1. Hooking up with every other expat.
There are some people who call it collecting flags, or seeing how many different countries you can hook up with. It was pretty exciting, as a college student, to find myself in a dorm full of attractive people from all over the world. I’d come from small-town America, where everyone was very American, white, and uncultured. Meeting boys who dressed well and had sensual accents was thrilling and I had a great time getting to know many of them. This practice continued for…probably too long.
By the time I moved to Spain, I no longer fell in love with every new accent I heard and I didn’t feel interested in someone just because they came from another culture. I was able to see that many of these guys were douchebags hiding under a hot accent and a stylish scarf. This was a sad, but necessary revelation.
2. Not wanting to try new, strange foods.
I was terrified of kimchi when I first moved to South Korea. Swedish meatballs disgusted me. Thai curries with fish heads were very suspect. In my first days abroad, new foods were daunting and I prayed for a familiar hamburger and fries. I would spend a ridiculous amount of money on exported cheese, just to feel alive again.
Yet, acclimation does its job and after force-feeding myself these strange foods, they became the foods I craved. I now can’t imagine a meal without rice, I go on trips to IKEA just for the sub-par meatballs with jam, and when I see Taiwanese pastries and boba tea, I could cry with desire.
I knew I’d become more daring when I ended up eating chicken hearts on a stick on my last day in Taiwan. There are definitely some things I still won’t try (dog soup, hell no), but I’m more open to unfamiliar cuisine.
3. Partying all the time.
I’ve danced in a pink toga in a Greecian hostel, stolen pizza on a pub crawl in Berlin, enjoyed bottle service in Gangnam, wore a belly dancer costume in the streets of the Canary Islands, and drank buckets of booze while fire dancers performed on the beach in Thailand. The party stories are epic and I have my fair share. It’s certainly one way to get to know a culture.
Yet, I can only stand the hangovers for so long and soon enough, the people partying are much younger than me and honestly, quite annoying. I know I used to be these people, but do I have to hang out with them? It’s partly getting older, but the longer I lived abroad, the more I wanted to just drink a chill beer with friends at a bar or maybe have a BBQ.
4. Being stared at.
The stares were the worst in South Korea, where blonde hair and blue eyes had people gawking at me, screaming “I love you!” and touching my hair. It seriously freaked me out at first, but I got used to it and even began to enjoy my celebrity lifestyle. It doesn’t seem strange anymore that people stare at me eating my food, shopping, or even when I’m naked in a spa. I’m an oddity to them and they can’t always help it.
When I went to Spain afterwards, I blended in more and the stares and attention ended. I have to say, I slightly missed it, but it was relaxing to go out and not be constantly asked if I would teach someone English.
5. Things going completely wrong.
Life at home is hectic already, but life abroad is constantly throwing me into the unknown. In South Korea, my schedule for teaching was changed five times in my first week. Sometimes I would show up for a class I had prepared and none of the students would be there. After searching for answers, I would find out they were on a field trip and no one had informed me. In Taiwan, I’d be told that I had to work on a Saturday with hardly a few days notice.
Things will never go exactly as planned. Sometimes I end up with a hostel that looks like a crack den or a street vendor will overcharge me for grilled chicken that gives me traveler’s stomach for days. But, that’s the price I pay for throwing myself into a place I don’t yet understand and it’s much easier to accept it then to be that angry, frustrated foreigner.
6. Becoming fluent in the local language.
This one is pretty shameful, but I’ve got to be real. The longer I lived abroad, the less I worried about learning the local language. This was because it became obvious to me that I could go about my daily life in a foreign land without being fluent in the local language. Also, I am very bad at learning new languages.
Don’t judge me yet! In Spain, I took weekly Spanish lessons, listened to Spanish podcasts, and practiced on Duolingo. I was decent for someone who knew next to nothing when she arrived. In Korea, I traveled by bus for an hour to try and learn Korean conversation. I tried!
I think Taiwan is where I really gave up. Chinese was so damn hard. I bought the books, studied with my friend who spoke Chinese, and even tried a class, but whenever I spoke to someone, they started at me in confusion because my tones were horrendous. I started to resort to miming.
7. Going home for the holidays.
My first Thanksgiving abroad, I craved pumpkin pie and the crunch of fall leaves under my basic girl boots. Christmas came around and I came close to tears thinking about my family celebrating without me. Yet, I never bought a plane ticket home. Instead, I spent the holidays with new friends and making unique traditions that were a mixture of all our cultures.
I’ve had plenty of holidays at home and there are more to come, but I can never replace the joys of eating bruschetta made by an Italian, enjoying real, Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam, and watching Indiana Jones with my new expat family on Thanksgiving.
8. Living abroad.
When I first moved abroad, I saw foreigners who had never gone home and I shuddered. Look at those “lifers!” Never thought it could be me, but years passed, I hadn’t left and home started to feel foreign.
But after a while I found that living abroad burns me out. I started to travel to new countries and feel bored. I’d lost my enthusiasm and excitement. I’d seen so much of it before. I also saw my friends back home in their careers and started to feel like I was falling behind. I wanted some kind of normalcy. I wanted an apartment that I could actually decorate.
It became obvious that I no longer gave a shit about living abroad and that’s when I knew it was time to go.