4 Things I've Learned From Living Abroad for Most of My Life

After living internationally for the majority of my life, I've come to appreciate how different cultures have shaped who I am today. You often hear that going away to college is how you learn to coexist with people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and religions, but I think living abroad can teach you even more. Here's what I've learned so far.

1. To appreciate a culture and its people, you need to get involved.

In the mid-2000s, I lived in Thailand for three years and one of my favorite national holidays (still) is the Songkran Festival. This three-day holiday is celebrated every year starting April 13 until April 15. Also known as the Thai New Year, locals celebrate by visiting temples to honor Buddha and Buddhist monks. As a kid, I looked forward to the water festival, where busy streets closed so that people could celebrate with hoses, water guns and buckets full of a water-chalk mix. I learned that the water festival, similar to being baptized in water, is supposed to cleanse you from previous sins.

I remember a lot of Westerners being agitated and bothered by Songkran because it was difficult to get around the city without getting soaked! However, without being involved in this tradition and festival, I would have never met and bonded with Thai locals or understood the importance of the tradition to the culture. Now I know that by being involved in a culture's local traditions, appreciating what once was unknown to me is much easier than simply rejecting the chance to learn about it.

2. Attempting to learn the language is vital to having an engaged experience.

When I was 10, I moved to Beijing, China and was forced into learning Mandarin as a foreign language. In the beginning, I was upset and hated being in class — I pretty much thought it was pointless to learn the language. Overtime, though, I came to realize how difficult it was to get around the city without having some baseline knowledge of the language. The local shopkeepers, waiters and taxi drivers could either speak minimal, broken English or almost none at all.

Eventually, I tried to speak Chinese in a local setting if my family went shopping or needed to communicate with a taxi driver. I totally understand that Mandarin Chinese is hard to learn (trust me, I know) but without talking with locals, I would most likely have had a very dull, isolating experience. If given the opportunity, I highly recommend learning the local language: it will change your experience abroad from feeling touristy and at a distance to an absolute adventure.

3. Using your status as a foreigner makes you stand out — in a bad way!

In my sophomore year of high school, I moved to the Kingdom of Bahrain, an island situated between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. A predominantly Muslim country, I understood right away that understanding and experiencing the culture would be different from what I was used to while growing up. During my time there, I attended a Department of Defense American high school where the majority of students were from military or Navy families. Although it was hard to assimilate into the culture because of the deeply rooted history, I noticed that the American students would use their status of being American (AKA: a foreigner) to what they thought was an advantage. I would constantly hear the phrase “military/Navy brat” being used. In my mind, I think they thought they were at an advantage compared to those who were not military or Navy, or that somehow, it was an impressive trait. But based on what I gathered from living there and other places, it's important to have humility. By doing so, there's likely a higher chance that you'll be invited to involve yourself in the local community.

To me, bragging about being an American/Westerner/foreigner makes it so much harder to fully immerse into a new culture. It'll force you into a bubble where your only interactions are with those most similar to you. If there's one thing I value most about living overseas, it's about “giving up” my status as a foreigner and assimilating as much as possible into the new community — even if temporarily.

4. Learning to be open-minded is a process. It doesn't happen overnight.

Although I'm super grateful that I've been able to travel while growing up, I remember truly hating having to travel and move schools all the time. Since I didn't have a choice, I forced myself to be open-minded about moving, and I made the mistake of expecting it to happen immediately. For me, learning open-mindedness took years of traveling and learning about different cultures. It has taught me to accept people and places that seem strange to me at first, but later I'm able to appreciate them.

I 100% recommend living abroad to anyone who's trying to learn more about acceptance, cultural differences and the benefits of travel. Just remember that growing accustomed to your new location takes time and effort, but being open-minded while learning about the world is so worth the process. ✦

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