10 Important Life Lessons You Learn From Living Abroad

A lot of people philosophize about the Peter Pan appeal of traveling—about regression to a childlike state of wonder and freedom.  We can all see the appeal of traveling back to a time when everything was thrilling and new. But if a vacation is an escape to the magic of childhood, then living abroad is a visit to the pangs of adolescence.  Welcome to the purgatory between young recklessness and adult competency!  Unlike tourists, you are charged with errands and chores; unlike locals, you have no idea how to accomplish anything on your to-do list.

Get outside your comfort zone and live overseas
Get outside your comfort zone and live overseas

But once you get past the growing pains, and start learning how to take care of yourself in unfamiliar territory, you get to experience the magic of actually growing up.  It’s a world of implicit triumphs and it’ll-be-funny-later humiliations.  Unpack your bags and look forward to these life lessons:

1.  How to get used to almost anything

There’s a reason that the first few days or weeks in a new country are called the honeymoon period—the country’s bad habits and blemishes have yet to make themselves obvious.  They always do though.  It can be anything from cultural acceptance of littering to limited dining options, but something will start to drive you crazy.

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My first expat breakdown happened in Vietnam over hygiene.  I was sick to death of lax standards in restaurants and markets, of dirty glasses and grubs clinging to my lettuce.  Of course, there’s nothing I could do about the national pandemic of hair in my food—it was a case of patience or perish.

I knew I had come full circle when an American friend came to visit and a rat ran across the floor of the restaurant where we were eating, causing her to recoil slightly.  “Yeah, that happens,” I explained, shoveling noodles into my mouth.  “Are you going to finish that?”  She pushed her plate to the middle of the table.

Some things (like the rats) you don’t necessarily want to get overly familiar with, but it’s nice to discover how far you can stretch your comfort zone.

>> Check out the ten toilets you’ll meet on your travels – and how to deal with them 

2.  How to cook

Sure, you might pick up some tips about rolling factory-perfect spring rolls after a year in China, but every expat knows that the real delicacies when you live abroad are the dishes you miss most from home.

Living in New Zealand, which is about as far from Mexico as you can go, is where I learned how to actually make Mexican food.  This was an act of necessity: the tortillas in stores were expensive and tasted like plastic, but I really wanted some tacos.  As it turns out, tortillas are not at all difficult to make.

I’ve also added from-scratch marshmallows, yogurt, and falafel to my repertoire, simply because these things are no longer cheap or convenient.  It’s amazing how well you can manage without access to the packages you’re used to picking up at Safeway.  And who knew that most food tastes better when it hasn’t been sitting in plastic for three months?

>> Learn to cook these 8 traditional dishes 

3.  The importance of sharing a meal

Most cultures have traditions surrounding meals, be it huge dinners at 9:30pm or a break for tea and biscuits in the afternoon.  These are invariably social occasions, and you will invariably be included in them.

Even in cultures that don’t venerate mealtimes, you’ll find yourself invited for dinner—it’s a universal way to make friends.  Meals become an opportunity for socializing and sharing, which is an old recipe for healthier eating habits and interpersonal bonding.

When I started reciprocating meal invites, I found that food is a fun and easy way to introduce your culture to an international crowd.  It’s also a great vehicle for sharing your experiences abroad with friends and family back home (they will be significantly more willing to eat your food than watch a half hour slideshow of your photos).

4.  How to ask for help

It’s fine to ask for directions or recommendations when you’re on vacation—it’s expected even.  But in our normal lives we tend to be pretty self-sufficient.  We figure out how to do things like pump gas and eat artichokes by watching other people do it all our lives.  Or, failing that, searching for instructional YouTube videos.  Either way, we can go at it alone.

Not so much when you live abroad.  No matter what, there will be moments when you need to swallow your pride and ask someone for help with a chore you wouldn’t have blinked at back home.  Like buying shoes…  When I lived in Vietnam, I had trouble finding shoes that would fit my giant, American feet.  I looked in all the markets and department stores, but nothing fit.

It is humbling to ask someone how to buy shoes.  It is even more humbling to require that person to personally take you to a shoe store and have them explain to the shop owner that you need clown-sized shoes.  But once I wrangled a friend into helping me, the process only took about twenty minutes.  As it happens, asking for help when you need it is an extremely useful habit.

5.  How to question the status quo

All those things you grew up thinking were written in stone?  Forget about them.  There is almost nothing you’ve learned that is incontestable—everything from table manners to hygiene is culturally relative.

I have been well trained to be polite in the American sense, and if there is one thing I knew never to do, it’s yelling indoors.  But to get the attention of a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant subtle hand signals or eye contact won’t cut it: it is imperative that you shout “Hey you!” as loud as you can.  Did this make me feel like a jerk?  Absolutely.  But after a few weeks, I decided that it makes me feel like less of a jerk than sitting around waiting to be doted on like a princess.  It’s all relative.

Yelling at wait staff was never my cup of tea, but I’ve picked up other ideas from living abroad that have taught me to question the givens in my life.  Once you’ve had your expectations turned thoroughly upside down, you start to see that there are other, sometimes even better, ways to do things.

6.  How to have fun anywhere

Vacations are fun because they’re a break from real life—you don’t have to worry about work or cooking dinner or getting the car fixed.  Instead, you get beaches and guilt-free Tuesday nights spent dancing with strangers.  Just sit back and let the fun come to you.

Living as an expat is a little different.  Sure, the beaches and jungles are still there… but you have to go to work on Wednesday morning and can’t exactly spend your afternoons gallivanting with backpackers.  That said, it’s not like you’re not going to spend your tenure in a foreign country sitting on your couch and watching TV.

So you keep your eyes and ears out for activities in the evenings; you look for feasible weekend trips; you try pretty much anything because life abroad is supposed to be an adventure.  And when you bring this habit home with you?  It turns out that even your dull-as-dishwater hometown can be exciting when you try to see it that way.

>> Get tips for making the most of your time abroad 

7.  How to throw stuff away

Packing light becomes a way of life when airport scales stand between you and your next home.  It’s unjustifiably inconvenient to cross continents with broken appliances and clothes you don’t wear, but sometimes it’s really hard to let go.

Going through the junk I accumulated over a year in Vietnam just made me want to keep it more: that t-shirt presented to me by a stranger in a bar, that statuette I won on a game show, that hilarious red tinsel monstrosity I used as a Christmas tree…  It was all unnecessary and yet totally irreplaceable.

I realized, after finally filling myriad garbage bags and presenting random tchotchokes to my friends under the guise of “something to remember me by,” that the stuff was never as important as the stories.  Now I keep a notebook handy whenever I purge my closet, writing down the anecdotes that go with the items I’m about to throw away.  It’s fun to flip through and makes me feel okay about getting rid of stuff I don’t use.

>> Read how traveling lightly can change your life

8.  How to talk to strangers

Not only will you have to start anew with the people you meet abroad, but many of the cultural references you might normally share with strangers no longer have any bearing.  Questions like ‘”where did you go to high school?” and cultural references understood by most of your native peers won’t serve as icebreakers.

Language barriers can make this even more difficult, but I found that approaching strangers with a smile and a little humility will get you far.  Turns out this also works wonders on people who do speak your language.

Conversation topics usually have to go off-script, with a lot of improvising around the circumstances.  But once you get the hang of talking to people you don’t share a background with, you might find that the things you learn from your differences are more interesting than finding out what you have in common.

>> Get tips for making friends on the road 

9.  How to handle peer pressure

You might be surprised at how much of yourself is still measured through comparison with your friends and neighbors.  Think about where you think you stand politically…  You might seem extremely liberal in the US, but you’d probably land somewhere else on the political spectrum in, say, Sweden.

I always thought I was a good environmentalist: always turning off lights when I left a room and recycling old newspapers.  I discovered in Vietnam that I am only a good environmentalist when the people around me have similar concerns.  After months of tossing once-used plastic water bottles in the gutter (where garbage gets picked up) and churning the AC all night long, I had to concede that I was hardly as earth-friendly as thought I was.

By challenging your own position on anything and everything, you end up with a much stronger sense of what you actually believe as opposed to what you believed because everyone around you believed it, too.  Sometimes it’s a painful revelation, but it does give you enough awareness as to suggest positive self-change.  Or at least enough awareness to suggest you move back to a country with curbside recycling pick-up.

10.  How to empathize

Living abroad puts you on the outside looking in.  For most of us, it is a unique experience to be on the margins of society.  And for most people living abroad, it’s a temporary situation.  Still, it’s not always easy.

Living abroad can be frustrating and embarrassing, and finding hair in your food, going on fruitless outings to try and find tortillas or shoes in your size will make you wish for a time when things were straightforward and familiar.  It can’t help but make you appreciate life on the periphery.

With a better understanding of the difficulties circumstance can cause in our lives, it is easier to empathize with those who, for whatever reason, find themselves marginalized.  After all, the opportunity to look at life through someone else’s eyes is one of the reasons we travel in the first place.

Read more about the things you can learn from travel and how life is as an expat: 

manifesto - seeing yourself in a complex world

Photos by: dbz885, rightsandwrongs, vnoelNeilsPhotography, EdYourdon, mfury

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  • Deanna Strand Dyk said at 2013-08-01T21:23:43+0000: Thanks for the great memories...... of my adventures living in Germany, Norway, Vienna as a high school and college age kid.... And adult memories of traveling through Europe, Africa, Vietnam, China. Note to self : Never quit traveling! My friend Barb found a note in her dad's pocket after he died. It said simply, "Keep feet moving."
  • Leighann Garber said at 2013-08-08T09:05:19+0000: Two major things I brought home from living abroad (Belize, Germany, France, Canada) are to appreciate the amazing "little things" we have in America, like 24-7 grocery stores, peanut butter, Cheetos, washing machines, air conditioning. And also I learned where my roots are. When I left the first time we lived in Belize. We ate a lot of beans and rice with coconut milk. but I found myself wanting beans and cornbread. And collard greens. And biscuits. And sweet iced tea. Of course, all these things could be made, and I made them. But I never thought of myself before that as having a "culture". I knew I was American, but I was not overly patriotic, and I didn't see America as a separate culture. Westernism, but faceless and blah. But I realized there for the first time I am a southerner. I can't take the heat anymore, and I'm planning on moving away to the West coast once my kid graduates (we're finally back in the states after 5 years of travel, and we've promised to not uproot him again). But I have Mexican chicken casserole, Patsy Cline, and catfishing in my soul, and I take it with me wherever I might go.
  • Jeff Nesthus said at 2013-09-17T03:33:34+0000: Great list. I just returned from living in Hanoi, Vietnam after 1.5 years. I've come back to the states with a lot more self-reliance than before. Also, my disdain for the concept of 'right-of-way' grows every day :-).
  • Natalie White said at 2013-08-08T14:13:53+0000: yes, I can safely say that I have encountered all of these issues!
  • McKay Savage said at 2013-07-24T18:27:48+0000: excellent and thoughtful capture. I was definite nodding along and laughing to myself (and at myself in memory) from start to finish after having spend the last 6.5 years abroad across 5 countries I've needed to figure out how to live and work in. I hadn't thought of the specific metaphor of it being like awkward adolescence, but that totally describes it.
  • Judy Barrera said at 2013-07-18T19:53:47+0000: My husband and I just finished our first year in China and this article covered almost everything. It was a hard, but rewarding year. While we miss things like clothes dryers and American cleanliness standards (rats, we can relate), we have learned more about the world in this year than in our entire lives. We have one more year in China and then, who knows?
  • Mathew Eliatel said at 2013-07-20T15:53:12+0000: Yup. sums up my experience living in China, Vietnam and Siem Reap.
  • Sandra Gatov said at 2013-07-12T16:15:42+0000: I feel completely humbled reading all of the comments from people who have traveled for decades. I lived in Barcelona for a year on my own with no working papers and not knowing anyone and having to fend for myself. Living abroad forces you to live in the moment and connect with others. Most of my lifelong friendships were formed away from home, which makes it that much sweeter.
  • Tamara Claire said at 2013-08-29T22:41:35+0000: I love the picture for number 6. It reminds me of the hitch hiking trips in Tibet sans late 90's early 2000's. The writing is spot on and so true! Have lived abroad for many years now and wouldn't have changed a thing.
  • Mira Wu said at 2013-08-23T16:31:09+0000: living in a different place--live abroad.
  • Pete Wildman said at 2013-07-22T12:01:49+0000: Some good insights.
  • Barbara Y. Wills said at 2013-08-20T11:55:32+0000: Loved it. All travelers and exchange students should read this.
  • Melissa Newman said at 2013-07-12T20:23:12+0000: I enjoyed this article which is so very true. Living abroad is very different and more intimate than being a traveler. One has more time to see, feel, taste and smell it all. What seemed to be the truth before the expat life now seems to be only a small part of what a picture is. Yet people are people everywhere. I can find peaceand joy if I bring it with me.
  • Expat Explorers said at 2013-07-12T18:13:56+0000: I'd add "learning that we go round the world. The world doesn't go around us." We are small, but that means there is a lot of fun stuff to discover.
  • Naira Delphia said at 2013-08-08T18:13:40+0000: So true :)
  • Yanni Ko said at 2013-07-22T10:46:16+0000: It's also interesting to look at living abroad when you are coming from say a more 'backwards' place like Vietnam, to a more 'advanced' place like the US. Its the other way around, but still as rich an experience either way.
  • Jennifer Przypek said at 2013-07-19T15:37:24+0000: Great article on 10 most important life lessons you learn living abroad. I'll be sure to keep in mind for my upcoming assignment ;).
  • Retire Pedia said at 2013-07-14T16:41:30+0000: Certainly one of the best articles about expat living I've come across recently. My favorite part is this... "Welcome to the purgatory between young recklessness and adult competency! Unlike tourists, you are charged with errands and chores; unlike locals, you have no idea how to accomplish anything on your to-do list."Yeah, who would have thought that buying a self-adhesive hook to pin your calendar to the Wall or finding the right replacement bulbs for your bathroom lights could turn into a day-long quest. ;-)- Margit
  • E Quina-k Audena said at 2013-04-04T22:55:48+0000: Exactly spot on. I lived in Paris at 21 and had a countdown to returning home; returned home and started another countdown of when to return. I actually missed all the small victories!
  • Barbara Lewis said at 2012-07-20T13:55:36+0000: 15 years overseas and this article pretty much summed up my life--from the Chinese salesgirl trying to sell me men's shoes "these are your size!", to the chicken feet sticking up in my bowl of soup in Peru, to the impromptu shared picnics on trains going anywhere. I may not have as much "stuff" as other people, but oh, the memories!
  • Kathy Engel said at 2013-03-23T10:15:55+0000: Good for all Expats!
  • Allegra Stein said at 2012-09-27T11:42:45+0000: This article is amazing. I spent two+ years living in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and every one of the lessons you talk about is spot on in describing some of what I discovered while there. I particularly appreciate the lessons around food -- both in cooking and sharing a meal. The sense of family and community around meal times and Na Gosti was incredibly strong. Also, asking for help and talking to strangers are closely linked with lessons on LISTENING, especially as I was learning the language and trying so hard, with every interaction, to understand what others were saying as I simultaneously tried to form my own thoughts in a new language.
  • Coco Rachelle McCarthy said at 2012-10-14T20:23:00+0000: Hit the nail on the head! I lived abroad for 8 yrs, this article made me chuckle & reminisce..ahhhhhhhhhh time to dust off the suitcase & start a new adventure~ me thinks. Thank you for sharing <3.
  • Marie Fiske Snoksrud said at 2012-01-17T10:41:44+0000: After nearly a decade abroad, I've been introspectively questioning myself a lot lately "was it all worth it? " "was choosing to live like a nomad a huge mistake?" "could I have been happy in the US just living a normal life...where I could eat burritos bought with pocket change whenever I wanted?" When I look back at the many cultural experiences had, the language partially-learned, and unlikely friendships forged, the undeniable answer is a reluctant "no", even in the midst of the looming doomsday feeling of yet another round of visa-immigration-work permission paperwork that sits before me. The one overall point made in this article that really resounds with me is the idea of small victories. Those things you completely take for granted when you are at home, (buying shoes, grocery store etiquette, locking/ unlocking your own front door successfully) and how accomplished you feel when you've figured it out. Also, how humbling it can be to admit you need help, and asking for it, something especially unnerving for your average expat who otherwise is probably pretty independent. So, thanks for posting this article and reminding me that the person I have become grew out of these types of experiences.
  • Laberta Hart said at 2012-10-12T17:07:59+0000: Well, I know I couldn't do this in a million years! I stand in awe of you!