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Living Abroad

Huck Finn Abroad

Expat Teens Have No Regrets

Expat teens are a new generation of teenagers who chose to escape from their everyday routines in their everyday lives by living someplace else. We're not talking exchange students or temporary residents. We're talking teens who packed their backpack, kissed family and friends goodbye, burned their bridges, and never looked back. In the Dominican Republic alone there are over 200 parentless teens from every corner of the world. Their personal reasons for living here vary: some came to help out as volunteers, some as missionaries. Others want to get a different perspective on the world before committing themselves to debts and marriage. Still others ran away from problems at home, in school, with their peers, or even with lovers. Some support themselves locally as language teachers or tourist guides. Some travel back "home" once in a while, where they work 24/7 for a few months and then return.

What It Takes

"It takes guts," says Nancy, originally from Ottawa, Canada. She's been in the Dominican Republic four years. "A lot of guts. You have to be willing to jump into the unknown, be willing to drop your culture, learn a new language, and fit in." Does she miss her old life? "Sometimes you miss certain things," she nods, echoing the words of most expat teens. "Old friends, snowflakes, going out . . . the things I used to consider 'life.' But that craving for old things only creeps up once in a blue moon," she says, laughing.

None regret their decisions. "I've never wanted a pressure-cooker life," says Michael, born and raised in Munich, Germany. "Here I have nothing to worry about. The world is my village now," he says, as he stretches out on his porch and watches a mango fall out of a tree. He is a Web designer and works via the Internet. "People thought I was nuts when I left. I don't care. I don't even think about going back. I just want to be able to enjoy my life without regrets."

Sabrina, originally from Frankfurt, Germany, was 16 when she came with her parents on a vacation to the DR. One morning she announced to them that she would stay. "They understood," she says with a wink. She got a decent job at an airport and is having the time of her life. Her parents worry, but they felt it was wiser to let her take her own responsibilities. "You have to have flexible parents, too." By the time she becomes a legal adult, Sabrina will have had more life experience than any average teen of her generation, or most adults.

Culture Shock Included

It can all look very attractive in travel folders, but a photograph does not tell you everything. Thorough planning before taking the leap is advisable.

"You should have a clear image of the country you want to move to," says Sascha, from Germany. "Visit it first on vacation. Accept that you will abandon everything you've known-your language, your mindset, your culture. Get contacts. Do research on the Net. If you have friends who have taken the same step before you successfully, stick with them. Join a friend or two and do it together."

Others agree. "Don't be afraid of anything," insists Patricia from Florida. "The language, the lack of comfort at times. In extreme cases, get used to cold showers, days without electricity." Brodie from Alberta laughs and adds: "Mosquitoes!"

Expat teens tend to spend a lot of time together. This is understandable, but living in a different country means to join the people of that nation and culture. Otherwise, the whole point of being there is lost.

"Get to know the people," says Sascha. "I mean really get to know them. And don't ever be afraid to make new friends."

Learning their language takes humility and effort, but it's worth it. Life is unbearably lonely for foreigners who cannot speak the local language.

The Ways of Huck Finn

Before quitting school, packing your duffle bag, and slinging your surfboard over your back, consider your present situation. It is advisable to finish your education first. What responsibilities and commitments do you have right now? Picture yourself alone and a long way from home and meditate on the situation and your abilities to cope with it. Don't frighten yourself with how bad things could become-and do not be afraid to back out, either.

The first year is usually the most difficult. Constant comparison with how things used to be back home will not help you to adjust to the new surroundings. Make up your mind before you leave that you will like your new home. Try to adjust your way of thinking to the people where you will be living. Do not expect them to conform to your way of thinking.

And at all times be optimistic and adaptable and have fun-these are the best years of your life.

All agree that the ultimate transition to another country is not the hard part. It is the leaving.