Lessons Learned During My Expat Life
or WHY “EXPAT” IS A DIAGNOSIS
What is it to live an expat life? To live away from your home country extensive periods of time and to create a totally new lifestyle, very different from the one that you had used to at home? To experience changes in you after spending years living among people with totally different culture and economic circumstances? Why the expat life changes you so much?
*expat – a person who is voluntarily absent from home or country
I can speak only from my own experiences. Fortunately, my first expatriate experience was in one of the poorest countries in the world. I say, fortunately, because it taught me a lot. Ethiopia was and still is one of the countries in the world where the poverty affects almost the whole population, the health system is totally outdated and food deprivation is common.
Ethiopia, Tigray Province
I remember arriving in Addis Ababa from my small Eastern European country, with the sense that I jump in a whole new adventure. If I just knew back then that this will be long lasting process and foundation for my never-ending curiosity about the world! The first two months I was totally in shock.
The poverty around me was so devastating that I fell into a state of freeze – I froze my senses, my empathetic human side because I couldn’t bear the hopelessness of the situation of these people. Then, with the time, I adjusted my understanding about how life should be (in Europe we are really privileged to have a good life, even if we live in the poorest country of the European Union).
I started to see the people in Ethiopia as they are – fighting for better life but also having pride and love for life like every person on the planet. I got friends, not only Ethiopians but also Chinese, British, Americans, Cubans and Russians…. all of them with their own problems and dreams. And I saw that people are the same in their core being – just wishing for better life. The cultures didn’t matter that much.
Ethiopia was the journey that opened my eyes. It cracked the shell of prejudices that my ‘civilized’ education had created. And I saw myself in a different role. I became a citizen of the world.
Later, my life has changed again. This time I was living in a grey and cold city in the Romanian north that was built in a sort of hole so during the winter we never saw the sun! What a change! From the sunny, dry and warm but poor Ethiopia to the wet cold climate of North-West Romania.
But I loved the city. After the primitive environment in Africa, the life in Cluj-Napoca seemed very much sophisticated in the best possible European way. People were great and even if I didn’t have time to make friends, I never felt unwelcome. The food was delicious too. It is part of Romania where many ethnic Hungarians live, so the game meat cooked with forest fruits sauce was heavenly tasty!
And then again, I’ve moved to Ukraine. A country that is just next to Romania but its people have a totally different mentality. One of the most difficult things when moving to a new country is to make your beliefs and perceptions work in the new environment. To create sort of understanding about your new home that does not cause conflicts in your own soul. And if you do that, you learn a lot. You create friendships for a lifetime and nurture acumen and tolerance that you never had before.
The good sides of living abroad are countless. That’s why so many people take the chance to do it. Meeting new people, learning to cook traditional food (which is often great skill because the local food tastes better and uses healthier products), learning another language, partying in different ways (think karaoke in Japan) and so much more… What I can say is that there is no moment of boredom when you move abroad. But… there is a ‘but’ as well. The downsides of living expat life are many too.
Usually, you feel them after few months, when your initial excitement starts to fade. Medical services, people’s attitude towards you, cultural problems at work… I really don’t remember all as with the time we keep only the good emotions from our experiences. But I do remember that I had very depressive periods and I suffered from terrible nostalgia. All this, good and bad, changes you.
Ukraine, near Lviv
Why we never can be the same after living abroad? It is because life teaches you that you are a just small element of the life’s complex design. And the only important thing is to make life purposeful. Travel changes how you see and interpret the world.
But when you live extensively in one foreign place you go deeper and see things and understand things that you never could if you were just passing by for a short trip. It’s because you become one of them, the local people, you start to self-determine as someone who can do something good at the place you occupy at this particular moment.
And you NEVER EVER lose the emotional reaction that you have when hearing the name of the country. No matter how hard was to live there, you keep until your last day this country and its well-being close to your heart. It is probably because you have got so much from the people there. They fed you, taught you how to survive, made you laugh and gave you hope when you needed it, invited you into their homes and hearts… How you can forget that?!
My favourite travel quote, that you can see everywhere on my social media, is:
“Wherever you go becomes part of you somehow” – Anita Desai
This is the reason why ‘expat’ is a diagnosis. You become hungry, like a zombie, for more knowledge, more emotions, more feeling that you are alive. You become sick of staying idle at one place, doing nothing creative and lacking social contact with different types of people. You need your medicine – to feel alive through new experiences and challenges; being part of the grand energy network of this world which vibrates in tune with people’s minds; leaving a legacy that will continue to create positives long time after you will be gone.
Expat life in Ukraine
Many, I believe even all expats have problems to go back and settle in their home country. They feel that their place is not there anymore. They feel different because they see the world with different eyes. In their minds, the life has a totally different form from what people that never have left think about it. They just see the BIG picture.
They don’t get obscured by the small unimportant details or political manipulations. They don’t repeat what media says because they know better. They have been there, they saw the real situation. That was the case with me and Ukraine. It is really easier to sift out the truth from the propaganda in the news. But most importantly, you don’t care about the news. You think about the people who live there, who you left there. You become difficult to manipulate. You start to hate power and to respect more the differences and the different.
Expats just can’t live in one place anymore. They have become citizens of the world and the world is their home. They don’t care who their neighbour is if they live together in peace and respect. They can celebrate Orthodox Christmas, Catholic Christmas or Muslim Ramadan because they value the people, not the political and nationalistic holidays. But don’t believe they have lost all their national awareness. It’s exactly the opposite. They brought it to an upper level. They upgrade their self-awareness and value much more their nationality and national culture because they see that every country has its important place in the world.
Do you have similar experiences? What are the ways your expat life changed you?