Back in college, I had a very close friend who was an exchange student from Korea. It was a warm summer night — the very night before he had to leave America. Over several bottles of soju, we spent a few hours reminiscing the things we did together in L.A., and how much his English had improved over the year. I remember singing him Chantal Kreviazuk’s Feels Like Home (which btw still makes me cry every time I listen to it) and tears started streaming down his face.
With rosy cheeks and drowsy eyes, he told me, “Cara, you know, living abroad feels like a dream. When you return to your home country, it’s like you just woke up from a hangover. Suddenly, everything becomes reality again.”
I cannot agree more.
Everything little thing feels like a milestone
Living in the same country our entire lives, we take things for granted. Every day is kinda the same and nothing is challenging — but that will change once you move to a different country.
Suddenly, you don’t know how to buy a train ticket, read menus, order food, open a bank account, get your phone fixed after the screen cracked, find shampoo that works with colored hair, tell your landlord your ceiling is leaking, or put trash into the right bins on the right days of the week. Suddenly, you feel handicapped and helpless…
But also suddenly, you feel an intense drive inside you that pushes you to master the local language. And that’s exactly what I did. I still remember so vividly that it took me a total of 20 minutes to explain to a hairstylist how I wanted to dye my hair ombre. “Err, dark brown here, lighter brown there… Wait how do you say ‘lighter brown’ in Japanese? Um.. yea.. Change color!! Slowly!! Brown!! OK…?” Then the hairstylist would ask a bunch of questions that I didn’t understand and I’d repeat the entire thing again. It was a struggle.
Fast-forward to a few months later, another friend accompanied me to open a bank account — I understood a few words here and there. “I’m making progress!” I thought.
Then a few months later, I got into a minor car accident. The police and insurance people were firing questions at me. While I couldn’t explain the situation in full sentences, I understood their questions and was able to provide the information they needed, even though it took much longer than necessary.
Two years later, I moved from the countryside to Tokyo. At that point, I was fluent in Japanese. No more friends had to accompany me anywhere — I went to the local bank and closed my bank account myself, went to the city office and changed my address, went to a new bank in Tokyo to open an account, contacted real estate agents to schedule apartment tours, called the utility companies for inspection, and rented a van and drove 10+ hours round-trip to move my stuff from Niigata to Tokyo. The rest is history.
These things may not seem like a big deal, but I’ll tell you that nothing’s felt better than when I finally understood every word that was spoken to me and I was able to give answers and get things done. I secretly patted myself on the back and whispered, “You did it, Cara!”
And none of these achievements are tangible. I don’t get a certificate for being able to communicate with my hairstylist, nor a medal for being able to navigate life in a new city — but the fulfillment I feel is immense. This is a feeling that only few will understand.
Put your ego aside
Part of the charm of living abroad is that — admit it — you have so little control of your surroundings. Especially if you’re moving to a country that doesn’t speak your mother tongue, you’re going to get lost, feel alienated, and perhaps start to doubt yourself for wanting to move abroad.
To truly get out of your comfort zone, you have to put yourself in an unfamiliar environment. Forget who you are and where you come from for a second, because those things don’t matter anymore when you’re a newbie to a different country. When I first moved to Japan, I remember having to learn a lot of unwritten social rules and not liking to conform. I’d say to my supervisor, “But you don’t do that in America!” or “In America, you can do ______! Why can’t I do that in Japan????” I was comparing Japan to America all the time, until one day he finally said to me, “Cara, this is Japan. You don’t live in America anymore.”
… Then I understood. Whatever expectations and social norms I carried with me from America didn’t and wouldn’t apply in Japan. To fully immerse into the Japanese way of life, I first had to put that American part of me in the past. It’s still part of me, but it’s in the past. To move on, I must adapt.
Discover a you you never knew
Not only do we sound like different people when we speak a different language, but we are also different people when we live in a different country.
Believe it or not, when I lived in Hong Kong (age 3-15), I was a very irritated kid. I would get angry super easily and had trouble controlling my temper — I had no chill 😬. But when I started going to high school in Australia, where everyone was happy and stress-free, I learned to not think a big deal out of everything.
It was also in Australia that I found a passion for cultural exchange. Staying at a boarding house where half of the students were from Hong Kong and the other half from the outskirts of Sydney, it’s only natural that cliques came into existence. I was initially in the HK group, but after a few months, I realized that my English wasn’t getting any better, and I felt SO not integrated into my new life in Australia. It was then that I started hanging out with my Aussie roomies, asking them to correct my English pronunciation and teach me slangs, and watching English TV shows like Gossip Girl (yep). I also started baking cupcakes! LOL If you know me personally you’d know I’m NOT crafty and can’t bake for my life.
Anyways, I moved to California for college after spending 3 years in Sydney, and wow, how I love the smell of freedom! In America — especially LA — the sky’s the limit and you can dream however big you want. No one’s going to say the word “impossible” and you’re free to pursue a career that fits your lifestyle — whether it be working 80+ hours a week as lawyers/bankers in big cities, or dreaming of making it into Broadway and auditioning every few weeks, or traveling around the country in a van and working part-time in restaurants to make ends meet. Growing up in Hong Kong where career paths are few, I see America as a dream.
Living in Australia and America have “opened me up” culturally, which is why I struggled so bad when I moved to Japan after college, back to Asia where homogeneity is king and social expectations determine everything you do. It was especially hard to adjust to the Japanese expectation on gender roles, but after 3 years, I think I’ve struck a pretty good balance. It was Japan that confirmed my belief that I’m better off living in a Western country.
Restart your life from zero
Moving to a new country without friends and family is scary. Imagine standing on a small island and watching people (who look nothing like you) pass you by, chatting away with their friends in a language you don’t understand. It’s like watching a movie but somehow you have a role in it. Fresh off the boat, you don’t know any unwritten social rules, you don’t get to eat the food you grew up eating, and you don’t have a support system that you can lean on in real-time (video calls just aren’t the same).
Every friend you make is an asset. At the beginning of every overseas journey, I did whatever I could to make friends — go to meetups, join student clubs, ask my coworkers out for lunch, etc. Once I got the contact info of one person, I make sure to stay in touch. Then once I have one friend, I ask them to introduce their friends to me — there I have a circle. Ask every friend to do that for me and I have a network. It takes weeks and months to build bonds with people, but my journeys across continents wouldn’t have been the same without the friends I made. Even when I could barely express myself, them being there for me meant the world to me.
Push your boundaries, physically and mentally
Ask anyone who’s lived abroad and they’ll likely admit they’ve cried out of homesickness — probably in the shower. It gets especially hard during the holiday season. Back in college, all my friends would go home for Thanksgiving and I’m left like, okay what’s Thanksgiving… why is everyone going home… where do I go? Where can I go?
And then your family is celebrating birthdays/graduations/weddings and taking family photos without you. You want to be there so bad because your parents and grandparents are getting old. But you also know that moving home isn’t something you want to do. Then you’re left in this limbo state where part of you is in one place and part of you is in another. I’ve lost count of the times I woke up confused because I’d just had a dream about another country I’ve lived in. It gets even more disorienting when pieces from different countries merge together in a dream… but that’s a story for another time.
* * * * *
Moving to a new place means adapting to a new climate. I spent the first 22 years of my life living in warm places (Hong Kong, Sydney, LA) — so Japan hit me hard. I didn’t know that moving to a cold, snowy prefecture meant I’d be freezing to sleep every night, nor that I’d wake up with chilblains, nor that my pipes would be frozen, nor that I’d have to drive in a white-out, with some lighter cars around me blown into the rice paddies. I got seasonal affective disorder for the first time. And it was hard.
Combined with the breakup, car accident, loneliness, and homesickness I was experiencing, I spent four months in depression. Driving past mountains that would remind me of America and the good old days, tears streamed down my face every single day. … Every single day for four bloody months, until spring came and I started making more friends.
That’s why I always tell people that the three years I spent in Japan felt like a decade. The amount of life I lived is way more than Hong Kong + Australia + America combined. I wouldn’t do it over again for a million bucks, but I also wouldn’t trade that experience for a million bucks.
The world is so much bigger than you and your little bubble
One thing that continues to make me roll my eyes in New York City is that a lot of locals like to call this city “the greatest city of the world.” While I don’t completely disagree, I am genuinely surprised by the number of locals I’ve met who don’t see value in traveling or moving abroad. Mind you, New York City is arguably THE MOST culturally diverse city in THE WORLD and yet few people have actually lived overseas.
How can you say something is the “greatest” when you haven’t experienced something else? In fact, what does “greatest” even mean? I’ve lived in six cities across four countries now and even though I have a favorite, I wouldn’t call anywhere “perfect” or “greatest” because every place has its charms and flaws.
The more places I’ve lived in, the smaller I feel. When you’ve been exposed to different cultures, you’ll realize that yours is only a small part of the world’s cultural fabric. There is so much more to see, learn, and experience.
But… Would I move again?
Honestly, I think I moved to the countries I did at the perfect times of my life. Am I willing to give up a career I tried so hard to get into? Definitely not. Do I want to build my network from zero again? Probably not. As an “alien,” I had to try way too hard to get a job in America and I definitely do NOT want to go through the immigration nightmare again.
But! (Clearly, I’ve thought about this a lot…) If in the future my company were to send me overseas as an expat, I wouldn’t mind moving again. Provided that my partner and future kids can come with me.
While I’ll always reminisce the times I moved overseas on my own, I also understand that I’ve moved on from that stage of my life. Moving countries is fun but exhausting. I’m happy where I am, and I certainly don’t want to go through that loneliness again.
When I have kids of my own though, you know for sure that I’ll be teaching them all the languages I speak, sending them on summer programs in Asia, and making them take a semester in Europe or something 😆
Life is short, so go live around the world and tell me where the “greatest city of the world” really is — mommy wants to know.