What No One Tells You About Moving Abroad

So you’ve spent months planning for this move, possibly years fantasising about it, and now you’re six months in and depressed.

Which is pretty difficult to accept when all you want out of this, and all you wanted before you took this big, scary step, was to feel excited, to face this big challenge and adventure with enthusiasm and courage. There’s something noble and romantic about taking a big step into the (relative) unknown, especially as a 20-something, and coming out the other side with wisdom and “life experience”, coloured by exciting stories about interesting cultural experiences. But there’s something almost equally disillusioning about finding yourself in the thick of this experience and totally overwhelmed and ill-equipped for dealing with the sudden wave of emotions you’re drowning in.

Six months in, this was where I found myself.

The two biggest culprits in dragging me under this wave are some pretty strong emotions that I’ve flirted with a few times in my past but that recently showed up in a big way. These feelings are, in a nutshell, ISOLATION and SHAME.

The isolation wasn’t something that I was expecting: I can’t remember ever having much trouble making friends and I enjoy socialising. While I really value and enjoy alone time, I love connecting with people. As it turns out, that’s because there is a fundamental difference between being alone and being lonely. For me, the loneliness really hit when, in between desperately trying to sort out my living situation in a foreign country, while juggling projects from a course I hadn’t yet completed and one that I was just starting, I realised just how much I needed that network of friends that was now thousands of kilometres away. Social media in this respect becomes both a blessing and a curse: I wasn’t waiting weeks to receive news by traditional post, and could WhatsApp call pretty much everyone back home easily. But this also meant that I was seeing, through the flattering light of a Facebook/Instagram feed, my friends having fun with each other as I sat alone after an exhausting day of very non-fun settling-in-to-a-new-place activities.

But it’s not just about the people still at home, there are also the pictures from people (friends, acquaintances, strangers) who have also moved abroad and look like they’re killing it. As you scroll through the highlights reel of whatever social media app you’re addicted to, you see what seems to be the tangible excitement of other travellers, people who have moved abroad meeting new people and having all those cultural experiences you dreamt about, eating wonderful food, and just generally making the best of their time. In a way, my own personal social media feeds into this glossy image of travel, because why would I want to share the worst of my experience when I so want to feel the best about it? And that for me was where the shame began to creep in. Because, how can you feel so low when you’re doing something that should be so exciting? Something that not many people have the privilege to experience and that so many people would kill for? Not only that, but no one forced you into doing this, this was your choice, and you did it, how could you possibly be unhappy? Does this make you ungrateful? Selfish? Stupid? And on and on the thoughts went, with the shame becoming something that I could physically feel, burning, inside my chest.

Fortunately, I didn’t shut up about it, and when people asked how I was doing, I talked, and I said exactly how I was feeling. Some people, not understanding why I felt the way I did, confirmed the shame; how can you be feeling this way when you’ve had it so easy? Some people have it so much worse than you do, you know. At first, that stung, but then other voices drowned those out, the majority comforting, understanding and realistic: people back home who remind you that they miss you and that you’re far away but not forgotten; that they support you and that they can’t wait for you to visit; that you’re doing something scary but exciting and that it’s going to take time. And then there are those who truly understand, because they are the ones behind the social media highlight reels: the ones who have also made the Big Move, and they are the ones who let you know that those feelings you thought only you had? Yep, you’re not alone.

Because as exciting as it is to move abroad, whether it’s for study or work, it can be an isolating and rather traumatic experience. Once I’d opened up to others, those wonderful people opened up to me, and that’s when I heard the stories that didn’t make it to the travel album, the stories about nights spent crying alone at home, about the times when they felt deeply insecure and scared and lonely and all they wanted to do was to go back to their real home. These stories, the ugly ones, the ones that feel like failures at the time, are the ones that made me feel like this change could truly be the adventure I so proudly proclaimed it to be. Out of those “failures” these people sharing their stories with me had grown, and were giving me help and guidance on how to get through the worst of times. And I began to feel human again.


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