It’s difficult to believe, but as of July 28, 2017, I’ve been living abroad, working and traveling, for five years. It’s been five years of struggles, triumphs, tribulations, and ultimately, personal growth. I’ve lived and worked in three countries, I’ve travelled through 15, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I’ve cycled around Cambodia. And I’ve come through it all a stronger, fuller version of myself.
To mark this milestone in my life, I decided to compile a list of five hard-earned lessons I’ve learned in five years of living abroad.
1. Live Your Life By Your Own Rules
Don’t live your life according to other people’s rules. Don’t listen to the guilty voice in your head telling you what you “should” be doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Instead, do the things that make you happy, regardless of what others think.
When I first moved to Korea I had all these ideas about what it meant to be an expat. I wanted to be a “real expat” and not a “fake expat”, whatever that meant. I ate only Korean food, I didn’t own a fork, I slept on a pallet bed, I tried (poorly) to learn the language. I rarely ate western food and tried to only go out places where Koreans were going out.
I looked down on people who spent all their time in the foreigner neighborhoods and scorned those who felt the need to eat bread instead of rice. And what did I get for all this superiority? Crushing culture shock and mental stress. It took me a little over six months to realize how much happier I was overall if I let myself enjoy some time in the foreigner neighborhood.
It’s important to learn as much as you can about foreign cultures, especially if you’re calling a new country home. However, it’s equally as important to take care of mental and physical well-being. And sometimes, that means turning to things that remind you of home.
So, if I want to go spend money on a fancy American style meal, I’ll do it. If I want to go to the expat bar on Friday nights and hang out with mostly other foreigners who speak English fluently, I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to living my life abroad, immersed in a foreign land.
The same thing applies to travel. I used to feel guilt if I spent a whole day doing nothing, laying about in hammocks. Or guilty that I went to Indonesia and spent the whole time climbing volcanoes instead of surfing or diving.
But this is my life, and my trip. I get to do what I want to do with my time. I’m not beholden to other people’s bucket lists or preconceived notions about what “Travel” involves.
Your life is yours and yours alone, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.
2. There is Happiness in Solitude
I’ve always been an introvert, but when I was younger I didn’t appreciate that side of myself. I didn’t understand that my desire to spend time alone in bed with a good book didn’t make me an anti-social loser, it just makes me…me.
Life abroad has taught me not only to accept the solitary side of my personality, but to find strength in it. Because of my introversion, I’m comfortable doing things on my own. These days, I’ll go to restaurants by myself, go to bars by myself, even go on 7 week long bike rides by myself.
Sometimes I wish I made more of an effort to find a partner in crime for all my adventuring, but that person will come along eventually. Until then, I’m perfectly happy exploring the world and my own perceptions completely solo.
If you are unafraid to experience life as a solo traveler, or just a solo person, you’ll find so many more adventures are waiting for you.
3. When Facing Disaster: Stay Calm
I have a confession to make: I’m a panicker. Sometimes that panic comes in the form of sleepless nights spent agonizing over something I have or haven’t done. Other times, it’s the kind of frenzied hyperventilating panic that takes over in the face of a disaster.
Travel, especially solo travel, has taught me the futility of panic. It seems like life is teaching me this lesson over and over again. Like on my first night in Korea, when I accidentally took a bus to the end of the line and had no idea where I was.
Or when I was walking across Peru with a donkey and I walked myself all the way to exhaustion. Facing a full day of climbing, I collapsed on the hillside in tears.
Or when I was cycling around Cambodia and got lost for the 3rd time that day, I burst into tears and shouted “I can’t do this!” at the sky.
But over the years, these repeated stressful experiences have taught me something: crying doesn’t get you anywhere. Panic is pretty useless. And 9 times out of 10, everything works out in the end. Take a few deep breaths, sit down, and look at your situation calmly. You’ll find a solution soon enough.
4. Be Patient – Things Worth Having Take Time
This was probably the most difficult one for me to learn. I am not a patient person by nature. I like instant gratification and getting free stuff. But life doesn’t work like that and we don’t all get to live in fairy tales, much to my dismay.
This lesson came to me recently, during my seven week bike ride around Cambodia. I bought a bicycle in March 2017 and intended to ride it for 2 months to get in shape. That plan was dashed when I ripped a tendon in my foot at the end of March. No more cycling. No activity at all. I spent all of April resting in my apartment.
Then May 1st came and I knew I couldn’t wait anymore. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling. I was completely out of shape. I hadn’t ridden a single kilometer in over a month! My first day, a 77km ride over some hills, almost killed me. I was not in shape to ride across Cambodia.
But over the next 7 weeks of cycling, my body slowly started to change. 70km went from nearly impossible to quiet easy. I was shocked, two weeks in, to find that a 93km day I had been dreading had passed by in a flash. By the end of the ride, I was tackling 140km days.
But this strength didn’t happen overnight. It happened because I worked at it slowly and consistently.
This applies to just about everything in life. You want to travel for 6 months? Start saving now, little by little.
You want to work for the UN? Start working with smaller NGOs now. Build up your experiences and resume little by little.
Whatever your goals are, break them down into little bits to get there. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work out. There were days I thought I’d never be able to cycle around Cambodia. And yet by the end I felt I could’ve done the whole thing again.
You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a little persistence.
5. If You Have A Passion: Chase It
Whatever makes your heart beat faster and your imagination soar, chase it. Not everyone is lucky enough to know what their passion is. Most of us have no idea. But if you do figure it out, get after it. Start now. Today.
Start small, what first baby step can you take to get there? Make a plan for yourself, and be willing to let that plan change.
For me, the dream has always been writing. I’ve known since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Narnia Chronicles that I wanted to be a writer. There were months, years even, when I thought this would never be possible. I was a talentless fraud. Or, writing wasn’t really what I wanted. Or, writing is not a real career choice.
It took me a few years to get over all that negative self-talk and begin actively pursuing that dream. I’m not publishing novels yet, but I am working full time as a freelance writer and content creator. I’m on my way, and it feels right.
Five years ago, as I set off to teach English in South Korea, I thought I had no dreams. Being a writer seemed like a childish passion. But here I am, five years later, a professional content creator. People are paying me to write.
Three months ago I launched this blog, Into Foreign Lands. It’s not one of the top travel blogs on the web by any means but it’s mine, I’m dedicated to it, and I love every second that I get to work on it.
I’ve got further to go and more baby steps to take, but this process of living abroad and forging my own life in whatever environment I find myself in has shown me that I have the strength to get there.
My point is this: whatever your dream is, chase it. Even if it feels so far away you may never get there, start now. Start today. One year ago I was working a 40 hour/week job in Cambodia and coming home each night to work on writing and freelance assignments. It sucked and I was always tired but it means that now I can work freelance and make my own schedule. I have time for my creative pursuits.
If you feel that you have no dream, have no passions, if you’re feeling lost and listless, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I felt that way before I left for Korea. I’ve felt it since then in moments of self doubt.
But think of it like this: because you don’t know where you want to go, you can go anywhere! Start trying different things, anything that you get the opportunity to try. Start running, take boxing classes, sign up for a book club, apply for a job that sounds interesting but you’re not qualified for. (Worst thing they can do is say no!). Start traveling. You never know what will trigger your imagination and set your heart soaring.
Before I sign off sounding like I’ve got everything figured out and I’m basically the next Buddha, let me just add as a caveat that I’m often re-learning each of these lessons. As soon as I think I’ve learned “don’t panic” for the final time, I end up in some bad situation, bursting into tears and trying not to panic.
Travel isn’t necessary to experience this kind of self growth. It just happened to be what triggered it for me. This is what travel has taught me and I’m so thankful to be on the path that I’m walking. If you’re not on the right path for your life, I can’t encourage you enough to start making small changes today. Even if that means adding a second job. Even if it means taking a massive risk.
Your life is your own, and you only get one.
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