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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine September/October 2004
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Could You Live Abroad?

Find Out Through Careful Preparation

By John P. Seely

Living abroad is not for everyone. Some find out the hard way that living away from family and friends and the comfortable familiarity of home is so painful that it sours their entire stay. Others thrive on the new challenges, thrill to the novelty, gain enormous satisfaction from overcoming each new problem successfully, and are rewarded with a sense of achievement and personal growth.

Before you make a decision, determine your motives for wanting to go. Consider what you might find difficult about living abroad, what you might miss from home, and what the benefits of being abroad could be. If you are prepared, problems won't overwhelm you and keep you from enjoying living in a foreign culture. In the preparation process, you may find that you are not yet ready to stay abroad for an extended period, saving yourself an unpleasant experience.

Why Do You Want to Go?

If you are volunteering to teach in a remote Himalayan village for two years because a relationship has just broken up, then you are going for the wrong reasons and will probably regret your decision. The more positive reasons you have for going the more likely you’ll make a success of it. If all you can think of is how much you hate your job, your boss, and the weather, then you are likely to be as unhappy in your new home as you are now.

What Do You Hope to Get From Your Time Abroad?

Just thinking of what you can gain should have you raring to go. The more you want to get out of your time abroad, the more focused you will be when you are away. The inevitable problems will be mere distractions from your ultimate goal, which can range from the purely material, such as making money, to the spiritual.

If you are going abroad to work, then work experience, new challenges, the chances of professional improvement, as well as a good pay packet, are all valid reasons to go. As a student, you might find a degree earned abroad gives you an edge over stay-at-home graduates. On the personal side, you'll gain a new perspective on the simplest everyday tasks when you carry them out in a new language. As a result, you'll be more confident and capable.

Are Your Expectations Realistic?

Are you really going to be fluent in Chinese after two years? Will you really have saved enough to be able to travel the world? Are you really going to be able to get up at dawn everyday to practice Tai Chi? Just because the country is Buddhist doesn't mean that everyone is a peace-loving vegetarian who spends every evening in meditation. Make sure your list of expectations don’t resemble a list of New Year's resolutions that won't even last the first week.

It's easy to let your imagination run wild as you imagine long, lazy days by the swimming pool or long, leisurely dinners under the stars with a bottle of local wine. But is it realistic? Can you even afford to rent a place with a pool?

What Problems Can You Foresee?

Don't go too far with this or you may find you'll be too nervous to leave home. Most problems stem from differences in culture and language, so if you know what to expect beforehand, you will be more likely to thwart big problems. Learn as much about your destination as you can and take a preparatory language course. This should whet your appetite for going and experiencing the country for yourself. Finally, expect the unexpected and remember that unanticipated events make the most memorable experiences.

What Are You Worried About?

If it's communication, then learn the language and promise yourself you’ll enroll in more classes as soon as you arrive. If its concern about diet or health, talk with someone who has direct experience of the country you are planning to visit. It's okay to be paranoid, as long as your concerns spur you to seek answers.

Could You Really Live Away From Home?

Examine your lifestyle and identify those aspects of it that you would find difficult to change or do without completely. If you are extremely close to your family, you may find suddenly being without them and their support is very difficult. Also give some thought to coming home. You won't be able to just walk into old friendships as if nothing had changed; you may find you have grown away from some of your friends.

Is your social life tightly bound with a club, sport, or hobby that isn't likely to exist in your new destination? One friend of mine refused to consider working abroad because he'd "miss the cricket." A Dutchman I knew in Taiwan cut his stay short because he couldn't find anyone at his level to play chess with. Are you hooked on the theater, concerts, and the latest movies? How do you feel about being cut off from this and the fact that you may never be able to quite catch up.

Are there any particular foods you just can't live without? Teaching in Sudan, I used to crave toast and coffee for breakfast; we got mashed oily beans and a glass of tea.

Would You Mind Being A Foreigner?

Do you mind being stared at? Followed around by giggling kids? If you are away from tourist areas and obviously not a local, then you may be of considerable interest. Depending on how much other entertainment there is around, you may be the focus of attention. Children gathered outside the small wooden house where I lived in northeast Thailand. If I so much as showed my face they would greet me with excited shouts. If you are the only foreigner for miles, then you will stand out, which can be very trying if you sometimes need solitude.

Finally, track down some people who have spent time in your proposed destination. Internet chat rooms on travel web sites are good places to start. Get some idea of what they experienced and whether or not you could cope. Don't be put off by the possible difficulties and hardships, but be prepared for them and have strategies at hand to deal with them. This way you'll be better able to appreciate what should be one of the most fruitful times of your life.

But be careful. Like me, you may like living abroad so much that you never go home.

JOHN SEELY got his first taste of living abroad as a volunteer in Sudan in 1980. He then went on to live and teach in Southeast Asia and hasn't gone home since. He now calls Thailand's Chiang Rai home.

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