what it’s really like to work abroad

“Wow! You’re so young and living the dream!” “

“You’re living in places most people never even visit!”

“Cherish these memories!”

All of the above are valid comments I receive when I come home for visits between the “how are you”s and the “we miss you”s. And this post is in no way discrediting the blessings and experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to receive. I marvel every day at how God has had His hand in my life from the day I was born, molding and shaping me to be the person to fulfill the tasks He’s set out for me. This life I live is unconventional and completely unique – I am grateful every day for my job and my career ambitions that lead me to living in Hong Kong, and then China. But there are so many things to consider when thinking about moving abroad that I didn’t realize at the young age of 19 when I moved abroad. There are things about living in another culture that try every ounce of patience in your body. And there are times you reconsider your decision.

Now, this isn’t one of those times for me. I had a magical day at work, Bradley is sound asleep on the other side of the world (dreaming of me, I’m sure), and I am as cozy as a bug in a rug at my favorite coffee shop with rain pouring outside and a flat white in hand – figuratively speaking, it is actually on the table because I’m typing.

What I’m getting at is that I am writing this from a clear-headed perspective. I don’t want to talk anyone out of moving abroad because, for a lot of people, it is the best decision they will ever make. It’s just best to keep in mind the reality of living in a foreign country.

When I was 19, I couldn’t wait to get as far away from home as possible – I wanted to see the world and be challenged by cultures different from my own. I wanted to be independent and self-sufficient. So, after nine months of living in Orlando, I decided that wasn’t far enough away from my little town and I auditioned for Hong Kong Disneyland for which I was offered a contract a month later. Little did I know how that contract would bring me to Shanghai Disneyland not long after. Despite brief bouts of home leave, come August I will have been 3-13+ hours by flight away from home for three years.

It wasn’t until I saw a picture of my little brother at a track meet this past February, and had a mental breakdown of tears in the break room at work, that I realized just how much I’ve missed with my family. He was a little kid when I went away to Orlando – now he’s a 13-year-old teenager that I don’t even recognize. My little sisters are in high school and one of them will be going to college after this next school year.

What I’m trying to say is, time goes on even when you’re gone. I’ve talked with many people who have lived abroad for years and there’s this trick our minds play on us where we just believe time stands still back “home” – our siblings, nieces, and nephews all stay the same size and age until we’re back home again. Our friends don’t get engaged, married, and have babies in the time span of us being away. It’s not real! … but time goes on. And while we understand that, it’s such a hard concept to grasp. It’s hard to go home and see your siblings all grown up. It’s hard to see your future-step-daughter, nieces, and nephews that have grown like weeds since you’ve been gone. It’s hard to see your friends’ lives moving forward and you feel as though you don’t fit in anywhere.

Cultural differences can often-times be too much for people to handle for long periods of time. It’s best to understand yourself REALLY well before making the decision to move internationally – can you handle change? Can you go with the flow of your surroundings? Are you good at keeping an optimistic outlook despite the circumstances? These questions barely scratch the surface, but are a good place to start.

If you are moving to a different country to work, you should prepare yourself mentally to pack your patience. Every country has different work environment standards, ethics, and problem-solving approaches. Learning a bit about the normal work environment prior to arrival can help offset some of the initial culture shock.

Prepare yourself by checking with people who already live there, or blogs and Pinterest, to find specific comfort foods and products you won’t be able to find in the country where you will be living so you can be sure to pack yourself a steady supply. (Ranch dressing and Cheez-Its, please!)

There’s also a common misconception that people who can’t speak english are stupid – I’ve seen time and time again foreigners (a LOT of Americans) come to visit China and be incredibly disrespectful and outright rude to the locals here who don’t speak english. It breaks my heart. If you are going to live abroad, you better get really good at miming, or learn bits and pieces of their language to help you get around. The funny thing is, the more I try to speak even the TINIEST bit of Mandarin around town, their faces light up as they try to help me. They see I’m trying! And then they try to speak bits of broken english to help as well and it’s this beautifully broken conversation in two languages – it can be so endearing. Taxi drivers and coffee shop baristas are some of the best people to practice Chinese with!

On an incredible bright side, you will grow tremendously as a person and as a professional by working in another country. You will be stretched far past your comfort zone – which can be AMAZING if you let it. But it’s understandably hard, too.  Learning how to adjust based on the culture is essential to your happiness in another country – because you aren’t going to change them or their way of life.

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