12 Things I Have Learned from a Year Abroad

It’s hard to believe that over a year has gone by since I first left the US. When I boarded the plane last January, I knew everything would be changing, but I never could have imagined where I would be now. This weekend will mark my one year China-versary. This year in Asia has been absolutely incredible and challenging and frightening all at the same time. There is so much that I have learned outside of the classroom while living in China.

1. You can never prepare for how the experience will change you.

You can spend months preparing to travel. You can read every book ever written. You can create the perfect packing list and study culture and history. But there are just some things you could never anticipate. Living abroad comes with unique experiences and challenges.

2. You can get by with a lot less than you ever thought you could.

After months of carrying all of your belongings on your back, you begin to realize how much your baggage can weigh you down. Literally. It’s the perfect metaphor for life, but it really is amazing how freeing it can feel to let go of some of your stuff. When I was back in Chicago over the summer, I realized how much more stuff I had left behind. I never missed any of it, but there were definitely times when I wished I had brought less with me.

3. Living your life in two different countries is extremely difficult.

This experience has been amazing, but it has also come with a lot of sacrifices. There is so much more than the romanticism of traveling. Sometimes it is really hard. Sometimes you are homesick for two places at the same time. Skype is great, but there are times when I still feel so disconnected. I love knowing that I have friends in so many corners of the world, but that also means I am always missing somebody.

4. Living your life with an expiration date is also extremely hard.

I know that I won’t be in China forever. And this can help me get through the rough days, but it is also a constant reminder that my time here is limited. In some ways this can be good motivation to make the most of the time I do have, but it is also creates a lot of added pressure to fit everything in.

5. If you can convince other people that you know what you’re doing, eventually you can convince yourself, too.

Sometimes you really just need to fake it till you make it. When I started teaching at the beginning of last semester, I had no idea what I was doing. The thought of having to speak for 8 hours in front of a classroom of people was pretty overwhelming. But a little bit of confidence can get you pretty far.

6. The train may not be on time, but it’s coming.

I am a horrible procrastinator, and never quite on time myself, so you would never know that I am really also somewhat of a perfectionist. I hate it when things don’t go exactly as planned. But even when the train doesn’t arrive on time, remember that it will still get there eventually. Everything doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

7. Living in a foreign country does not automatically make you an expert in the local language.

People always say that immersion in the best way to learn a language. And I thought living abroad would be a great way to learn a new language. The reality is I have a lot of great resources, but I still have to work really hard to learn Chinese. Even after a year in China, there are still days when I feel like an idiot when trying to communicate with people.

8. At the end of the day, we are all people.

Sure, culture between one country and another can vary greatly. But we all have the same wants and needs. We all feel happy and sad and nervous and excited. We all want to feel appreciated. You don’t need to speak the same language to understand the meaning of a smile. Some of my favorite travel memories are moments shared with people that I was unable to communicate verbally with. A smile can often express more than words ever could. When you look beyond the boundaries of a country, you can see that we are all just people.

9. Some things just don’t make sense, but we can learn a lot from each other.

When you live in a different country, you begin to notice a lot of things that are just, well, different. And you begin to realize that there are a lot of things that you are accustomed to doing because of what your society dictated was the normal thing to do. Sometimes we just need to accept that there will be things we don’t understand. And sometimes we learn that the way we do things isn’t necessarily the best way either.

10. Sometimes it is alright to take a break.

I spent the first three weeks in India trying to see and do as much as I could. By the time we reached New Delhi, my friend and I were both pretty burnt out. We spent a few days doing nothing but eating pizza and watching movies in our hotel room. Travel can be a lot of work sometimes. And while I think you should take advantage of every opportunity that you have, sometimes taking a moment to relax can help you recharge and appreciate everything a little more.

11. Life keeps going, no matter where you are in the world.

While I was away, everyone else continued living their own lives. Don’t expect the home you left to be exactly the same as it was when you left. And remember, while you were off traveling, big things happened to other people too. As much as you want to share your experiences with other people, don’t forget to hear someone else’s story.

12. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers

There’s something about being a foreigner that automatically draws other people to you. I have experienced this in many of the countries that I have traveled to. Some people are genuinely interested in learning about where you come from and why you have chosen to travel to their country. It is important to always keep safety in mind and try to use good judgment and common sense, but I have encountered some truly helpful and friendly people while traveling. It’s a great way to get a deeper insight into a culture and enjoy traveling.

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