I’m no expert on living abroad but I’ve done it twice and wouldn’t mind doing it again. The first time was studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador for a semester during junior year of college. A year after graduating, I moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to teach ESL and travel around Southeast Asia and ended up living there for two and a half years. Oftentimes, people advertise the expat life in a glorified light and I wanted to bring it down to earth. I’m sharing eight of the biggest challenges of living abroad to give you perspective on the realities you might face.
1. You question who you are
Your life as a foreigner will be unimaginably different. Even now, I wake up wondering how I survived living in Ho Chi Minh City for a long time because it’s hard for me to process how different that life was. When you go through that, it’s easy to question who you really are. As an expat, you have different privileges so your arrogance might spike up. You’ve also left most of your life behind so you might be comfortable exuding a different self and become comfortable in it. When you’re deeply immersed in a culture, personalities you didn’t even know existed start manifesting themselves and let me tell you, it’s scary at times, but also mind-blowing.
2. You feel unsafe and vulnerable
The severity of this might differ depending on where you live but it’s a reality for all. You could live in a considerably safe place like Singapore but still be vulnerable. The truth is, the world isn’t safe and it’s especially difficult if you’re in a country with little to no enforcements. These guys I knew had their laptops and other valuable electronics stolen from their apartment in the middle of the night. A former colleague found her motorbike gone. My wallet was invasively snatched out of my hands. I loved Ho Chi Minh City but I couldn’t live comfortably because I feared the simplest things like wearing gold jewelry and taking out my phone in public.
3. You’ll experience loneliness and homesickness
Don’t expect that initial thrill and excitement to last. Homesickness will hit you after the honeymoon phase of starting your life abroad. Even if you left home because you hated it, you’ll find something to miss. There was a point when I missed riding the 6 train in New York City during morning rush hour with no air conditioners and smelling sewage. The worst part is that you will feel like you’re alone. No doubt, you’ll miss your friends and family and maybe even the career you had before. The amount of loneliness and homesickness that hits you, especially within the first three months of living abroad is heavy.
4. You might have visa issues
Paperwork is something you barely give thought to but when you leave your own country, visa issues will come up and you’re never going to take it for granted again. Nine months into my stay in Vietnam, I learned that my legal permanent residency status back home was in jeopardy. I don’t regret living in Vietnam but being haunted by the idea of potentially losing my green card for good and not being able to live in the United States was nauseating. Trips to the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City could sarcastically be described as comforting and assuring. Visa issues are anxiety-inducing and can ruin the whole experience of living abroad when the point is to feel excitement and joy.
5. Your health becomes to the most important thing
Getting sick is bad but it’s even worse when you’re abroad. But being sick isn’t the worst part. When you’re in the hospital and doctors are speaking in a foreign language, your fear for your life. Can you imagine just how much can be lost in translation? What if you get a prescription that does more harm to you than good? Once, I got severely sick and my body couldn’t process water. I was already dehydrated but struggled to take the steps to care of my well being when my body wouldn’t cooperate. And since I didn’t know the local language well, going to the hospital was out of question. After living abroad, you’ll never approach your health the same way you used to.
6. You will face cultural and communication barriers
Overcoming cultural and communication barriers is one of the toughest challenges of living abroad. You may know the language or be familiar with the culture but nothing is going to prepare you for total immersion. It takes an open mind to transcend those barriers. As humans, we all want to believe we’re already open but truthfully, we’re not. I’ve said things to others without harmful intents but they took my words personally because it was considered offensive in their culture. Being limited to your own knowledge only encourages judgment. Discarding everything you know, especially things you consider to be obvious or universal, is a daunting challenge. This never gets easier.
7. You will contemplate your career path
This applies specifically to those who are teaching ESL. Being an ESL teacher has a lot of wonderful perks. The pay is great, the schedule is flexible and you’re around a lot of positive energy. But every now and then, that voice in the back of your head will kick in saying, “You didn’t go through four years of rigorous academics to bum around, teach English and travel wherever.” I worked hard to design lessons that got students excited to learn English (don’t worry, I wasn’t one of those teachers that braided hair and showed movies) but I still felt that burning sense of career stagnation. The rest of my friends were getting their Master’s, founding startups and taking advanced roles in big companies. Compared to them, I often felt like an unaccomplished loser.
8. You are going to hate coming back
Sure, you’ll experience homesickness but deep down, you love living abroad and you’re not pleased with the thought of going back home. Returning home means having to deal with reverse culture shock. You know that when you return, the thrill and discoverability of life in a foreign country won’t exist. New York City is my favorite place in the entire universe and I’m currently working towards another career that I love so it worked out for me. However, getting to this point was a struggle. I still get nostalgic about the exciting life I had in Vietnam and a piece of me wishes that I was still there. Going through the symptoms of reverse culture shock can be worse than homesickness in a foreign country.
Despite the many challenges that you will face while living abroad, you’re not going to regret a minute of it. When you face cultural barriers and begin to open your mind, you’ll start seeing these challenges as a way to empower yourself rather than call it quits. You’ll embrace both the positive and negative aspects of living abroad because you know that any experience will add value to your life. When you face these rough times, remind yourself that you’re not alone and that you can seek help. Sign up with the consulate, talk to your colleagues, write about your experiences (whether on a blog or a personal journal) and be fearless about making friends. Be comfortable in your vulnerability. Ultimately, you’ll learn that it’s not the euphoric moments that make this experience great. Instead, overcoming struggles will be the most rewarding thing about living abroad.