6 Kickass Benefits of Expat Life
I'm American. But somehow, I never fit in there. Maybe it's because I grew up in Minnesota and not NYC, but I always knew there was something I was looking for in life and also knew I wasn't going to find it in Minnesota. Unlike what seems to be a very high number of Americans I know, high school was absolutely not the best time of my life. I was depressed and engaging in all sorts of unhealthy behaviors and making bad choices for a wide variety of dumb reasons including a broken home life, which, out of respect for my family's privacy, will not get into here. I knew I needed to get out and explore because nothing good would come of me staying there.
I went to Europe for the first time without my parents with my high school friends in 1996 after my highschool graduation and fell in love with it. That was my first encounter with London and I was blown away. I knew that I had to figure out some way to live there. This was before the wonders of the internet so I found a program called Leap Now, then run by Sam Bull (I think I found an ad in the 1996 Berkeley Guide to Europe. I paid the program and decided to go to Mexico to learn Spanish, England to do volunteer work, and then China to study Chinese and teach English. The rest is history :)
Moving alone to Mexico changed my life forever and that experience of moving abroad made me into the person I am today. Over the last 20 years, I have worked, lived, or studied in 7 different countries (Argentina, China, Germany, Italy, Mexico, UK, USA) and been fortunate enough to call Buenos Aires, Beijing, Munich, Rome, London, San Miguel de Allende, and Athens, Georgia my homes). I wanted to compile a list of the 5 kick ass benefits of being an expat abroad. I will also include later "5 things that can suck" as a part 2 - so stay tuned.
You will learn to appreciate newness in common activities
The number one kick ass thing about living in a foreign land is the novelty of it- for me, it never goes away. Every day still fills me with wonder. Something about wandering around a city on the other ends of the earth far from where you were born only that ‘foreign’ place is your home is absolutely, indescribably awesome. You're foreign and yet living among locals — which feels pretty cool. You study in Spanish, or go to the bakery in Italy around the corner, bikeride and picnic in the park in Germany after picking up warm butter pretzels and cold beers to go. Even when I lived in China, there was always something cool to me about walking outside my door and suddently realizing “I live in China! Holy Crap!." I know this sounds funny, but somedays I totally forgot. Would wake up, have breakfast with my roommates, go outside, and be in China. And I marveled at how cool that was on a regular basis as I bought my dumplings at the corner, or went to cobbler to get my shoes mended, speaking to the friendly Chinese man as I always did. I have to say, having a job, friends, a routine, dry cleaners, all the ‘normal’ daily activities was still amazing to me even after so many years. Every day something would happen though that was unexpected and there was always room to appreciate newness in common activities you normally would take for granted.
I should also add for the sake of transparency that like anything, expat life is not all roses, you will see in the follow-up article, I had many BCD-Bad China Days as well. Plus, in China, those initial oddities you find freaking awesome are the same ones that will leave you yelling in the street screaming ‘WEISHENME!?’ Why must you spit on my shoe!? Why!?’
Learning personal strength when you move abroad to a foreign country
Whether alone or with a partner when you create a life there, you give independence a new meaning. There is really nothing more empowering (albeit shockingly out of your comfort zone), than trying to start your life in another country without an identity, friends, langauge skills, or familiar surroundings. You might end up suddenly realizing how much you tend to take for granted simple things like going to the supermarket and asking for help, or trying to do taxes in your own language, or applying for a job. If you move to your partner’s country, you might have the advantage of getting assistance with these things. Or you might not get their help at all and have to fend for yourself (more on this later). All of this will make you stronger and more resilient over time, because you learn that you can manage no matter what, even if you're far away from your family and friends.
Moving abroad can be both exhilarating and freaking terrifying. I’m not too proud to admit, when I first moved to Mexico at 20 years old back in 1998, I remember arriving to my guest house, where the ‘host dad’ at the guesthouse Arteaga let me in and took me to my room and wished me goodnight. I sat down on my bed and cried. I felt more alone than I ever had and totally vulnerable. I now realize this was one of the 3 moves I made in my life that would be life-changing and one of the best decisions I ever made. But I’m not gonna lie, I was scared at my own power to uproot myself and throw myself into unfamiliar surroundings. I didn’t trust it yet — but this resilience to recreate and rebuild would become my greatest strength.
#3 Thriving in place
Living in another world and being part of it is nothing like traveling through a place.
I love traveling. I always have. I always will. I’ve backpacked all over south America, Europe, and Asia with the minimal contents of my backpack. I know I can live on next to nothing with a small, yet comfy assortment of clothes and toiletries. Travel and expat life taught me the value of experiences and the lackluster of material possessions and I would not trade these character forming experiences for anything. I learned how to be solution oriented on my feed and adjust, adjust, adjust. Plus, that sense of newness and adventure has picked me up from some of my deepest depths of sadness after certain events and helped me build up my sense of self again. Traveling for me was always about getting to know myself better and truely find myself because it’s awesome to discover and explore.
But there is something about thriving in place that can allow for a richer, fuller life. Travel and adventure are awesome but the nomadic lifestyle can take its toll on you, especially as you get older. It's hard bouncing around all the time never being able to have a book collection, long term friendships, or a partner. People romanticize the good points of nomadic lifestyle but being able to actually have friendships with people you can depend on who understand you is priceless. Also, renting an apartment in another part of a world that you knew nothing about, in a culture with people, language behavior, and habits you didn’t know, and yet feel completely like a part of everything. You have a favorite barber, a favorite supermarket and brand of water. Immersed. Involved. Daily Life -quotidian activities many people don’t even appreciate, going to your favorite bakery, greeting the bus driver you know, etc. It's making friends with people who stick around longer, it's being able to have a relationship because you're both living and working there.
#4 Incredible local & expat crowd
I love expat groups that are integrated as well with the local population. Meeting people who come from all over the world from different cultures, educational and professional backgrounds, different socioeconomic groups, ages, races and religions. So many expats are people who don’t even fit in necessarily with their own cultures at home and find comfort and excitement in meeting friends and colleagues from all over the world. Many of them already speak the local language or even have partners from that country. These are the the kind of expats you can go grab street food with or go to local expats. Yes, I should also point out that there are expats who stick with people from their own country, only eat their country’s cuisine, and don’t learn the language or try to learn the language or integrate — I find this sad, but in some cases understandable when it comes to certain religions or strict customs or lifestyles.
During the time I have lived abroad and across different countries, I have met such a wide variety of people and learned so much about cultures that I never could have know about otherwise. Some of the most amazing people I have met in my life
I sometimes wonder in Germany if anyone knows that I’m not one of them. Have I infiltrated the place? Can they not tell?
#5 Basecamp for travel
You can use it as a home base to travel the continent — yep. If you’re living in Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay are all closer. If you’re libving in Beijing, suddenly, Boracay, Philippines is way closer than you’d imagine and you can hop over for the week during Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year. I traveled all over Zhejiang Province when I lived outside of Hangzhou, took motorcycle rides in the mountains outside of Beijing. However, looking back, I realize I could have seen way more but unfortrunately China is not known for having many vacation days per year. And when they give them to you, you have to make up the days by working the following weekend or the one before — which sucks.
When I lived in Mexico, I took busses all over to cities around central Mexico like Guanajuato, Leon, Queretaro, Tlascala, Puebla, and so many others. People thought I was crazy but I’ve always wanted to see as much as I can because I never know how many years I will be in a place.
Now that I live in Munich, and will stay here, I have still used pretty much every opportunity (under non-COVID conditions) to visit so many incredible places that are easily accessible by Flixbus or train. Munich is only a few hours from Salzburg, Zurich, Prague, Zagreb, Ljubjana, just to name a few. Whne you’re living on another continent and working abroad, you can use the holiday times for travel. You don’t need to quit your life to become a digital nomad if you live in a place with vacation days and amazing places nearby if you have a four day weekend. Even with short 4–7 day trips, you can jet over to Malta or Istanbul with the calendar holidays. It’s one of the thinsg I most apppreciate about Europe is how seriously people take their vacation days. In the US, I remember one boss being genuinely unhappy I had to take off days for my mom’s wedding — sorry for the inconvenience, I guess?
#6 Know and grow yourself
You will undoubtedly grow as a person. And you probablly won’t be the same — and that’s a good thing. Being alone in a foreign country is empowering. Thriving in a life you’ve created abroad is indescrible. Figuring out what you need to thrive in a place outside your comfort zone will help you get to know yourself. I used to run away TO places.
There is a famous song lyric by Social Distortion, one of my favorite bands:
"Wherever I would roam, I was sure to find myself there. You can run all your life, and not go anywhere." --- Mike Ness.
I never realized how independent I was until I lived in another country learning the language by myself. Finding things by myself. Thriving by myself. Succeeding. Living. You learn what you’re capable of. You learn to make new friends and maybe even go to meetup groups or networking events becasue you want to meet new people — and you learn to put yourself out there.
This is not to say all of this growth or evolution was positive. Far from Sometimes you don’t really know yourself until you’re alone going through a breakup in a foreign country and you lose your job due to company insolvency. Moving to another country with a partner can be even more difficult when things don’t work out. I was fine alone in China. I moved there alone. In Germany, when the fantastical idea that I moved to create a new life with my partner was smashed to smithereens, it hit hard. (I have another post on 5 things that are HARD AF about being an expat).
In summary, moving abroad was the best thing I ever did for myself. It's not to say by any means that it's for you. It's not for everyone and there are different benefits as well as disadvantages. Stay tuned for the downsides of expat life. A coin has 2 sides. So check back :)
Wanna see a funny video of me trying to speak the languages I speak? :D
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