Thought Catalog

What Happens When You Live Abroad

  • 0

A very dependable feature of people who live abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups of ex-pats aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in America, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Europe, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter.

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

It’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s often part of the reason you left in the first place. You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.

So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.

Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.

But there are the fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back. We all meet the ex-pat who has been in his new home for 30 years and who seems to have almost replaced the missed years spent back in his homeland with full, passionate immersion into his new country. Yes, technically they are immigrants. Technically their birth certificate would place them in a different part of the world. But it’s undeniable that whatever life they left back home, they could never pick up all the pieces to. That old person is gone, and you realize that every day, you come a tiny bit closer to becoming that person yourself — even if you don’t want to.

So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.

When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home. TC mark

image – Kuster & Wildhaber
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  • World Citizen

    Here’s what happens :¬†‚ÄúYou’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.‚ÄĚ

    • Nishant

      Fake European standards?

      • WORLD CITIZEN

        Hemingway’s words, not mine.¬†

      • Cd

        You can even find them in Argentina :D 

      • Nishant

        You wanna box over it?

      • WORLD CITIZEN

        Sure. 

      • Nishant

        Hemingway’s words, not mine.

    • Unimpressed

      ‘World Citizen’? What a pissant.

  • D...

    I feel like since I moved to europe (2 years ago) I’ve learnt how to enjoy my own company, shopping alone, eating alone, and even spending my own birthday alone. It makes you find yourself in some sort of way;
    Living abroad is a great experience and I recommend it to anyone who wants to find out who they are or just simply be independent. 

  • Laura

    As an expat of 18 ¬†months who’s making the move “home” in 6 weeks- Thank you, I agree with every word

    • Laura

      Oh, and I’m a European who moved to Asia. :)

  • Fatmouse11

    On point

  • Nishant

    Very, very true. I interned for a short period (3 months) in a different country, and was entirely on my own (i.e. without any friends OR family) for the first time. I completely get what you mean by the part about becoming calmer and building a new personality in a way. Also, yes sometimes you wanna go where nobody knows your name.

    Can I also share one, tiny nagging stray thought that crossed my mind while I read this? For a moment, somewhere in the middle of your article, I thought you would recommend Skype as a solution to the loneliness and that there would be another sponsored ad at the bottom of the article. Relieved to see how you approached the ending finally! But… maybe this kind of fleeting thought will occur to more of your readers/fans now when you talk about loneliness and isolation, and maybe (just maybe) you shouldn’t have written a sponsored post on such an emotional subject before. Anyway, that doesn’t take anything away from the truth in this one! :)

  • Christina

    Ooohh my god, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve been living in the UK for 3 years now and back home its my little sister’s 9th birthday next week. It’s moments like that where you get very heartsick, and yeah, you always will be divided in two.

    • Shuwen

      I completely agree- I’ve been living in London for the past 3 years as well and there were times when I felt sad that I missed out on my two brothers and sister growing up (they’re now 19, 6 and 5); my sister’s first day in Primary School, my youngest brother’s birthdays … but yet I feel that I would never trade whatever I’ve experienced living abroad for anything else

  • http://www.thenewclosetromantic.com/ Tor Ince

    I feel like I can relate to a lot of this, even though I still live in the same country. I wish I’d thought to go abroad for uni (only one girl did – she went to New Zealand and I’m super-jealous of her) but I still ended up weaving a whole new web of persona, interests and acquaintances. I moved away from a rural hamlet where everybody knew everybody to a city where I could be who I liked and do the inadvisable, but somehow I ended up searching out stuff from home. I feel a weird kinship for anybody who speaks with a Midlands chirp, I tear up over The Archers and I get fierce about rugby. I have a reputation for being a wholesome country girl, when I’d always considered myself a townie (I suppose the whole keeping livestock thing should have given it away, really).

    I haven’t had to learn a new language, but whenever I go back to the countryside I realise how detached I’ve become, like I don’t actually belong to either place. I also think about moving when things get hard, but only as far as Glasgow (I’m in Liverpool).¬†I would love to live abroad at some point, though. Definitely Scandinavia, maybe Canada for a while.

  • Maria

    My grandfather once said to me, “You’re moving abroad? Saying ‘moving abroad’ sounds to me a lot like not working very much.”
    Yeppp, pretty much.

    • Andrew Rowland

      bahaha, hilarious old people are the best.

  • Clitty McLabia

    This is exactly what I yearn for yet also afraid of. As much as we like to engulf in other cultures and live in a new country, it sucks feeling like an outsider when you come back home even for just a few days. I had a glimpse of this when I studied abroad for the Summer last year, coming back home was just sad. 

    Thanks for this, Chelsea.

  • Nika

    Last night I spent two hours tossing and turning unable to fall asleep as I pondered some heavy stuff. ¬†I woke up to get a glass of milk and check my email-and voila! ¬†my friend had sent me a link to this article. ¬†It could not have come at more of a perfect time, as I wrap up my first year living in Madrid. ¬†Thanks for saving me a little bit from my existential crisis–you articulated perfectly so many things I’m feeling at the moment. ¬†
    PS: that foto was totally taken at the Uniqlo in Paris, wasn’t it?

  • ex

    theres a certain kind of sadness to this. as though one can never fully BE  in any single place any more which is how ive been feeling. like pieces of you remain in other places. like lord voldemort.

  • Cd

    Lovely article. As a brand new expat with quite a wild social life back home, I thought there was something wrong with me when I found myself truly lonely. I guess its an expat thing. Or is it?

  • Alex

    I think this applies to even moving between states. I’ll be jumping from city to city, state to state, country to country for the next four-six year, and I’m already starting to feel the effects. One day I’ll miss the mountains and another the dreariness of Baltimore.¬†

  • Andrew Rowland

    Ready to welcome back my best friend/best man at my wedding from a 3 year stint in Korea. Gonna make sure he gets back up to speed as quickly as possible.

  • H'11

    I’ve lived abroad for a year, in a fairly remote part of Yorkshire, and I’ve not been to a gathering of “ex-pats” once. I’ve heard about students who study abroad and never become friends with locals, but really didn’t want to be that person. I’m in grad school, so am alone with research a lot, but I joined a club similar to one I was in as an undergrad and had a built-in set of friends. It has been a glorious year.

    In a couple of months, I’ll be moving to Hong Kong for two years, then back to Yorkshire after that to finish up my studies. All I can think is, wow, a year in the UK has changed me. Imagine what all these years abroad will do. I’m starting to think I’ll be that ex-pat who never goes back…but precisely because I didn’t hang on. I don’t skype a whole lot. No facebook. Just dove right in and love it.

    • Rienderien

      Ditto – like our ch√®re Chelsea I live in Paris, but unlike her I’ve never been to any “ex-pat” gatherings (except once unintentionally, when a French friend of mine invited me to a party at his place, and it turned out that his American wife had also invited a bunch of her American ex-pat friends…)¬† Ever since I moved here nearly 4 years ago, I have been determined to learn as much as possible about my new home, shunning my “fellow Americans” and seeking to make native friends who could teach me about their country and culture.

      I still keep in touch with my family back home through emails and phone calls, and have returned to the States on a couple of occasions for major family events like a wedding and a graduation, but when I worry about “missing something”, I fear rather that I’m missing out on some aspect of life in Paris that I could better take advantage of while I’m here.¬† I yearn to know the little secrets that only the locals know, that only the people who have made the city truly theirs could discover and enjoy. I don’t want to leave here someday regretting that I spent my time missing the States rather than living my life to the fullest, in the moment, exploring all the exciting and exotic details.

  • Emily Fern

    Thank you for this article. A year ago I decided to move to Peru to be with my partner and there are many days that I feel torn about the choice I made, especially when seeing my friends living their lives and seeming to forget about me. At the same time I lived several years in the States without my partner and felt drawn to move here the entire time. I guess we’re always missing someone no matter where we are. ¬†

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/LF74EJCWIIU6THMPSQ4JMSXJPE moni

      ¬†Wau. This is exactly my case! I also lived without my partner and just wanted to move and be with him. Now I am here and miss my friend, my old job, my family….. Exactly like you are writing!

  • Hello

    I cannot agree with you even more. I’ve been living abroad for the last 7 years and there are a lot of things you get used to eventually. It gets a whole lot better–you get to know yourself much better as an individual rather than a part of a group you used to belong to, your race, your family, neighborhood and etc. You are sort of given a series of opportunities to reinvent yourself as a person you want to be, whether you are happy with your old self or not.. In the first few years, I definitely had the sense of “fear” and just prayed that I wouldn’t regret it or miss out on a lot of things, and now, honestly, I would never trade this with anything. Surprisingly there are more people like you and me in this world than I thought…

  • Casi PortenYo

    Im going on 4 years living abroad and I have learned more about myself and what it is to be an “American” than I did in all my years back home. ¬†The decision to move was far from easy, but I can honestly say it was the best I’ve made in my entire life. ¬†The hardest part is taking the leap and not letting the opinions of the people around you affect your decision. ¬†Do You.

    The loneliness and curiosity over what’s going on back home will pass. ¬†Facebook never forgets after all. ¬†At the end of the day, all that matters is that YOU are happy and enjoying this gift called life. If you aren’t happy where you are at, rest assured there is a place somewhere on this rock where you will be. ¬†Unfortunate that most do not have the courage to find it…

  • Collinwinn

    Great blog. After stints in third-world Asia and South America, I now better-understand who I am and what I want to do. It took 30 years of life and living abroad in¬†multiple¬†different cultures to finally figure it out. Living abroad should be a requirement for all students — if not citizens.¬†

    I personally never stressed about “missing” things back home, but it wasn’t until I was ready to return that I experienced anxiety about “back home.” Purging yourself from one culture into another is a f-cking trip (figuratively).¬†

    The bonds you make and lessons learned are unparalleled. It is hard not to speak in a cliche manner when writing about experiences abroad. I now plan on having a career which allows me to live abroad part-time, as patronizing the same 5 places for the entirety of my adulthood gives me more anxiety than any experience abroad ever could. 

  • Gobackhome

    You sound like a dumb cunt who shouldn’t travel because she’ll spend her whole time crying about the idiots she left back at home instead of immersing herself in a new culture and learning how to integrate aspects of it to improve herself. The opportunity to move and live in another country is an opportunity to collect ¬†experience that will enrich your life and transform you. Who gives a fuck if “that old person” is gone? The new person that replaces him/her will be wiser and more knowledgeable.

    • youtroll

      Way to be a dick. You, sir, are the dumb count.

  • traipsee

    When I first started reading this I was thinking about my own experience spending the past few months studying in the UK. By the end I realized this piece is better applied to a different experience. It’s a thought I’ve struggled with for years. As an immigrant who moved to the US from a developing country in Asia at age 5, and someone who feels most ‘at home’ in America, I’ve always had a deep connection to my homeland. I’ve always felt like I don’t truly have a home – one place that brings the most comfort and provokes the most memory. When people ask me where I’m from – such a simple question – I have trouble finding an appropriate answer. I think it’s something I’ll always question and wonder about.

    In Stand Before Your God, Paul Watkins writes “Sometimes I felt sorry for myself, with this feeling of no solid ground that I could say belonged to me. But other times I was glad, because I got to see both countries for what they really were. You had to go away from a place to know what it was you took for granted in the land you left behind.”

    That last part hits close to…somewhere I’m still trying to figure out.

    Thanks for this piece.

  • Hilary Dumas

    Thanks for sharing this article. It definitely resonated with me. In my case, the biggest stress has been maintaining an adequate connection with my family. When I first started traveling it was easy to do, because I had a youthful confidence my family would always be right where I left them when I came back to visit. However, since living away several things happened, which broke this confidence.

    First, a fire destroyed my family home and¬†permanently¬†changed my family’s life.¬†It’s hard to describe the helplessness felt when you’re a world away and your family is in crisis.¬†It was incredibly lucky that no human lives were lost in that accident. I realized then that it was no¬†guarantee¬†my family would always be there when I came back to visit.¬†

    The next thing that happened were births in the family. While living abroad I have become an aunt to nephews and nieces…little adorable people who will hear about their aunt from their parents, but barely know her. I regret that my choices to travel have the consequence of not having a relationship with these new additions to the family.¬†

    Despite these realizations, I recognize that I can’t make my life choices uniquely around the people I love so much. I’ll call, email, send gifts, and visit when I can. I am bringing the world to them, and they are maintaining the connection to my home. Sometimes it can feel like it’s not enough, but that’s usually when I’m not looking at the bigger picture.

  • Tony Z

    No offense but this is such sentimental bullshit. What the hell are you commemorating here? I lived abroad in China for five years from 2006 to 2011. It is arguably the single most defining experience of my adulthood. So what?

    We are first-world citizens with enough privilege and money to spend some of our time abroad. Congratulations. Guess what: we are nothing compared to our parents who immigrated here with pennies and had to work their way through grad school doing menial jobs and recycling cans (as my parents did). We certainly aren’t anything compared to any number of military people who served abroad and then came back with shellshock.
    So what are we? Well we’re just living our lives elsewhere for a while. It’s a great experience. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone. But shut up and stop acting like we’re “changed souls.” Listen to yourself speak for a minute. The reason you have a hard time speaking to people back home is because your “epiphany” ultimately matters little. And instead of reaching out and listening to what your friends have to tell you about their lives, you’re too solipsistically engaged in your own “different experience.” An experience which, guess what, is not all that unique to you.

    No matter what you do, no matter what your personality is, you are always “missing out on something.” And if you are lying awake at night bemoaning what you are “missing out on,” I highly recommend you stop blogging for a minute, call up an old friend, shut the hell up and listen. It might do you some good.

    • Me

      this. this so much.

    • Anonymous

      I’m under no illusion that I’m coming over to a new country with a few pennies in my pocket to construct a better life for my future family as some of my relatives have done, I don’t think I implied it here. Granted, the experience of living in another country is much more accessible to us today than it was, say, 50 years ago — but I don’t think that necessarily detracts from the profundity of the experience on an individual level.

      And I’ve previously spoken about how keeping in touch with friends on both sides, talking to them as much as possible, and keeping abreast of everything that’s going on in their lives is essential — at least to me — no matter how far you are. I don’t think we stop caring or listening just because we have moved to another time zone. I call up an old friend and “listen” about five times a week. I think that I would have not made it even a month if I didn’t. I don’t really think that completely abandoning my old friends is the message I was trying to convey here.

      We are not unique in our choice to move abroad — that is true. But we are still a group of people who, like any other group, has experiences and feelings about life that link and reassure us. We are all finding our ways through life, and some of us have made the choice to do at least part of it in another country — that comes with some common themes that we can all reflect upon, that’s all. Sure, it’s sentimental, but so is any part of life that effects us this deeply. People can write about how college changes them, how a great love changes them, how a child changes them — so, too, can we write about the change that comes with moving to a new country. And clearly this is a sentiment that many people share.

      I don’t think there is any “epiphany” as you say, about living life abroad. It simply changes your perspective over time, and comes with its own ups and downs — just like any other major life force. An experience doesn’t have to be perfectly unique to be worthy of sharing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/neusdadt Arbie Baguios

      I feel sorry you’re not a “changed soul.”

    • Jessica

      I totally agree. I’ve lived abroad twice and grew up a lot more in the two years I was home working between living in Spain, and I would’ve LOVED this article two years ago, fresh out of college. Now I find her discussion of “ex-pats” (vs. “immigrants”) as very revealing of a first-world bias. Tony’s right — considering yourself a “changed soul” and “never feeling complete” is only going to alienate the friends you had back home…and piss off some people reading your article, haha. Everyone has life-changing experiences at some point or another, and not everyone gets to have them in cool foreign places. Be grateful, make the new memories part of the “old you,” and move on.

      • P

        Absolutely. I live abroad and have lost touch with my old friends, but I can clearly see the type of people in the city I now live in who share this sentimental bullshit. They’ve made this decision for an easier life (being foreign brings them financial advantages the locals could never dream of) – and of course this leaves them plenty of time to get drunk, be lazy and reflect on how special life is. They all huddle together in bars not because of some intangible bond, but because they’ve got nothing better to do and they yearn to see something of themselves in others, something they can never see in the local people. If anything the bond is based on how fucking lost and alienated they are, but of course that idea doesn’t fill one with a sense of wonder and excitement now does it. If anything these people are just grasping for any sense of belonging they can, and it gets pathetic. I stay away from the bars because these evenings are social train-wrecks. No one relates to one another, they just tell boring stories about their experiences, stories which sound like this article.

  • Tc

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I commend your use of emotion to convey the feeling of being abroad. I’ve been in the military stationed overseas for over 5 years (both Japan and Germany). Although I do not have the shell shock that is mentioned above, I got the best of both worlds. I served my country and I got to be somewhat of an expat. The experience has resonated with me, so much so that I do not know where I really belong. My homeland or forever abroad. I will keep my options open. Thanks!

  • cafeculture

    Thanks for this, Chelsea. Nice article, and I feel the same way. I’m living in Paris too, though I’m from London. I feel torn between two lives, two personas which I can never be at once; two loves for two cities which can never be reconciled. I am often sad about missing out on important moments back home, or am just sad when old friendships subtly shift. I am so glad I found the me I am here in Paris, but things will be different when I go home, which I will have to do eventually. I just can’t quite bring myself to go back yet and begin a different sort of heartache.

    I hate the idea of ex-pat enclaves, groups of people who even after several years can’t seem to fit in, but it’s not always like that is it? When I first moved to Paris three years ago, I knew no one.¬† I met and became friends with a few ex-pats as well as French people, and although I do have some lasting friendships with French people, my deepest friendships were formed with people who were in the same situation as me – they had experienced more than one culture, and had a slightly wider worldview. Or with people who are half French and half something else, thus have a kind of cultural displacement syndrome, or at least an openness to other cultures which is not always easy to find.

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