With every new experience I have abroad, I try to scramble up a way to express to my friends and family back home about how it really is over here. We often hear from family and friends that we are “living the dream”, and I want to tell them that we are, that everything is okay and that life over here is effortless. Because in so many ways, we really are “living the dream.”
But, this dream comes with many beautiful struggles, and I’m here to expose those struggles and the most common misconceptions about living abroad. I wish I could sit here and tell you that it is one big Mary-Kate-and-Ashley-movie fairytale, but its not. It is far from it. It may not be a fairytale, but it is something way better than that.
Living abroad isn’t the “real world”
Any person that has lived abroad has guaranteed heard the question, “When are you going to come back to the real world?”
We are even guilty of saying it ourselves, “Yeah, after this year I’m going to have to go back to the real world.”
I honestly find this question offensive and want to shake my friends that believe it when they say it. When you live abroad, you are living in a world more real than most people will experience in their lifetime. You are thousands of miles away from your family, without your day-to-day outlets, trying to keep your head above water whilst trying to immerse yourself in a completely foreign culture.
I promise you, this world is real. Every single person’s world is real, whether that is in a 9-5 job or waiting tables at a restaurant. Just because we live abroad doesn’t mean our world is any less real than anyone else’s. This often gets lost in hindsight, but it is something people who live abroad and their relatives/friends shouldn’t forget.
We automatically have a million friends and a prince charming awaiting our arrival
There’s usually this vision when we move abroad that we’re going to go and make a million friends and life will be grand and we’ll meet our British prince charming. I’m here to tell you: Life abroad does not go according to this Mary-Kate-and-Ashley-movie plan.
Making friends abroad is an interesting dynamic because you #1 don’t have a choice of who you’re going to meet/be placed with so that #2 forces you to become friends because #3 you don’t have any other choice. You are going to be placed with many types of people with many different backgrounds, and you definitely aren’t going to be friends with everybody.
But, without fail, every year I get more and more surprised at the people I meet. I wonder, how is it even humanly possible that I could be stuck in a town/school, or come across a person on my travels that I just click with? How did we end up here, together, at this exact moment in time when both of us have had to make so many decisions to be here? All I can say is I guess it’s the closest thing I’ve found to magic. Cheesy, I know.
So, we don’t make a million friends and we may not all meet our prince charming, but we have a good few people that we cherish and those few have changed our lives. The people we meet abroad are often times the best part of the whole experience.
Expats are all trust-fund babies
I’m pretty sure people think I have some money fairy, a money tree, or that my parents have funded all of my travels. While I wish I had all of these things, it is not the truth.
I would be lying to you if I said that I have single-handedly funded all of my travels the past two and a half years. My family and extended family have been extremely generous in supporting my dreams and time here. I am so grateful for their help, and even though I have had help, that help is only a base.
The reality is, people that live abroad are some of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever met. I’ve met more people in student debt than I have without student debt. I’ve been humbled and shocked at the lengths some people go to be here.
Personally, I’ve maybe saved a grand total of $50 my two and a half years abroad. My friends and I sometimes catch ourselves longing for the day where we can buy shoes that we don’t have to worry about fitting in a suitcase, but we know that day will come. Right now, that’s not what we came here to do. Saving money isn’t on our agenda, adventure and experience is. We realize that hard work and determination will bring us to where we want to be, not our parents’ money. We’re on a path that is driven by an innate passion, and we will always find a way to make it work.
Life is a constant adventure
What you see on social media accounts is a very small highlight of our lives here. You may want to punch us when you see our Instagrams and Snapchats drinking on the beaches of Thailand or eating baguettes with cheese in front of the Eiffel Tower, but I promise you this is a tiny fleeting moment of our time here.
A Day in the Life of Bridget in Thailand
5:45am: Wake up and shower
6:00-6:30am: Get ready, make coffee/eat breakfast
6:30am: Get a taxi to school
5:30pm: Eat dinner
6-7pm: Sit on my phone
8pm: Facetime my parents
9pm: Go to bed
Riveting, isn’t it? My biggest adventure this week has been trying to figure out the Thai post system to mail a postcard home.
My point: Living abroad is a simple, often lonely, life. We go to work, come home, and try to fill our alone time the best we can. I’ve watched more TV series than I should probably admit. (Like the time I finished all of Game of Thrones in one week…) I wait for my parents to wake up so I can tell them about my day. I bug my only two other friends here when I’m bored. It’s a simple life, but it’s intertwined with many great adventures.
Choices come easy
From the moment we are born, our only real responsibility and guarantee is to work to achieve an academic goal: graduate 8th grade, graduate high school, graduate college/trades school, maybe get our masters.
Then that day comes when we’re in our early/mid 20s, with our whole lives ahead of us. We move our tassel from right to left, smile with our diplomas, graduate and what are we left with? Lots of confusion and lots of shot-in-the-dark decisions to make on our own. We gulp and realize that post-grad life is a rude awakening.
When living abroad, these shot-in-the-dark decisions are heightened. We sometimes come across amazing opportunities that will fall into our laps, from teaching yoga in Bali to becoming ski instructors in the Swiss Alps. Our eyes light up at these opportunities, and the world is our oyster. Post-grad life suddenly isn’t so bad. Who wouldn’t want to do these things?!
The reality: there’s a tremendous amount of guilt that comes from making these choices. Our heads pull us in one direction, but our hearts in another. I wish there was a magical switch for all of us where we could turn off thinking about home, money, future careers, and eventually starting a family, but there’s not.
And it all boils down to this: I’ve learned that the people that truly love you will be there to support you no matter what, and will be there throughout any decision you make, even if that decision may not be what they want. The choices may not be easy, but we are so lucky to have the choice.
We effortlessly mix into our new cultures
I’ve worked at three schools abroad now in two different countries, and each one has exposed me to a new set of cultural challenges. I’ve come to the conclusion that as young foreign travelers, we are unfortunately at the bottom of the totem pole in our new cultural society.
Most of the teachers I’ve worked with have been wonderful, but there are those fair few that make our time abroad not so wonderful. These few look at us as these post-grad gap-year hopefuls that get paid about the same, don’t actually care about teaching, and have our parents’ money to support us. Most of the time, they don’t want anything to do with us.
The worst is when one of these obvious few asks you:
“So… did you just come here to travel?”
What I want to answer: Excuse me mister if I came here to travel my ass wouldn’t be sitting in a school thousands of miles away from home trying to teach insane children. If I came here to “travel” I’d be on a beach somewhere with my friends and a piña colada.
What I really do: Take a deep breath and try to come up with a better, more articulate answer than above.
When I get questions like this, I remember that there is a lot that we can learn from one another. Living abroad is a constant battle of trying to understand the new culture you’re in while they try to understand yours.
So, yes, we find it incredibly frustrating, but we know it is so so worth it. We are lucky to learn from so many different cultural aspects of life and be able to carry them out into our own lives. We come back home with thousands of stories and a perspective that we never dreamed of having. We wake up some days being like “holy shit, I am here and this is my life”, smiling from ear-to-ear. And that makes it all worth it.
Homesickness is nonexistent
Remember when you were little and your friends would ask you, “If you were a superhero, what superpower would you choose?”
If you asked me now? Teleportation.
Unfortunately people that live abroad don’t possess this superpower. It may come as a shock, but we really do love our families and friends just as much as anybody else. We talk about them all the time. Some of us may not all have the best family life back home, but the longer we’re gone the more we learn to appreciate what we have.
We have to be strong through the holidays, graduations, weddings, birthdays, and even funerals that we miss. We may miss home so much some days that it hurts, but at some point we all wake up and learn home will always be home. And even though we leave them, the ones that truly love us will always be there for that Facetime call, to send us that long-awaited postcard, or to welcome us back when we finally get off that plane. They’re our heroes, and we’re blessed to have them.
Our jobs are easy
Imagine you are sitting in a class with a teacher that is barking at you in a language that you barely grasp. This teacher is yelling at you to sit down, listen, and forcing you to learn. You and all the other 30 of your friends in class know that this teacher isn’t here to stay, you’ve had these foreign teachers your whole lives and you could care less. There’s a no-fail policy so they have to pass you anyways. All you care about is the cute boy in your class or the soccer game you have after school.
Now imagine that teacher being you. You’re facing 30 kids that you’ve come halfway across the world to teach. You want to change lives. You are trying to focus on the kids that want to learn whilst dealing with your students that are trying to crawl out the window. You have created these lesson plans, putting your heart into them even though you know there is a no-fail policy and you have to pass your students anyways. You wonder what your point is as an educator if you can’t hold your students accountable to anything. You think to yourself: if they don’t care, should I care?
Then there comes the day when your little 3rd graders all run up to you and scream “Miss Bridget, we love you!!” and give you a big hug. There’s the day where you get to watch your seniors walk across the stage and graduate. There’s the day where a student you’ve seen struggle finally understands a concept. Then there’s that final day at the end of the year where you say goodbye to these students, teachers, and fellow expats you’ve worked with. You walk home, clutching onto the goodbye cards and replay the memories from the year over and over again in your head, wondering how you got to this point. You cry thinking about how much has happened between that first day and your last. You’re grateful.
This job isn’t easy. It honestly might be the hardest job most of us will ever have. But, it is the best and most rewarding job in the world.
My conclusion: Living abroad is hard, and it is not for everybody. It’s scary, lonely, uncomfortable, frustrating and everything else in between. While it may be all of these things, it is also so incredibly amazing that I can’t even put into words the way one feels when you’ve pushed yourself and truly know that this is where you are meant to be. All in all, we really are living out a beautiful dream. It may be a struggle of a dream, but it is a brilliant, worth-the-struggle one.
Living abroad and have something to add to the list? Leave me a comment in the section below! 🙂