Expat Life Lessons: Reflections on Two Years Living Abroad
As December draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the previous year in all its delightful craziness. And needless to say, it was really crazy. Some good, some bad, highs, lows, ends, and new beginnings.
Despite many other amazing life changes this year, to include welcoming a baby daughter in January, perhaps the most pivotal to my perspective was my return from two years living in Armenia.
Extended travel (i.e., living abroad, being an expat) is different than tourism travel. When you live somewhere that is not your home country and culture, you find yourself adapting in ways you never thought you would need to. You undoubtedly change – it’s impossible not to.
What I didn’t expect was how many life lessons I would pick up from my two years living away from home. And to be clear, when I say home, I am referring to one’s own country, culture, and customs. Your routine, your familiarity, your miniature conveniences that you take for granted.
So, to wrap up 2017, and my first (of many, hopefully) expat experiences, I would like to share with you some of the life lessons I have picked up while living abroad and pictures of our travels over the past two years.
1. Life changes
Your life, your parents’ lives, your friends’ lives. It doesn’t matter where you live or what adventures you’re having, life will continue to go on. There will be things that happen to you, and perhaps without you, while you’re overseas.
Weddings, babies, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and yes, even deaths.
Our family changed drastically in two years time: we gained a baby girl and lost our beloved dog to heart disease… all within the span of three weeks actually.
My point is, life events don’t stop because you’re away from home. Life will continue with all its twists and surprises, to both you and the people at home.
2. You will never truly be a local
No matter how well you speak the language or immerse yourself in the culture, you will never truly fit in. You are often singled out, treated differently, whether it’s better or worse depends. You’ll hear people speaking about you because they think you can’t understand them.
As an American woman in Armenia, especially one toting around two blonde bambinos, I stood out instantly. I had no shroud of anonymity.
You may even sometime you’ll feel unwelcome. It’s an incredibly lonely feeling, but an unbeatable truth.
3. You will never truly explore every corner of your city
Just when you think you know how to get around and where to buy everything, you discover new corners, new neighborhoods, new pockets of culture that you’ve never seen before.
Yerevan is a fairly small city as far as capitals go. And still, up until my very last week, I was discovering new markets, alleys with crazy street art, and neighborhoods that were otherwise hidden from the mainstream.
4. You will become frustrated with your foreign city
I don’t care how much you love your city, there will come a point where you will become frustrated with its… quirks. And there will be times where you will see nothing but those quirks. And it will make you question your life choices. Because seriously, why was this a good idea in the first place??
Chill out, it’s going to be ok.
When this happens (yes, when), try to recognize it and take a step back. If you can, take a trip out of town, or find an escape place. But it’s especially important to remember that…
5. You can’t expect people to behave the same
When you DO become frustrated with your foreign city, try to check your expectations. One thing that took me a very long time to get over was my own set of expectations of how my new city and its citizens should behave. For a great deal of my stay, I became extremely frustrated in small ways that some locals acted.
“Yeah, but if they just did it this way, it would be so much better/efficient/cleaner/easier!”
Standing in line at the grocery store. Crossing the street (not in a crosswalk, I might add). Traffic rules. Driving habits. Emission regulations. Consumer habits. Punctuality. Smoking.
It took me awhile to remind myself that everyone, particularly this brand new culture that I was immersed in, has different motivations and upbringings which shape their daily behavior and habits.
The biggest mistake I made was expecting my new city to feel like my old city. Except that now I was the foreigner. I was the one that didn’t fit in. Once I realized my thoughts were nothing but my American savior complex showing, I felt ashamed.
Did it ultimately stop me from feeling frustrated from time to time? Not really, but I became able to recognize it when it happened.
6. Your friends and family back home will not care about your travel stories as much as you think they do
Ain’t it the truth. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who starts talking about something you just cannot relate to and you cannot wait for them to shut up? That’s how your family feels when you start talking about your new country. Yeah, it’s ok at first, but after a while, they truly don’t care about how cheese is SO much more expensive or how things are only done a certain way.
Trust me, they love you, and on some level they are interested, but deep down they can’t relate to your experiences of that crazy cab driver or that time you encountered a herd of cows on the road.
So when you’re home visiting family, remember that it’s fine to share your crazy travel stories, but fortheloveofgod don’t feel the need to end every conversation with “where I live, it’s done this way…”
Don’t be that person.
7. It’s OK to miss home
Sometimes as expats, we shame ourselves into thinking we’re not allowed to miss home. Those type-A’s out there know exactly what I’m talking about. Seriously, why do we do it to ourselves?
We know that this lifestyle is a choice and, for the most part, we chose it because we want to see the world and live it through a local lens. But trying to pretend that you will feel this way all the time just isn’t reality.
Choosing an expat life doesn’t mean you will never yearn for the comforts of your home country. You most certainly will. But it’s important to realize those feelings are OK and it doesn’t make you any less of a global soul.
8. Part of you will never leave that city
Being a long-term traveler means that you get to truly experience an in-depth immersion into a culture. You shop at the local grocery stores, experience the seasons shift, and know the most efficient way to get anywhere in town. You may not be local, but there will always be a part of that culture, that city, that will never leave you. You will always have a connection through the time you spent living it and it will shape who you are.
Thank you for reading! Don’t forget to share, and if you enjoyed this, you should also check out:
- 4 Reasons Why I am Raising My Kids Abroad
- First Time Traveling Abroad With Kids – A How-To Guide, Part 1: Planning
- Get to know: Armenia