However, as a 12-year-old, how many different lifestyles can you imagine? It’s impossible to be aware of all the opportunities that can and will present themselves to you in the future. So how could I have even pictured the life I’d be living now? At every stage in life, I always thought, ‘This is it. This is the life I am going to have.’ And then life would always laugh at me and be like ‘and there’s this other interesting way/job/country to try out…’. I’m glad that I’ve been open enough to take these opportunities because they’ve shown me so many facets of life all over the globe. There’s nothing wrong with having a plan and a direction where you’re heading towards, but it’s great to know that there are always other options out there if, where you’re at, doesn’t work out.
Even the most stable life can fall into pieces. And then you rearrange the puzzle, find some new pieces and create a new picture. It can be scary because you often don’t have the model picture, but step by step it becomes clearer and clearer.
You might find hidden parts in your personality that surprised you
I believe every country or place I’ve moved to (and every language I’ve spoken) for a while has brought out a new side in me. I could be writing about this for pages, but let me narrow it down to a few examples.
The most surprising and somewhat shocking one was when I went on a study abroad semester in South-Korea.
I clearly remember sitting on the bus from the airport to the university, thinking: ‘How am I going to survive a semester which is most likely going to turn out to be a big party?’ (I was and am not a party person at all). Yet, something about this care-free life I eventually had there, and a new environment changed me completely regarding that. You should have seen my friends’ reaction back home when I told them of my fun party-semester. At one moment, I was sitting in a café in Suwon with a friend who was experiencing the same situation. We were both saying how we felt like we weren’t ourselves and that we felt like seeing us from a different perspective. Later, I realized that this was also part of my personality and despite this only being a short phase, I’m glad I noticed that side of me and embraced it to the fullest.
Japan also brought out another side of me. The one of a person who connected well with kids and her own inner child. Teaching kindergarten was a huge learning curve for me, but eventually, I became a bubbly teacher who didn’t mind goofing around, singing songs and doing a full-body workout to keep the class energetic 😉
All this taught me that when I have a thought such as ‘this is not for me. I cannot do that. That doesn’t suit my personality’, I think I should give it a try as long as it fits within my morals. Often my own thoughts about my personality were the ones that put me in a box and limited me exploring my potential, and I’m really grateful for this lesson.
The one perfect country doesn’t exist
For everyone who thinks living abroad is the dream and has an image of the one country of their dreams. It is and it isn’t. If you’re working or studying, you’re going to end up having a daily routine as if you’d be in your home country. Granted, there are the added benefits of experiencing this in another country, which can feel much more exciting (and which is the main reason why I keep going abroad). However, you’ll also get sick, have money problems, break-ups, changes of jobs, car break-downs plus the added difficulty of visa issues, language barriers, and all those quirky, fascinating, yet sometimes annoying cultural differences.
Full-time traveling isn’t always a piece of cake
So you’re taking a year off to travel full-time. You see yourself in the most exotic places, sipping on a cocktail at the beachfront, or hitting mountain tops, feeling as if you were on the top of the world…
Yes, this can definitely be a reality. But the reality is also that you might have a 10-hour bumpy bus ride with multiple bus changes, buses standing still for a few hours due to traffic, mosquitos that love you to bits, food that makes your stomach turn upside down and a person snoring in your dorm so that you end up spending the night scrolling through your phone. Suddenly, you’re missing your friends, your own room, your favorite restaurant that doesn’t give you diarrhea and having everything you need in one place without having to move around.
Ok, again, I love my freedom when traveling full-time, and I am slightly exaggerating by giving you a worst-case scenario. I am able to create the life that I want by being so independent. But that also means that I am going to come across many things that I am unfamiliar with that create problems I didn’t use to have. And usually, there won’t be familiar surroundings or people to help you out. You will often be on your own, wishing you were not. So, then, why would you go through this? …because…
… you will grow in resilience and personal strength
On my first trip to Australia, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I had 3 nights booked in a hostel when I arrived and that was it. I felt so lost, out of place, hardly being able to deal with the fact that I was fired from my first full-time job after just a few days. (It was fundraising on commission to be fair and most people were let go rather quickly when not meeting targets). Now I wish I could say that these days I am able to handle any problems calm and composed. Yet, I have learned over the past years that problems in other countries have solutions to them, just as in our own countries. Things that work differently may be resolved differently, but through all those crazy incidents that you might experience, you will eventually realize how many obstacles you overcame despite thinking you never would. Living abroad broadens not only your cultural knowledge, but also the way you think about life. You find more solutions, different point of views and thus gain trust in that you will make it through.
Top tip: do yourself a favor and get some earplugs. Snoring problem solved (and in the worst case, Spotify will overpower the noise).
…and learn to be OK with things you’d usually not be OK with
If you’ve read the above, you can imagine that often you have no choice but to accept things the way they are.
Returning home, brimming with new confidence as a changed ‘you’, people might still look at you the same as before.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but it’s often taken me by surprise. With many good friends, you’ll be able to continue where you left off. Which is an amazing thing and will help you settle faster. Yet sometimes, there is this feeling of ‘didn’t I just change and become a better person, yet people treat me the same as before?’ I think your parents will always see you as their ‘child’, your siblings will always see you as older/younger sister/brother. Sometimes it takes some time for people to notice your changes. I have learned not to be frustrated about that, and I am embracing the familiarity that comes with meeting old friends and family.
Not everyone falls under a culture’s stereotype, and you can find your kind of people everywhere
You might stereotype Japanese people as always being polite and never saying what they really think. Germans are seen as blunt as hell. Brazilians as super outgoing. Canadians are the ones who will always excuse themselves… Yet, I have met very outgoing and direct Japanese people, held-back Germans, blunt Canadians, and shy Brazilians. Stereotypes can often give an indicator which side a culture might lean towards, yet remember there are always exceptions, and you find your tribe, no matter where you live.
Be yourself, adapt to a culture as much as socially necessary and as much as you are willing to do
I remember being in Japan, overwhelmed by all the traditions and customs and the way people did things differently. During my 10 years abroad, I then adapted many small customs which helped me feel more part of the culture. However, I still made sure to keep traits of me that I was proud of, such as being more direct than people around me. On the other hand, I would always make sure I wouldn’t offend anyone, i.e. speaking loudly on the train (a big no-no in Japan and Korea and something that you can definitely learn to adapt to).
I think it can be really fun to be a different person for a while. While it’s crucial to adapt, it’s equally vital to preserve the core traits that define you. You can be a temporary chameleon, as long as you don’t compromise your values. Overall, it might be a deciding factor of whether you can imagine staying in the country long-term.
Last but not least: Learning the new language of the country can go a long way
It is like having a backstage pass to local experiences. This even applies to just learning a few basic words and phrases. You will be able to connect much easier with locals by using some of the language. Many people, who don’t travel, don’t know other languages and are very appreciative of the fact that travelers made the effort to learn some of their language.
I am personally hugely passionate about languages and have poured a lot of heart and soul into it. I’m writing on about this on my other website about language learning, so feel free to check it out!
Life is an ever-evolving adventure filled with unexpected lessons, remarkable transformations, and hidden treasures. I’d love to hear your thoughts. What life-altering experiences have you had during your time abroad? Share your stories below, and let’s continue this captivating exploration together.