For some, the expat life is a glorious dream come true. For others, it is a frightening experience. But what is it really like to live abroad?
I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia for five months and also did my master’s degree in London for an entire year. Not to mention, I’ve traveled to thirteen countries. Fear not. I’ve spent plenty of time away from home, so I know exactly what it’s like.
It should go without saying that living abroad is exciting. There are new places to explore, new foods to try, and a new culture to immerse yourself in. Yes, this means seeing the sights. For me, that meant going to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Westminster Abbey in London. It meant eating borscht and black pudding. It also meant cooking up pancakes for Maslenitsa and taking part in pub culture downtown.
However, living in a foreign country also means discovering things you never expected to find. For instance, I never expected to find El Copitas, a secret Mexican-themed bar in an unassuming building in St. Petersburg (El Copitas was recently ranked 27th best bar in the world by the way). But I was lucky to meet a nice guy named Gleb, who showed me and my friends this hidden gem.
On a wintry day in London, I was surprised to find a little Christmas village in the shadow of the London Eye. There I listened to holiday music and passed through festive shops, all while sipping on a very strong, but very tasty cider. And I was only lucky enough to stumble upon the Christmas village because I was wandering through the city while on a date with a charming flight attendant.
Every city has its secrets, which are there for you to discover. But it’s the people that truly make a foreign country your home. And what I’ve learned is that people are surprisingly similar no matter where you go. Sure, there may be differences in values, beliefs, language, or cultures, but in the end, people are people. If you live abroad, you will find someone to keep you company.
In fact, making friends can be surprisingly easy. So long as you speak a common language, foreigners will be eager to talk to you. Maybe they just want to hear your accent. Or maybe they’re eager to hear about life where you’re from. Or maybe they want to practice English. The point is everyone has stories to share, so never worry about finding friends.
Having said that, the biggest issue with life abroad is that you need to start from scratch. You never realize how extensive new beginnings are until you actually do them. It’s not just about finding new friends. You also need to find a new grocery store to shop at and a new cafe to visit. You need to memorize a new public transport system. You need to find restaurants and shops and bars and movie theaters. Everything is new.
As an introvert, this is always a huge challenge for me because when you start over, you start over alone. Until you make new friends, you have no one to give you advice. Also, you feel less comfortable exploring when there is no one to explore with. So it’s a slow start, but you slip into it sooner or later.
And the final thing I need to mention is culture shock. People told me about culture shock before I studied abroad, and I always thought, “Psh…none of that will happen to me.” But it did. and it will to you. Most people start out thrilled by the new environment, then they get used to it, and then culture shock sets in.
Everyone experiences it differently, but it is something that happens. You miss your home, your family, your friends, your food, and so on. And since you miss all that, you hate everything that isn’t that. The foreign accents you once found charming are now annoying. The stunning and unique architecture now seems cold and alien. And the food just doesn’t seem to satisfy you. You crave home.
But the important thing to note is that culture shock passes. You come out on the other side with a more realistic vision of the foreign country. You start seeing it for what it is. You enjoy its pros while being mindful of its cons. And this is a crucial step in life abroad because it is in this step that a foreign land can become your new home.
Yes, life abroad is not always easy. But it is wonderful and full of surprises. If you are even thinking about doing it, I highly recommend it.