Growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who emphasized the importance of a global perspective. I am of Indian descent, and my childhood was spent between Paris and New York City where I attended the United Nations International School, a private school founded to simultaneously provide an internationally-focused education while still preserving the diverse cultural heritages of the students who attended it. From there, I attended college in a small town in the New England region of the United States, returned to New York City, moved to my husband’s home country of Norway, spent four years living in Singapore, and now currently split my time residing between London, Oslo, and New York City.
When most people think of the advantages of living abroad, they often jump to ideas such as trying new foods and learning a new language. While it’s true that these are wonderful benefits, I can tell you that there are much more meaningful reasons to live abroad tha eating and sightseeing. They say that growth cannot happen without struggle, and when you move to a foreign country you will certainly have plenty of room to grow. I would argue that the vast majority of the benefits you can receive from living abroad come from the challenges you face, from opening a bank account without a government-issued identification card to booking a train ride for one o’clock in the morning because you translated incorrectly. International life is full of pleasant surprises and unforeseen rewards. From increasing empathy to developing more patience, below are just some of the reasons why everybody should try living in a foreign country at least once in their lives.
Stepping out of your comfort zone
There’s a reason that people stay in their comfort zones. Things feel familiar there, it seems like you are in control of your environment, and you have low levels of anxiety and stress. However, by staying in your comfort zone you lose the ability to grow and change for the better. When you move to a foreign country, you are bypassing the “step” out of your comfort zone and instead taking a full-fledged leap. Besides the obvious of finding yourself in a new city, you may find yourself learning a new language, setting up logistics such as housing and finances, meeting tons of new people, all in a completely new environment with different customs and culture than the one you left behind. If you have always considered yourself to be shy, living in a foreign country is a great way to gain experience in making new friends. Nevertheless, these overwhelming (and yes, sometimes anxiety-inducing) experiences can often be what leads you to discovering your true potential.
When you move to a foreign country, it can often feel that up is down and left is right. From road rules and daily activities to people’s attitudes and common behaviors, the culture shock is in and of itself enough to make you feel uncomfortable to say the least. The experience could almost be compared to being back in school as you learn a new social etiquette, healthcare system, education system, country history, cultural beliefs, and traditions. You quickly learn to stay positive, flexible, and open in order to survive, and will more than likely soon find that where you used to fear change, you now embrace it and maybe even thrive on it. Once you have come to recognize the exhilaration that comes with stepping out of your comfort zone, complacency will seem less like comfort and more like stagnation.
Exposing yourself to different ways of thinking
One of the most important reasons to live abroad is the mindframe of cultural awareness it will give you. From a young age, we build our sense of normality and morals from the community we are raised in. While this sense of security can be important for children to feel stability in their lives, it is important that as members of the human race we understand that not everybody grows up in the same way we have and learn to value those differences. For example, if you look at New York City from a bird’s eye view, it will likely look like a million ants going in all different directions. Tokyo, on the other hand, would look more like two parallel streams flowing in opposite directions. This is because unlike in America where individuality and uniqueness are encouraged, in Japan the highest goal is not distinction, but synthesis and harmony. Japan’s collectivist society values group harmony and unity, whereas the United States is more focused on the desires of the individual. Living in a foreign country exposes you to a whole new set of beliefs, values, and traditions, and it’s more likely than not that some of them will conflict with your own. In living abroad, you gain an understanding of not only other cultures, but also a more objective framework through which to view your own.
Learning new communication skills
Language is something that we use every day without thinking much about it. However, while learning a new language you also begin to deconstruct your own, taking into consideration the “why” behind saying things a certain way. Learning a language is so much more than the literal translation of the words themselves. It often involves coming to understand much more about the culture itself, such as their sense of humor or the way they use non-verbal communication. For example, the idea of “personal space” can vary greatly depending on the part of the world you are currently residing in. In Spain, not only do conversations happen at a much closer distance than you would find in the United States, but it is actually considered rude to move away or step back from the other person.
Awkward situations are a given when getting used to living in a new location, but working through them will give you more confidence in your ability to communicate regardless of the language you are speaking. Sometimes, when you can’t seem to find the right words you will find a different way to get your point across such as facial expression, tone, or gestures, developing your ability to think fast on your feet and adapt to situations.
CV boosting abilities
On a practical point, having experience in a foreign country can do wonders for your career prospects. Learning about the cultures of different areas can help you better acclimate to the wide variety of work environments you will come across in your career, and also provide you with new communication techniques as discussed previously that will aid you in navigating your career path successfully. Showing that you have lived and worked in a foreign country not only adds the position itself to your resume, but also indicates that you are adaptable to new environments, have a unique perspective on things, and know how to develop relationships with people who are different than yourself. Additionally, making international connections can also be advantageous to growing and extending your professional network, providing you with notable references and connections for future endeavors. Even if for one reason or another you are not able to work during your time living abroad, listing the experience under your personal interests can give you a competitive edge in an increasingly tough job market.
Developing your patience
When you are living in a new and unfamiliar place, there will always be a learning curve. You will more likely than not get lost on your way home on multiple occasions, and communicating through a language barrier makes it difficult to even purchase groceries, let alone meet people and develop friendships. However, it is through these struggles that you will develop patience – not only for the external factors that are outside of your control, but with yourself. When we are in our home countries we take so many things for granted, from the ease of finding and procuring services to transportation needs. When you first live somewhere new, it can seem like nothing is simple or easy. No matter how many times you study it you can never remember the correct word for a given situation, and the laundromat where you need to do your laundry seems to keep the strangest hours. After dozens of these kinds of setbacks, you learn to be grateful for the little things in life. Even if it’s as simple as functional WiFi or good guacamole.
Get to know yourself better
All of these elements culminate in you developing one of the most important relationships in your life – the one with yourself. Moving from your normal environment to a country where everything is foreign and new is one of the best ways you can get to know yourself better. As you rethink the way you move through your life, your culture and the way you were raised, and how and why you communicate the way you do with others, you also begin to question and improve on your original values, beliefs, attitudes, and the values that were influenced by your upbringing. With the different perspectives gained from living in a foreign country, you will be able to shape yourself into a strong, independent character which helps you to find your purpose in life with fewer biases.