Do You Have What It Takes?

…to move abroad, that is?

Before my first trip abroad, in January 2008, I had no idea what living in another country was like. Naturally. I could have, and did, read anything and everything that came my way, devouring Spain for Dummies and Study Abroad 101. I searched high and low on Google for hints, tips, and tricks to surviving in a foreign country. Google did not lack such tips. Indeed, the Internet has what one might call an overabundance of such inside information.

Luckily for you, dear reader, I’m here to add to the myriad advice.

  1. Be flexible. This is my number one tip for a reason. Travel is nothing if not unpredictable. Living abroad can lull you into thinking that everything is routine, going swimmingly, when BAM! Something sideswipes you and knocks you off your proverbial feet. You have to be prepared to adjust, adapt, and not get flustered. (This is one of my weaknesses, I’ll admit.
  2. Independence. It takes a while to make friends, to set down roots in a place. If you’re like me, you may feel as though you’re floundering for a while, reaching out again and again and yet ending up with no “real” friends. It helps to be self-confident and independent, to realize that those friendships will evolve. Eventually.
  3. Openmindedness. Things are done differently in Spain (and in China, in Brazil, in Iceland, etc.) Shocking, I know. But you may not be able to find peanut butter or fresh milk. You may have to learn how to get to the bank when it’s only open from 9-2. You may find a place quite politically incorrect. You may deal with stereotypes of Americans. You may find a cultural tradition to be shocking, even immoral, whatever that word means to you. That’s okay…just remember, you seem weird to them, too.
  4. Courageousness. If you move abroad, you’ll most likely be speaking in a foreign language. You’ll have to suck it up and just do the things that make you uncomfortable. When I first got to Spain, even going to the post office was an exercise in courage. I mean, when you aren’t even sure how to say envelope, the experience can be difficult, let alone when you don’t understand the whole “take a number” process.
  5. Perserverance. You can’t give up the first time you really screw up. It’s going to happen. Face it. You may have visa issues. You may find yourself lost while trying to get home. You might, at one point, be convinced that you’ll never learn, never understand, never fit in. That’s the real turning point – will you give up? or will you keep on truckin’? I hope, for your sake, that you’ll keep on keepin’ on.

So, fellow expats, what advice do you have for those who are just starting (or hoping to start) their experience abroad?

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6 thoughts on “Do You Have What It Takes?

  1. From a journalistic standpoint, RESEARCH! It helps to make contacts thru couchsurfing, facebook, the consulates abroad. Read up on your destination: best dates to travel for festivals, little-known figures or history facts. Talk to people who have lived there. Make a list of goals. Um, do it?

  2. Yes all of the things both of you said. I think I was able to have the best experience possible in Hong Kong because I tried to make the most of what was around me. I used my little Top 10 of Hong Kong (http://www.amazon.com/Eyewitness-Top-10-Travel-Guides/dp/078948434X) book which was amazing to create mini and some major excursions. It helped me really appreciate the culture and have some great experiences! Along with what Cat said, I looked up to see if there were any IU alums and emailed them. I actually had dinner a few times with one and I knew that if I knew noone else there, at least I had that one person I could go to.

    Also, milk was very scarce in HK and it made me so sad. I finally found some that was imported from Australia that tasted a little like ‘our’ milk and it was so expensive!

  3. Great tips! I like your suggestions because you recognize that even if you’ve done tons and tons of research there are still things that you just can’t plan for. It’s those moments when you have to roll with the punches and buck up. The best part is when you overcome those unexpected challenges and realize you can live abroad and survive the ups and downs!

    Bon week-end from Paris!

  4. Great advice!
    I would add the importance of studying the language, especially if you’re interested in moving abroad in any sort of permanent way. Although I studied French in college, I still did not speak it all that well (especially compared to my French peers! Wow did they talk so super fast and used all this slang!), but every improvement in my language abilities helped me to make new friends, or just better the friends I already had.
    And I guess with learning the language I would add humility. As learning a new language is very difficult, takes a very long time, and you’re going to make millions of mistakes and have every French person correct you about them thousands of times! But speak it anyway! It’ll be super beneficial in the long run.

  5. I really think being flexible is the most important thing. There are so many times since I’ve been in China that plans have completely changed, or you thought you were going one place but ended up somewhere completely different. Being able to be flexible in these situations will help you fit in and feel a lot more comfortable.

    Also… especially the longer you are away from America, don’t be afraid to occasionally ditch the culture you’re in and splurge a little bit to get a taste of America. This could mean going to a western restaurant or buying food from the import or foreign grocery store to make a home cooked meal. This always helps me so much when I am homesick or fed up with the culture!

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