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What I’ve Learned from Life as an Expat

I have rewritten this piece about five time already and I’m still not sure what it wants to be. It started as an ode to solo travel, then morphed into why everyone should travel abroad long term at some point in their lifetime, and after a few more rewrites it has turned into what you are currently reading: what I have learned about myself and about life from becoming an expatriate. How I have changed and grown in the only two months I’ve been living and working abroad will stay with me forever.

As a precursor to this article I’d like to tell you my qualifications for delving into this subject. Before moving to Hong Kong three months ago I had previously moved across the United States from Alabama to California to start a new career on the West Coast. So, I’m no newbie to being independent and on my own. I have also previously lived abroad in Japan, but that was with my family (pre-strong, independent woman). So, I’m also no newbie to living in a foreign country and experiencing new cultures for the first time. With all this previous knowledge I think I have a well-rounded view on why being an expatriate is both important and vital in discovering yourself and your world.

What I've Learned from Life as an Expat


The term sounds so exotic and unattainable to some. It sounds terrifying and unappealing to others. But now that I have personally experienced this life I can honestly say that everyone should live and work in another country at some point in their lifetime. Yeah, it might not be convenient, but when has “convenient” ever lead to a great story? There are little to no excuses (especially if you are young) with the plethora of jobs available abroad. It’s like skydiving – scary as hell, but everyone ends up with a smile on their face. I’ve compiled a list of things that I’ve learned about myself and life from moving across the world to a country with absolutely no Taco Bells and a language impossible to learn. You might be able to experience some of these by moving the next town over but not to the degree where it means saved or stranded.

Gain Independence & Problem Solve

Well, no duh, right? Of course you gain independence when you grow up and move out on your own anywhere. However, there’s a difference between paying your own phone bill and having to communicate with a Cantonese speaking plumber over the phone standing in ankle deep shower gunk water. Sadly, Mum is not here to not only take over the situation but she can’t even offer much advice because even she does not know the answer to this one. You really truly have to handle situations you took for granted before.

“Well, that’s exactly why I have no desire to live in a country that isn’t filled to the brim with native English speakers!” you say. Oh, but the little victories are so worth it! I have this weird, irrational fear of taking buses; I just always feel like I’m going to end up on the wrong side of town and get mugged and tarred and feathered or something. I remember a time that I was hiking on my own and I ended up in this dinky, little village with only one bus stop. I got turned away from the first bus I tried to board and was getting nervous because it was getting on in the evening and I was a good three hour hike from civilization. I bucked up the courage and boarded the next bus and had to try and communicate with this ancient driver and find out where the heck he was going. I should have been more worried about his 90-year-old eyesight and less about my destination but in the end I made it home and felt proud that I had conquered that hurtle. It sounds like a stupid little story, and it pretty much is, but it means so much more when you are truly out on your own and have no one to turn to for aid except yourself.

Build up Courage  

There’s nothing quite like being lost in a foreign country, both literally and figuratively. When you live and work abroad getting lost is a common occurrence. Whether it’s finding immigration offices or your new friend’s flat, there’s never much of a “comfort zone” beyond your own block. It makes life interesting but also helps you to build up courage. Whether it’s been asking a stranger for directions or standing my ground on not being gypped simply because I’m clearly a foreigner I have had to swallow my fear countless times already to get things done.

Sometimes the fear is staring you in the face and you think it’s going to win this time, but then you count to five and let it go. Once you take control and find your way out of a scary situation you feel infinite. It’s empowering and worth it every time.

Live with Less

When you move to another country, odds are you’ll only be bringing a suitcase. Believe me when I say, bring less than you think you’ll need. Much less. I’ve only touched half of the crap I brought with me and I don’t plan to consume much more. When you live abroad not only do you want to spend your money on more travel rather than materialistic things, you also realize how little you really actually need. My current bed is seriously the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever experienced, but all that matters is I am able to fall asleep on it. I know I could go buy an expensive mattress topper, but I’d rather save that money and spend an extra few days in Thailand or a trip to Macau. I don’t know, I guess I’ve just realized how much stuff I have at home that is really not necessary. When they say all you really need is food, shelter, and water it’s really the truth! I would never have really realized this if I didn’t have to confine everything I would need to a small suitcase. “Things” are great but they are also very burdensome. I feel freer than I ever have by consolidating my life to only a handful of items.

Learn How the Rest of the World Lives

This one seems pretty obvious, right? I mean, the reason that most people move abroad is for adventure and to learn about different cultures. It’s so true and so interesting. It may sound selfish but it’s such a privilege to be able to steal beautiful customs and priorities that you love about a place and to appreciate things you took for granted in your own country. For example, I always try to be as welcoming as the Japanese people are and I’m glad shopping isn’t as much of a priority to me as it is in Hong Kong. When you are able to get beyond “vacation mode” and really see how the people of your new home live and breath you can learn so much from them and in turn convey to others your own ways.

Find Your True “Home”

I grew up a military brat which means that I dreaded the classic “Where are you from?” question. I never had an answer because I never really lived anywhere longer than an average of three years. Did I have many homes or no homes? Well, now I actually really love that about my upbringing but I still long for when I find a place that I would truly be content settling down in. If you’ve never moved to another town let alone another country then how can you ever be sure that’s where you’re meant to be? Every country has it’s own flavor and pace and it’s important to find out what works for you. I love Hong Kong but it’s a little to crowded and fast paced for me so I know I’ll need to keep looking. I felt very at home during my time in Australia and that has always stayed with me. Maybe that’s where I’m meant to lay my hat and I long for the day that I get to return and test that theory. Yes, home is where your family is, but home is also where you are at peace. There’s no harm in testing the waters of faraway beaches.

Do you long to be an expat? Where would you like to live?

What other things have you learned from living abroad?

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