What do you imagine when you picture yourself living abroad for a period of time? Maybe strolling through wine vineyards in Italy or going surfing after work every day in Hawaii or reading a magazine in an outdoor cafe in France.
After recently returning home with my boyfriend after working for 6 months as kindergarten teachers in Hong Kong, I’ve had some time to reflect on the realities of living abroad…the good and the bad, the predictable and the unexpected, the memorable and forgettable.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary
One of my favourite things about living abroad has been the fact that ordinary things that you usually take for granted in your everyday life become extraordinary. Like using public transport or going food shopping. Being in a different country and a different culture, mundane things become exciting and exotic.
On the MTR on the way to work, I’d never stop marvelling at the babble of Cantonese voices around me. In the supermarket, I’d always be intrigued by the exotic foods. In cafes and restaurants, there would always be new things to try. You gain a deep appreciation for everyday experiences that you take for granted back home.
There are always new experiences to be had
During my past three years at university in the wonderfully eclectic city of Bristol, I developed a repertoire of experiences I knew I enjoyed. I went to the same handful of cafes and restaurants, the same shops, the same parks. When we arrived in Hong Kong, it felt like we’d been extracted from our lives and dropped into a big void. We had to start from scratch and throw ourselves into all kinds of new experiences as we searched for our new favourite spots. It was a great way to shake up our routine and discover new things that we loved doing.
One of the things that surprised me most about living abroad, is that overcoming challenges can be a really satisfying thing. You have to learn to adapt your lifestyle, your diet, your spending habits, even your approach to living. In Hong Kong, life is very much centred around work so we had to find ways to balance our work life with what little free time we had. We had to learn to adapt, to change, to alter ourselves in order to make the most of our new environment and I learned to love the constant challenges that came with that.
Being outside of your own culture
There’s something immensely satisfying about being outside of your own culture. It’s almost like you get to step outside of the life you’ve always lived and experience a completely new way of living. You’re exposed to different attitudes to work and leisure time, different values, different people. Especially when you’re living in a country where you don’t speak the language, it feels like you’re somehow a part of things but slightly separate at the same time. Sitting on the MTR on the way to work, you’re enveloped in the babble of voices around you without being able to understand what anyone is saying. There’s something strangely calming about it.
One of the main downsides of living abroad in a country where you can’t speak the language, is the fact that it’s hard to integrate yourself into the society in any meaningful way. We never properly lost the feeling of being outsiders and it made it difficult to feel properly feel connected in our new home. In the schools we taught in, we were the only native English speakers, so lunch times were spent looking down as everyone else talked around you. It can feel pretty lonely sometimes.
Added to this is the fact that all of your friends and family are on the other side of the world. You’re inevitably going to miss out on things back home and feel like you’ve left a part of yourself behind. The feeling does fade the longer you’re away, but I don’t think that it would ever go completely.
Missing home comforts
I had so many moments when we were living abroad where I’d crave something from home. Being able to meet a friend for a coffee in your favourite cafe, going to the supermarket and being surrounded by all your favourite foods, being a train journey away from your family. All those things feel like the ultimate luxuries when you can’t easily access them. The good thing, is that you learn to appreciate home more and stop taking things for granted.
Adjusting to a new way of life
Adjusting to a new way of life takes time. In Hong Kong, the biggest shock to the system was how prominent work was. Kindergarten teachers work long hours and even have to come into work on Saturdays for a half way of teaching. It’s exhausting and mentally draining and it took a long time to accept that attitudes to work were just different than they were back home.
Socialising is different in Hong Kong as well. The biggest attraction is shopping and it seems that most people spend what little free time they have in one of the hundreds of malls spread across the city. Consumerism takes place on a different level than it does in England and it definitely took some time to get our heads around this.
Overall, living abroad has been a positive experience for me and one that I’m keen to repeat. It can be challenging and scary and lonely at times but the benefits far outweigh the downsides for me.
– Tiger Lily –