A version of this article was published in Brazilian Portuguese at Huffington Post in September, 2015. Since then, it has been re-published by several Brazilian websites and quoted in Gloria Kalil’s newest book, “Chic Profissional”.
I recommend moving abroad to anyone who wants (and is able) to do so — even if it’s just for a few months. Getting in touch with other cultures is an excellent way to grow and evolve. Such knowledge cannot be acquired by just traveling, you need to live everyday life: share an apartment with strangers, pay bills, go to the supermarket and the doctor, build a network of local friends, and deal with work colleagues with a completely different mindset. Only then you can discover all the small details that make Americans be American, the Spanish be Spanish or the Chinese be Chinese.
However, when living in a foreign country, the most important lessons you’ll learn are not about others, but rather about yourself. When people around us are not exactly like us, we’re prompted to reflect upon what makes us the way we are. Are the things we’ve always believed to be right really right? How can we improve ourselves? Moving abroad has made me more tolerant and flexible; less anxious and judgmental.
If you were born in a developing country, like me, it’s easy to make assumptions of how life in a “first world country” is like. But if you think things would be a lot easier if you moved to the US or Europe, think again. There’s so much more to places than their economy!
If you wanna move abroad because you find it hard to land a job in your home country, for example, imagine looking for a job in a completely different culture and language, where you have no previous contacts or experience! Being an immigrant oftentimes means punching above your weight and having to work twice as hard to a) be at the same level as everybody else; and b) get the same recognition once you reach the same level as everybody else. Oh, and then you’ll be accused of stealing something you’ve worked hard for.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I don’t mean to discourage you. Just go back a couple paragraphs: I said I do recommend moving abroad! The thing is I recommend it precisely because it isn’t easy.
Just think about it: what is the moment you’ve felt the most proud of yourself? I bet the answer is related to something you’ve managed to accomplish even though it seemed like a herculean task in the beginning, like graduating from school or learning how to drive or tying a knot on a cherry stem with your tongue.
So that’s what moving abroad feels like: choking on that cherry stem multiple times until you get it right. Or, to use one of my favorite metaphors, it’s like solving a puzzle with 5,000 pieces: it’s at the same time terrifying and fascinating, fun and annoying, frustrating and rewarding.
I love it, and I’m thankful for my choices every single day — but big puzzles aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. So here are a few things you should know in order to determine if you wanna take a sip.
1. First you’ll get a honeymoon period
Oh the joy of a new relationship! You can’t help but smiling when he/she texts you. You can’t get your hands off each other. Having sex three times in a row seems perfectly normal. Life is good!
It’s basically the same when you move abroad. At first you’ll be stoked about exploring the city and meeting new people, and life will be a never ending party.
2. Then you’ll start seeing things more clearly
A few months later, your oxytocin levels (or dopamine, whatever it is) will drop and you’ll start seeing things in a more balanced way. Some things will start annoying you, much in the same way the jokes your significant other makes — which seemed hilarious when you first met — now sound like dad jokes to you. But you still love him for the whole package.
3. Or the contrary!
Some people get really sad and lonely at first. Culture shock hits them hard. Then, a couple months later, they get used to the new environment and start enjoying the good aspects of it. However the process is to you, bear in mind the first impression rarely sticks.
4. You’ll miss your family quite a lot… And then you won’t anymore
If the only thing keeping you from starting an adventure abroad is your fear of missing home too much, stop hesitating. It won’t be as bad as you think. Of course that depends on how attached to people you are, but if you already consider moving abroad, I assume you’re not the overly attached type.
The ugly truth is that you will get used to the absence of your family and friends — which doesn’t mean they’ll be out of your life. Skype helps a lot and, believe it or not, it might even bring you closer to your parents. Yes, you read that right. I talk a lot more to my mother nowadays than when we used to live under the same roof. Last time we Skyped, we talked for four hours straight.
When was the last time you talked to your mom four hours straight?
Obviously there are exceptions to this — I know people who went back to their home countries because they missed family too much. But most people are OK.
5. You’ll learn that friendships are circumstantial
Another lesson moving abroad teaches us is that most friendships only last for as long as both of you share a certain space or situation. We grow apart from most of our high school and college friends, for example — well, at least I did. The same will happen to the people you left behind in your home country.
At first, you’ll text and Skype all the time. They will be super curious about your adventures. But, eventually, life goes on without you — and your life will go on without them, too.
Don’t be sad, though. You’ll get to know which friendships are real once you go back home for a visit. Real friends are those with whom you can pick things up where you left them: the moment you see them, it’ll feel as though you never left. The conversation will flow for hours.
With others, reuniting will feel kind of awkward and eventually you’ll just stop seeing them when in town.
Same goes for the new friends you’ll make abroad. Many of them will be fellow foreigners — simply because they get it. Since both of you are away from your families and cultures, and there’s nobody there that knows you for a long time, those friendships tend to become quite intense. However, expats are always leaving, whether because they graduate or get a job offer elsewhere or simply because they feel like it. Wanderlust is a bitch.
I often joke that immigrant life is an accelerated version of normal life: eventually, everybody leaves, but with us the wheel spins faster. But, hey, look at the bright side: at least you’ll have couches to crash on all over the world! And if those friendships are real, you’ll get to visit them abroad time and again.
More aware of the fact that everyone comes and goes, you’ll become less attached to people in general — which might sound selfish, but believe me, it’s actually a good thing. It’s liberating. It means you’ll become more independent and won’t sweat the small stuff. For example, I don’t care as much anymore if someone doesn’t seem to like me, neither do I mind going to a restaurant or concert on my own if I have to.
6. being different all the time sucks sometimes
Suppose you speak fluent, near native English and you’re moving to a country where English is the official language. If you expect to pass for a local, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t. Not for long.
It doesn’t matter if you have the best accent in the world, at some point something will reveal you. Somebody will refer to a lullaby you never heard as a kid or an old TV show that wasn’t exported or a celebrity you’ve never heard of or a slang that is so specific you haven’t seen in the movies. Mastering a language does not mean mastering a culture, simply because you lack all the references.
If you’re crazy enough to move to a country whose language you don’t speak, like me, expect things to be even harder. In Hungary, I lived in a bubble of English-speaking foreigners, since I didn’t plan on staying there forever and, as Brazilian writer Chico Buarque once wrote, Hungarian is the only language the devil respects. Every time I left my bubble to go to the supermarket or the post office and met people who did not speak a word of English, I felt like an idiot.
Later on, in the Netherlands, I was never incommunicable because everyone speaks good English. However, English is not the language of the streets, the TV and newspapers. If I were to stay there in the long run, I would have to pop myself out of the bubble and learn Dutch from scratch.
But no matter how dedicated you are, you can’t learn a language overnight. It’s a long process, during which you’ll feel like an idiot countless times. I certainly don’t miss the days when I used to freak out when the cash clerk said one thing off the script.
Not being able to fully express yourself is one of the most frustrating feelings you’ll ever get. It’s like being a kid, all over again. Wanting to say something but not finding the right words. Having the desired word coming in 479 other languages in your head, except the one you need. Making your sentence take a thousand turns to translate a rather simple idea, for lack of better vocabulary. All that is tiring, and it often makes you just wanna give up.
Not to mention the differences that go beyond language. Dutch people wash their dishes by filling the sink with water instead of using running water — which means they technically wash the soap out the dishes with dirty water. If there’s one thing you should know about Brazilians, is that they’re hygiene freaks, so you can imagine how much that makes me cringe. I attribute the success of my marriage to the possession of a dishwasher.
Another common Brazilian trait is to avoid criticizing people directly — which doesn’t mean they don’t do it. Instead, they make those snarky comments that make you go like “wait a minute, is it just me or was that mean?”. And since almost all criticism is made between the lines, everyone’s got their guard up so people get offended by basically anything.
Sometimes people give you a cold shoulder because they think you meant something you didn’t, but they’ll never say they’re offended to your face, so you’re left to wonder what the hell you’ve done wrong.
I hate that, so it felt liberating coming to the Netherlands, where the norm is to be as direct as you can. However, just because I liked it better, doesn’t mean I knew how to operate in this manner. I had to adjust my ideas of what it means to be rude, and learn how to be more direct myself. Only to find myself unintentionally offending my family members when they visit me.
Although discovering a new world and its codes is interesting and fun (I moved abroad to solve this huge puzzle after all), sometimes it wears you out. Sometimes all you will wish for is to be somewhere where everyone understands you and you understand everyone. Not having to make any effort. That, my friends, is the thing you’ll miss the most.
There has been a time in elementary school when I was bullied. For as bad as it was, I knew I wouldn’t be at school the whole day. There were other places in which I didn’t feel so different. Today, though, I have no time off. I am different 24 hours a day, and I must suck it up and deal with it.
7. you’ll ENCOUNTER prejudiceD PEOPLE
There isn’t a day in which I open the newspaper and don’t see a columnist arguing that the Netherlands are “full” and need to tighten up their immigration laws even more.
Although being a middle-class highly educated immigrant with light skin helps me a great deal, I can’t help but take it personally. I mean, you are talking about me.
Most prejudice is subtle, but it can still hurt — at least until you grow a thicker skin. Nowadays, I really don’t sweat the small stuff. After all, if I don’t impose myself the obligation to please every single Brazilian person I encounter, why would I do that with the Dutch? But getting to this point was a process.
If you come from a developing country, you’ll be basically trading a place with problems for a place where YOU are perceived as the problem. Such change makes you more aware of people that do not even need to leave their home country to be treated that way. I mean, I chose to come here, so I see all challenges as consequences of my choices. It’s part of the game. How would it feel, though, to be treated as a foreigner in your own land, like some people are here?
Dealing with eventual xenophobes is, however, the easiest part. The worst part of prejudice is bureaucracy. If you don’t have a European passport, prepare to live in a Kafkaesque world, where immigration laws are always changing — after all, those populist politicians who are so trendy right now need to keep their promises to the voters that believe foreigners must be kept out. So do expect an ever growing amount of requirements to be able to renew your visas.
Are you ready to go through all of these things? Well, actually no one is. This is one of those things you can only learn by doing, by feeling your way in the dark. So you gotta have an open mind and not be overly romantic.
If that sounds like you, and you enjoy a nice big puzzle, go for it and have fun. It’s totally worth it. I would do it all over again and wouldn’t do it any other way.
And, remember: if halfway through you find out that’s not your cup of tea, you can always go back. No shame in that. At least you tried.