5 Things I Learned as an Expat – Guest Post

Today’s post comes to you from Valerie, the brilliant writer behind Valerie & Valise. As I’ve never been an expat I don’t have any interesting stories to offer about living in another country – but Valerie certainly does! 

In August of 2012, I moved to London for what I assumed was the indefinite future. I was attending an MBA program based is Central London, with hopes of staying on to find a job in what I will always consider my favorite city. While I’ve since moved back to the U.S., my year living abroad and making friends with fellow expats has taught me a lot about what it means to move long-term or permanently to a new country.

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Everything is Different

Get this: the UK doesn’t really have salad dressing. Who doesn’t have dressing for salad? Instead, they have this weird mayonnaise thing called ‘salad creme.’ Their peanut butter is all wrong, if you can find it all. There are whole sections in the grocery designated for ‘drinkable yogurts.’ You can pay your phone bill by buying a voucher at the corner store. The money doesn’t fit your wallet anymore. Be prepared for this and much more, depending on your destination. It’s best to acknowledge now: your rules and preferences are no longer relevant, and it’s a big adventure to find out what new foods, hobbies, and habits you’re going to enjoy.

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The Important Things are the Same

Human beings are cool: all over the world, we’re basically the same. Most of us crave love and attention and appreciation, we like to connect with one another, with beautiful scenery and architecture, with cute animals, babies, and more. You can be sick with the flu in Rome on Christmas Day (yes, it was literally the worst) and that pharmacist is going to be just as kind as your neighborhood pharmacist back home, even though you can’t speak the same language. While a lot of your assumptions about “how the world works” are challenged by living abroad, there are some things to take great comfort in: we as humans are generally great at taking care of one another, and there is always a community you can find to join.

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There is a Magical Two-Year Wall

I heard this primarily from my long-term expat friends, but apparently there’s a two-year wall for most places you live. After about two years, the differences in the way things work–how your landlord doesn’t have to fix your lights because that’s not a rule, how you can’t consistently get a certain grocery item because it’s not in high demand, how it’s impossible to talk to your parents because of your bad wifi… these things get under your skin, and can turn a beloved destination into a hostile one. This isn’t to say you should leave–just be prepared that you might start to get uncomfortable as you move out of the ‘honeymoon phase’ of living somewhere new.

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You Will Get Homesick

You will miss the place you call home, but not in ways you can currently imagine. Me? I never missed the U.S. so much as when I walked into Subway. Man, that bread smelled just like bread back at the Subway I used to eat at near work in Indianapolis. I ate a lot of Subway, because it made me feel like I was still connected to that home, even as London became my home. At the same time, if you move again in the future, you’ll have homesickness for your expat life too. We humans are definitely creatures of nostalgia!

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Returning to Your Native Country Becomes its Own Adventure

I remember stepping off the plane in Philadelphia for the first time since I had left Denver 13 months earlier. The first thing I noticed were the smells–food in the U.S. has an incredibly strong smell, especially those foods sold in airports including Auntie Annie’s and Burger King. I found that crossing the street felt almost as foreign as it had when I moved to London, since I was now having to retrain my brain which direction to look. The first time I drove a car, I was genuinely worried about remembering which lanes and turn directions were correct–just as I had been when I first drove in the UK.

These lessons are pretty consistent among expats who’ve come home, or who are able to look back after a long enough time as an expat. Living abroad for any length of time that you don’t consider vacation is an incredibly valuable experience. You’ll learn more about the world you inhabit, and more about yourself. You’ll have 20 lessons of your own after the first month!

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