Living abroad as an expat worker, international student or immigrant has its ups and downs, pros and cons. There are moments when you experience the highest of highs and feel like you never want to go back, and others when you experience the lowest of lows and feel like returning ‘home’ is the only way you’ll survive another day.
Living away from your primary influences of culture, family, friends and all things familiar can be exhilaratingly freeing, yet it can also be scary, confusing and frustrating. Finding the balance between these two extremes can be difficult, yet for some people, it is the extremes themselves that make living abroad so enticing – the emotional thrills and spills can be addictive!
I’ve lived in Asia and now Africa, and for me, becoming conscious of where I am in my culture shock journey and becoming more aware of my own thought patterns and defense mechanisms helps keep me in balance. As someone who actually loves the highs and lows, I thought I’d share my top 5 favourite things about making my home away from home.
My Top 5 Things about Living Abroad:
1. Redefining one’s sense of self.
Our identity is made up of a continuum of influences: culture, family, friends, media, etc. We come to know ourselves through the lenses of those around us, but when we move away from these familiar mirrors who reflect us in a comfortable context and enter a new world, we are also able to see ourselves through new lenses. As challenging as it is to suddenly see oneself through the eyes of someone who does not necessarily share our values, beliefs, norms, etc., it also forces us to grow beyond our preconceived identity. We have a chance to expand and explore new and often hidden sides of ourselves that perhaps our home culture had not allowed us to discover. Carl Jung refers to the “shadow”, and “shadow work” is a necessary part of becoming conscious; to me, living abroad and being shown an alternate reflection of oneself via a new cultural mirror is a very interesting way to engage in this kind of psychological and spiritual development.
2. Shedding Skin
Through the process of finding new sides of ourselves, we automatically begin to shed other aspects of ourselves that no longer fit the new paradigm in which we live. Old beliefs and values may conflict with the new, and even though it may be frustrating and challenging to our traditional ways of thinking, we may eventually realize that we were hanging on to things that were preventing us from more fully experiencing our humanity as global, not national, citizens. In a true world without borders, losing our old notions of truth and ‘right’ can be especially beneficial. Living abroad certainly contributes to emotional weight loss.
3. Expanding one’s horizons
The world is a massive place filled with endless variety and opportunity. Unless one actively makes an effort to explore this world, however, it’s becoming increasingly easier to remain static and stagnate in the familiar. With computers and technology to fill our minds and time, we move less and less and our level of engagement with the outer world deteriorates more and more. Without the stimulation of new ideas, new people, new environments and new energy, we lose our humanity and become inert. Living abroad revitalizes our senses and reminds us of what it truly means to live and experience the world in all its glory. New sights, smells, tastes, sounds, textures…it all contributes to feeling ALIVE.
4. Entrepreneurial vision.
When we live in the same place for long periods of time, we grow accustomed to what we know and we stop looking for new ways of engaging with our surroundings. We go to our jobs day after day, and life hums along without much change. However, moving to a new environment forces us to explore our surroundings, and we necessarily view our environment in a more objective way. Expats and immigrants are often able to see opportunities in a new culture that the locals cannot – the immigrant’s perspective often identifies gaps that can be filled by creative new talent, and new ventures often tap into those previously hidden aspects of the expat’s personality. It is very common for expats to become entrepreneurs in their new countries, even when they previously had no interest in and/or experience in business. Part of this may be due to lack of employment opportunities, but often it results from needing to navigate a new world with a new set of lenses
5. New perspective of home
Just as taking time and space away from a relationship often leads to new discoveries and a renewed interest or passion upon being reunited, living abroad allows one to develop a more objective sense of one’s home country after taking some time and space and being exposed to new influences and perspectives. We may start appreciating our home more, or we may actually stop idealizing home and begin to see it for what it truly is, warts and all. Whichever way it works, the result is generally a clearer and more objective understanding of the place where we come from, which can ultimately help us understand ourselves more clearly too.
I’m curious to hear other people’s favourite things about living abroad or what you look forward to when you finally make your move – please feel free to share your thoughts.