10 Things I’ve Learned Abroad

6 months ago today marks my landing in Hong Kong to begin my expat life. These first 6 months have seemingly flown by, and I’m sure these next 6 will go even faster as I decide where to go from here.

Although 6 months isn’t necessarily a long time, I would like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned while abroad.

Becoming more worldly

Becoming more worldly

Lesson #1: Live Your Life To The Fullest

It may be cliche, but it’s true. You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Time is precious– every minute counts, so figure out what you want to do and make it a priority. The longer I spend abroad, the more I start to realize I only have xx days left in this country. The clock is ticking and I still have a long list of things I want to see and do before it’s time to leave. Knowing you have a limited time somewhere really forces you to make the most of it.

Lesson #2: There’s A Difference Between Wants and Needs

Living without things makes you realize you don’t need the things you once thought you did– such as a clothes dryer, a microwave, or a hair straightener to name a few. Working with a limited budget each month, you quickly learn what you really need and what can be cut out of your expenses. This helps you stop buying unnecessarily and even save some money. Even when traveling there are always ways to cut down costs, such as cooking your own food or staying in a hostel.

More importantly I’ve learned you don’t need to be comfortable 100% of the time, and you can still have fun on a small(er) budget.

Hostels--comfortable? No. Cheap? Yes.

Hostels–Comfortable? No. Cheap? Yes.

Lesson #3: Appreciate The Little Things

With the above being said, you really start to appreciate the little things in life. I used to take for granted having the above things such as a microwave, clothes dryer, etc. And although you don’t need them, I will appreciate having those luxuries in my life again one day.

You also come to appreciate simple things such as being away from hordes of people or being able to drink straight from the tap–both are things you cannot do in Hong Kong. Many people don’t realize how lucky they’ve got it until they’re forced to take extra steps, such as boiling water just to brush your teeth in the morning.

Just a normal day, crossing the street in Japan

Just a normal day crossing the street in Tokyo

Lesson #4: Do Things Even If You Don’t Get Paid For It

Getting paid to do what you love is great. There are a ton of people who would love to get paid to travel, paid for their art, paid for their photography, etc. But the unfortunate reality of the situation is that those lucky people who actually get paid are far and few between. This does not mean that you should stop doing what you love! Continue to make art, take photos, travel, etc. even when you’re not making money from it (just make sure you have income coming from somewhere). And who knows, maybe one day someone will notice you and it’ll have all been worth it.

Lesson #5: Being Alone Is Okay

Back home I would have never gone to a sit-down restaurant or to a movie theater by myself. I remember the first time I sat alone in a theater was in Japan. I felt so much anxiety. I thought everyone would stare at me or judge me for being alone, but soon plenty of people filled the theater. Many were alone themselves, and you know what? No one cared, no one looked twice. Dining out or going to the movies, even traveling alone is not the scary or humiliating experience I once thought it would be. In fact, sometimes it’s even nice.

Traveling alone can be fun, even if I had no one to help me when I got attacked by sacred deer

Traveling alone can be fun, even if I had no one to help me as I got attacked by deer

Lesson #6: International Travel Is The Best Diet

Living healthier abroad is so much easier than in the US. Food abroad is usually fresher with less preservatives than back home. Although I’m still adjusting to the taste of things here (like meat–bleh!), I know it’s better for you than in the US. Healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are cheap, whereas it’s things like mac n cheese or hamburgers that are expensive. It’s completely the opposite at home where it’s much cheaper to run to McDonalds than it is to make a fruit salad. (In Hong Kong McDonalds is about USD $3 per meal, but in Thailand it’s around USD $5 and Japan a whopping USD $7–all for much smaller portions.) These smaller portions are customary to any restaurant abroad.

Lastly, the amount of walking is much higher than back home. When we were in Thailand, we walked almost 6 miles per day, and in Hong Kong we walk 2 miles per day just getting to and from work. I never walked this much even when living on a huge college campus.

Deliciously cheap fruit

Deliciously cheap fruit

Lesson #7: Being American Is Not A Bad Thing

I remember during orientation before departing to Japan, we were all told to never advertise ourselves as American. In fact, we were told that it would be okay to just lie and say we were from Canada instead. This, along with media, led me to believe that the world hated America. It wasn’t until I went abroad that I learned this is definitely not the case. In general, a majority of people I’ve met love Americans and are very interested to learn about our culture–they especially love our pop culture. (In Japan I was asked by multiple girls if I’d ever met Justin Bieber just because I was from America.) Sure, they might dislike our government or foreign policies, but most people won’t dislike you by association–although yes, there are exceptions.

Before moving abroad I’ll admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of America, but I’ve come to develop a lot of love for my country. Plus, without my American passport, I wouldn’t be able to easily travel to half the countries I hope to someday visit.

Lesson #8: Traveling Puts The World In Perspective

The world has many great and many not-so great things to offer. No country is perfect, but traveling still isn’t as scary as many would lead you to believe. A lot of people never travel because they fear the world is unsafe, but anywhere can be unsafe. Currently the Department of State has an active travel warning for US citizens traveling to Mexico because so far in 2012 there’s been 32 murders. The county of L.A. has had over 6 times that amount this year, so why is there no travel warning for those traveling to L.A.? It’s good to take precautions and do your research, register with the Department of State, but don’t use “the world is unsafe” as an excuse to not travel anywhere. While living in Hong Kong the past 6 months there have been numerous shootings in theaters, malls and schools across the U.S., and while my heart goes out to those affected, I’m also glad to be currently living in such a safe country.

You also realize that despite globalization, the world can still be very isolated. While in Hong Kong, I see mainly Hong Kong people, hear Hong Kong news and celebrate Hong Kong holidays. American news is rarely shown and Thanksgiving is just another day in Hong Kong, as are most other American holidays. Sometimes I feel so disconnected, it’s like I’m on my own Hong Kong planet.

My Hong Kong Planet

My Hong Kong Planet

Lesson #9: It’s Okay To Not Have A Plan

I’ve always been a planner. From always being able to tell you my 5 year plan to telling all my friends what the plan for Saturday night is, I’ve always had some sort of plan outlined. Heck, I’m the kind of person who outlines even their daily life. So needless to say, since moving abroad and becoming an expat I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with not knowing what to do next. I’ve been an “expat” or a “traveler” for the past 6 months now, and I have no idea where I’ll be in another 6 months. Hong Kong? Chicago? Japan? Cali? For once I don’t have a plan.And while the uncertainty still causes some anxiety, I’ve learned that it can also be fun and exciting.

Life doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, so mapped out. Although it’s usually a good idea to have some direction of where you’re going, it’s perfectly okay to not have plans set in stone.

Lesson #10: Travel Will Change You

Before studying abroad, we were all warned that we would come home a different person. At first I didn’t believe it, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned being abroad,  it’s that they were right–travel will change your life.

I never thought that I would move abroad after graduation, and if I hadn’t first studied abroad during college, I probably never would have. Whether travel influences a major move abroad, or simply opens your mind to trying new things like food, it does change your life whether you realize it or not. And with each new place I visit, I only want to travel more, learn more. Who would’ve thought a person so afraid to step on an airplane, would soon become a world traveler?

Not the old me, that’s for sure.

Eating bashashi, raw horse flesh, in Japan

Eating bashashi, raw horse flesh, in Japan

What lessons have you learning from traveling? Share yours in the comments below!


4 responses to “10 Things I’ve Learned Abroad

  1. Great article! I’m visiting Hong Kong for a few days next month and I had no idea about the tap water situation there – so thanks a lot for the warning! I’ll make sure I prepare for that.

    I also like what you said about planning. I hate the idea of having my whole life mapped out, as I’ve tried that but always manage to fail something and end up constantly being disappointed and amending my plan, that I start to think “Why even plan in the first place?”. Sure, I’ll have ideas of things to do, but I’d also like to just kinda go with the flow in life.

    • Yeah, I’m trying to learn not to plan things as much! I still end up making lists of things I want to see or do, but at least it’s not down to the minute… that’s an improvement right?

      I’ll be posting more Hong Kong related articles soon! (more so about top tourist places to visit, etc.) Hope you have a great trip there, let me know if you need any advice for anything while you’re in HK!

  2. Hi! Great post, although I disagree somewhat about not being able to brush your teeth with tap water in HK (I’ve lived in HK before). Tap water is perfectly fine to brush your teeth with, as long as you don’t drink it. Really ;) Great blog!

    • Yeah, my fiancé never uses our boiled water for brushing his teeth. I just could never break the habit of drinking the rest of my cup after finishing–so I figured it’s best to keep using boiled for myself. :)
      Did you grow up in Hong Kong?

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