When I tell people I live abroad, I know exactly what’s coming: a whimsical look in their eyes, a sigh, and something along the lines of oh that must be so nice…
I can’t deny that—our time living in Colombia has been incredible. But, it’s been a lot of other things too. Most people form their romanticized ideas of life abroad from pop culture and movies, where after you’re run off the road riding your bicycle in Ubud, Javier Bardem stops to rescue you and you tumble into mad, passionate, ’til-death-do-us-part love.
I drank the living abroad kool-aid too, thinking life in Bogotá would be an endless loop of idyllic experiences: days full of museums, coffee in quiet cafes, roaming outdoor markets. Even disasters—and they were always mild—would end up as quirky stories of how I made new friends or had some authentic (what does that even mean?) experience. I had no problem imagining us happy in our new life but, like all good daydreams, I skipped over the kinks to get right to the good part.
Read on for some of the lies I told myself before moving abroad.
I’ll have no trouble adjusting
When you’re traveling, your decisions are usually exciting: where to go next, which new restaurant to try. Temporary residence doesn’t exactly afford the opportunities to become frustrated with bureaucracy or a lack of postal system. I was not anticipating the amount of mental energy that is required to be in a new environment all the time and the sheer volume of tedious decisions I would make each day. Imagine going to the grocery store to buy milk, bread, and yogurt—in a foreign country where you aren’t familiar with any of the brands, that’s 3 decisions right there, and that’s only after you find an actual grocery store.
I was also completely unprepared for how difficult it would be to slip into my new identity—an unemployed, trailing spouse. In fact, this shift wasn’t even a blip on my radar. Even though I’d set up Spanish classes and gotten in touch with volunteer organizations, there was a lag between the routine I’d envisioned for myself and actually finding that groove.
Because I had a lot of practice starting over (thanks to lots of moves and joining the U.S. Navy) and had traveled I didn’t think that adjusting to a new country—especially one with a similar culture to my own—would be that difficult. But, travel isn’t starting a new life from scratch and there was a fatigue that snuck in, leaving me disaffected and feeling a bit alone.
All my personality quirks will disappear
I swear I’m not delusional, but I had this grand vision that the simple act of being forced outside my comfort zone would produce a miraculous self-transformation. I would become extroverted, I wouldn’t feel a compulsive need to plan, control, organize—basically I’d go from cautious and analytical (uptight?) to whimsical and free spirited with one international move.
The dial has inched toward laid-back, but we are still a long way from traveling without reservations. Instead of becoming super social, I’ve developed a kind of extrovert sweater. I can slip it on and be happily outgoing the eight hours needed to drive out of town for lunch in bumper to bumper traffic, stopping to return a playpen, stopping for a coffee, eating and then driving home in even worse traffic. But after something like that the sweater inevitably goes to the cleaners and can’t be worn again for at least two weeks.
Does life outside your native culture smooth your rough edges? Sure! But, it doesn’t completely rewire your personality or remove the quirks you’ve had since birth. I still want to research and be prepared for all circumstances, but it’s now tempered by an ability to go with the flow when the unexpected happens.
I’ll master Spanish in less than a year
As a way to not study Spanish before we moved I told myself, almost like a mantra, that being immersed in a language is actually the best way to learn. I imagined myself picking up Spanish without really trying through watching movies, listening to music, and having conversations in everyday life. While this does help, it absolutely does not take the place of actual study. And unfortunately, if you more often than not find yourself on the path of least resistance now, chances are you’ll do it in your new one abroad (see my point above). Sure I’ll occasionally watch or read something in Spanish, but it’s usually because it’s connected to an assignment for one of my lessons.
While I was fantasizing about how quickly I’d pick up Spanish, I always thought of the journey as a point A to point B experience. In reality, it’s more of a linear progression that includes a lot of dips and plateaus (see this post about the emotional side of learning a new language). I’d say I’m conversational now, but that can go right out the window depending on the situation or my mental state—comprehension is a whole other story if I’m tired or stressed. Language is a big, unwieldy, living thing and even if you do become fluent, you’ll never be able to stop studying.
I’ll be constantly happy and everything will be easy
I never said my daydreams were realistic! We had a lot of help moving and I feel like I can’t complain because compared to many expats, we had a pretty easy time settling in. At the same time telling myself I could have had it worse only suppressed a very natural part of adjusting to life abroad, causing me to stagnate in the lowest of the low part of the culture shock curve. Real life isn’t perfect and it’s ok to not like aspects of your new home. Acknowledging that you don’t like the local food or people being late or how it’s normal to eat dinner at 9 pm doesn’t mean you won’t be happy or that you hate your new country’s culture.
I’m just now inching closer and poking this feeling with a ten-foot pole, but I sometimes feel like moving abroad was a selfish choice. I get to plan to see my sister-in-law for her baby shower, but the chances are slim that I’ll be in the hospital waiting room while she’s pushing away (or laying in agony through 24 hours of back labor, good luck gal!). I feel guilty because though living in Colombia has been a dream realized for Cody and me, it has also impacted the rest of our family. I’m thankful that we have the ability to fly back and forth for major events, but I’ve talked to other expats who’ve had to make really hard decisions between two friends’ weddings or having to decide if a family member was sick enough to warrant a plane ticket.
I’ll be able to go back
This has been the hardest pill to swallow and a truth I still grapple with each time we go back to San Diego. Life isn’t static and your home will not be the idealized place you’ve clung to when your new life throws you curveballs. I’ve gone to our favorite bar and not recognized anyone and been completely disappointed at what used to be our favorite restaurant. At some point in each trip, I kick myself because some aspect of my buildup doesn’t quite live up to expectation.
Even if these environmental aspects remain the same, your group of close knit friends will morph into something unrecognizable or dissolve altogether. New people will fill the gaps you leave. There will be new jokes about that one time and you’ll be lost. Drifting between your friends at ‘home’ and a newborn social circle in your new country is excruciating.
After the hurdle of those initial clunky moments, you’ll face another struggle with friends: common ground. Chances are your current life looks very different from the one left behind. You’ll want to share your experiences, but they may quickly tire of hearing about the places you’re traveling and new things you’re discovering. I can’t count the times I’ve given Cody a little nudge under the table (or felt it myself!) because someone’s eyes are glazing over at the absurd deal we got on a villa in Bali or how I don’t work and haven’t cleaned a toilet in a year because in-home help is a steal, but I’m so stressed with my volunteer work and fitting in time for writing.
I can’t help but think of my rose-colored glasses the way some of my friends talk about their experience having children. Before baby comes they wax poetic about how their kid will be sleeping in their crib from day one or they’ll never miss a party because junior will go to sleep wherever, only to have an if I only knew chuckle and eye roll a few months later. But even when you’re muddling through the tough parts, no one says they’d give it all up.
It’s the same with life abroad. Even considering the lows, I’m thankful for our life here because I’ve been able to take part in a library project that I would never have gotten close to in the U.S. because of inexperience. The same can be said for the writing classes I’ve taken and how I’ve felt some relief from the pressure to settle down and start breeding. No matter the situation, it’s still shocking to discover the fallacy in these things we tell ourselves; even so, they’re an integral part to scaling whatever mountain is ahead of us.