Living Abroad Is Not As Glamorous As You Might Think
Once you’ve got accustomed to your new country, made friends and got settled, living abroad is like having cake on your porch by a sunny Sunday afternoon. Right? Wrong.
What nobody tells you about moving abroad is that you keep a base level of discomfort even past the initial period of adjustment, just because things are different. There is so much work that goes on in the back of your mind to adapt to all that’s new – without you even noticing.
You learn to be more open-minded (“Oh, prostitution is legal here? Hmm, I guess it is nice for prostitutes to have legit work conditions”). You learn to be more humble (“Man, the public transport system is so much better than it is back home”). You learn to listen more (“You can’t call the Netherlands ‘Holland’, that’s just a region of the country and it offends people”).
It’s not just a mental shift that happens overnight; it’s a mental leap that takes you from kind-of-prejudiced-and-egocentric-bastard to oh-my-god-I-know-nothing-Jon-Snow.
The thing is, even when you feel comfortable, you’re still adjusting. For instance, I’m used to seeing product labels written in Dutch; that’s my normal now, but it still makes it difficult for me to do my shopping.
The one thing I like the least about being a foreigner is the way that other people perceive me. Typically, those people who haven’t lived abroad consider me like a premium specimen of The French Woman.
They want to know what things are like in France; do people do this? Do people do that? Or they have observed something about ‘The French’ and want me to confirm or explain it. Or they take one of my behaviors or preferences to be a result of my being French rather than my being me. Or they say “oui oui” in a mock voice and move on with their conversation (in Dutch).
By default, this type of conversation ostracizes me because it places me in the ‘Different’ box; it’s not a bad box to be in, and there is often praise that comes with being in that box – but it’s not quite like being a part of the group.
I’m not actually that different from Dutch people. In fact, there are very few cultural differences between France and the Netherlands and they tend to be quite small or, at least, somewhat subtle.
It’s my own self-perception that takes a toll.
You would think that living abroad is a huge confidence boost; challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone and make a life where you don’t know anyone is pretty damn cool. But because it’s so challenging, you forget to pat yourself on the back. Instead, you focus on all the not’s.
- You don’t speak the language
- You are an inconvenience to others who have to switch to speaking English for you and, if they don’t,
- You aren’t (good enough to be) part of the group.
- You don’t get the references
- You don’t come from here
- You don’t have a family here
- You can’t figure out how the train system works and you feel really, really stupid
- You don’t get the customs
- You only know like 5 people
- You don’t get why your insurance wants you to pay €300 extra every year
- Sometimes you don’t want to go out and make an effort
- You think that you really should go out and make an effort more
Basically, you are never enough.
Because you don’t belong here. Ouch.
That’s all stupid, right? Because even though it’s tough, you do the best you can and you keep doing more. And people appreciate it. When you spend a lot of time with locals, it’s easy to forget that you are much, much more than all the not’s and can’ts.
- You have a native language you speak perfectly and with which you make smart and stupid puns alike.
- You have a home country where everything looks normal, where you understand strangers’ conversations, where things make sense.
- You have the experience of living away from comfort which has taught you to be more open, more humble and much less judgmental than ever.
- You know the struggle of not belonging abroad or at home, and you know the pleasures of belonging in both.
- You challenge yourself to live a different life than that of your parents and peers.
- You have been so grateful for others’ kindness and acceptance that it is all you wish to offer to them.
- You choose to put your prejudice aside, and you listen, and you learn.
- You are able to grasp the complexities and diversity of cultures you did not know held so much depth.
- You face time and time again other people’s views of your home and culture. And you learn to be diplomatic, and you learn to be proud.
- You exert self control by accepting that your normal seems quaint to others. You remind yourself that when you first got here, you acted just the same. You didn’t know any better then.
Now you do.
When you come home and your friends express their admiration for your lifestyle, all you do is shrug because “oh, you know, it’s okay now”.
But really. Kudos to you.