20 Ways Living Abroad Changes You Forever
Living abroad is life-changing.
Not so much the Eat, Pray, Love type of life-changing, but something more subtle. Real life abroad changes you slowly over time, so that it's hard to even notice you've changed. You start to adapt to new norms, you try to fit in and learn how you want to live in this new environment. And as you're doing all of this, you start to internalize these new ways of living.
Although people move abroad for a number of different reasons, it always ends up changing you to your core, in irreversible ways. Even if you wanted to, you cannot go back to who you were before.
1. Your resume levels up
Perhaps one of the more superfluous perks, nonetheless your resume is likely to stand out from the stack when you demonstrate you've lived and worked overseas. And if your language skills also are resume worthy, even better. This probably isn't the best motivation for moving abroad, but it is definitely one of the benefits.
With industries and the work environment changing at such a rapid pace, it's said that 80% of the jobs the will exist in 2025 don't exist today. Demonstrating that you can adapt and handle change might end up being one of the most valuable skills in the workforce going forward.
2. Your view of ‘home’ changes forever
I recently visited Gent, Belgium where I only lived for a short period over three summers, but walking around the city, everything felt like home to me. I had old memories in certain parks, stories from different restaurants and bars, a yoga studio that knew my name... Gent was as much of a home as The US & France are to me, even if for only a brief time.
Home to me is not only my hometown of Alliance, Ohio. Home is a place where I feel comfortable, where things are familiar, and where I feel most like myself.
3. You build a lot of grit
Grit is defined as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals."
When you finally move to a foreign country, you've probably spent months building up grit just making it happen in the first place. Visas aren't easy to navigate, finding living accommodation is challenging, and landing a job isn't a breeze. But once you move abroad, that perseverance will only build as you navigate life in a new place.
4. Your friend circle expands
For me, one of the biggest draws of living abroad (or traveling) is the unique characters you meet along the way. You encounter people who have nothing in common with you, yet have so much in common. And you learn to love everyone for their unique quirks. I love the sense of humor of my Belgian & Dutch friends. I love the endless sarcasm of my British mates. And I love the "IDGAF" attitude of my French friends.
Your friend circle will also expand in the type of friends you keep, and the types of relationships you have with them. There will be the friends who are always down for any adventure, the friends who joke and make you laugh for hours, and the friends who instantly dive into deep conversation.
On top of all this, you'll likely always have a couch to crash on and just might get invited to some weddings in unique and wonderful places!
5. Your relationship with possessions changes
You can't take everything with you. You have to make choices. And when you're abroad you likely won't keep the possessions you've acquired there either. So you develop a sense of detachment from the items you own, and start to see them as temporary. Many things are replaceable and you realize that value does not lie in your possessions.
On the flip side you also learn to treasure a special items more dearly. Whether it's an item from home that you always keep with you or something a special friend gave to you abroad, these things will hold stronger sentimental value. When you keep less, you treasure what you have more.
6. You become homesick for two different homes
When I'm away on vacation, I look forward to going 'home' to all the comforts of my apartment in France. But at times I also miss the US in a deep, deep way. In France I often yearn for quick and friendly service and the diverse culture of the US. But when I'm outside of France I miss the fresh mountain water, long leisurely meals, and the slow pace of life.
I don't think this is a bad thing at all, but rather I feel grateful to be able to experience and miss the best things about two countries.
7. You develop a high level of comfort with ambiguity
You'll be confused a lot of the time. Whether it's lost in translation or just a totally foreign way of doing things, there will be times when you're not entirely sure what's going on, and you just have to roll with it. And you realize that you can just roll with it, even if you couldn’t beforehand. You don’t need to figure out everything entirely, you can deal with some ambiguity and the world will not crash down.
8. You can go with the flow
There is something magical that happens when you are out of your comfort zone for a long period of time. You realize that you don't need everything to be just as you'd prefer, and that actually, life's more exciting when it's not to your preference. And the more you go with the flow, the easier it becomes. Some of my best memories are from days following someone else's itinerary, changing plans last minute, or just letting the day unfold and seeing where it flows.
9. You become OK with saying goodbye
I had an Australian co-worker who was leaving when his visa expired. He gave me a hug and said, "Bye, see you never!" I was taken aback and laughed in the moment, but in hindsight it was the perfect goodbye. I haven't seen him since that day nine years ago, and that's okay.
People come in and out your life the same way that you popped into people's lives in this new country and then will (probably) one day leave as well. Most things in our lives are temporary, even relationships, and it’s more apparent once we live abroad. You will likely have to say many goodbyes, and honestly, they do get easier as you go on. You can see that your experience with someone was perfect as it was, and if you don’t see them for a long time – if ever – it’s even more precious.
10. Your tastes change
It just may turn out that your favorite food is something you had never tried before leaving home. Suddenly you have an entirely new influence and perspective on culture that shifts your preferences that you had built over a long time. There will be musicians you've never heard of, food you've never tried, and outfits that wouldn't work in your previously life.
As you try and blend in and fit into the new culture, new tastes and preferences will slowly become a part of who you are. Your tastes probably won't change instantly, but things will start to permeate into you without you even realizing it.
11. You no longer know what part of you is from which culture
There have been multiple moments back in the US where someone points out something I've done or said is weird. That it's not American. Hmmm, I didn't even realize it. I've adapted my speech, mannerisms and who knows what else, and they have become pieces of me. I don't even know where or when I picked them up, but I did.
12. Your conversation skills develop
You will be meeting lots of new people and will need to make new friends, which requires conversation skills. If you were shy or introverted at home, you will learn how to step out of your comfort zone and start chatting up strangers. You will be forced to become more comfortable
You won't be able to gossip about common friends or the local drama, you'll be forced to dig a bit deeper to find something in common. And you'll want to. Your conversation will likely be driven by something different: curiosity and the desire to absorb knowledge. All these new people from different places with different backgrounds are so interesting, that you truly want to learn about them, their way of life and their beliefs, because this is what truly changes you.
13. You can see your home country’s faults
Your new lens on the world does not exclude being critical of your own country. Once you see another way of doing something, that is actually better, you all of a sudden see a fault in your home country that you didn't know was there previously. Whether it’s the health care system or paid vacation time or just the pace of life, you will become critical of things you weren't previously, and you won't be able to un-see these things.
14. You can see your home country’s benefits
This goes the other way as well.
There will be things about your adopted country that drive you absolutely insane and you desperately wish it functioned as it does in your own country. This is good. You likely took those things for granted before you left and now when you go back, you will appreciate them more fully.
15. You learn how to pay taxes and navigate healthcare
This is a fun one. Taxes and healthcare will likely operate quite differently than they did at home, and it will be an adventure trying to navigate it in a foreign language. Luckily the internet is filled with tons of advice (Expat Forum is one of my go-to's for practical/legal advice) and I'm lucky to have a big community of expats around me to help navigate these complex tasks.
And once you figure it out you will feel so proud! Building life skills one tax return at a time.
16. You miss important moments
Living abroad does not come without sacrifices. Missing the big moments is one of the biggest. There will be weddings, funerals, and births you will miss. You will miss holidays and celebrations with friends and family, and the little moments as well.
But the show will go on without you, and you cannot re-live it. You can only accept that this is part of the choice you have made, and show your love and support to those people back home in the best way you can.
17. You understand loneliness
There have been times when I've felt deep pains of loneliness. And you probably will as well. It will be confusing and sad, and there won't feel as if there is a solution because in all reality, you are quite alone. Your family and friends won't be just around the corner.
It's nothing to feel ashamed or be angry about. I believe all emotions have an opposite - the yin & yang - and once you really know loneliness, you can really understand togetherness.
18. You no longer know where you belong
I'll never be French. But I no longer feel fully American. I'm somewhere in-between, yet I am neither.
I will always be American (obvi), but there are parts of me that don't feel like they belong in the US anymore. This used to make me upset, but recently when discussing this state of non-belonging with a friend, he spun it in another direction. He loves that he is able to simultaneously make fun of and defend both countries, and that he gets to have his toes in both waters. Maybe it's okay to live the in between, taking the best of both worlds.
19. Your fascination with the world only grows
This is the funny thing. The more you see, the more you want to see. Your appetite for getting to know the world is not fulfilled once you live abroad; it only grows. You want to see more places, meet more people, and experience more ways of life. The stories from fellow expats’ home countries and travels is alone enough to inspire you.
But really, once you live abroad, you realizeyou know you so little. This one experience is just a drop in the hat of what the world has to offer, and there is infinite knowledge and experiences to be gained.
20. YOU change
Each of us is a melting pot of all of the things they've done, the people they've met and the places they've been. We take a little piece of everything we do and encounter with us, and we add that into the mixture of our souls. The further you go, the stranger things you see, the more diverse your mixture pot becomes. And it's something that cannot be reversed.
Once you leave home and have your worldview flipped upside down, you can't un-flip it. You can never go back to the person before who was happily and comfortably living life at home. After living abroad you become much complex. Even if it was possible, you don’t want to revert to your old worldview, but you will long for the simplicity and ease oflife beforehand.
American author, Thomas Wolfe, once wrote:
“I have a thing to tell you. That is you can’t go home again.”
While I do believe you can go home, you can never go home and see it with the same eye. It's bittersweet. And hopefully if you're like me, you wouldn't want to go back to your old self anyways.