Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What People Don't Realize About Moving Abroad

Life is a funny thing.  Sometimes we feel on top of the world, and everything feels like it's going exactly according to plan; other times life throws us some major curveballs and it seems like nothing can go right.  But in the year 2016, with a good majority of people using multiple social media outlets on a daily basis, it's easy to get the impression that other people are leading these amazing lives and are happy 100% of the time.  It's also difficult not to compare your own life with others' lives; lives that seem so much easier, more adventurous and/or better from your own.  I really believe that these past 3 years living abroad has given me a different outlook on life and I've had to come to some hard realizations.  Many people have told me how envious they are of my life and travels and all the experiences I've gotten to have and they wish they could do the same.  And I admit that I have been very fortunate to have been able to travel and experience so much in my 25 years, but, what some people don't realize is that I've also sacrificed a lot in the 3 years that I've been abroad.  So here's what I've learned by living abroad:

1. People think I'm brave for moving halfway around the world, but anyone can do it.

So many people tell me that they could "never" move away and start new in a foreign country, but it's not that difficult to be honest.  After you get over the first month or so of culture shock and newness, life sets in again and you develop a routine.  How have I been able to stay in Korea for so long?  I've acclimated to life here.  Nothing about Korea shocks me anymore; everything here seems so...normal. As for the decision-making process and paperwork for moving abroad, it can be time-consuming and a little stressful, but ultimately it isn't that hard.  So yeah, I think if you really want to do it, you can; if you say you can't, you're making excuses.

I don't look very brave in this picture.  Taken in Aug. 2013 right before I boarded the plane to come to Korea for the first time.

2. The honeymoon phase ends.

I touched on this in the last paragraph but I'll say it again.  After you get settled into your new city/country/state, your life becomes life again.  Your new surroundings become familiar and you start to feel like you fit in again.  There's definitely a "honeymoon" period where you "ooh" and "ahh" over everything from the buildings, food, people, etc, but that doesn't last forever.  For me, my Korean honeymoon period lasted about 4-5 months I think.

But does this honeymoon phase end? // Penis Park in Samcheok 2014

3.  Losing friends and family members

I think this one sucks the most about living abroad.  No one prepares you for the loss of friendships and even family relationships.  You quickly realize that the people who were once exclaiming how much they were going to miss you and that they would definitely keep in touch, don't bother to message for weeks or even months.  And even if you take the initiative to reach out, sometimes you don't get a response for weeks.  It really sucks knowing that the people you thought you were so close with seem to not care about you and your life anymore because it's not convenient for them.  This goes for friends and family alike.  I can honestly say that I regularly keep in contact with about 3 friends and about 6 family members.  I haven't heard from anyone else in quite awhile.  But I've gotten used to it.  And being able to only come home about once a year doesn't help, but I know the ones that truly care and I appreciate them more than they know.    

Maybe I lost some friends, but I gained a lot of little ones // Jungang Elementary School

4. Having nothing in common with people

After living in Korea for just over 3 years now, I feel like I've changed, my priorities have shifted and I don't have that much in common with a lot of people from back home anymore.  Aside from the other expats I've become friends with while here, my interests and experiences don't really match up with anyone else's.  For example, what do you talk about when you meet up with friends or see acquaintances?  You talk about recent news, your daily life and such, right?  Well, the past couple times I've gone home, while my friends are going on about the latest stuff happening in MO, weddings and family stuff, I've been at a loss.  What do I have to talk about?  I'll give you an example, "Well, in Korea...", "In Seoul...", "My Korean friends...", etc.  My friends and family can't relate to my experiences all that much, and vice versa.  People only want to hear "In Korea..." so many times before they get tired of hearing it and start to think you're just bragging.  But "In Korea..." has been my life for a long time and I don't know what else to talk about.  

5. Where do I belong?

My heart does not solely belong in one place anymore.  After graduating high school, I've lived in 4 other cities.  I've left a piece of my heart in every place and at each given time, that place has felt like my home.  So I no longer have "a" home; I have many homes.  But which one do I belong in?  I don't know.  What I do know is that I'm good at adapting to my surroundings and making the most of each place, therefore I'm confident that when I move on to yet another place, it will become home too.  

One city I've been able to call home // Seoul

6. Everything goes on without you

Living abroad should actually be called "how many events can you miss" because whether you want to or not, you will miss so many milestones while you're away.  I've missed the past 3 Thanksgivings and Christmases.  I missed my dad's 50th birthday and I will miss my mom's 50th next month.  I missed my brother's 21st.  I haven't been there to take my mom to her numerous doctor's appointments over the past year and a half.  I've missed Westminster alumni weekends.  I've missed friends' weddings and engagements.  I've missed family trips.  I have only a handful of memories that I've made with friends and family from the past few years.  And maybe most importantly I've missed the mere physical presence of the people I care about most.      

Reflecting // Siem Reap, Cambodia 2014

7. Being homesick

I've struggled with homesickness a lot lately.  You would think homesickness would hit in the beginning of the journey, but for me, it has hit me hard only recently and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Even though I talk to my mom and dad literally on a daily basis, it's always through technology; I was lucky to have seen my mom this past July when she came over, but I haven't seen anyone else in over a year.  So yeah, I miss them...everyday.

Fab Four is reunited after a year apart // Olympic Park, Seoul

8. Language barriers

Language barriers are real and can be really frustrating.  It can be really hard to sincerely connect with someone when both parties can only communicate to a certain extent.  This goes for friendships, romantic relationships, co-workers, and even the people you become familiar with at the restaurants/supermarkets/gyms you frequent.  My Korean isn't fluent and a lot of Koreans can't speak English, so that means you're only able to scratch the surface of those relationships.  So while I've been really fortunate to have met a lot of great people here in Korea, I've really only been able to truly connect with two of them.  Quality is better than quantity anyways, right?

[Korean] BFFs Lucy and Mandy

9. Making friends only to pack up again

On the other hand, I have made quite a few foreign friends (I'm talking fellow Americans, Canadians, Brits, etc).  For these friends, I don't have to worry about a language barrier, but I do have to worry about time.  A lot of foreigners come to Korea for 1 year and leave.  When you are constantly meeting new people, and having others leave, it can be difficult.  As soon as you become comfortable with someone, them (or you) decide to move on to somewhere else.  Luckily, a lot of my closest foreign friends in Korea have stayed longer than one year, and a select few I still keep in contact with. As for others, it was simply a Korea friendship, but that's okay.

Getting cultured at the Buddhist templestay 2015

10. When someone asks what living abroad is like

Every once in awhile I'll get a FB message asking me what living abroad is like (usually inquiries from acquaintances who are looking into the possibility of moving abroad and want some advice).
Or the couple times I've been home, people have stopped me in the grocery store and innocently asked, "How's Korea?".  Well to be honest, that is a really hard question to answer.  Maybe it's because that question has SO many possible answers, so which one do I choose to reply with? Is one answer better than another?  What answer do people WANT to hear?  Do people want to hear a short reply or a long one?  Because trust me, I could talk for hours about being an expat.  But I know people don't want that version.  So how do I answer the question "How's Korea?" or eventually the question "How WAS Korea?".  I haven't crafted the perfect response yet.  Get back to me.      

I've developed some new hobbies while here and hiking is definitely one of them!

11. Adjusting to life after living abroad

So you lived abroad and moved back, what now?  Reverse culture shock immediately comes to mind and I'm terrified. Reverse culture shock is the difficult readjustment phase some people experience after returning home after an extended period of time overseas.  Some expats find it hard to readjust to their home country's culture and values since it has become unfamiliar in recent years.  Upon returning home after studying abroad for 4 short months in England a few years ago, it felt weird to have to come back after having had that experience.  So I can't imagine what will feel like once I return to the US after having been here for a much longer period of time.  I guess I shall find out when the time comes.  But to be honest, I'm already nervous about my return.


So if I depressed anyone with this post, I'm sorry!  I really just wanted to write a raw article that doesn't sugarcoat my expat experience, because I do think some people think I'm just chilling over here and traveling to another country every weekend (which is definitely not the case!).  I have some hard times here too.  And it doesn't help that my family is thousands of miles away and even if I wanted to go home, it would take me 24 hours to get there.  I realize I chose this for myself, and although I miss my family and find myself breaking cultural norms everyday on accident, it's ultimately my fault for having this lifestyle.  No one made me move to Korea and stay here for three years; I have chosen to do so.  Do I regret moving across the world?  Absolutely not.  I have proven to myself that I can be self-reliable and figure things out on my own in a totally foreign place, and with every experience I miss back home, I gain an invaluable one here.  So I'll cut my losses and just enjoy what this journey has given me, instead of focusing on what it has taken away.

I'll be off to new things soon // Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2016



  1. This is an amazing piece. Very honest and sharp. I love it and I can relate to many of your points. Thanks for writing and share this! Kylee is a writer.

  2. This is an amazing piece. Very honest and sharp. I love it and I can relate to many of your points. Thanks for writing and share this! Kylee is a writer.

  3. You are not alone. I found this comforting lately. Maybe you will too:http://theweek.com/articles/637911/lived-korea-5-years-heres-what-happened-when-came-home-nebraska