What it really means to live overseas
It’s definitely not the same as taking a vacation . . .
Last year, I repeatedly referred to my and Antone’s plans to live in Singapore for a year as “our trip next year.” One night over dinner a couple of weeks before we left, a friend corrected me. “You know, you really shouldn’t call it a ‘trip.’ You’re moving. It’s a move. It’s not the same—and I’ll bet in a year you’ll be irritated when people ask you how your ‘trip’ went.”
It was an interesting point. Yes, we were moving, and I had been incorporating the language “moving to Singapore” with “our trip” when talking about our plans. But I hadn’t really taken the time to consider the difference between these two statements. After all, I’d “lived” in the UK for a semester in college—right? But that had also felt like a trip—one where I, along with twenty or so peers, traveled around, followed an itinerary someone else had created, constantly saw new things, took respite in coffee shops, and said “cheers” as often as possible to the locals.
So, couldn’t an experience be both?
The short answer is no. And—as much as I’ve loved to tell people that I lived in the UK—the reality, I’m learning, is that I didn’t.
My early visions of what it would be like to experience “culture shock” in Asia looked something like this: I’m standing in the middle of a crowded street, surrounded by signs I can’t read and throngs of people who are all about a foot shorter than me rushing past or stopping to gape at my otherness. One kind stranger asks if I need help navigating somewhere, and I respond gratefully, but that kindness quickly turns to ire when the stranger realizes I am an American and not from some much more globally favored country like Canada. The person leaves with a harrumph. My phone doesn’t work, because in my imagination I’m never properly prepared with an international phone plan, and I’m alone, apparently having been abandoned by Antone.
Clearly, I knew this was not exactly how things were going to go down. But I do feel like, in some ways, I was more prepared for a big, nightmarish, movie-esque trauma than I was for the cold, subtle, creeping way culture shock and homesickness made their appearance. Culture shock feels like being yelled at by a street vendor for eating her store’s food at one of its designated tables and simultaneously having a baggie of treats from the stall next door set on the table beside me. No outside food or drink!
Culture shock feels like paying $12 for an 8-oz bottle of beer, and $1,600 a month to live in a 250-square-foot apartment (though this is perhaps not very shocking to a New Yorker—that’s what I get for being a Midwestern gal).
Culture shock feels like attempting to communicate with someone who either can’t understand you or is pretending not to understand that you need to alter the three-night hotel booking you made online only minutes before, because you made a mistake. No cancelations or changes. I cannot do anything to help.
Homesickness is experiencing all of this and longing for how different things would be if you could just close your eyes and return to everything familiar—to a place where customer service is king and you can get a happy-hour margarita the size of your face for $8 max. Or maybe simply one where—after a tough day when some random people yelled at you and you sweat through all of your clothes and you accidentally blew $1,500—you could go out and relax with your parents or your best friend, and laugh and cry about what a crappy day it was, and wake up in the morning feeling like everything would start fresh with a clean slate and a hefty helping of support.
Instead, months after arriving in Singapore, I was still dragging myself out of bed exhausted and somehow jet-lagged—mostly because it’s impossible to keep a normal circadian rhythm when you’re operating twelve to thirteen hours ahead of everyone you work with—desperately check my email or Facebook for signs of life back home, quickly Google “what do bed bug bites look like?” and muscle through the day mostly alone.
Of course, I’ve done what I can to not feel isolated. I go to Starbucks, because it’s familiar, and work there for a while before walking to China Town to brave the partially indoor partially outdoor Shen Siong grocers where I can buy cheap pomegranates and bananas and mangos and seaweed (and fish heads, though I haven’t yet). I send my parents iMessages, wishing them a “good morning” around 8:00 p.m. my time or “goodnight” as I’m starting my day.
And I plan upcoming trips. Because as I’ve learned—traveling is not the same as living. In Bali, I took surfing lessons and cashed in on the every-other-day massages included with our resort booking. In Thailand, I ate pad thai and drank an adult slushy out of a gigantic coconut while watching the sun set over the Andaman Sea. As a tourist, you don’t have to worry about which neighborhoods offer affordable(ish) and safe housing, where you can go to buy groceries, or whether the locals feel unfavorably toward Americans. You’re guided all the while by your itinerary or, sometimes (as was the case for my Mom and I in Australia), a person—a friend.
I used to think you can’t truly appreciate a place in this way—that in order to know, really know whether you like it somewhere, your experience has to go beyond these surface-level interactions. But now I tip my floppy tourist hat to the weekend-long or two-week trip, where, for the most part, you leave with memories tinted by trendy rose-gold sunglasses and the pictures to prove you went somewhere awesome and did fun things.
So, to everyone who has bemoaned to me that they’d love to live overseas but can’t (for reasons including kids, finances, lack of job flexibility, health, etc.) I offer you a bit of solace: maybe, just maybe, you wouldn’t love it. Perhaps you’d be better served spending thousands on a two-week vacation and taking lots of Instagramable photos and recalling your trip and the food you ate fondly for many years to come.
As for me, I have no regrets. Antone and I are here with a purpose, and living overseas is something I always wanted to do—a place in my heart that would have been consumed by a big, deep, “what if?” had I not filled it with this experience. Parts of living overseas have been incredible. Mostly, those are the moments you’ll see highlighted when I share about our adventure online. But more have been hard. I don’t know what that means for us next, but, regardless, I’m happy to be on this journey—not because I’m having fun on a trip, but because, like everyone else, every day I discover more about what living well means for me.