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When I was walking home late last night from a friend's home, I couldn't help but take stock of my life with amazement.
It was nearly midnight, but Hong Kong bustled around me. People were still rushing places, so many different languages swirled around me, only half of which I understood, and the unique smells of the city filled my nose. I know many big cities around the world are still alive in the wee hours of the morning, but for those moments as I walked the dozen or so blocks home, everything felt so special.
I really believe we are responsible for much of the "luck" we encounter in our lives, but for those 20 minutes that I walked through Hong Kong, I felt truly lucky. It's these times that I ask myself, admittedly with glee, "How on earth did I get here?"
Up until a couple years ago, I had no desire to leave the US. I had a happy life with friends and family close by, and even though I'd switched careers sort of "midstream," I felt like I was on track. My life made sense, and it felt safe. My path was clear.
Then 13 and a half months ago, I made a very uncharacteristically-Louise leap: I moved to Japan. My path started twisting and turning.
Did I know what I was getting into? NOPE. Did I think I knew what I was getting into? YEP. Thinking about it now, do I think I could have truly been prepared for the direction my life would take? I don't know. But it I don't regret the decision for a moment.
Victory and failure became far less black and white, and kindness — to myself and concerning the new people around me — became the touchstone of my life.
In many ways I really was fortunate. I had a husband who knew the language and culture of Japan, and while my career changed a little bit, I was able to continue doing what I love in a bigger and bolder fashion than I ever thought possible. In many ways, I think I came into focus living abroad.
But it was not, and is not, without struggle.
For those of you in the xoCommunity who have been paying attention, I think this is evident. I've read so many lovely, thoughtful comments and emails from many of you about your hopes, fears, and shared challenges of living or moving abroad, that I wanted to offer you some of my thoughts on making that leap.
I'm innately a "preparer", and I suspect many of you are too. These are things I wish I'd known before moving, even if they can't really be understood until after the fact.
So here are a few things Google searches for "what to expect, life abroad" may not give you. If a life abroad is what you want, I hope my experiences might ease your transition.
What People Say
When I was a theatre major in undergrad, a friend and mentor told me, "You've chosen a life not everyone will understand. Your friends and family won't always get it, even if they try. They may try to discourage you because they love you. All you can do is understand that, and do what you must do anyway."
He was talking about a life in the arts, but those words have come back to me so many times living in Asia.
Some people may cheer you on, blindly support you, even admire you. But others, because they care about you may ask you, "Why? Why does it have to be so far away? What are you running away from? Are you trying to escape reality?"
Such questions can get under your skin and make you second guess your decision. I do think those are hard questions to consider, important questions, but if you know in your gut you're doing the right thing for you, you have to take note and move on.
I still have friends and family asking me "WHY?", and while my answers don't necessarily satisfy them all the time, I've come to a place where I just KNOW this is right for me, and I am at peace with that.
And as for "reality," I think sometimes there is a misconception that reality has to be dull or unappealing. Living abroad is firmly reality for me, with most of the stresses and worries I experienced in the US, but the reality I've built for myself here thrills me.
Work, Money, Blah, etc.
I can only speak from my experiences, but I don't think moving abroad is only for the wealthy — which is what a lot of people think. I am not wealthy. My husband is not wealthy. Most of you probably earn more than I do.
Granted the initial big move took some saving and savvy spending, but in the end, we were able to do it without going broke. Yes, the way we spend our money is different, but really it doesn't feel that far off from the way we handled our finances in the US. We both work and we both pay taxes, life is not a vacation, but it's also an adventure.
The reality of having to WORK while living that adventure didn't really hit home for me until I actually had to DO IT in Japan — and I admit it took a little of the wind out of my sails at first. Even though I knew I'd be working while living abroad, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all, and imagine easy-breezy days of "work" not WORK. It takes some balancing, and it's definitely not always fun.
But once you find the balance, there is a real sense of pleasure and accomplishment in earning a living, not living on vacation.
There Are Days You'll Long for Home
I love it here. I loved Japan. I can't imagine living anywhere else right now.
But are there days I want to jump in the ocean and swim back to Los Angeles? Absolutely.
There are days when all I want is to able to go shopping in a place where I can thoughtlessly chat with sales people in a shorthand that doesn't require any sort of mental calisthenics. There are days I just want to call up my best friend, meet up 10 minutes later, and go to freakin' Taco Bell.
Basically there are days I just want things to be easier.
These thoughts used to make me question my choice to live here. Because I was having these thoughts did it mean life abroad was wrong for me? Had life here run its course?
No. At least I don't think so. Life abroad is hard, it may be wonderful, but it's hard. For a long while it will never be as easy as life in your home country. But feeling exhausted or a little lonely in your foreign home is no failure. It doesn't mean it's time to give up.
To me, it's a sign that normalcy has taken hold in my new home, and that my old life, stresses forgotten, has become where I look to for a vacation. I've really come to appreciate aspects of the US so much more. It can be an exciting flip of reality.
Fear Does Not Have to Be Your Foe
Sometimes I feel like I'm afraid of everything.
I still feel pangs of fear when I go to the home goods store and have to ask the Cantonese-only speaking staff to get a water filter from the stock room. I still get nervous taking a cab to a new place. I still feel fear when I know I'm going to have to meet new people, when all I want to do is go about my solitary life experiencing Hong Kong on my terms and my terms alone. Essentially, I'm constantly afraid of coming off as a fool.
But as my husband likes to say, "You're just one fool among the rest."
Fear can either drive you to open up your life, or completely shut it down. I'd be lying if I said there haven't been times abroad when fear hasn't gotten the best of me. There are times when I'm like a sick cat licking my wounds in a dark corner. I don't think there's shame in this, and for me it was part of the process of adapting to life abroad.
But that can't be your whole life. That's not a life, abroad or anywhere.
I really believe that a vital part of living abroad is finding a way to make fear your ally. You can make a choice to let it consume you or compel you. It's never easy, but I've found that nearly every time I've decided to do something that frightens me, I don't regret it. I may choose not to venture there again, but the experience is rarely without value.
If life abroad has taught me anything, it's that there's always time for anxiety and fear. For many of us it will always be waiting in the wings. But experiences can pass in the blink of an eye.
The fears can wait, but your life cannot.