Having lived in Hawaii, South Korea, Thailand and now Malaysia, I can safely say that I’ve had my fair share of experience as a long term traveller and expat. Long-term travel could be a time when you’ve relocated to another country for an extended period of time to study, volunteer, work or when you’ve stayed in one place for a few months at least. I have had some of the greatest and most challenging times whilst living abroad, but I am forever changed and enriched by these seasons. Here I share some of the realities about living abroad…
1. It’s the full feature, not just a sneak peek.
When you decide to quit your job and leave your home country to live in another one, you’re preparing for the full motion picture, not just the trailer with thrilling highlights. Unlike my three week holiday in South America where I ran around Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro seeking all the best bits, fitting in as much sight-seeing as possible and experiencing each moment like it was my last ( in the country), moving to Seoul for two years was quite the opposite. There I had to play the long game and experience the good, the beautiful and the nasty.
2. You’re really immersed and have the chance to get to know the place better than any other travellers.
Whilst I’m not taking anything away from short city stints or holidays, you’ll seldom be able to fully immerse yourself in a place and be among its people. For the simple reason that there isn’t time- time to build relationships, become involved in different communities and live daily life alongside the local inhabitants. When I first visited Thailand on a two week holiday, sure I chatted to locals and tried to learn as much as I could but I didn’t really get to know any Thai people until moving to Koh Samui a few years later.
In Seoul, I worked with Korean teachers, joined a hip hop dance studio, found an incredible church, performed in musicals and made strong friendships with locals and foreigners. Seoul truly became a second home for me and the people I met, another family. I have a rich understanding of South Korea, its people, food and way of life which I would never have had if I just visited for a short time or backpacked through.
3. It’s like diving into the deep end.
There’s a lot more on the line when it comes to relocating. Often you’ll sell your belongings, pack your life up and risk it all in the hopes that it will work out. Whilst there is more risk, there’s also opportunity for more enrichment. Nothing ventured, nothing gained right? Right.
Packing your bags for a month or two is easy. You know that soon you’ll be back home with your family, favourite foods, TV programmes and coffee shops. But will you ever really discover how far you can push yourself to endure, adapt or learn?
4. You’ll love deeply and leave your heart around the world.
All my expat buddies will agree that when you live in different countries, your heart will inevitably get left behind. Even if it’s in a country where the culture initially rubs you up the wrong way, where you don’t enjoy the food and there’s nothing particularly beautiful about it, you will meet people you connect with and they will become your friends for life.
I was part of a volunteer performing arts programme in Hawaii and while it was some of the most challenging months of my life, in the end it was painful to leave and say bye to the people I became so close to. To this day, some of my best friends live across the globe. Skype is the only way we can chat, but it’s the price we pay for wanderlusting around the world.
5. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.
Leaving my family has never been easy for me. I’m very close to them and the allure of travel doesn’t make it any easier. It’s difficult to say goodbye when I know I won’t see them for another year or two, that I’ll miss out on births, birthdays, weddings and just weekly quality time. Home sickness is real and even when I’ve had my husband by my side, I ached for home and my family after a while.
Depending on the culture you’ve grown up in and the new ones you’ll encounter when you relocate, there is bound to be some kind of struggle within you. Even though I’ve lived in Asia for over three years, there are still things that blow my mind and make me ask the question “What are they thinking?”
There are often things I feel can be done better. But going into any country and assuming your way is the best way is arrogant, ignorant and proves detrimental to you building relationships and enjoying life there. I’ve learnt to laugh at the differences, put up with the ‘smells’ of Asia (so to speak) and adapt. When we learn to open our minds to the possibility that there are different ways of living, we can truly appreciate the differences (and similarities) in others, learn to love them and grow infinitely more ourselves.
Whilst short and long term travel both have their merits and highlights, I would say that everyone should take the plunge at least once in their life. If you never live in another country and get to do life completely differently, how will you ever know what you really love and enjoy on this earth. Can you say that you have truly travelled at all?
Have you ever been an expat or long-term traveller in another country? What was your experience like?