Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Living Abroad

As I've mentioned before, Ryan and I went through some struggles before our initial move to Busan.  We made the best of the worst and and left our old lives behind for an adventure abroad six months after our wedding.  
Of course we kept in contact with our families and friends from Korea.  We skyped, emailed, and got various updates via facebook.  The longer we were away however, the more we adapted, adjusted and embraced our life abroad.  
We'd spend our weekends exploring a new part of Busan or a funky neighborhood in Seoul.  We fell in love with Busan's beaches, the country's food, and the sweet kids we taught.  We made lifelong friends who would never have become part of our lives had we not lived abroad.  We traveled through nine other countries and saw and did things I never could have imagined.
 But it wasn't perfect.

When living in Korea Ryan and I missed ten weddings over two summers.  We missed engagements, birthdays, new babies, my dad's art show, reunions with friends and trips my sister and her family made cross country to Oregon.  I still remember commiserating with my co-workers about all the delicious Thanksgiving food that was being consumed, "at this very minute over dinner," fourteen hours behind Korean time as we planned lessons for school at our desks.  
Over the course of our two years away I definitely had my share of breakdowns.

Someone recently asked me: "Are you ever coming home?"
I had to think about that.   

In the weeks following our move from Busan and while we traveled southeast Asia, Ryan and I remarked that it felt like we'd be heading back to Busan rather than the states when our trip was done.  We'd made a home there, had jobs there, and created a life there, one that we'd lived for most of the last two and half years.
"Home" was a word that had multiple meanings.

One of my favorite bloggers linked to this story on living abroad and it perfectly summarizes the wonderful and difficult, experience better than I would have been able to put into words myself.

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What Happens When You Live Abroad
By Chelsea Fagan
A very dependable feature of people who live abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups of ex-pats aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in America, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Europe, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter. 

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

It’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s often part of the reason you left in the first place. You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.

So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.

Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. 
Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once. 

But there are the fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back. We all meet the ex-pat who has been in his new home for 30 years and who seems to have almost replaced the missed years spent back in his homeland with full, passionate immersion into his new country. Yes, technically they are immigrants. Technically their birth certificate would place them in a different part of the world. But it’s undeniable that whatever life they left back home, they could never pick up all the pieces to. That old person is gone, and you realize that every day, you come a tiny bit closer to becoming that person yourself — even if you don’t want to.

So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away. 

When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home. 

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Although Ryan and I have extended our time away here in Mexico just a little longer, we're set to return "home" to Oregon mid-March.  We'll stay in Portland at least through the summer while Ryan finishes classes towards his EMT certificate.  And although we'll probably remain in the states after that, living abroad, with both its pros and its cons, will be an experience that has shaped and changed us forever.


  1. I can't even imagine how much it's changed you both to have the experience of living abroad together.

    1. We didn't know it at the time but it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us as we began our marriage!

  2. part of me is happy i'm having this experience alone, and a huge part of me wishes i was experiencing it with a special someone, because you're so right, it shapes us for forever. And i'll never be able to explain or describe my experiences, or who i was before, how i feel like i have changed or how i see the world and life differently.

    honestly after an experience of living abroad, i don't think there is ever a perfect "time to come home". I don't know that i will ever 100% want to go home. and when i'm home i'm sure i'll be dreaming of life abroad. we have a hard life us world travelers :)

    1. One of my grad school teachers said "living abroad changed me in ways I can pinpoint, and in ways I never can."

      I think it goes without saying that doing it on your own is harder! I also think it forces a person to build closer relationships with fellow ex-pats. I was always a little jealous of how strong other people's friendships were since they'd spend more time with each other than I would since I had the comfort of Ryan to fall back on.

      You're right about not being an exact right time to come home. Enjoy every minute until your time is up, then you'll be where I am, dreaming of life abroad as you said! xo