Commentary

Coping with Thoughts and Fears about Life Abroad

Coping with thoughts and fears about life abroad
Written by Christina Riley

Not a Story

This isn’t a story. It won’t flow in that perfect way one might expect. I’m not a writer, and words oftentimes become my enemy. Yet from time to time, so many emotions pool inside me that even a long run can’t fix.

Yoga, cooking, cleaning? None of these can bring me peace and sometimes, just writing without any sense of direction grants me a freedom both confusing yet somehow therapeutic. This is meant to be one of those cleansing sessions that I have visited, and revisited over the last year about how being an expat has changed my core.

Moving Away, A Fresh Start

Moving halfway across the world was both the scariest and best decision of my life. Though it’s a huge community, becoming an expat is a transformation that only those of us who’ve lived abroad can understand. I researched everything, but nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen. Submerged in a world where everything from convenience store items to dealing with trash was different.

Everything was exciting, until suddenly it wasn’t. Nothing could have prepared me for this journey. The first important thing I learned after stepping off the plane was that everything I read was wrong. All those bloggers told me life was going to be one way, when my life wasn’t remotely like theirs. Every expat’s journey is different – my path would carry forward in its own direction.

Home is a feeling of belonging

Everything I knew about relationships is now completely warped. Before this life abroad, friends were people I worked with, people I met in the college marching band. Maybe it was those who I’d met in middle school, always there for when life might fall to shambles. Those relationships grew slowly in parked cars, abandoned hallways, on the back of the long winding bus ride from school.

When one decides to pick up and move halfway across the world, it’s interesting to see which relationships really left an impression. There are some where nothing changes, despite the changes happening within them and me. Coming together means new stories, those always-familiar hugs, new life events to celebrate, but with the same warm and loving welcome feeling. Lives change drastically, and while I’m not there at the times when most needed, I’m there in spirit.

Friends for now, Maybe forever?

Life Abroad

Over the past 3 years, I’ve met a lot of people. You become best friends quickly because that time together is so limited. People come and go, and they share their wisdom and experiences, expanding my world. Saying goodbye to such good friends becomes easier, and there’s always hope that paths will someday cross again. But I know that if they do, we won’t be the same people as we are right now.

When expats become friends, bonds quickly form with the knowledge that somewhere along this life journey, we both made the same decision to jump into the unknown. Without ever needing to talk about that decision, our lives quickly find a pace unlike any other friendship, relationship, or childhood connection. Inspiring us to learn more about the world that you inhabit, these relationships also have an ability to hurt you in ways that you never knew were possible. How?

choice-chance-change1

Sometimes we share our deepest darkest secrets, memories, and experiences knowing that the relationship has an expiration date. So why are you so suddenly surprised when that relationship ends and you’re left empty? Is everything we’ve learned about relationships wrong? Are we supposed to open up our hearts and expect to be damaged? Would it make it hurt less if we knew it was going to end? How does that change the way we interact with people? An open heart gives way to growth opportunities, but it also leaves you vulnerable to those who don’t look at life in the same cautious, nurturing manner.

Independence and the ability to ask for help when one truly needs it are also virtues that expat life has taught me. Dropped in a world where nothing looks like home, with a language and culture that leaves me still confused after 3+ years, I’ve learned when I need to pull up my boot straps and work for information, and when to give up and ask for help. I’m not a person who likes to be dependent on others, so I will do everything before giving up and seeking help.

Duke Stewart and Christina inside Ta Prohm galleries

Transferring a car in Korean? No help necessary. Sick and miserable? Sorry, I got this one. Booking trains, buses, or registering for a race in Korean? No sir! I got it! But then there are times where you really need help, and you just have to put yourself out there and ask. Lost, confused, and disoriented? Pull out those years of acting classes and drama camp and do the best miming you’ve got. Sprained your ankle doing something ridiculously stupid and incredibly fun? Yep, ask for that help and make up an amazing story about fighting a tiger for his kimchi pancake for your students.

Homesickness is something that every expat deals with whether it’s family, friends, food, language, or even just the comfort of our own surroundings. The hardest realization of my life was coming home, and finding out that it was exactly how I had left it. The months before my departure I was excited, yet scared. Would my life still be the same as when I left it? Yes, frighteningly yes. The problem was me.

Christina Yogaing in Duke Forest, North Carolina

I was nowhere near the same, and didn’t fit into the world that I thought was home. My old life didn’t change. It stayed exactly the same. No, I had changed. I was never going to be able to fit back into that life I had known as my own. The struggle to feel accepted, comfortable, and normal now had a different meaning to me in my life. I was never going to be normal in my foreign life and now, my “home” would never be able to understand me.

Moving out and away from everything I knew gave me the chance to look back on my life with a new pair of glasses. The world I came from suddenly felt different from the way I left it and this new world was nothing like what I had thought it was. There were times that I wanted to share everything happening in my new life with my old life, but then the glitter started to fall away and my new life and my old life started to drift apart.

Christina Inside Angkor Wat exterior wall

This journey has forced me to rethink my sense of “home” and I still don’t know what exactly that means or where my next “home” will be, but I do know that I will never stop going. Somewhere. Anywhere, with an open heart and ready for anything. Ready to keep moving.

About the author

Christina Riley

Christina is an accidental photographer who keeps getting better and better with every shot. Don’t you agree? She also dabbles in writing and comes up with great thoughts!

10 Comments

  • Great post, Christina!

    I can definitely relate to so much of this, especially the “home” part. Going back to Texas always feels so weird. Everyone’s loves go on without you and they become used to you being away. They are excited to see you, but it’s always different. This feels a bit overwhelming to me because we will be expats for a long time and the longer we are away the less home will feel like home. The upside is that I have a partner to experience all of this and that’s a lot better than going at it alone.

  • I think you are a good writer like your husband! Very touching piece, and I feel the exact same way. Even spending years speaking korean with korean friends, sometimes it hits me that I will always be their “American friend”, and it suddenly becomes depressing that I’ll never fit in here, nor back in America. I think like you said, home is just a different thing, something that me and my husband have created in our life abroad, and I’ve learn to love and thrive in it. It just takes a shift in perspective and a letting go of “home”. -R

    • Wow! Thank you for your comment Rachel! While I prefer to stay behind the camera instead of the keyboard, there are some things that just pour out by accident! It’s funny how your sense of “home” because flexible! I was just thinking about this the other day and how after a long trip, coming back to Korea, back to our tiny apartment, feels like a relief of “home”! Cliche as it is, maybe “home” is where the heart is and lies within us!
      Thanks for the comment! -Mrs. Duke Stewart

  • I really enjoyed this, especially because my 3 years in Korea are coming to an end. I feel totally different than I did before stepping on the plane to come here, and while home will always be home, it seems so far away now from who I am. Great post for all us expats out there 🙂

    • Thank you so much for your comment Danielle! I hope you’ve had a fantastic time here in Korea and good luck with wherever you next call “home”!

  • Great post! Very honest and raw. I struggled with going home as well, within a month I felt so out of place; I knew I had to leave again.

    Please tell me you actually told your students you fought off a tiger for kimchi-jeon. Because that made me happy!

  • Thanks for your honest thoughts. This post was helpful for me because I just moved to Nashville Tennessee a couple days ago from Phoenix Arizona and having some of the same feelings as you. I got lost the c other day and got frustrated. I had to ask for help. Everything is green in Nashville and one can tend to get lost easily. Moving is not easy but with it comes new experience s. I will take your word s of wisdom with me . 🙂