Expat advice: How living abroad has changed me

I can’t adequately describe the fear that was quietly winding around my feet during the couple of years before our move.  It was this strange new awareness of myself in relation to everyone around me—I was worried about pleasing others, about fitting in, and that there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t chomping at the bit to have children.  Well guess what everyone, moving to another country is like stepping into an empty auditorium…the outside chatter just disappears.  Not working and having an open forum such as this one has given me a special opportunity to get to know myself and stop being so preoccupied with what others think.

As I mentioned in last week’s post I just spent a couple of weeks in the U.S. and can’t deny that I was feeling a little reflective the whole time…seeing your high school hometown and life long friends will do that to a gal!  Ten months in, I am just now feeling like Bogotá is home; this past visit provided a fresh perspective to see how I’ve changed over these months.  In addition, Cody sent me this article, “Four Ways Living Abroad Changes You…Forever,” which has also been on my mind the past couple of weeks.  Although I think the author’s tone is a bit aggressive, I for the most part agree with his statements that living outside your native country changes you in fundamental ways: things that were important no longer hold the same value and that whether you intend it or not, your idea of yourself will evolve.  I can’t deny that I feel I’ve been changed by this experience—and I think for the better.  Below I’ve fleshed out some of the things that were lingering in the back of my mind during my visit…

Things/Space/Luxury does not equal happiness

From my first extended trip outside the U.S. in 2007, the most striking thing I notice each time I return to the U.S. is how much we have.  Roads are wider and smoother, stores have more variety, homes and cars and people are larger…everything is big, big, BIG!  I would always make this note in my head and then go back to my regular life.  However, living outside of the U.S. for a more extended period has really shown me how I don’t need most of what I have.  Do I like having hot water, a dryer and more than one bathroom? Yes!  Could I happily live without them? Of course!  When traveling, part of me often  felt bad for people who didn’t have the same types of things we have in the U.S.  Looking back, a lesser importance on accumulation lets you focus on other things.  Living abroad has given me the realization that people are happy without things that I previously considered necessities and in turn my definition of wealth and success has drastically changed.

It’s been good for my relationships

I’ve already talked a bit about how our move has positively impacted my relationships, but of course there’s a flip side.  I don’t think people who haven’t lived abroad (or made some kind of drastic move) can fully understand what I mean when I talk about how much it takes to maintain your relationships.  In addition to keeping in touch with all of my friends and family in the U.S., I’m also trying to find friends and make a life for myself here…so in some ways my social life is twice as busy.  I think this fact has culled my group of close friends to two or three.  Well, these gals have always been considered my close friends so I suppose I should say our move has really just swept away the friendship dust-bunnies that linger in the corners because of guilt or obligation. Having to value my time differently has released me from the need to keep up with someone who can’t expend an equal effort to seek me out—no animosity or ill-will, just a simple permission to move on.

There is another important relationship that has grown a bit…my marriage.  This move has been such a trip, in a good way.  It sounds basic, but when it’s just the two of you, it’s just the two of you.  Being alone puts a magnifying glass on all of our imperfections because you’re in a vacuum with only your new stressful life and partner for company.  Whether they want it or not, there is a weird adjustment period where your partner becomes placeholder for every interaction: spouse, best friend, sounding board…the list goes on!  At the same time, the isolation erases a lot of the little sources for blame that were at the ready in your former home.  When Cody was the only person I was interacting with each day, I quickly noticed a lot of not-so-nice parts of my personality.  Since moving I’ve also seen my husband in a whole new light.  He had such balls to move here and dive right into a new business culture and language and he has been killing it since day one—sometimes he’ll tell me about his day and I’ll just think, who is this rockstar that is my husband?!  And even though he’s working and facing incredible challenges, he is so supportive and happy to see me happy and finding my way.  After practically ten years together, this move has shown me not to take my partner for granted and that there is so much more about him to know.

I’m finally seeing the shades of grey

I’ve mentioned multiple times in this blog that I have always been a pretty extreme person—everything was black and white and once you made a decision there was no going back.  Both traveling and living each day in a different culture has shown me over and over that there is no right way and no place/person/thing is perfect.  And just to be honest, it’s really softened some of my rough edges.  Each government has corruption, each country has inequalities and challenges, each way of life has pros and cons.  Being immersed in a different way of life has forced me to relax my views and discard my prejudices.  Living in a world of only black and white blocks out opportunities to learn and allow yourself to grow.  What’s more, once I stopped being so rigid I realized that  the world out there isn’t so scary and that being open to new ways of looking at things isn’t equated with adopting them yourself.

I’ve had time to get to know myself

Most importantly, living in Bogotá has given me an amazing opportunity to get to know myself.  I mean, all this introspection is really time consuming!  Cody mentioned to me that he’s surprised at how honest I’ve become in these posts.  It’s been surprising to me too because I’m quite a people pleaser and making a definitive statement about myself or giving a firm opinion used to make my palms sweat (in fact, it was a frequent point of gentle teasing in my Spanish classes!).  My normal MO is to be quiet until I can figure out how to fit in and then adjust accordingly.  I don’t like attention unless I’m 100% comfortable with the situation and people I’m around.  Now, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing—as long as I can be quiet, I feel ok pretty much anywhere.  On the other hand, my opinions and wishes can change drastically depending upon the group with whom I surround myself.  Unfortunately for me, blending into the background doesn’t work too well in Bogotá because I have short hair, an accent and (even though I think I dress nicely) I just don’t dress like the average Colombian woman.

Conversation turned out to be unexpectedly challenging as well because I lost my usual social lubricant: self-deprecating humor.  Humor doesn’t translate the same way and even if it did, my grasp of Spanish isn’t yet up to par.  **Just a side note, after a lovely barbecue this past weekend and lots of ribbing about flip-flops (it’s inconceivable to go with out socks in Bogotá!), vests (too formal for a BBQ!) and hats (too small, no sun!), I am pretty sure that men all over the world hold in common the need to make fun of each other.**  Continuing with things being lost in translation, I found that I had to re-learn all of my conversational skills in Spanish.  Without my normal arsenal of camouflage, there was nowhere to hide.  Having to explicitly think out responses made me realize that I normally answer questions with a special people-pleasing recipe: a shred of myself bent to what I think the other person wants to hear.  This was a pretty big revelation for me and in fact, I think we take for granted how many throw away answers we have at the ready to sling out in everyday conversation.

Along with this is a lessening preoccupation with what everyone else is doing with their lives.  I’ve always been a bit type B in the career department, which fit perfectly with Cody’s super driven personality—I have always happily clicked into a support role.  However, there have been a lot of moments where I stop and wonder if it’s ok that I don’t have some super career. Bogotá is at the same time a huge and tiny place and everyone seems to know all kinds of people; since moving here, I’ve had a chance to meet these people too.  When I wasn’t quite comfortable with my choices, meeting new people was quite unsettling and I was almost paralyzed with self-consciousness because I didn’t do anything ‘impressive.’

Getting to better know myself has given me space to think about what I really want in life and coupled with seeing other versions of success I can finally say (without guilt) that I am happy to not work.  I’m not being flippant about this statement.  Before you roll your eyes and think “it must be nice,” take a moment to think about the gaps you are choosing to have in your resume, how it would feel to be completely financially dependent on your spouse, and the fact that without the “I’m a ____” part of your identity, you can feel lost at sea.

All that said, I’ve found that I love being able to volunteer and to help where there is need without expecting anything in return.  Even more, I love that I now have this outlet to reflect on my life and keep track of our experiences abroad, something I wouldn’t have adequate time for with a full time job.  Now, when I meet someone who is ‘impressive’ (because they are on TV or an architect or a Grammy nominated singer!?), I can actually have a conversation and enjoy hearing about their experiences because I’m not hung up on whether or not I’m inadequate.  Realizing that all the time I spent looking at myself and being worried if I measured up prevented me from seeing and knowing others has been one of my most startling realizations and the thing I’m most grateful to be (slowly) moving past.

So. Does anyone else have thoughts about how traveling or living abroad has changed you—for better or worse?

6 thoughts on “Expat advice: How living abroad has changed me

  1. I adore your writing! All the honest introspection is brilliant (both luminous and smart)… you capture a lot of experience that other people don’t take time to either realize or express.
    It’s easy with friends, family and career for your partner to become one on a list of many. I think that’s where a lot of people take their marriage for granted and drift apart. Being “in a vacuum” with your spouse can be very trying, but really incredible when the relationship and the other person prove to be the real meaning of home.
    Also, the “friendship dust bunnies” and the “I’m a ___” conundrum are spot on.
    Bravo to brave writing.

    1. Agh you give the best compliments :-) I totally agree with your point about drifting apart, eek! I love your comments and am so thankful that you’ve been keeping up with me!

  2. Talk about self discovery…….growing pains are a good thing. Especially at such a young and tender age. You are being liberated as an individual and yet becoming more and more united in your marriage. This MIL is overjoyed and blessed by the praise you sing for Cody. You are both AMAZING!!!
    love you dearly

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