Living abroad, even if just for a few years, is something I would definitely recommend. Let me share five valuable life lessons I have taken away from my years abroad.
1) What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
OK, it’s hard, I admit, those first months in a new country misreading social codes and not having a clue of how things work. So you just want access to Google. But as you don’t have a bank account yet you can’t get a phone contract set up. The bank insists on a letter from your energy firm but your energy firm wants an opened bank account first. You can think of worse examples. Basically, you have to find out everything on your own. And you do. You actually make it work. In a language that is not your own, in a culture that feels alien. Giving up or delegating are non-available options, so onwards you battle. The sense of achievement is amazing, plus it’s a great confidence booster and the determination to reach goals will increase hugely. Discover your own resilience.
2) Making new friends is easier than it seems
Yes, it’s easier. Even if you are an introvert like me. I needed friendships to keep me sane – and have some fun, so I decided to open up and take that first step. Not just once, but over and over again. A lot of people have their friendships sorted and might not necessarily come over to you and invite you for drinks. You learn to take the initiative. New places to find friends could be sports clubs, local pubs, schools, language courses or churches. Don’t forget your neighbours. And if all of that doesn’t work, forget about the locals and try the internationals. They know how it feels to be lost in a new place and will be welcoming and share your frustrations. Don’t rush it though; the right people are not always the ones you meet first.
For me, the friendships I have built with people from different cultures and parts of the world have made my life so much richer; a source of fascinating stories and shared jokes about crazy cultural habits. These relationships often seem different from the ones back home: laid-back and yet also intensely connected as it’s less risky to share secrets and ask the things you really want to know.
3) There are many ways to do things and they all work
I came from a homogeneous white hipster town in The Netherlands (which by the way I never fully realised until I visited my hometown a couple of years a later and it struck me how everyone dressed, behaved and decorated their houses bizarrely similar). Through the years of being abroad with a broad mix of people from different races and backgrounds I became less attached to my own way of doing things. Take parenting for example, I used to tut-tut about little children who stayed up late because they “should be in bed after 8pm”. Observing I learnt these children often had naps in the afternoon followed by a decent family dinner in the evening. And they functioned well at school the next day too. There are always valid alternatives to “my way of doing things”.
4) Experience new appreciation for your roots
After some time abroad you start to see your home country in a different light. You realise what makes your country great (really great) and what stands out about it. For me, I began to appreciate how well-organised and well-kept The Netherlands is as well as providing a high general standard of living. Away from my country, I felt proud to be Dutch. To my surprise I found that my values were mostly typical Dutch cultural values.
Also, I respected my parents all the more for raising me the way they did. Family actually felt closer to heart when distance between us grew. We spent quality time together and let go of a lot of mutual expectations, leading to deeper and more open-minded relationships.
5) Reset your life big time
Living abroad is an adventure, and a big reset too. Be warned: if you have always lived life conforming to others, time abroad can be too much of a shock. It might lead to an existential crisis, as you will be confronted with the question: who am I? Without the safe social boundaries that I have always known and that have kept me on the well-trodden paths for years? What happens when you have been stuck in an externally motivated rat race and then move abroad and start from absolutely zero? No reputation, no friends or family to uphold you. It might scare the freaking daylight out of you. Or you turn it into a freeing, life-changing experience and use it as a unique chance to reset your life. To choose your own route, to fill up or empty your social agenda, to finally have more time for the love in your life, for your children, for the passions that have been slowly dying. Exploring with wonder and behaving like a long-term tourist in your new living area brings a sense of freedom too.
For me, living abroad has been a life-enriching experience. As an added bonus, our little team (husband, daughter and me) grew strong together. Second bonus is I lost a little of that Dutch self-importance and pride. Pride has not brought me anything, but an adventurous mind and opting for the vulnerable position have. Embrace the challenge!