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The Main Difficulties I Have Faced When Living Abroad
Not too long ago, I came across a webpage about the difficulties of living abroad that nobody really talks about when sharing their new lives on social media.
Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many people have told me how “brave” I am, which, honestly, I never really understood. Why is it brave to live in another city or country? As far as I’m concerned, it was just the choice I made in my life. Just like staying home or spending twenty years doing the same job is a life choice for some. I simply took a different opportunity and made the effort to go for it.
One of the most hurtful comments I heard was from a friend who told me I should grow up and get a “real job”. She thought that travelling was something you did in your early twenties, then that your thirties was for settling down back home and getting married. Fair enough… But then what?? Was that it? There were many times in China that I noticed older people with their backpacks, travelling. Some of whom had given up their home lives to do the things they hadn’t done earlier. I don’t see why you should let your age determine your life choices. As for getting a “real job”, what does that mean anyway? I was giving my time and energy to various tasks and getting paid for it. Is that not a job? And why should the place I was born be the place I settle down?
It is true however, that living abroad is exciting and fresh. It opens your mind, broadens your horizons, and teaches you so much. At least this is what we like to post on Facebook, etc.
These are the things that have been the most difficult for me (in no particular order):
- You find out exactly who your friends are: During my time at university, I had one housemate/classmate who I spent a lot of time with and considered one of my closest friends. Since I moved abroad, I’ve never seen her since. I’ve messaged, and gotten half-arsed replies back. In the early days, there were several occasions we arranged a meet up when I was home: she always bailed last minute. Since then, I stopped trying. In China I was great friends with an amazing group of people from all over. We had some fun parties, weekend trips, plus I worked with a couple of them which made the office fun, too. Then, two things happened: First, a couple of people left moving on to new places, which changed the group dynamics. Secondly, I decided I needed to stop with so much partying to focus on saving money and studying Chinese. By that time I’d already spent a long time in China and felt I had nothing to show for it. I had got caught up in the fun and forgotten my reasons for wanting to be there in the first place. So I told them my new plans and they were seemingly supportive. Then they stopped calling me. Completely. I was suddenly no longer in any group chats with them. I was taken off their email group. Even my office friends stopped speaking (unless it was something work related), and even made their plans by physically leaving the office so I wouldn't hear. It seemed that as far as they were concerned, I no longer wanted to play. For me the only issue had been that they only ever wanted to go to expensive restaurants, cocktail bars or weekends away. Why not come round for a quick beer or cup of tea? Have a lazy day in the park or a walk around a museum? Watch a film at home? To say I was disappointed and upset doesn’t even come close to how I felt. Of course, about a year later after I passed the official Chinese HSK 4 exam and was getting ready to go back to university, they were still going to those same cocktail bars, still couldn't speak Chinese and were still gossiping about the same things…
- Being ill: Getting a cold is annoying wherever you are in the world. All you ever really want is to lie in bed and have somebody bring you a home-made bowl of soup and endless cups of tea. Unless you have an amazing partner or fabulous housemates, that’s just not going to happen when you live abroad. You just have to suck it up and deal with it. Calling in sick to work also has its problems. Not all jobs will give sick pay; maybe your company is short-staffed and needs you desperately; or maybe they just don’t believe you. I have worked in one place where whenever somebody called in sick it was always met with snarky comments and tutting. This week I have had a cold and I have had several comments about how “terrible” I look. Thanks, guys, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.
3: Food poisoning: I have yet to see anybody writing about this. Unless you have a stomach of iron, this is one of the main issues when away from home. I have had this happen a lot. My toilet has seen a lot of action! Chinese food is amazing… It can also be seriously disgusting. I’m not the kind of traveler who will eat a-thing-on-a-stick-with-too-many-legs or some nasty body part. Being a vegetarian helps with avoiding such peer pressure to do so! Diarrhoea is a big part of travelling, and it simply has to be mentioned. My number one tip is to ALWAYS keep tissues with you, just because these things can creep up on you out of nowhere and not all public toilets supply them…
4: Going home: After spending years abroad, it is great to go home. For me it is a place that always brings my head out of the clouds. The expat life can be crazy and overwhelming, so it’s important to be around people who bring you back down to earth and who have known you since childhood. I always see the same couple of friends; stock up on my favourite things that I can only find in the UK; and of course, I always eat my favourite home food. I'm always struck by just how green and clean everything is back home, not to mention how friendly people are.
So what’s the problem? I have always had a tough relationship with my family. We clash, we argue, and I find them quite suffocating at times. I love my mother, of course, but as she is alone now, all she wants to do is talk. All I want is peace and quiet. We also fight over silly things. Then, when it’s time for me to leave again, I feel guilty. Guilty for being selfish and wanting a different life and not staying home. Guilty for leaving her alone. Guilty for missing out on friends’ birthdays or other events. And sad because as old and messy as our house is, I love my childhood bedroom and all the treasures I have collected over time and have to choose what I take with me and what I just simply can’t carry.
5: Stuff and money: Moving a lot is expensive. Flights, visas, having to buy new items when you arrive, shipping things ahead (or back home), constantly getting stung by paying excess baggage costs at airports… It all adds up. I rarely go shopping (although sometimes I’d love a massive splurge when I see people with their nice new clothes), but I have to make a choice. Do I buy that new phone, or do I wait and instead book that flight or simply save it? When I left China, I had several years’ worth of stuff. This of course includes an accumulation of gifts, kitchen utensils, my beloved bike that I was gutted to part with, bedsheets, towels, clothes I rarely wore, shoes, small furniture items, etc… A lot of it I sold, the main bulk of it I either threw out or gave away to the cleaner in my building (her eyes lit up like it was Christmas!). I know it’s only “things” that we take with us, which aren’t really important, but a lot of those things have memories attached, or are just useful everyday items which are annoying to wasteful to constantly replace.
6: Boyfriends/girlfriends: It is inevitable that at some point you will find a boyfriend (or girlfriend) during your time abroad. It would be a shame not to. Of course it’s always nice to have somebody to care about you, if they are local then they help you improve your language skills, as well as introduce you to their network of friends. At some point, however, unless you have moved to your new place indefinitely, you are going to have to leave. That usually means leaving them. I have yet to meet a guy who wanted to leave with me, and I have still not met a guy who was worth changing my plans for. The one person I did have strong feelings for, ended up leaving me (as he clearly thought I wasn’t worth changing his plans for). I’m not going to say it gets easier, however, it’s just part of it and as hurtful as it can be, you just have to move on quickly.
7: You will change: Of course people change, it’s perfectly natural. The person we are aged 18 is not who we are at 35. What I mean is that when I left for my very first living abroad experience at aged 21, I cried and drank a lot. A lot. I was worried about silly things such as not being able to see my favourite UK TV shows, or finding my favourite brand of teabags. Now, I don’t even watch TV and I figured out where to buy my tea a long time ago! Your priorities will change, but so will your perspective. The way you see things will alter massively.
Recently I spent a year in Spain on an exchange for my second degree. I went with a classmate who is 15 years younger than me. For him it was his first experience living abroad. I realised that he got annoyed by things that I didn’t even notice any more. In Spain people generally speak very loud. After having spent a long time in China, where there is also a lot of noise and shouting, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact I hadn’t even realised until he pointed it out all of the time.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but what I have noticed is that I have become somewhat hardened with all this moving. I don’t seem to care as much or make such a big deal about it. In those early days I was so enthusiastic and emotional. Now, I just think about the practicalities and planning and barely notice the superficial.
Of course these are only a few of the difficulties that I have faced over the years, and it’s very general. Other people will struggle with other situations and their perspective and way of dealing with it will also change over the years. Overall, it is important to learn how to face such problems as learning and growing is a massive part of living abroad.