Recently, I stumbled upon an article that a friend posted to Facebook within which the writer basically concluded that one of the main emotional experiences of an expat is loneliness.
I could not disagree more.
Yes, a very small facet of being an expat can include some loneliness, this is true. When one picks up and begins anew anywhere, whether just a new city to an entirely foreign country, initially this is a very lonely thing, having to start all over from scratch. That is a given. However as a result of having lived within other countries, I have found the exact opposite to be true. Loneliness is absolutely not inherent in having moved to new cities, or in being an expat. I have found less loneliness in this experience over the past four years than ever before.
Therefore, loneliness is not a given with having moved around a few times. You can be lonely anywhere in the world, regardless of culture, country or city. And your life can be full anywhere in the world as well. Especially if you have remained in the same place for at least a year or two, that is absolutely long enough to have formed some legitimate connections with others. Loneliness depends so much more on how you approach the act of connecting (and deepening those connections) with others.
So, why being an expat/living abroad is AWESOME:
1. Exposure to different cultures, values, and differing ways of living. A vast majority of people go their entire lives living in one cultural bubble. While this is entirely ok, it is limiting. When one has only experienced one way of living, one set of cultural values, one set of communal ideals, I believe this keeps people (unintentionally) narrow minded. Most cultures have aspects of them that are worthy of examination. Every culture and place has negative aspects to life there, this includes illogical or even poor ideals. And at the same time, most cultures have positive, mind broadening, potentially better ways of living than others. This is an important thing to recognize.
Example: as an American who has lived in Europe for the past few years, I can tell you that Americas approach to vacation time (just 10 days per year as standard) is abysmal when compared with Europe (30 days per years as standard). This results in a lot of overworked, burnt out, unhappy people in the US. Europe is the far better place to live in this regard. Europe places a high premium on life outside of work (family, a chance to actually revel in life with experiences such as vacations, time with friends, etc). Now, with regard to opportunity and entrepreneur potential, the US is the far superior spot. As a culture, they welcome solo businesses and new startups.
Living in different places gives you these varying perspectives. No one spot is perfect. And upon living in different cultures, you can begin assembling your own set of values as you move throughout life, picking and choosing the ones you most identify with from each culture. This is a pretty neat and worthwhile thing to have. Without having lived in different cultures, this is something you will not have.
3. Broadening of emotional and intellectual horizons. Living abroad gives you this, big time. You will have to endure challenging emotions and experiences. There will be moments of feeling dejected, terrified, fearful or lonely. But there will also be so many moments of surprise, pride at things you will surmount, shock when you get through something you weren't sure you would, whimsy at the wondrous experiences you will have and places you will see, learning and growth. Your heart will overflow in so many moments of unexpected awesomeness.
4. Becoming better versed in connecting with people. In being dropped into a totally new place, knowing no one, potentially with a foreign language to boot, you have to learn how to open up and connect with people. Otherwise, you risk finding yourself quite lonely. Moving abroad really pushes you into a situation of learning this skill. You are forced out of your comfort zone and into being more outgoing and braver in order to find friends.
(Learning to connect deeply with people is a whole different ballgame. Once you find great people with whom you want to be friends, then you need to move forward into deepening those connections. I will write an article about this sometime soon). However, this is a topic you can read about on Google or in several great books. And there should be no shame in that. No one is born an expert on this topic. Its partially innate but partially learned. Frankly, a lot of people would be infinity better off if they took just a few hours to read on the topic. I have read several books on the topics of communication, friendship and romantic relationships and I both feel and notice the difference in being armed with the knowledge.
5. Having friends in several places is always an awesome thing. This means you have people to stay with during future travels. It means you have friends who love you from different chapters of your life, who were with you during other important experiences and periods of your experience thus far on earth. They know you in ways that others do not. Just like friends from other periods of your life know you in ways and moments than other friends. All of these friendships are important and worthwhile (assuming of course that they are high quality people/friends in the first place. But that's a different topic ;-)).
6. Living abroad forces you to access your inner bravery, resourcefulness, and resilience. Yes, its true, moving to any new city accesses these emotional reserves within you to some degree. But I would argue that leaving the country does even more so. There have been many moments when I felt distressed, even downright afraid. There have been moments of heartbreak and loss. And yes, moments of loneliness. However, that's just what they are. Moments. They pass. Within so many different experiences (going head to head with foreign official offices, attempting to convey medical needs within a language barrier, searching out and securing a new apartment in a foreign city, learning about differing cultural norms, befriending those who speak a different language, going to dinner parties during which an entirely different language will be spoken-and choosing to swallow my discomfort to go for the friend who invited me), I have had to access patience, resilience, open mindedness, courage, and enthusiasm. If you let it, living abroad could turn you into a bad ass ;-)
7. Living in new cultures turns you into a storyteller. The experiences you will have which differ widely from your own culture. The places you will venture to. The new people you will meet. All of this will translate into having some awesome stories under your belt. Traveling and picking up and moving to an entirely different place absolutely arms you with this. Stories.
8. Living as an expat often includes being more open minded as a result. Having to contend with language barrier, differing cultural norms, foreign official offices, adapting to new values and mindsets you may find yourself face to face with in a new place, all of this results in having to become more open minded (or, finding yourself miserable as you push back against it all). This arms you with greater ability to adapt to new situations and a stronger ability to handle different challenges throughout the rest of your life.
9. Living as an expat provides you with loads of memories and moments that you will look back on for the rest of your life. You will revisit these experiences frequently in your mind, smiling in reflection. You will remember challenges you surmounted, which you hadn't thought you could. You will look back on life changing friendships and romances that came as a result of you being far away. You will remember awe-inspiring places you visited. You will consider new cultural constructs and values that, had you not lived somewhere totally new, you might never have known. These will become a part of your new life.
10. Having lived as an expat can help make you braver in the face of other big life changes. These can include, letting go of people whom you love but know you need to let go of, moving to another new place, starting a new career path, taking a leap of faith towards something you want badly but scares you, going after an unthinkable far flung goal, etc. If you had the guts to pick up and move to an entirely different part of the world? A vast majority of things from there on out will be more of a piece of cake ;-)