The rewarding experiences one gains from living life overseas can sometimes be crowded out by the inevitable struggles that come with the full, expat-life package. But it’s through those struggles and challenges that you discover more about yourself and the world around you. You embrace lessons learned and broaden your horizons. If you’ve ever lived for an extended amount of time somewhere other than your home country, then you’ve probably experienced some if not all of these changes while living abroad.
1. You are constantly learning and unlearning language. I’m no expert on the brain, but I have a suspicious feeling that my brain regularly shuts the door on certain native-tongue-vocabulary words so that my search will lead me to the word I’m looking for in my newly acquired language. That’s all fine and dandy; that is, unless I was really hoping to find the word in my native language. It’s one thing to feel a little embarrassed when you don’t know the word for something in the language you’re still learning. It’s a whole new level of embarrassment when you’re talking to close friends and family members and can’t seem to find the English word to express what you’re trying to say. No, I’m not trying to be pretentious and passively brag about the fact that I’m confusing two languages, thereby pointing out that I know two languages. I’m legitimately having a humiliating moment right now and I’m desperately trying to find the word before I let the sentence, “I forgot the English word for it,” depart from my lips.
2. Life is regularly lived out of a suitcase. For some reason, I thought our suitcases would start collecting dust once we made the big move across the world. I even thought to myself, “Wow, what are we going to do with all these suitcases now that we’ve arrived to our final destination?” Now I know. We keep on using them. The suitcases are continually slid up and down the top of our bedroom armoire as we make visa trips, medical trips, business trips, and the occasional vacation sprinkled throughout each of the aforementioned trips. We know airline luggage allowance and how to get the most use out of luggage space like it’s our national anthem. If unloading your bags and pockets, walking through a metal detector (while also herding and maintaining control of your children) and then recollecting all your possessions on the other end were an olympic sport, we would likely take home the gold year after year.
3. This is your life, not a trip. It’s a clear distinction you’re able to make once you’ve packed your life into an allowed amount of suitcases, hopped onto a plane, and then started from scratch in land that’s full of newness to you. Last time I checked, I’ve never had to repair my own toilet or pay bills and rent on any of my trips. Nevertheless, you will still be asked “How was your trip,” when you return back to your home country for a visit every now and again. Your lip might get blistered from biting it so many times. Sometimes you might want to yell from the mountaintops, “I haven’t been on a trip!” Sometimes you might want to snap back with a question of your own, “I don’t know. How have the past 3 years of your life been?” But in reality, the person asking the question means no harm or offense. Instead you give a quick, honest, and polite answer, “So much has happened the past 3 years. We’ll have to sit down to a meal sometime so I can share some of the highlights!”
4. Conversions and exchange rates are always on the mind. In the kitchen, I have my recipe set out and my conversion app opened up on my phone. When I’m grocery shopping and see vanilla extract, my joy is quickly followed with disappointment once I’ve calculated the exchange rate in my head. We change currencies so frequently, I’m always the dumbfounded customer at the check-out counter searching frantically for the numbers on the bills and coins because I haven’t had time to memorize “the look” of the money. Cue the kind cashier woman giving me a nod of reassurance when I pull up the appropriate bill.
5. The line between normal and strange has blurred a bit. Every culture has it’s clear distinctions on what is acceptable and what’s not. However, to the outsider coming in, who brings with them a set of different, but still clearly marked, cultural “dos and don’ts”, it can cause quite the clash of viewpoints. For 23 years of my life I believed that openly picking your nose in public was just plain wrong, but picking your teeth with a toothpick after a meal was acceptable. Would you believe that the exact opposite is true where we live now? I’m not saying I pick my nose in public now…but I’m also not prepared to deny it.
6. Time is measured differently. It becomes harder and harder to measure things by calendar measurements. You tend to gravitate towards unique mile markers that help you remember how long you’ve lived in one location or how many times you’ve moved or where all you’ve lived. Sometimes a visa situation causes you to make an unexpected move, temporary or permanent. Sometimes you live in one location for language school until you’ve passed all your tests and can move on to another destination. You are never sure how long you’ll be able to stay in one spot so you just throw calendar days out the window. Instead, you measure time with things that stick out to you most. I’ll never forget the words of a TCK whose family has moved more than a few times while living overseas: “We don’t measure our life in years, but in kitchens.” For her, it’s easier to remember how many kitchens she’s cooked in with her mom rather than how many years they’ve lived in certain locations.
7. The word “routine” is not in your vocabulary. Whatever predictable outcome you once had for any given set of events has now been removed as a possibility. In fact, you now put it in the category of “miracle” if something happens the way you once thought it should happen. It’s no longer out of the ordinary to devote an entire day to paying two bills. You don’t expect electricity and water each day. You always have a back-up plan for that “just in case” moment when you’re suddenly without electricity and/or water. Your senses have sharpened because of your need to be on your toes at any given moment for the unexpected…because those moments happen a lot more frequently than they did before you moved abroad.
8. Material possessions do not equate happiness. You don’t have to move overseas to realize this, but there’s something about the nomadic life that makes you really stop and consider what you hold on to and let go of. The possibility of moving to another country is always in the back of your mind. In many cases, you’re better off not shipping a crate of all your belongings due to the fear of it being held up in customs for a year or more. This means that things might have to be sold again and dwindled down to the essentials that can fit in those suitcases of yours. You stop gathering and collecting and start making mental notes of what’s most valuable and worth hauling to another far-away land. You come to find out there are a handful of things that make this adventure of yours so great and everything else is expendable.
9. Anything seems possible. Before you moved overseas, you didn’t think it was possible to pack everything you wanted to take with you in a few suitcases. But you did it, and now you can’t remember half the stuff you left behind. Cooking seemed like such a daunting task with all the substitutions that were required to make it work. Now you’re able to whip up some of your old favorites in a flash and you’ve since added some new, local recipes to your collection (so no substitutions are required). You’ve kissed your comforts goodbye and you’ve survived. You might even be thriving in your new culture at this point.
10. You are different. You leave marks on people and people leave marks on you. Some things don’t matter to you as much as they once did and other things matter more. You’re continually humbled as you frequently find yourself in a position of needing help and guidance…sometimes from a complete stranger. Almost daily you are in a position where nothing is so familiar that you’re able to take it for granted. You knew you would set out on this new adventure as a learner of language and culture, you just didn’t realize exactly how much, in turn, you would learn about yourself.
“If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.”