You may have enjoyed Hyde’s recent post on Ten Reasons Why You Should NOT Become an Expat here on the German Way Expat Blog. In the past few months I have found myself talking to many less-experienced expats, consoling them in their homesickness or loneliness, or convincing them that they can enjoy this adventure. Most of my adult life has been spent abroad and I have met many other expats and listened to their stories. What follows are my 5 reasons for loving the expat experience, whether it be a brief semester abroad or decades exploring the globe.
5. Break the Routine. So much of adult life gets settled into a routine: the daily grind of work and responsibilities. Perhaps you are living in a big city and stuck in the rat race, spending hours of your day commuting in traffic. Or perhaps you live in the suburbs and are subjected to the adult version of Mean Girls when you bring your kids to the playground. Perhaps you live in a small town or the country, and are tired of staring at the same hills (or lack thereof) every day. Moving abroad will take that routine and scatter it to the winds. You will find a new routine abroad, after about six months. You will find a new comfort zone and settle into it. Don’t expect your personality to change: your level of satisfaction in life is bound to remain about the same, but at least you will be doing different things in a different place for awhile.
4. Learn New Ways of Doing Things. It is perhaps one of the biggest curses of living abroad: once you discover that there are better (and worse) ways of doing things, you will never be satisfied with the Home Way again. Toronto is a prime example of a city that could be doing many things better. After over a decade of living with German efficiency in public transport and traffic regulation, I can only shake my head when I sit in Toronto traffic. Don’t they know they have the power to change things? Make some pedestrian zones, restrict parking, create bike lanes, and traffic will flow better! On the other hand, there was a kind stranger who changed a flat tire for me in a parking lot last winter. How come Germans can’t learn to be that helpful to strangers? Here is the curse: I see the best of both worlds and will always long to have them in one place. As for its blessing: at least I have the comfort of knowing that there are other ways of living, and that they can also be good.
3. Broaden Your Worldview. You know those stereotypes you learned about other cultures? You know them: Germans drink beer, Americans are loud, etc. Some of them are actually true. I am remarkably loud, and 12 years in Germany did nothing to quiet me. However, no single person is the union of all stereotypes, and no culture will reveal itself as a stereotype-conglomeration once you delve beneath the surface. Go there. Find out about the people, learn what makes them wonderfully unique, learn what makes you similar (more than you think!) and different (less than you expect). Let the individuals in your host culture share their life experiences and broaden your worldview in the process. Share your life experiences with them, and change their worldview too.
2. Connect with Your Family. This is an unexpected side-effect of living abroad, although I know some highly perceptive families who have chosen to go abroad for this exact reason. Living in another country can bring you closer together. When you are in a foreign culture, you rely on each other more. You discover strengths in each family member that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Maybe one of your children surprises you with her ability to learn the new language rapidly, helping you all order food at restaurants. Maybe you focus more on your kids and their education about their home culture, and build better relationships with them as a result. You can’t tell in advance how the experience of being abroad will help you connect with your family, but you can be sure that it will change your family dynamic, and enjoy watching it unfold. (As a side-note, I have been told that the divorce rate amongst expats is lower than average. Correlation, however, is not causation. Don’t expect it to save your marriage.)
1. Freedom. One of my best friends made her first trip abroad at age 23, to visit me in London. As with most twenty-somethings, she was managing the transition from student to adult as best she could, while trying on different jobs and relationships to see what would “stick”. Like many twenty-somethings, she wasn’t quite sure yet who she was, or who she wanted to be. I probably wasn’t sure of any of that myself, but had put myself on a path and was navigating my own adventure. Watching my childhood friend in London was like watching a coming-of-age movie. She let her hair down, both figuratively and literally. I witnessed a transformation from the person she thought others expected her to be (a difficult state for anyone to maintain, both exhausting and isolating) into the beautiful person she was at the time (and still is today): happy, spirited, curious, kind, interesting, engaging, real. This freedom to be yourself is unique and I have written about it before as one of my favorite aspects of expat life. The freedom from cultural norms is also the freedom to discover yourself as an individual, away not only from the cultural expectations but the social expectations of your community.