While it is undisputed that living overseas will change you, the majority consider its teachings to be the measurable kind – language fluency, number of museums visited, air miles clocked. In my experience, it has always been the immeasurable lessons that have been the most profound. Living abroad taught me:
Humility and gratitude
As citizens of the Western world, we are immensely privileged. Having lived and worked in some of the world’s poorer communities, I’ve seen instances of poverty that really put life in to perspective – the child I taught whose only meal a day was the state provided school lunch, another who was known to social services who didn’t have a bed to sleep in at night. Some of the things you see on a daily basis living in the developing world cause you to practice gratitude more often, to re-evaluate life and to distinguish needs from wants. Helping those in need can also change the shape of your own self-worth, making a difference, making memories and leaving a legacy that will outdate your visa.
A little effort goes a long way
There are so many locals disillusioned with Western tourists. Be you ‘ignorant Americans’ or ‘British lager louts’, the odds of acceptance by your new countrymen are often stacked against you from the off. It’s the littlest things that go the furthest to break the stereotypes that so often plague new ex-pats. Being communicative (be it fluent, broken or via sign language) is always well received when visiting local waterhole, being open and friendly, offering a helping hand to old ladies in the street. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told ‘I don’t like English people but I like you, you’re not like them’ is sad, but know that once you’ve been deemed the exception, you’ll be forever cherished.
Independence and the art of the alone
When you first move to a new place, especially if you’re living solo, there is always that awkward time of limbo; the time between tourist and local when you’re yet to learn the tips and tricks, the best places to eat or the ‘cool’ places to hang out, when you’re yet to make friends or learn any of the language. Limbo is an odd place – it’s a time for mistakes but also a time to flourish. You learn a lot about yourself and a lot about resilience in those first few weeks. Going it alone can reaffirm your self-belief as you tackle the unfamiliar and also teach you to enjoy your own company – something that may take others years to appreciate.
Living abroad has been my greatest teacher and, while some learn different lessons from others, know that the experience will change you for the better and change you for good.