Wellbeing

7 Things You’ll Learn When You Move Overseas

If it feels like half of your Facebook friends have emigrated and are living overseas, you’re not alone: around 92,000 Aussies departed our shores in 2016 alone, and it’s estimated more than one million of us live overseas.

I’m one of them. I moved to tiny Timor-Leste just over a year ago and have learned first-hand that life abroad is pretty different from what you see on social media. Here are seven things no one told me before I moved overseas.

#1 You’ll appreciate more where you come from

I’ve found living overseas gives me a new perspective on and appreciation for my Australian-ness. The first few times someone asked me, “How do you do this in your culture?” about a wedding or Christmas, I thought they were pulling my leg (at these times I would think, “Mate, I’m white Australian, our culture is burnt barbecue meat and singlets.”)

But abroad, you’re a strange foreigner, and people are genuinely interested in learning about where you come from, the language you speak, and the experiences that have shaped you. Answering them will make you more aware of and maybe even more proud of your upbringing.

#2 You will build resilience and learn about yourself

This won’t be in the cheesy way espoused by travel Instagrammers. Living overseas won’t necessarily make you find yourself (you probably already have a decent idea of who you are), but it will show you more of yourself, in unspectacular, unromantic ways.

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You won’t just happen to meet your inner self in an ashram in Kathmandu, but you may meet a cool Nepalese guy who’ll invite you to his social volleyball team. You won’t fight through your fears alone on a windswept Chinese mountain, but you will have a homesickness attack in choked-up Beijing traffic, call your mum in tears, vow never to drive again, but find yourself expertly navigating the streets mere months later. And you may fall in love under the Eiffel Tower but, more likely, you’ll go there a couple of times and realise the crowds are pretty hectic and you much prefer reading beside the Seine.

#3 You will become obsessive about brands and products

I’ve got a dedicated group chat for spying certain hard-to-find supermarket items here in Timor-Leste (water crackers! soda water! pesto! It’s the simple things), but even if you live in a country better-stocked than here, you’ll fix on your favourites and do anything to seek them out.

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In moments of homesickness you’ll feel okay spending $10 on Tim Tams or Milo, and you’ll find yourself seeking out new local favourites long after you depart your adopted home (a friend of mine here still talks about the gross-sounding pork crackling chips she used to eat in the Philippines, but I know it’s how I’ll talk about fried cassava chips when I’m back home).

#4 You’ll upset a lot of people you care about

You’ll feel guilty all the time, too. Without throwing myself a pity party on my tropical island here, I’m constantly aware of the fact that I’m living out what I want at the expense of my parents, family and friends back home.

You’ll miss birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, weddings, funerals, promotions and myriad everyday moments in between.

You’ll miss birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, weddings, funerals, promotions and myriad everyday moments in between. You’ll callously assign dollar values to your friendships when deciding what to fork out airfares for and what to stay away for.

If your family’s anything like mine, they’ll do a good job of hiding their fear, sadness, doubts and anger, and you’ll only see the pain behind the “I miss you” texts when you’re face-to-face at an airport gate waving a farewell after yet another too-short trip back.

#5 And sometimes, you’ll hate where you’re living

“Why the hell am I even here?” I asked myself, when a bribe-seeking policeman unnecessarily took and subsequently lost for two weeks my difficult-to-get Timor-Leste driver’s license. And when I returned from a weekend away to find my house broken into and my laptop missing. And when I was down to my last $20 and the dodgy petrol station ATM ate my bank card (I responsibly spent the $20 on a bottle of wine and stomped to a friend’s house for a boozy sulk). Is this really worth it?

Sometimes, you’ll hate the country you’re living in. That’s totally normal – when I’m at home, I don’t love Australia every day, either. Choosing to live abroad makes you apply pressure to your decisions that doesn’t exist at home. It makes you feel like you have to love it every day, because you know how lucky you are to have this opportunity.

#6 You’ll have to learn basic stuff

Even if you move to a country where English is widely spoken, there’s a lot that will still be new and you’re going to feel like a preschooler. Get ready to learn squat toilets and different (ahem) ways of cleansing yourself; new public transport systems (along with new definitions of personal space); and different meal times.

It’s actually fun! In my experience, Timorese people are friendly and forgiving of the faux pas made by foreigners, and without worrying about offending someone my experience of the newness has made the most mundane things delightful.

#7 You will suck at learning a language

From reading tour guides and travel blogs, I sort of assumed new languages just kind of happened when you moved abroad. Unless you’ve learned another language before, that’s not the way it works.

“Oh, I picked things up from sellers in the street market,” said a friend, humbly, who returned from three months in Cambodia speaking near-fluent Khmer.

Despite weekly lessons and daily practise in Timor-Leste’s national language I’m still crunching through basic conversational Tetun and I know now it requires real work: a language won’t just bloom.

But of course, living overseas is a joy, a great challenge, and something that brings me closer to a different part of the planet: just like the whole experience of living abroad. It’s an experience that I recommend everyone try if they can.


Sophie Raynor is a writer and list-maker from Perth living in tropical Timor-Leste. She loves ethical development communications and taking about sweating, and tweets at @raynorsophie.