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Behind the rose-tinted glasses: The reality of moving abroad

(Photo: Natalie Mierswa)

Go on exchange |   25. Feb 2020

Natalie Mierswa


You’ve probably seen the posters or heard the stories countless times before. A best friend’s sister who studied in California for a semester, where she found her friends for life.

Or perhaps an old work colleague who took an 18-month contract in Singapore and appears to be living the dream, judging by his photos on social media that is. Even with my own multicultural background as an American-German living in London, I couldn’t resist the chance of living in two polar-opposite countries, Hong Kong and Denmark, as part of my studies.

This being said, behind those perfectly posed photos, backdropped by historical landmarks or exotic scenery, lies a chest full of secrets that nobody dares to talk about. Quiet moments in your new room with only your pillow for comfort.

Or in my case, sitting in a coffee shop at 11am with teary eyes, wishing I could call someone from home except, due to time difference, everyone I knew was asleep.

With any luck, by shining the light on the struggles that can come with living abroad, it’ll both help those undergoing that experience to feel less alone and prepare those who are about to embark on this new adventure.

You won’t necessarily meet your friends for life – at least not right away

A tightknit group of friends is almost always the first benefit about life abroad that’s mentioned in any presentation about it, but it wasn’t always true for me. Sometimes the environment, the circumstances or any number of factors may not align to easily allow you to find like-minded people.

In Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to be put in a flat with 7 other girls who I connected with right away and who became a strong support network, giving me the confidence to find many new friends too. Yet in Copenhagen, where I started off in private housing, it has been more difficult as there was no instant network.

However, it’s important to remember that fresh starts abroad are pretty similar to ones at home. It takes time to get comfortable at any new job or school. So don’t fret if you’ve not made any ‘real’ connections yet – it doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time abroad.

When the mundane, daily tasks of life don’t make sense anymore, yet you’re the only one around you frustrated by them

Perhaps you’re used to entering the bus at the back and in your new country that’s just not allowed. Or, try as you might, you can’t find garlic unless it’s in a pack of 3 (as I learned the hard way when going grocery shopping in Denmark for the first time).

These are small inconveniences, yet there’s something about not understanding a system that everyone else just seems to know without a second thought that can make you feel isolated and like you don’t belong. However, there is a bright side to this – once you know, you know!

And what’s more, when friends and family from home come to visit, you can look like a true local and stop them from making the same mistakes you did way back when. 

What’s a girl got to do to get some decent bread around here?!?

Despite the fact that you can get world food almost everywhere these days, not everything is available or affordable.

I remember when I visited my best friend studying in Japan and I asked if she wanted me to bring anything, the first thing she mentioned was pesto, as she couldn’t buy any in her local area.

When she was having a tough day, she liked making pesto pasta as a comfort food and suddenly while over there, she couldn’t. Meanwhile at home, I’m used to eating wholegrain, seeded toast in the morning, yet in Hong Kong I couldn’t find anything but sweet, spongy bread that only had 5 slices in a pack for double the price of a normal loaf back in the UK.

(Photo: Natalie Mierswa)

This is the reality of moving abroad and something you’ll have to get used to.

But who knows, you might find a new pastry or dish so delicious that you’ll be missing it when you go back to your home country! (I know I’ll miss Festelavnsboller and Kanelsnegle on every corner).

The transition – when returning back to your old life isn’t quite as comforting as you thought

All good things come to an end, and before you know it, you’ll be on the journey back. You might be imagining that you can just pick up right where you left off, but going back home can be just as much of an adjustment as when you first moved abroad.

Your daily routine might be different, for example taking the train to work instead of just cycling there, or in my case you might have to swap your regular Friday beach trips for coffee shop sessions instead.

But on a deeper level, you may feel despondent about not even fitting in anymore in the place you would call ‘home’.

I remember arriving back in London after my semester in Asia, irritated to have to swap 12-hour sunny days in shorts for 8-hour rainy days. I hankered after my old routine, the ease of exploring a city I fell in love with, surrounded by people from all over the world who I felt understood me better than anyone else I’d ever met.

However, while that time abroad may be over, the impact it had on me still lives on, and the memories will last a lifetime.

I now know how much I value a deep connection with a few people over just casual acquaintance with many. I’ve embraced my ability to be independent, and have the courage to speak out against what I feel is wrong, even if that means standing alone. But most of all, I don’t just accept the person that I am – I’m proud of who I’ve become.

So instead of wishing that you could go back to wherever you were, think of how that time has changed you and keep embracing that change back home (even if it doesn’t feel like home quite yet).

Bottom Line

No matter what it is you’re feeling, whether you relate to all my points or none of them, you should let your friends and family in on your journey.

Your real journey, not just the cool trips or big nights out.

Although the chance to live abroad is an incredible opportunity, it’s no paradise island and I believe it’s important to have a more realistic narrative. Maybe that way future generations can prepare themselves better in the run up, and not feel the pressure to be ‘living their best life’ from day one.

(Photo: Natalie Mierswa)


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