We’ve been living abroad since 2013, and while I may be a slow learner, I’ve picked up a few things along the way.

My expat life has been full of what the f*cks, challenges, tears, and laughter. But above all, it’s been enlightening, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

So, without further ado, here are 12 lessons I’ve learned from living abroad.

I know what it feels like to be an outsider

Nothing makes you stand out more than being a white girl with red hair in Asia. I never go unnoticed, no matter what country I am in. I can’t blend in. People always stare for an unsuitable amount of time.

And I know the word for foreigner in many languages because I get called it over and over again.

Your patience will be put to the test, over and over again

Living overseas, especially in a developing country, could make you lose your shit if you let it. You’ll need far more patience than you ever thought you had, or you’ll combust. Daily life is an intense game of patience or perish.

Going to five stores to find one thing you know was there last week is a weekly occurrence.

When our A/C broke, it took 10 days to get the parts to fix it. That, my friends, is patience.  

Things aren’t always done linearly. Sometimes you need to go around the bend, over the hill, and circle back to go from point A to point B.

To expect the unexpected

stone face peeking out of tree

Get ready for the car in the right lane to turn left across 2 lanes of traffic… with his right turn signal on.

Living abroad keeps me on my toes.

Stop asking why

It’s not like back home.

Why do they start road construction at noon on a Friday when most people have Friday off?

Why do they pave the road and then cut massive trenches in it, leaving it all uneven again?

Why can’t they bring my food and Mark’s at the SAME time?

Why can’t you put cheese on top of my eggs? You sell both.

I could go on but why (see what I did there? 🙄)

Asking why makes you go a little more insane every day, so just stop.

To lower your expectations

Customer service doesn’t exist. Stop expecting it.

Your food will never be delivered at the same time as your dining partners.

Will that shop open at 10 am as the sign says? Maybe, but better to go at 11 just in case.

Don’t expect someone working in the store to actually know what they are selling.

We went for dinner with a group of people in Langkawi. Everyone’s food was delivered, one plate at a time, except ours. After an hour, we asked where our food was, and the waiter’s reply was, “fish finished lah.” He never planned to tell us; he just didn’t serve us any food and assumed we’d figure it out.

Back in the US, I would have lost it, and we probably would have eaten for free that night. But here, we just shrug, far from shocked, and order something else.

These kinds of scenarios happen pretty regularly, also testing your patience. So, if you stop expecting things to be “normal” and to go as planned, then you’ll never be disappointed.

Plus, you’ll be super excited when the littlest thing happens. It’s a win-win.

To let go

To let go of the idea that family members can’t do without you. For a long time, I thought I was the glue that held my family together. But once I left, everything went on without me. No one fell apart. Life went on.

I also had to let go of the notion that I would be there for all the important stuff that happens in Chicago. It’s just not possible to go home for every wedding, birth, and death.

Sadly, I couldn’t get home when gramma died this year, and it broke my heart. But I had to let it go.

To bloom where I’m planted

pink flower on a branch

Grass is always greener, right? I could lament about the things I miss or wish I had here. But to what end?

Isn’t it better to love the life I’ve created? To bloom where I’ve chosen to plant myself?

We could have gone back to the US a thousand times. In some ways, it might have been easier, especially with work. But instead, we’ve chosen to reinvent ourselves, to find a way to work online so that we could stay in Malaysia. Or move anywhere in the world.

I never would have become a writer, a Pinterest manager, and a blogger if we stayed in Chicago.

Not only have I bloomed, I’ve blossomed into a better, stronger, more creative person. And I’m very proud of who I’ve become.   

To be a minimalist

It feels good to be so detached from all the stuff. To not care about all the things I used to think were necessary.

If we leave tomorrow, I’ll take the art we’ve collected on our travels and nothing more. Because that is what makes me happy.

I came with 2 suitcases, and I’d leave with one.

To savor the good moments, the simple ones

dragon boats in water

Even though all of the above makes me a little insane, there is a lot to love.

Moments like…

Floating down a river surrounded by thousands and thousands of fireflies. Seeing proboscis monkeys in the wild. Mark witnessing the sunrise at the peak of Mt. Kinabalu while I was swimming with the fishies in the most transparent water I’ve ever seen. Being a part of Indian Summers. Seeing monkeys playing in the trees every single day.

How traffic jams are often caused by a couple of cows. The random cluck from a rooster crossing the road in between two super fancy condo buildings. Mark being on a dragon boat team in Penang, the first place that had the sport outside of China. Going to a party with 20 people from 10 different countries. Making everlasting friendships

The good moments are what we all live for. None of these would have happened if we didn’t move aboard.

People back home will never truly understand our lives

And that is ok. Unless you’ve lived outside of your home country, relating to people who do is challenging. It doesn’t make our friendships any less important or close-knit; it just adds a different layer.

Living abroad doesn’t equal more travel

We thought we’d travel a lot more than we do. Life happens here, just like everywhere else, and the usual routine of work takes over.

That being said, we’ve seen a lot since moving here, just not quite like we expected to.

It’s possible to get used to almost anything

I’ve always been adventurous but living abroad pushes those boundaries.

Now when I see a cockroach scurry across the floor in a café, I think, eww, yuck, and keep eating.

I know that most hawker stalls use cold water to wash their dishes and utensils, but I still use them without being scared of contracting some disease.

I’ve eaten food that is cooked in a mostly clean-ish hubcap, and ya know what? It was friggin fabulous.

And, I can pee in a hole in the ground. I never thought I’d get used to that, but I have, and it doesn’t even phase me anymore. I’m not good at it, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. If that doesn’t scream, I’VE ADAPTED, then what does?

The Wrap Up

brilliant orange sunset

So, there you have it – a few lessons I’ve learned over my last seven years abroad.

Expat friends, what would you add? Tell me in the comments below.

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