5 tips for living abroad

To live, to truly live, we must be willing to risk. To be nothing in order to find everything. To leap before we look. (Mandy Hale)

There I was, telling my father I was moving an ocean away. Again. He’d gotten used to hearing me say this; at 26, I had already lived abroad twice.

“Enjoy it, God be with you my child,” he said. “But I wish you’d just stay in America!”

Living in another country is one of the most enriching experiences I can think of. You’re able to meet awesome people, try new foods, learn a few foreign words, and travel to surrounding countries and cities. One of the most profound aspects about transplanting yourself is a certain amount of self-realization that happens: you’re not only able to look at your own country with different eyes, you’re also able to learn a few things about who you are, and why you do the things you do.

With many benefits of living abroad, there are an equal number of challenges. You’ve got to learn to take care of yourself in a foreign environment, think on your feet, and learn to find ways to navigate around the language barrier (if there is one).

And, like moving to a new place, making friends takes time, as does finding a church you can call home.

So, for anyone else who is thinking of living internationally for a while, here are a few things that I’ve learned.

1. Do your homework

Find out everything about the country you want to move to. Educate yourself on visa regulations, the cost of living, and cultural expectations. It’s better to be prepared and financially smart about emergencies that may arise. And, if you can, wait a few weeks after you get there before you sign a lease. This way, you’ll be able to see for yourself how a neighbourhood looks and feels. You will also get the chance to talk with other people and understand how moving into a city works: if you have to pay council tax for your city or neighnourhood, pay a TV license fee, where’s the best place to buy groceries, and what areas you should stay away from. This is the kind of research you won’t be able to do from your computer at home.

2. Take a risk

Yes, it’s scary walking into the unknown. But it’s also an adventure that will lead you closer to God. He’ll show you how to rely on Him when you’re faced with the inevitable obstacles that will come your way; He’ll allow some disappointments to teach you about people, strengthen your faith, and most importantly, allow His glory to shine through.

3. Take advantage of your free time

When I first arrived in Germany, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I didn’t know that many people. So, I often went for long walks and made time for a relationship with God. During this time I was also able to join various clubs and groups to meet new people. Through immersing myself in the culture and surroundings, I’ve been able to fully appreciate where I am, and have been blessed with people who have become like family to me.

4. Ask God what He’s trying to teach you

Travelling alone to a foreign country can be one of the most lonely experiences ever. When I got to Berlin there was a major emergency with my visa; the workers at the foreigners office were quite unfriendly and would not initially assist me with the information that I needed. My first few months were the most difficult. I constantly was praying, “Lord, what are you trying to teach me here? What is it you want me to see?” Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that my start here in Berlin was not the greatest, it has been one of the most life-changing and formative experiences of my life.

5. Be respectful of the culture you’re in

No two cultures are the same. Societal norms, customs, and expectations are going to be different than what you’re used to. (For example, British-polite is different from American-polite.) So try not to judge a culture based on your own. Learning the language and making friends with locals can also help with understanding why things are the way they are. This is the enriching part of the international journey: truly getting to know and understand the people of the culture you’re in.

Of course there are many other things to learn and gain from living in another country. If you have the opportunity to live in another country, take it, learn from it, and add something to it. You will be surprised how much you will learn and how much God will teach you.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Jon Rawlinson.