Lessons Learned: The Top 3 Ways Living Abroad Has Changed Me (For the Better!)

Yowzers, has it been (over) a year already? Living abroad has made me a stronger person in countless big and small ways. Here’s the top three life lessons I’ve learned from living in a new country:

1) It’s Okay to Ask For Help

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It didn’t take me long to realize that trying to go it alone as an expat would mean a whole lot of spinning my wheels. Even if you’ve got amazing Google-fu, there’s simply no way you can possibly find out everything there is to know about living in a new country on your own.

And why would you want to when it’s so much more fun to discover things with somebody else? Early on in my arrival in Switzerland a teacher friend of mine took me under her wing. Suddenly a trip to the Oki-Hoff on Saturday morning to do our recycling together was a fun adventure instead of a weird, confusing chore. When I thanked my friend repeatedly for taking the time to help me out she replied, “I’ve shown you the wisdom of the recycling center. The only repayment I ask for is that you do the same thing for somebody else next year.” And that’s the thing about asking for help, you may feel pathetic at the time but it’s not a one way street. Before you know it you’ll be back in control again, showing all the newbies how to buy tram tickets. I promise.

2) Everyone Doesn’t Have to Like Me

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What can I say? I’m a people pleaser. I can’t stand the idea of somebody thinking ill of me.

I could spend my days obsessively reading up on every social convention in my adopted country with the hopes of avoiding a mishap and still get things wrong, or I could throw my fear of judgement out the window and do some serious on the job training in cultural integration. Guess which one I chose?

People, it’s a process, and you’ll gradually learn more about how not to offend or be offended as you live your life. I’m still taken aback by how blunt Swiss people can be sometimes, especially when they’re unhappy with you. Just a few weeks ago I showed up “late” to a yoga class that I thought I was on time to (pro-tip: when a Swiss person says, “on time”, they mean five minutes early.) and the teacher berated me in a very un-yogic way in front of the entire class. I was mortified and it took all my courage not to slink out of the class afterwards and never show my face there again. Instead, after class I went up to the teacher and apologized to her. Not only did she forgive me, she now greets me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek at the beginning of class.

Here’s my formula for surviving a social faux-pas in a foreign country:

1. Now is not the time to get defensive. Acknowledge that you broke the rule, even if you think it’s a  stupid rule, and offer a heartfelt apology.

2. Ask what the right thing to do would have been.

3. Make an effort to do better in the future.

4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’ve found that even the super-strict Swiss react very favorably to somebody who makes an attempt to understand their culture. The willingness to learn something new will get you very far here.

And if all else fails, remember, it isn’t your job to be the world’s most perfect model expat and  fit in with your adopted culture 100% of the time. Learn what times it is essential that you assimilate, and what times you can get away with being different. Eventually you’ll strike a balance and the right people will like you for who you are, cultural differences and all.

3) I’m Braver Than I Think

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 Photo courtesy of quotesgram.com 

When I first announced my intention to move, so many people commented on how, “brave”, I was. I always thought that was a funny thing to say. After all, it’s not like I was moving to Africa to work with Ebola patients! To me moving to a gorgeous first world country to pursue my dream job wasn’t brave, it was a no-brainer. Packing up a couple of suitcases and moving to a continent where I didn’t know a soul wasn’t without it’s challenges though.

Expat life has taught me to deal head on with things that I used to avoid. I’ve had my share of frustrating and intimidating experiences in the last year; from being bitten on the face by a stranger’s dog, to struggles with renewing my visa, to dealing with my ex-landlady trying to steal a month’s rent out from under my nose! Even in a place like Switzerland where most people tend to be honest and kind-hearted, there are still assholes out there who will treat you like an idiot foreigner and try to intimidate you when you stick up for yourself.

Just remember, when you’re dealing with a bully, follow lessons one and two and stand your dang ground! Whenever I find myself dealing with something uncomfortable, I tell myself that I did not put all the hard work, effort, dreaming and planning into moving here to let myself get pushed around or taken advantage of. Yes, sometimes living abroad comes with maddening situations that you wouldn’t encounter at home, but when I start feeling sorry for myself I remind myself that the momentary frustrations are part of the price I pay for living an extraordinary life. When you think about it that way, it’s a small price to pay for living in a way that most people only dream of.

Why yes, I am brave. YOU GOTTA PROBLEM WITH THAT???

 What about you? How has living in a new place changed you for the better?

One thought on “Lessons Learned: The Top 3 Ways Living Abroad Has Changed Me (For the Better!)

  1. Wow 5 mins early! That is crazy.

    I believe being on time, but man, wow.

    You are right that we can’t please people.

    It’s true that we are always going to offend people.
    It does take bravery to live in a different country or culture.

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