It seems to be a given that Western 20-somethings should be packing their bags to gain “life experience” overseas. More than a gap year or backpacking trip, we are told to get a visa and take advantage of job opportunities that may not be available at home to pay off our student loans we once thought would pay off in spades. Going away will help us to get ahead in our careers, learn about ourselves, experience a new culture, or at least kill time before settling down.
I’m as guilty as the next 26-year-old. My university program included a year long international co-op placement in a developing country. In 2012, I moved to London, England on a working holiday visa with my now-husband, an Irishman who had spent two years in my home country, Canada, on a working holiday visa himself. I am writing this article from Shanghai, China, where I have lived for a year and plan to stay for the foreseeable future.
I have met dozens of people who made the choice to pack up and head out in a chorus of well-wishes and eagerness to hear stories upon their return. Maybe you have, too, or are considering it yourself. I have also seen people with regrets, who head back early, or who become jaded and refuse to integrate. These are young people who bought into the idea that they would be better, more interesting, more whole, if they only got on a plane.
Planting shallow roots shouldn’t be an easy decision. Whether you’re going to be isolated in the rainforest or partying it up in a metropolitan hub, parts of your life will be dramatically affected. For better or for worse.
We are told to think about vaccinations, legal status, finding employment and apartments, and storing our stuff before we go. And, sure, spend a bit of time sorting these things out. But these aren’t the big things I think people need to consider before taking the plunge.
1) Who is coming with you?
If you're moving with family, what is the job situation for the adults? Will both people work? Trailing partners face their own challenges, sometimes pausing their own careers and facing the stresses of maintaining an identity. These challenges can make or break a couple. Work, living arrangements, visits home, travel: Being on the same page about the plan, especially as it changes over time, is crucial.
Many expatriate relationships fail overseas. Going away in my relationship has meant a lot more time together as, especially initially, we were the only friends and family we had. If you aren’t in a strong relationship and you don’t have a safety net to either stake it out on your own or go home, do not do it. Often opportunities for infidelity, substance abuse, and daily stressors increase with a big move. Be cautious!
A couple of years ago I was up for a position for an NGO in Ghana. They told me I wouldn't be able to bring my husband, then boyfriend, with me. I withdrew. For me, I know the life I want includes living together. Other married friends we know are split across continents due to work commitments. That's what they've worked out is best for their family. What's best for yours?
I don't need to remind any parent that the well-being of their children ups the stakes in research and commitment to supporting the additional emotional turmoil of leaving the familiar. Some friends have decided to leave Shanghai because they have small children and the air quality has diminished since they first moved here. Education, safety, culture -- these issues suddenly become way more important when impressionable small people are part of the package. Some children thrive, learning new languages and adapting to a new school. But parents need to prepare for difficulties -- academically, socially, and emotionally -- more than ever before, on top of their own struggles.
2) Missing milestones and tragedies
One of the major reasons friends have cut contracts short or don't accept them at all is related to family. Life doesn't pause when you go away: people get sick, people die, people are born.
I work at a community center for expatriates in Shanghai which offers counseling services. One of the top issues we see? People coming in with severe grief and accompanying guilt due to deaths of family members or friends in their home countries. This isn’t culture shock. This isn’t being closed-minded. This is a deeply personal, very real possibility of loss compounded by distance.
My father-in-law recently had a heart attack. My husband wrestled with himself, trying to decide whether he should book a flight back to Ireland or listen to his family and stay put. His dad will be fine, thankfully, but it is still hard to watch from across the world. If he didn’t have a mother and siblings to reassure him that they were taking care of his father, would we still be here? Would we have come at all?
We have to believe that we can forgive ourselves for leaving when we miss milestones and tragedies. For people I know who have returned home, turned down offers, or cancelled overseas placements, they knew they wouldn’t trade the time with loved ones for the advantages going away could offer.
3) Timelines for having a family
One of the big reasons that 20- and 30-somethings decide to go "home," even with fulfilling jobs in an environment they like, is because they want to start a family.
The dating scene when you're an expat can be quite dire. Stress about dating people who might be using you for money or citizenship, anxiety about what to do when visas expire, and pressure to commit to marriage quickly to stay with someone you have recently met are very real concerns.
If you have a final destination in mind where you want to settle down and want to have kids, keeping in mind that you eventually want to "get sprogged up," as one of my friends likes to say, is important when considering timelines for going abroad.
Sure, you may find the love of your life abroad. My husband would not have met me had he not left his home country. But if you would regret only meeting a smattering of singletons over your years abroad or having your children’s formative years play out far away from Grandma, you might want to reconsider a move away.
It’s not that I think people shouldn’t try something new or earn a living where there are better opportunities. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t believe that there is much to be gained by going away. The hardest times of culture shock and loneliness have made me a more open-minded, understanding and self-aware person.
But I also believe that it isn’t for everyone and without stepping back to think of the impact on your life. You risk guilt about leaving, resentment of where you have ended up, and feeling like your life has been put on hold.
Those of us who have the passports and access to funds that give us the option to move abroad are privileged beyond words. But just because we can go does not mean that we should or that we must. For those of us who are encouraged to find ourselves, we need to remember that living our lives to the “fullest” doesn’t necessarily mean relocating ourselves to the farthest reaches of the world.