How Living Abroad Changes You
It’s such a cliche everyone, and I know I’m guilty of saying it quite often in the past as well, but I truly mean it when I say living abroad is a life changing experience. Travel in itself changes you, but not like being completely immersed in a foreign culture for an extended period of time and becoming comfortable enough to call that foreign culture home. There truly isn’t anything else in the world like it!
Instead of just leaving it at that, and you wondering what is so different about the person that came back versus the person that was only just starting out, I’m going to tell you a few of the concrete ways I’ve noticed that my life and my personality have changed since living abroad.
For those of you new to the party, I lived and worked in rural Japan for two years and have been back in California for just under a year now. Since being back in my old surroundings I’ve noticed these changes in particular:
I have fewer friends.
This isn’t the bad thing it sounds like it is, I swear!
Growing up I had a main group of friends and various other bunches of people that I spent time with, each with its own dynamics and interests. These were friendships based on familiarity, proximity, and having a lot of fun! It’s hard to keep in touch with more casual friends over long distances and when I left I created a new life in Japan and met people from around the world I discovered shared core values and life goals with me–something I hadn’t experienced too much before. We had all come to Japan for different reasons, but we all valued new cultures, travel, and breaking out of our comfort zones in some extreme ways. Living life to the fullest meant basically the same thing to us wanderers and I discovered what it was like to be around other people that prioritized traveling and new experiences over careers and settling down.
Back at home, my friends had gone on with their lives and continued building them without me in the picture. That’s just how life works and it’s totally okay. Many of my friends from childhood and college are still in the area so I see them every few months when we’re actually all free at the same time. We have a lot of fun hanging out–I love them still. But I’ve found the group of people I make an effort to keep in touch with and talk to regularly is only a handful, a few from both Japan and from growing up, and they’re like my family. These are friendships based on similarities in personality, goals, and values. Instead of being kept intact by proximity and seeing them everyday in school these friendships have been maintained despite busy schedules and across time zones. I see people on Facebook and remember them fondly, but as far as true blue friends go I now have a much smaller group of amazing people that will always mean everything to me and I know I will keep wherever I go.
I am confident.
Living abroad in a country where you can’t even read the text without a year or more of dedicated study makes you a master problem solver almost immediately! Even things as simple as mailing a letter home, figuring out whether that tube is of toothpaste or of antibiotic cream, or buying the right kind of ticket at the station become huge challenges when there is a language and cultural difference that big. I am now so confident in my ability to use the knowledge I have as well as context to figure things out, and I’m also confident in my ability to handle whatever goes wrong when that combination fails, which it eventually will.
Moving to a place where you know no one and no one knows you is both intimidating and freeing. You aren’t placed in any predetermined boxes of behavior like you are when you’re constantly surrounded by people that you grew up with. All you have is who you are right now and that’s all you can give to those you meet. I am now more aware of my real flaws than ever before and I am also more comfortable with who I am than I have ever been. I don’t know if it was the constant observation by the community, being the only foreigner, the wonders of the onsen, or just having myself to rely on most of the time but I have achieved record levels of not caring what other people think about me! All that matters is that I am comfortable with me and that I make efforts to be the best me that I can be! (Yay for random rhymes!)
I’m not as picky.
Like I said above, I’m confident in my ability to handle whatever I can’t actually figure out. That goes for not being able to read the kanji on a restaurant ordering machine and just pushing a random button with fingers crossed! If I don’t know what’s in something, I’ll eat it. And most of the time–even if I make the mistake of asking what something is before I try it–I’ll eat it, with perhaps less enthusiasm.
I now like fish and seafood, a food group I avoided like the plague for most of my life. I also now prefer sitting on the floor and sleeping on a firmer surface, go figure! There were many habits I had in the U.S. that just weren’t sustainable for life in Japan, like wearing shorts and tank tops indoors during the dead of winter, and I now find that I can comfortably live without them. I also realized that I will do pretty much anything if it won’t kill me and a friend has been wanting to try it. Case in point, going to the highest bungee jump in Japan and then actually participating, when I’m really afraid of free-falling/heights. My new motto: try everything once!
I am, however, now pickier about how I choose to spend my time. I’ll try everything once, but if I know I don’t like it I won’t participate just because everyone else is. I really dislike late nights in bars and clubs so I don’t go. Before I lived abroad I would follow along with whichever friend was going just to be spending time with someone, doing something. If I wasn’t constantly making plans with friends, even if it meant doing something I didn’t enjoy, I felt like I was being left behind. Now I’ll speak up and suggest alternate activities we would both enjoy or simply choose to stay home and see them at a later date. If I know something will make me unhappy, especially to the point where I wind up in a bad mood or uncomfortable in my surroundings, why would I spend my time on it? I make very few exceptions to this rule. A lesson that’s being harshly pounded into me lately is that life is short and time is limited. Choose how you spend it wisely for you won’t get any of it back.
This lesson probably goes in hand with being comfortable spending time with myself. Living abroad can be a very lonely experience at times and you become very adept at handling alone time, even coming to treasure it. Being constantly surrounded by people now I have really come to enjoy the moments I spend completely alone, it’s how I recharge. Extroverts will differ from me on this but I do need to refuse things occasionally so I can just be alone. Ah, sweet silence!
I think about the world differently.
Since living in Japan and meeting so many people from so many different places I have come to imagine the world as one big soccer league. Sure we all root for our home team and do everything we can to make it the best, but in the end we’re all just human and we all want the same basic things. The world has become one large community in my mind and not wanting to help everyone we can when the ability and resources are there absolutely baffles me. My views on a lot of political issues have changed and I’m actually aware of issues from around the world and how they all affect each other–it’s fascinating and necessary knowledge in my opinion. I think the reason I am so aware and involved in today’s political climate is because of my international experience.
I never paid any attention to politics before and if asked to name the capitals, leaders, or locations of many foreign countries I would have utterly failed. I am now beyond frustrated by the ignorance and small-mindedness of the current U.S. administration and its supporters. This has made me more determined than ever to teach my students to be globally aware, respectful, and critical thinkers. I spend a lot more time informing myself about politics from around the world and from my home country so I can pass that knowledge on to others and we can make informed decisions and take informed actions. Let’s stick together, yeah?
The biggest change of all though, I think, is that no matter where I am there is always a part of me that longs for another place. In Japan I missed my family, the Pacific Ocean being in the West, the diverse culture of the U.S. In the U.S. I miss my best friends, my coworkers that took me in as family, the deep roots of culture and tradition that exist in Japan. I am constantly comparing everything to the other country and my heart, I think, is forever torn in two.
Wow. Writing this brought out so many different emotions! In short though, I have become a more aware, self-accepting, confident, and adventurous person. I’m so happy with the person my experiences abroad shaped me into and it’ll be interesting to see how new things continue to change me. Here’s to us, and the people we were, and the people we will be!