Things I Wish I Knew About Living Abroad

We’ve all seen the movies and read the books.  People seem to think that living abroad for an extended period of time is simple and fun.  They never get homesick, they rarely have culture shock and you can forget about all the logistical nightmares being accurately portrayed.  Basically, society portrays living abroad like disney portrays relationships, completely fictional fairytales.

That doesn’t mean that the fun you see people having when living abroad is fictional, because in most cases it probably isn’t.  I don’t know about other people, but living abroad has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.  Somedays I woke up and had no idea how I was going to be able to do it and other days I woke up ready to conquer the world.  Bottom line: living abroad is great fun, but it’s hard work.  There are a billion things that make it a difficult experience, but those same things make it a really rewarding experience.  You just need to learn how to balance your life and find a new perspective.

Things I Wish I Knew About Living Abroad (before I lived abroad!)

 I hardly brought anything over with me.  My room felt alien for a good month.

1.  You will feel like you are in constant limbo with what you own.  When I am in England, without fail, I always wish I had something that is at home in America.  In America, I always realize I left something really important in England.  During spring, I didn’t bring back any sweatshirts with me.  Big mistake.  Right now?  I really wish I had my cream t-shirt.  You have to get used to the idea that something isn’t going to be there and try to discover your must-haves, what you really need wherever you go.

I did not expect to HATE the fact that Starbucks gives you ceramic mugs in England.  I hate it.

2.  Expect the unexpected.  This applies to every single aspect of living abroad.  I loathe and detest English weather.  Seriously, it has become the bane of my existence.  Of course, before living there I had no idea about this.  I thought it would be fine, lovely even.  Turns out, I can’t stand it.  On the other hand, I also thought that I would hardly ever be able to talk to my parents.  Apparently a five hour time difference really isn’t as big as it seems.  Bottom line, no matter how much you prepare and read in advance, you won’t know what will actually bug you and what won’t turn out to be a problem until you are living abroad.

Hello New York!

3.  If there is anything stereotypical AT ALL about where you are from/where you are going, people will ask you about this.  When I meet someone new, they, pretty much without fail, ask me if New York is like Gossip Girl.  The same goes with England.  This will get annoying.  This will get exhausting.  But it can also get you talking about different subjects.  At least it only happens about once per person.

I study Italian, but it’s not only the language!  Here is the first text I read in Italian, Dante’s La Vita Nuova

4.  There is something you are going to have to explain over and over.  And over again.  It will get tiring and annoying and you will want to poke your eyes out scream.  But that’s okay.  Try to think of it as educating people.  I’ve had to explain the English degree system to my parents so many times it makes me want to cry.  Just remember that you know so much more from having to adapt to a new system, now it’s your turn to share your knowledge with other people.  It’s definitely a responsibility, but try to have fun with it.

I’ll always be a New York girl, but I’m also a total anglophile.

5.  It’s tough to figure out who you are in two vastly different places.  Honestly, I don’t really know if everyone experiences some type of identity shift when they go away to school, but going abroad seriously means you have to remember that who you are is who you are no matter what your location may be.  In New York, I’m Emilia who is kinda short, likes to wear flip flops and loves veggie burgers.  Of course, that’s not exactly who I am in England.  Abroad you are tied to your nationality, whether you like it or not.

It may look pretty, but I can assure you that trying to get home in this wasn’t pretty!

6.  Learn to accept things you hate.  I know you think there isn’t anything to hate about England, Italy, Spain, France, Germany etc, but I guarantee you that there is something you will not like.  Of course, they thing you hate may not even be about where you are living.  Is there a type of accent that you didn’t know exists that drives you crazy?  Maybe you really like street lights?  Or maybe you didn’t realize the coffee tastes different.  There are a million things that actually feel different when you are living somewhere for an extended period of time.  Soon you’ll realize that hating these things helps you form an identity that relates you to your new country.

I emailed photos like this to parents to keep in touch!

7.  Keeping in touch is hard, but so so worth it.  There’s a five hour time difference between my two worlds.  This makes it difficult to keep in touch with my friends and family no matter where I am.  Despite sending oodles of letter, there is nothing better than actually talking to someone.  I don’t know how I would do it without skype.  Being able to see someone, even if it is through a screen with a crazy delay that is strangely pixelated, helps to keep you grounded.

I may have celebrated Thanksgiving with my friends, but I’m more than that!

8.  Some people will only be able to see where you are from.  These are the people who stink.  These are the people who probably wouldn’t be your friends in your home country.  They aren’t worth your time or mental energy.  Focus on making friends who are interested in YOU and share your interests because they are out there.

I took this picture at three am.  In the morning.  I woke up this early to get a plane.

9.  Airplanes and packing suck.  You think you hate packing now?  Just wait.  I actually used to like packing, a fact which I find completely dumbfounding now.  Packing takes on a completely new meaning when living somewhere for an extended period of time.  You aren’t just packing a capsule wardrobe, you are packing your life.  I seriously hope this is a skill (like flying) that I’ll get better at over the upcoming years.  If not, at least I know that I can fall asleep on a plane and more/less beat jet lag.

My first birthday abroad was super hard, especially since I just arrived back in England.  My parents sent me these flowers, it helped to make the day extra special!

10.  The most important thing is to take things one day at a time.  I can’t say how much this piece of advice helped me when adjusting to life abroad each time I returned to uni after coming home.  It’s easy to get bogged down by how much you have to do and by how long it is until you see your family and friends again.  I would seriously have gone insane if I counted down the days/months.  Just focus on the day you are living in and getting everything done you need to will help tremendously.

Have you ever lived abroad?  If not, would you want to?  If yes, what was the hardest part?  The best part?


Un Bacione,

Emilia

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4 thoughts on “Things I Wish I Knew About Living Abroad

  1. wingstakeroot

    I've just returned to England from 8 months at the University of Toronto, and you have so perfectly articulated everything you learn with hindsight that I felt compelled to comment!

    For me, the best part was definitely the clicheed experience of really finding who you are, away from the influence of friends and family who've come to expect you to behave a certain way. I also loved the chance to experience a completely different school system, residential life and meet some of the most amazing people, who totally opened my eyes to the world with their different perspectives.

    You have articulated the hardships of living abroad so astutely. I went through times where I didn't think I was especially unhappy, until I realised that I was crying over every little mishap. Being away from home can definitely get overwhelming! Even though England and Canada are both developed Western countries, I still fell victim to culture shock, so I can only imagine how weird studying abroad must be for people travelling from elsewhere! I also didn't realise how alone I'd feel until the substitute family I built over there went home to their real families for North American holidays like Thanksgiving etc.

    Now, I definitely have the travelling bug! Maybe not enough to venture anywhere that isn't primarily English-speaking, but I can no longer imagine living on this tiny island for the rest of my life.

    Next time someone asks me about the realities of living abroad, i'll be sure to link them to this wonderful post! 🙂

    Apologies for the essay..!
    Lydia x

    Reply
  2. wingstakeroot

    I've just returned to England from 8 months at the University of Toronto, and you have so perfectly articulated everything you learn with hindsight that I felt compelled to comment!

    For me, the best part was definitely the clicheed experience of really finding who you are, away from the influence of friends and family who've come to expect you to behave a certain way. I also loved the chance to experience a completely different school system, residential life and meet some of the most amazing people, who totally opened my eyes to the world with their different perspectives.

    You have articulated the hardships of living abroad so astutely. I went through times where I didn't think I was especially unhappy, until I realised that I was crying over every little mishap. Being away from home can definitely get overwhelming! Even though England and Canada are both developed Western countries, I still fell victim to culture shock, so I can only imagine how weird studying abroad must be for people travelling from elsewhere! I also didn't realise how alone I'd feel until the substitute family I built over there went home to their real families for North American holidays like Thanksgiving etc.

    Now, I definitely have the travelling bug! Maybe not enough to venture anywhere that isn't primarily English-speaking, but I can no longer imagine living on this tiny island for the rest of my life.

    Next time someone asks me about the realities of living abroad, i'll be sure to link them to this wonderful post! 🙂

    Apologies for the essay..!
    Lydia x

    Reply
  3. morwennatakesoneurope

    This is so well written! I’m currently on my year abroad in France/Spain and there are definitely things that get on my nerves!! And especially when people try to fit you into the stereotype of your nationality…oh and about the packing! I agree with it all!
    My boyfriend studies in Vancouver so I have the whole 9-hour time difference with him, but he makes packing look so easy every time he does it…maybe guys have it easier? 😛

    Reply
    1. Emilia Post author

      Thank you! Packing for an extended trip is so annoying, I doubt it’s easier for guys even if it looks that way! National stereotypes are so annoying, though I find there’s also the annoyance when people uphold their stereotypes. Good luck with the last bit of your year abroad! And I applaud you with dealing with a 9 hour time difference, that sounds killer 🙂

      Reply

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