Howdy friends, how’s it going? I recently submitted this post as a guest post for the blog Route Bliss. I thought you might enjoy reading it here as well, so I hope you enjoy.
Hello friends, Micah here from Passports and Paintbrushes. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share a little bit about myself and my life with you today on Route Bliss. I am a Southern California native currently living and studying abroad in northern Germany. My major is creative writing and my minor is German, and my blog is the place where both these passions converge.
Deciding to move abroad is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and also one of the most challenging. Every day is a new adventure, filled with some pretty incredible highs as well as some pretty crummy low. The cultural differences, language barrier, and distance from loved ones can all heighten the chaos of normal life. I’ve had my fair share of hilarious and awkward situations when things get lost in translation, aided of course, by the fact that I’m an awkward person in general. I wouldn’t change them for anything though, because they are what have shape me into the strong, determined person I am today. I don’t think there is any way to fully prepare for the expat roller coaster, but if I could go back and give my pre-expat self a few words of wisdom to ease the transition, it might have gone something like this:
1. Set realistic goals- Before moving abroad, I majorly romanticized and over-simplified the whole experience in my mind. I thought living in Europe meant living in a fairytale. Reality check: It doesn’t. I set unrealistic, unattainable goals for myself, and these goals were doomed to end in failure and frustration. For instance, I whole-heartedly believed I would be fluent in German by the time I moved home in August. But I quickly realized it takes years to be fully fluent in a language, and I simply don’t have enough time. So I was forced to adjust my goal and instead strive to be significantly better at German by August than I was when I arrived. Now that is a goal I know I can achieve and won’t beat myself up over in the process!
2. Friendship takes time- Silly me, I thought I’d step off the plane and immediately make a million life-long friends! I’ve never had too much trouble making friends at home, so I figured abroad wouldn’t be any different. I soon discovered that friendship takes a lot of concentrated effort and time! Friends weren’t handed to me on a silver platter- I had to work for them! It took putting myself in some unfamiliar, even intimidating situations to start building connections. You might not click with everyone right away, but don’t give up. Join a book club, a gym, a Bible study, etc. Take an interest in their lives, meet them half way, and above all, be yourself. If you stay true to whom you are, genuine friendship is sure to follow.
3. Homesickness is normal- I’ve spent an exorbitant amount of time feeling guilty about my homesickness. So much so in fact, guilt became one of my primary emotions, right up there next to hunger and tiredness. I told myself, “a million people would kill to be in your shoes, why do you want to go home so badly?”! But then one day I realized (light bulb!) it’s perfectly normal to feel homesick. It means you come from a good home, a home worth missing. I wish I knew a cure-all for homesickness, but it honestly varies for each person. Find the right balance for you, whether that be Skyping every day or only once a month. Everyone abroad struggles with homesickness no matter how grateful and happy you truly are for the opportunity!
4. Simple tasks may be harder- i.e. Grocery shopping may cause a break down! Unbeknownst to foreigners, there are certain unspoken rules and assumptions about grocery shopping in Germany such as, bringing your own bags to check-out, or knowing that shopping carts require a one euro deposit before use. It’s funny how the most mundane things can become incredibly overwhelming! You may have to buy sour creme instead of whipped cream a few times before you learn the right words, or carry your groceries in your backpack until you remember to bring bags from home. These are lessons that can only be learned through trial and error. There are no books about the subtitles of every day life in another culture. Baptism by fire baby!
5. Fake it till you make it- You will need to perfect your, “I understand what you’re saying” face when people speak to you in another language, even though you have no clue what they are talking about. Sometimes abroad you just have to act like you know exactly what you are doing and that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. If you feel out of place in a situation or lost in translation, just nod your pretty little head and smile. Slowly over time, the fog will clear and you will know what is going on. It’s incredibly frustrating not to be able to chime in on a conversation because you don’t know the right words or to feel isolated in the midst of a large crowd. Don’t worry- just smile and try your best because it will get easier.
6. The little things are what count the most- If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or even bored, add a little unnecessary sparkle to your life to cheer yourself up. For instance, I was down and out about my pathetic German skills the other day so I bought a bouquet of fresh peonies (my favorite flower) for my nightstand. You wouldn’t believe the wonders fresh flowers can do for your mood! Every time I glanced at them I was reminded of how beautiful life is and how luck I am to be living it. And POOF…German failure completely forgotten! Little details here and there can add up to something significant.
7. Different, not deficit- When I first arrived, I was shocked by just how many things were different from home. My immediate reaction was to say, “That’s weird.” For instance, I learned Germans often eat a heavier meal for lunch and only a light snack for dinner. There is nothing strange about this custom what so ever, but because it was unfamiliar, I labeled it as weird. I’ve since learned to retrain myself to view things as different, not right or wrong. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s worse. This practice has led to a greater appreciation of different cultures, a more open mind, and wider point of view.
8. Relationships back home will change- You know the saying, Out of sight, out of mind? I’ve found this to be true with some relationships, and false with others. There are times when you will miss someone so bad it hurts and feel left out or forgotten. But, there are other people from home you won’t think twice about. Neither is wrong, it’s all part of the process. Work hard to maintain the relationships you care most about, but don’t try to keep up with every single one. The ones that are the strongest are the ones that will last. Cherish them and you’ll be reunited before you know it. Chances are, you’ll pick up right where you left off!
9. Go ahead, ask for help- This advice is coming from little miss independent! I’m serious… I think the Kelly Clarkson song was written about me. Pre-expat Micah would never have asked for directions or help of any sort. She would struggle with it on her own until she either succeeded or gave up. Now, though, I ask for help all the time. I don’t hesitate to ask for directions, recommendations, advice, etc.! Asking for a hand doesn’t make you look needy or incapable, but rather it makes you look humble and open-minded. It says, you obviously know your country better than I do and I would be honored if you shared it with me!
10. It’s ok to go it alone- I used to never do anything alone. Go ahead; ask anyone. I was the girl who needed someone to accompany her to the bathroom! Since moving abroad, however, I’ve started to love doing things by myself. I learned the hard way that if you always wait for someone else, you end up missing out on amazing opportunities. Make plans to have a solo adventure and odds are, someone will ask, Hey, can I come along? But even if they don’t, traveling/spending time alone can be wonderful. You notice details you might have missed in a larger group and it’s much easier to make new friends with other travelers or locals.
The expat roller coaster is certainly not easy, but it is most definitely rewarding. Choosing to live abroad is to choose a life of perseverance, humility and adventure! And it is 100% worth it. If you live abroad or are considering taking the plunge, I hope my words of wisdom and reflections have been informative and encouraging. I wish I could go back and tell my pre-expat self this advice, but in the words of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (I’m trying to be insightful and poignant here at the end), “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”