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On living abroad - Overview.

I've been wanting to do a post on the realities and benefits of living abroad for a while now, but have been trying to collect my thoughts. I'm going to caveat this by pointing out that I am not a professional writer. Nor do I have any interest whatsoever in being one. This is going to be entirely subjective, and based on my own experiences.

Aside from forced migration (which I'm not going to touch on here since the issues are so different), living abroad is a luxury for people who have the opportunity to do so. Nobody *has* to have lived abroad to have had a fulfilling life, and many people will grow into deeply interesting, kind and tolerant individuals without ever having done so. That said, it is something I would strongly recommend if the opportunity ever presents itself.

To present a gross over simplification, I would say that there are three "types" of living abroad.


1) When you move to a different country where the official language is your native tongue (eg. An American in Australia)

2) When you move to a different country where the official language is not your native tongue (or you're not fluent in it), but the culture is not completely alien to you (e.g. A Brit in Spain)

3) When you move to a different country where the official language is not your native tongue (again, assuming you're not fluent), a different alphabet is used, and the culture is completely different to your own (e.g. An American in Japan. A Brit in China).

Getting to the point, each one of these categories presents their own challenges and advantages.


If an American moves to Australia, you're far from home. Homesickness is a genuine problem that shouldn't be looked down on. Really. Currency will feel like monopoly money for quite a long time. However, you have to rely on yourself. It's difficult to live abroad and not come back a more independent and self aware person. Never, ever underestimate the benefits of being able to talk to people in your native tongue. Even if you are bad at expressing yourself, you can say exactly what you mean. You know the nuances of each word, albeit with some scope for cultural differences. You can understand jokes. You can make jokes. If you need to make a complaint, or you need a service, you can pick up the phone and sort it out yourself. It can be very easy to take this for granted.

The first category is probably the most fun of the three. You can benefit from experiencing a new culture, you can pick up new slang and expressions, there is (at least on the surface) no reason why you can't fully integrate into native groups and get the most of the experience. Many people will treat foreign native english speakers differently (read: more favourably) than they would foreigners who speak english as a second language. Even if you're technically a foreigner, you are not really an 'outsider'.


Then you get to the second of the three. The obvious added benefit here is the ability to develop your language skills, and, depending on how you get on, moving back home potentially fluent in a second language. If you move to a non english speaking country, you probably already have a strong interest in languages. You probably already have a decent grounding in that language. But whatever you do, don't underestimate how difficult the language barrier can be. There's a big difference between being able to order food in a restaurant on holiday, and actually living somewhere on a daily basis.

Imagine that you are at a party and you only know a couple of people there. In any situation this is pretty nerve racking. Now imagine that you can only make out about a third of what people are saying due to the music, the background noise, the contractions they are using, and the slang that you have never heard before. It is incredibly intimidating. You might be able to follow the gist of a conversation, but it's virtually impossible to be part of it. By the time you've worked out something to contribute, the conversation has moved on. By the time you get a joke, everyone has stopped laughing. Even if you have a conversational level of the language, it can be extremely difficult to express yourself. The ability to make jokes in a second language is a real indication of fluency! You worry about making mistakes. If you say something and the other person stares at you blankly (oh and trust me this will happen A LOT), it is very demoralising and humiliating. There are times when you will feel like you are losing your personality entirely.


Even if people are patient and kind with you, you realise very quickly that you are an outsider. You will naturally migrate to other english speakers, which obviously contradicts the point of trying to improve your language skills! But there is a sense of extreme satisfaction when you realise that you can understand more of a conversation, for longer (at one point as the night progresses you will simply stop giving a fuck - I kid not). At one point you will realise that you no longer want to tear your hair out screaming after hearing only this second language for days on end (this is one of the first steps of getting used to a second language). You will find that you can understand more when speaking to people you know well, as you are accustomed to their voice and way of speaking - and you're more relaxed around them. The process of improvement is truly wonderful.

But all of this gives you a real empathy when you move back home, especially if you're from an area without many non nationals. You make a huge effort to understand someone who speaks with a very strong accent. You don't focus on the accent, but admire them hugely for their courage to speak at all (seriously, in many situations abroad you will probably end up deciding to say nothing rather than risk humiliating yourself with a badly pronounced word which changes it's meaning). You find yourself non judgementally taking note of the words they can't remember in english to see if they were the same kind of words you yourself forgot when living abroad.


When you compliment someone on their language skills, you will do it genuinely, rather than simply being polite, and the difference will probably show. If their native tongue is one you know a little, and they are struggling, you will probably make the effort to try and engage them in their primary language, since you will remember how fucking relieved you were when people did the same to you, even when they were embarrassed about how badly they spoke it. You will probably be more inclined to help people who don't understand things you consider basic skills - like buying metro tickets, etc.

Aside from this, it will probably help your confidence. If you were very shy before moving, all of a sudden, speaking to people in your native tongue becomes less of a big deal. When you meet people at parties, you are so used to having so many other factors to worry about, that it's suddenly not so scary.


The third category is a whole other kettle of fish, but this post is already very long, and I only have limited experience to go on with this last one.

I hope that this wasn't too rambling. I'm obviously projecting, but I stand by my feeling that living abroad opens you mind, gives you more confidence, and certainly gives you much more patience with others.

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