Lessons of living abroad: Eleven expats tell about the most important thing they’ve learned
By Elizabeth Roberts
Some people choose expat life for a fat salary and a career boost, some for retirement, some for a sabbatical and a slower pace, and some for an adventure. Whatever their motivation, those who’ve spent time abroad are united by one thing — they’ve discovered something about themselves and the world. Here’s how the 11 interviewees responded to the question about what they’ve learned.
Daniel Rouse, Toronto, Canada
I’ve learned to be less regimented with my time and less inclined to waste it. In Toronto, things are more spur-of-the-moment than in the UK. For example, on a whim people will jump in the car and head out to the country. These destinations are often three hours away, enough to send most Brits to bed with a temperature, but Canadians just do it. It’s fun. So now, if I have a free afternoon, I’m not just going to spend it sitting in front of Netflix. Instead, I’ll jump on a bus and see a bit of town I don’t know or take the dog on a long walk. Toronto has made me restless, and I think that’s a good thing.
Sarah O’Meara, Shanghai, China
I have learned to value the transparency of rules and regulations in a democracy. The parameters governing everyday life in China are arbitrary and the final judgment comes from the most powerful person in the room.
Lu-Hai Liang, Beijing
I’ve come to realize that your 20s is the best time to have adventures, and I have made the most of that freedom. While my friends back home are starting to settle — with spouses, mortgages, and children — I am still without those milestones. I am 25 and free of the markers of adulthood, apart from financial independence. Living in Beijing, where money goes further, freedom feels more immediate. I can eat out and travel more, with the taken-for-granted attitude that I think expats enjoy.
Amanda Barnes, Mendoza, Argentina
I learned that the world doesn’t end when things don’t go to plan. It takes awhile to get used to everything running late, cancellations without warning, and impossible red tape. It gets your goat. But then you notice how the locals handle it — with a smile, some understanding, and admirable patience. You just have to laugh, move onto Plan B, and remember that you can’t control everything.
Sylvan Hardy, Cuenca, Ecuador
Maybe because I was a newspaper editor in a previous life I’ve made a habit of editing out the expats I don’t want to spend time with. In an expat community made up mostly of retirees and part-time workers, you can quickly become overwhelmed with blowhards and charlatans. These folks are almost all men who spend countless hours on social media and website comment sections, pontificating on the issue of the day, before decamping to their favorite gringo hangout to pontificate some more. These days, they have worked themselves into a lather over the Covid-19 virus and vaccines but no one pays much attention to them. Many of them are alcoholics. On the other hand, there are many wonderful expats out there worth befriending, sharing intelligent conversation with as well as a glass of wine or two. Pick your expat friends wisely.
Rosie Milne, Singapore
I’ve learned never to believe a place’s bad press. Singapore is disparaged as clinical and efficient to the point of tedium, when in fact it must be one of the most interesting spots on the globe. Here Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Western influences mingle in mixed-race people’s faces, in the language, the food, the plants and flowers, and the range of religions practiced. What I learned as a result is to celebrate pluralism, to be open to new ideas, and to welcome differences and debate.
Helen Russell, Billund, Denmark – her new book, The Year of Living Danishly, lists all the things she learned in her first 12 months as an expat
After 12 years as a journalist in London I had become cynical and cantankerous. The move to Denmark was an eye-opener. Danes are fanatical about recycling, dedicated to their families, hospitable, and committed to celebrating the national festivals that seem to occur on a weekly basis with unalloyed joy. They dance like no one is watching and sing at every opportunity. As someone who’d made an art of worrying what people thought of her, this was liberating. Caring about things and doing them with gusto, combined with a new appreciation for beer and baked goods, made for a quality of life I’d never experienced before. I’ve learned how to appreciate the little things in life and to be content.
Frances Woodhams, Nairobi, Kenya
The biggest thing I learned from 16 years in Kenya is that one should not set out hoping to change the world. The preconception that I grew up with in England was that Africa needed help and this help should come from the West. Having lived in this corner of the world for so long, I realize that outsiders wading in, especially coming from an ignorant standpoint, can do far more harm than good. We have a lot to learn by living here and the knowledge we glean definitely outweighs any skills that we bring in. Be a sponge, hold your nerve, and keep your mind open.
Victoria Scott, Doha, Qatar
The biggest thing I’ve learned is how incredibly fortunate I am. Qatar is a country of immense contrasts, with two extremes — the very rich and the very poor — living together in the same airspace, but rarely side by side. The country’s unskilled labor workforce often work long days for very low pay, returning at the end of their shifts to shared dormitories on the outskirts of the city. Most are in Qatar without their families. And yet, so many find the energy to smile at my family as we amble through our comfortable expat lives. In return, I smile back, ask after their children, learn their names, and give them tips and gifts as often as possible. I know it’s not enough, but I try. I also know that I will never again take our family income or our jobs for granted; my expat experience has given me invaluable perspective.
Annabel Kantaria, Dubai, UAE
Being an expat has taught me to let go of things. When you pay through the nose to move your possessions halfway around the globe, you can’t be precious about objects; you learn that things are replaceable; you learn not to hold on. But more than that, being an expat has taught me to let go of people. Living for a length of time in a transient expat destination, you learn that even your best friends, the ones who are your precious “expat family,” will eventually move on. One day they’re there for you at 2 a.m.; the next they’re living 5,000 miles away.
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey, originally from Germany, has lived in six countries and is about to move from Australia to France
I have learned to never say no to any invitations, challenges, offers, and opportunities coming my way. This way I have seen places I’d never visited otherwise, met people I would not normally have considered friend potential, and learnt so much more about the countries and cultures I’ve lived in.
Credit: The Telegraph