I’m a big believer that it’s the toughest moments in life that reveal a person for who he or she really is. Seemingly perfect couples crumble when the first difficulty appears. Confident people turn into victims the second the current isn’t going their way. So-called friends disappear when they have nothing to gain from you.
Of course, the opposite is also true. We only need to look at the news these days to see examples of regular individuals acting heroically in horrible situations. Humans have always risen…or failed to do so…to meet the challenges they encounter.
In fact, throughout history, mankind has purposely challenged himself in order to reveal his identity. Think of the Maasai Mara boys who had to kill a lion to enter manhood and become a warrior (for all the animal lovers out there, this tradition is no longer practiced). Or think of the “vision quest” in Native American culture, where a young male would go off alone and fast for a number of days until, hallucinating from a lack of food and water, his purpose was shown to him.
And while most cultures with these traditions were focused on males, females weren’t entirely safe. For example, the Nootka tribe from the Pacific Northwest sent their girls far out to sea after they got their first period and made them swim back to shore; if the girl made it back she was considered a woman.
Western culture doesn’t have anything like this today (thankfully), so we learn about ourselves piecemeal as we encounter life’s various challenges. We slowly evolve. Yet there are major life events that challenge us to our core, some positive and some negative.
Moving abroad, in my opinion, is one of the positive ones. It’s the perfect crucible because in one fell swoop you’ve stripped away everything in your life. Your friends and family? Thousands of miles and several time zones away. Your old job, which you knew inside and out even if it wasn’t your calling? Gone. Your home? Gone. A familiar culture? Gone.
Unless you are supremely resilient, you will have a range of emotions after you’ve moved abroad. Initially, you’ll likely feel excitement: everything is new and there are endless possibilities. But sooner or later, it kicks in that you’re not on a vacation. You live here now. This is your life. You don’t know anybody. You have a new culture to navigate. You have a new job to figure out or you need to find a job.
That’s when those ugly feelings become more prominent. It’s not uncommon to feel anxiety, loneliness, and fear. There’s even a name for this period: the expat slump. How long it lasts depends on each unique situation, but six months seems to be fairly standard. That’s a long time to persevere.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. My wife and I moved to Australia sight unseen. Sure, you rarely hear people who have visited complaining about the country (okay, you never hear people complaining about it). But it was still a risk for us. We’d know one person. We’d be on the other side of the world from the world we knew. We’d be leaving behind jobs we had mastered.
There were plenty of sad moments: moments where we thought we’d made a huge mistake; moments where we actually said we should go home to the States. It was particularly hard on my wife, who didn’t have a job the first few months and missed the built-in structure and social network of a work environment.
But we persevered. We got past the slump. Our marriage was stronger as a result of the journey. We held each other up instead of letting those sad moments bring us down. In the end, we spent several years in Australia, fell in love with every corner of the country, and made lifelong friends…and got to bottle feed baby kangaroos, which is one of the best and cutest ways to get over the expat slump.
I’ve spoken with other expats who relish the transformative impact moving abroad had on their lives. Most people find out they’re stronger than they expected, more adventurous than they expected, and more capable than they expected.
After all, it’s easy to say you’re a savvy global citizen when you’re visiting some swank island for a week and posting amazing photos on Instagram. It’s a lot harder when you’re trying to arrange for someone to come connect your internet service in a foreign language or fighting through a tropical disease without any family around.
Of course, remaining an expat isn’t the path for everyone and that doesn’t necessarily mean defeat. I know people who moved back home soon after relocating besides they missed home so much. There’s nothing wrong with that: moving abroad revealed that being close to their family is most important to them.
No matter what path you follow, however, you’ll learn a lot about your true self.