It is hard to believe we have been living abroad for 11 years. Our kids are bilingual, one trilingual, and our life as an American family has been forever changed.
Sometimes it is hard to explain what to expect living life abroad. When reflecting back on our move abroad, there are some things I wish we would have known before moving.
1. It will not feel like a vacation
This should have been obvious to me, but I chose to let the excitement of moving abroad overshadow the reality that this was “real life”and not a vacation.
As much as we would like our vacations to last forever, they don’t. Overseas vacations are often characterized by funny stories about asking for directions or ordering food in another language. Our move abroad had a short honeymoon period, where we felt like we were on vacation, but this ended quickly. For the first few years there’s a constant friction in dealing with a new language and culture that makes everything in life more difficult. We anticipated stumbling through the language for trivial things like ordering food. We didn’t anticipate things like reading and negotiating apartment contracts, interacting with doctors, mechanics, and school teachers, or dealing with issues with service providers like the cable company. Also, we didn’t anticipate the persistent fatigue that comes with not understanding a language. This was most evident for the kids, who had to endure being pushed to comprehend and communicate for many hours every day at school. Our kids came home crying many times because it was difficult for them, or worse because they were ridiculed for not understanding.
2. You may feel like you lose your identity a bit.
In some ways, there is a sense of losing an identity, but do I feel like our life has been enriched by experiencing cultures outside of the one we knew. We still celebrate Thanksgiving and give our kids American traditions, yet, we also celebrate Swiss traditions. Our middle son was once told at school he was not American. To which his response was, “Of, course I am.” We feel a love for both cultures but also feel like we are floating between both. When we return to America to visit we feel somewhat out of place. But likewise, living in a country where we (at least as parents) will always have strong accents when speaking Italian, gives us away as foreigners. The sense for identity gets lost between cultures.
Everything changes. Before we moved abroad, as Americans, we felt as if we coming from one of the best places. Thinking we had the best of everything. The first couple years abroad were characterized by noticing things that we wished were more like they are in America. Now, when visiting America, we notice things we wish were more like Switzerland. There are things we love about both places, and we are able to pick out the things we like and dislike without the cultural biases.
3. Everyone can be a foreigner
I know it may have been naive of me to think this, but for some reason I just thought we would be accepted wherever we went.
Coming from California we felt like we came from a pretty open minded, accepting culture. However, it took living abroad to realize that, unfortunately, there are stereotypes about people from almost every nation, even *gasp* our own. Regardless of where you are from, you are subject to having to deal with those stereotypes.
I remember an experience when we first moved to Zurich. We were confronted by a man on the train that decided he needed to tell us why he didn’t like Americans. It was surprising to us at the time. We were just as surprised when we were turned down from renting an apartment because we were not native Swiss.
The feeling of being a foreigner helps you gain more empathy for those who are foreign in your own home county.
4. It will change your life in many ways
You leave your old life behind. Being immersed in a new culture enriches your life in many ways. The languages you speak, people you interact with, thoughts about your country, your way of thinking changes. You can see both your countries as an outsider looking in. See what you may have once thought was perfect, maybe is not.
When you move abroad the first few years are spent thinking, I wish this was like it is at home. But then a few more years of living abroad, you find yourself returning to visit ‘home’ and find yourself saying I wish it was like (they country you are now living in) Home will never feel the same.
5. Be Flexible
Eat pizza on the beach. Make friends with the locals. Integrate into the new culture. Learn the language and speak it, even when not correct. It is more important to try instead of waiting to be perfect when you speak, it will never happen.
The inability to communicate can feel very isolating. There will be times of loneliness and discouragement, therefore learning the language is very important.
Learn to roll with the punches. You need to be flexible as life abroad brings many things you do not anticipate. The way things work will probably be totally foreign. What might be seen as being rude in your country, such a cutting in line, may be an accepted practice in another country.
What once was just a crazy idea to move abroad has since become a life changing event for us. We wanted our children to grow up and see a world outside the one they knew. A world that would broaden their perspective and open their eyes to new languages and cultures. Moving abroad has forever changed who we are and we wouldn’t have it any other way.