What can you learn from life abroad – when ‘sailing the seas of overseas’?
In the beginning of this year – before this global crisis was on – I started listing things I’ve learned during my family’s* nine years abroad, and I’ve noticed that these qualities are helpful also in the volatile and restricted times we are now living.
Family is an anchor, home a safe haven
As a foreigner, without local networks and extended family and sometimes even without friends, often lacking also the language and cultural skills, you’ll seek even more support from your partner and other family members. You’ll get used to taking care of our kids and issues without much outside help. The various changes and situations abroad make the family a close-knit unit.
When you are new to the culture, home becomes your secure nest where you can rest and be your authentic self. Home can also be the only place where you can speak your native langue and maintain traditions that are important to you. The apartments, jobs, languages, locations and some friends may change, but family and home remain.
Keeping yourself in a good condition
If there ever was a time when you thought self-care to be selfish, that time is soon over when you move abroad and notice that your well-being is the cornerstone of everything. When you feel good, you function better in the foreign environment, learn easier, enjoy the new experiences more, and also the people around you are happier.
We know that we need these to feel well:
1) high quality fuel (healthy and regular nutrition),
2) rest & relaxation (a good night sleep and having breaks),
3) movement, and
4) doing things that connect and energise us (being with friends, being in nature, doing things that feel significant in some level, and embracing all the good in life).
If you get these somewhat right, your boat will be traveling smoother and it won’t break so easily in the storms.
Solitude doesn’t mean loneliness and comes with a gift
Solitude is about being with yourself – whether among other people or alone. Often you need to act independently already because you’re lacking a support network. Abroad, sometimes you can cruise for a long time without having other boats (friends) in sight, sometimes you make friends who may soon disappear into the horizon if they move to another place or life situation. You value every friendship but you can also become more cautious before forming new ones.
We’ve been celebrating birthdays, New Year’s Eves and other happenings without friends or relatives, and we are used to keeping in touch with extended family through digital means. Of course you sometimes feel lonely too but you also learn to enjoy your own company, to trust that situations vary and to see other people not as strangers but potential friends.
When you spend more time by yourself, and away from our old roles, zones and habits, it can push you to think and grow – to become who you actually are and want to be.
Facing big and small waves of change
‘The only constant is change’ is not only a phrase but something you’ll live to be true.
“Moving abroad […] will change your home, lifestyle, social circle, food sources, hobby groups and maybe work, weather, language and school too. You may need to leave your current career or clients and to say goodbye to many friends and relatives – some perhaps forever.”, I’ve written in the book ‘Greetings from Abroadland’.
Dealing with all kinds of changes not only makes you tolerate them but you can also learn to like (at least some of) them – and even get addicted to them. Sometimes the best things are not planned but come by surprise.
For many expat families, uncertainty is anything but unfamiliar. Nothing is promised. Contracts may end, regulations related to foreigners may change, unexpected events may take place in the home country and all kinds of other things may happen too, causing changes in plans.
You set your navigation system for the short-term and, and you are ready to change the course if/when needed. Some people have asked me how can we live this way, not knowing what will happen after a few months, but I guess your perception of time and planning alters along the journey and you also see the benefits of letting space for the unknown. Besides, you can’t control the future anyway, no matter where and how you live.
A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”
— John A. Shedd.
Bunch of helpful qualities to cultivate and carry with
Flexibility, perseverance, open-mindedness, creativity, tolerance and solidarity are some qualities that living abroad can strengthen. When you are a foreigner and culturally (maybe including linguistically) novice, thrown in many new situations, you need to have patience and figure things out creatively.
Relocations bring you to unforgettable places, people and times, and then force you to let go of them – and yet you’ll never lose them completely as they’ll be traveling with you in your memories.
You’ll experience how different and then again similar people are everywhere. Different in the way that our lifestyles, living conditions and thinking can vary a lot, and similar in the way that we are all ‘sailing the same seas’, sharing this globe, and most of us want the same thing: to live a happy, meaningful life.
Expect no easy path
Living abroad is not often simple and soft but you did not sign up for ease anyway. You are looking for something interesting, challenging and rewarding. My beloved grandma used to take the longer road to the village centre (in the countryside of Finland) because she said that road had more curves which made it more fun to drive as you could turn the wheel more. Also, the views were more beautiful on that route.
All kinds of obstacles and discoveries make you grow and get richer – not with money but with experiences and viewpoints.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.“
Humour is your super power
The endless embarrassing events (for example when you say something wrong in the local language, or when you unintentionally do something culturally inappropriate) are better to be laughed off. The ability to see the humour in the everyday life, and laugh at yourself, helps hugely to cope with things. Also, you will never run out of fun. So, keep that twinkle in your eye and carry on! You can also write down or share your amusing observations, to make them more memorable and to spread laughter.
Move forward wave by wave, weather by weather
When you travel the colourful circumstances overseas, you’ll need to balance between actively directing things and going with the flow, trusting that most likely you’ll be okay. Also, your kids may surprise you with their resiliency and adaptability, and their abilities to make friends, start in new schools and learn new languages and other cultural skills.
As you don’t know how long the current state of affairs will last, you’ll try to make the most of it, exploring your surroundings and local phenomena. You can’t live too much on the autopilot but then again, the manual mode keeps you more aware and alive.
Overseas the lows can be super low but the highs can be very high too. You’ll be looking back at your adventures according to the quote, ‘not crying because it’s over but smiling because it happened’.
Maybe your lessons abroad have been different, or maybe you have learned these things through other life experiences (than living abroad) but more important than where you learn these skills, is how to harness them to serve other people, yourself and this blue planet in the best possible way.
* My family = I, my husband and our two kids who are now 5 and 11 years old.
More about our adventures (living in Finland, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland) and wisdom from intercultural experts in the book “Greetings from Abroadland”. The book comes with 35 real-life cartoons and 70 tips on how to make the most of your time abroad.