The Zen of Living Abroad

Anyone who has ever lived abroad knows that it is a separate experience from simply travelling to somewhere.

To truly soak up the wisdom that a place has to offer, you must endure all the stumbles, minor annoyances and cultural misunderstandings before finding Zen in their new surroundings. In short, you have to live real life, instead of tourist life to understand a place.But there’s a rub. Real life can be hard, or dull, or so uninspiring that travel is what people may use to inject some inspiration back into it.

How can you live real life abroad and still keep your sense of wonder?

The trick is to find balance. That is, balance between routine and excitement, between your new culture and your old culture, and between staying static and being dynamic. Finding that balance is easier said than done, so here are some tips to make the most out of living abroad.

1) Find Your Happy Places

Just as your favorite coffee shop/bar/restaurant/park bring you comfort and joy back home, so can finding new favorites in your new place. It can be easy to fall into the trap where you compare your new surroundings to your old, and often when doing so, the old ones always seem rosier. But your new surroundings will have their charms too, and going out and seeking your favourite place “for here” will make the transition from old life to new life easier. Eventually, you may come to realize that your favourites in your new home outshine those in your old.

Find your happy places while traveling
Visiting Siby in Mali, again and again

2) Be kind to yourself

Constantly being reminded that you don’t belong or don’t fit into a place can be painful and can lead to frustration. Knowledge that the locals take for granted, like money is always quoted in derivatives of 5 or food can only be touched with your right hand can lead to laughs at your expense while you’re figuring it all out. Often these experiences can be entertaining in hindsight, but also alienating in the moment which can cause impatience and uncharacteristic behaviours. If you lose your cool during one of these moments, don’t fret. Instead, take a deep breath, reflect on the learning that the situation may have to offer, and forgive yourself since it was likely the first time you came across something like it.

3) Flip the perspectives

Building on the last point, it can be challenging to learn how to navigate a new culture day in and day out. When I lived in Mali, I was always astonished at how everything from getting ready for work, to preparing meals, to going to the bathroom, to meeting friends and working out could be so different. I would be lying if I said that doing everything differently every day wasn’t tiring at times. That said, I found that if I imagined my host family coming to my home, I guessed that they would have a similarly difficult time adjusting. What was normal to me, would be very strange to them. This exercise in empathy made it easier for me to be more patient as I navigated through my new culture.

Preparing a meal with family in Mali
Prepping meals, Mali style

4) Don’t depend on the people at home for your happiness

I have established that there are difficulties in leaving your home country and setting up a life in a new one, but obsessing over what goes on at home will only make those difficulties worse. Everyone feels nostalgic at times, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But pegging your happiness to what people are doing or not doing back home will not help you enjoy your present. Although it can feel at times like the only people that can understand you are the people back home, that is simply not true. They don’t know what it’s like where you are, they are living their own lives and they are not doing that to spite you. In those moments where you feel twinges of jealousy that your old friends are all going out to one of your favourite spots together without you, remember that it was you that chose to leave. You are having your adventure, and you will likely be the better for it. No amount of staying at home can lead to the personal growth you will experience from learning to make a life somewhere new. Don’t wait around for your friends from to Skype you, and don’t seek their approval for what you’re doing in your new place. Live for you in the moment. Do whatever you need to do to feel at home in your new place. Your true friends will be waiting to hear all about it when you see them again and you will be able to pick up where you left off. If they hold it against you that you left, they weren’t truly in your corner to begin with.

5) Make friends from all circles

Going fully native when adjusting to a new place will lead to burnout, but hanging out only with expats will deprive you of an immersive experience. Having a wide social network will counter these effects and set you up for incredible memories. You may learn of hidden gems from locals or unexpected attractions from other travellers. The friends you make while travelling, whether locals or fellow foreigners, will stay warmly in your heart for long after you leave a place.

Friends in Mali
Real life is always better with friends
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