What’s the best thing about living abroad?

We were asked this question in my Spanish class today. My answer was: The amount of things you learn about yourself. And it’s things that you couldn’t possibly learn should you be in a familiar environment.

I’ve been living in Spain for over two years now. When I came here, I knew no one, and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I came here on a very positive note: I couldn’t wait to leave Dubai, I wanted to travel, I wanted to live in a foreign land, and wanted to learn a new language. Always an extrovert, I got generally along with everyone, I thought I’d have no issues. Difficulties were expected, but they were challenges I was willing to confront.

I got to Spain and was an emotional wreck for at least a month. I questioned and doubted the decision entirely. This is when I began to realise that I’m not as strong as I think I am, and that when you are completely alone in a new country with no job, no family, and no ability to communicate in the native language, it’s really, and only up to you to make it happen.

After a down period, I pulled through and eversince, things couldn’t have been better. I was overwhelmed with the warmth of strangers, I was shocked at my ability to communicate in sign language and drawings, I was surprised how quickly I picked up the language, and how now I speak fluently and proudly, without an accent (so I’m told!).

I realised I was not as independent as I thought I was. When you have lots of familiar people around – a walk or a drive away – it’s easy to be independent. When you have no one in the same continent (let alone country), your pride of being “independent” gets shattered and you realise the importance of a familiar community within reach.

When you travel, cultural differences are amusing and interesting, but when you have to live with those cultural variations for an extended period of time, they may not seem so amusing anymore. Sharing accommodation in a new land made me realise that I although I was accepting of my new environment, I was severely low on levels of patience and tolerance. To fit in and enjoy myself, I had to flip my mental chip 180 degrees. And it was not easy.

I realised that I had a passion and a skill for language, that I really missed Indian food and culture, that I was a very curious person, and that I was open but at the same time naiive and vulnerable. I also realised that I’m a workaholic. I thought I was turning into one, which is why I left my cushy corporate job, but have now realised (and accepted), that I like to work and that if I don’t work during the week, I can’t enjoy the weekend. I also realised that I can be culturally insensitive and arrogant, without even knowing it.

2.5 years later, I feel like I’ve grown up significantly, and am a completely different person. I also feel like a better person, with new perspectives and a much wider understanding of people and the world.

Anyway, I can go on and on about my life lessons from living abroad, but will stop here, and end by saying that living in a foreign land is one of the best experiences you can give yourself. So, if you have the opportunity, don’t let it slide by.

For those of you who have lived abroad, or are living abroad, what do you think is the best thing about it?

Posted by | Comments (7)  | September 16, 2008
Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind

7 Responses to “What’s the best thing about living abroad?”

  1. Kirill Pojev Says:

    I lived in France (near to La Rochelle) for 3 years at my younger age. I’m originating from Russia, but most of my conscious live spent in Estonia (and still residing here). How complicated is that? πŸ™‚

    More to that, me and my girlfriend, are considering to move to Spain within upcoming months. Looking forward to share this experience via my blog.

    There are many great things about multicultural experience, starting from personal grow to unlimited joy of cognizing the world. Easy as that! πŸ™‚

  2. Shaula Says:

    I’m glad you’ve found living outside your home country to be such a transformative experience, Abha.

    I grew up anglophone in Western Canada, and took a job in a francophone community in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec when I was 15. I later lived in France, Montreal, Japan, and South Korea. I’m currently an expat Canadian traveling in America.

    I couldn’t agree more strongly that the lesson of interdependence is brought home very quickly with international travel!

    One of the other critical lessons for me was that so much of what I had learned growing up to be “universal truths” were really arbitrary local standards: things like gender norms, beauty standards, concepts of appropriate public behaviour, work ethics, all sorts of things.

    On one hand, I was working hard to “fit in” with a new (unwritten) rule set, and on the other, I was having epiphanies about how the unwritten rules worked where I grew up. Travel gave me a basis for comparison and the strong ground to make conscious choices about the merits and costs of accepting or rejecting social norms.

    And the ultimate blessing of travel has to be finally appreciating things I had never noticed or understood or had always taken for granted at home.

    Kirill — best wishes on your upcoming move to Spain!

  3. Jessica Says:

    Well well well. This very well could have been an excerpt from my diary, taken at the exact same time that you were studying in Spain! We, just like the many others who have traveled alone to another country where they do not speak the language, seem to have gone through the EXACT same sequence of events, and in this case, it just so happened to be at the exact same time! Excitement upon arrival, nervousness when confronted with cultural differences, anxiety of the decision we made, and then confrontment of that anxiety and an achievement of being overwhelmed. The best part of living abroad is really hard to define for me. However, the best part of living abroad might be the path of independence that you achieve. It’s a great feeling of success to know that you accomplished a foreign language, made international friends, and made another country your own. πŸ™‚

  4. Thoughts on living abroad… « Abha Malpani Says:

    […] – Comment from reader Jessica on my latest Vagabonding post on living abroad. You can read it here. […]

  5. Kirill Pojev Says:

    Thanks a lot Shaula!

  6. Oz Says:

    I know exactly how you feel and have been checking out your blog with interest. Been in Madrid 1.5 years tooand still refer to London as “home” on occasion.

    Best of luck on your return to Dubai – you’ll get your fix of pani puri there!

  7. Mary @ Green Global Travel Says:

    Great post! I really appreciate your openness and perspective on culture shock as well as on your transition over the last few years. It can be difficult for many people to discuss the challenges inherent in culture shock as well as to so openly discuss personal faults and limitations though I think you have shared some very common experiences which are as you yourself point out, some of the most important and wonderful reasons to travel. Thanks you πŸ˜‰