Today is my two year anniversary of getting on a plane and flying over Canada to Tokyo, where I’d spend a brief, adrenaline-pumped fourteen hours before continuing on to Singapore. It was the start of my expat life, a life I had been dreaming of for years. A life that would take me to over a dozen countries (and counting), from Laos to Cuba to Serbia, in a wild romp that I’m still not sure how I am pulling off.
I learned a lot in that first year of expat life – which, then, was much more nomadic. Two months here, a few weeks on the road, three months there, etc. etc. But by the time that first expat life anniversary rolled around, I had just signed a contract to stay in Kyiv for a year. I was excited. And terrified. What would it be like to settle down in one place for a whole year? Would I get itchy feet? Would I get bored with teaching? Would I hate everything and pine away for New York, the best city in the world (relax, y’all, it is)?
But no, this year was nothing I could have expected.
Good lord, this year. You’d think, as you get older, your life would calm down. Nope, I am excited to tell you. This year has been just as tumultuous as any of them. Perhaps that’s a good sign. I don’t know anymore, what life is supposed to look like. Despite being anchored in one place for the entire time, it has for sure not been an easy year. I’ve had to pull myself after what is the romantic equivalent of face-planting, I’ve dealt with the unpredictable Kyiv hot water situation (as in, sometimes there is none), I’ve realized that I need to come up with an actual plan for my life – and that teaching English abroad indefinitely doesn’t cut it. My friends are on second houses, second babies, second marriages, and last week I finally learned how to light the oven in the apartment I’ve lived in for over a year. We’re in different stratospheres, my friends and I, and sometimes it’s bewildering.
Don’t get me wrong – I love my life. As much as I can when I’m confused, pissed off, and depressed. Sometimes I think back to quitting my job in New York, to my life in the city, and if I would do anything different.
Deciding to live abroad, however hard it is – and it is hard – has been so rewarding. Even when I’m at my lowest, the sense of freedom and agency I’ve gained by moving abroad bolsters me. The fact that I did it, I made the dream I hesitantly breathed over and over again come true, that I desired something and gained it, is monumental.
Last year, I had twenty lessons I learned from living abroad. I don’t have twenty this time. I just have three—
1. Love your job.
A practical lesson. I’ve seen several people leave Ukraine because they hated their job and couldn’t work out a new situation to stay legally. If you hate your job, and you feel tied to it for residency purposes, that misery is going to bleed into the rest of your life. Don’t assume that the glamor of living abroad will smooth over the rough edges at work. Living abroad is tough. Make sure that work is a safe, supportive space.
2. Love the challenges.
And don’t let fear hold you back. Whenever I found myself hesitant about doing something, a trip by myself, a weekend day adventure, I’d try to figure out the cause. I read a very cliché quote somewhere about our fears being our boundaries – and however predictable it was, it resonated with me. If I found myself waffling because of a fear or anxiety, I tried to shove that aside. You can skip out of things – absolutely, you can – if you aren’t interested or you have other concerns, but to miss out an opportunity because you’re fearful? C’mon, we can do better.
3. Love your friends.
The best thing that has happened to me this past year has been my friends. Living abroad is a weird relationship pressure cooker, when you are oddly allowed to demand more of your friends than you can back home. I can ask for late-night meet-ups, send messages when I wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks, count on people to actually turn up to my birthday celebrations. There’s something about friends abroad – they are in a different class. Treat them that way.
Several years ago I read an article about storytelling by a Hollywood producer, and she said something that’s stuck with me ever since. She said that the audience didn’t care when the hero was triumphant. They weren’t actually as invested in that specific moment of victory as storytellers expected. No, what audiences wanted, more than the win, was the moment where the hero shared his victory with another person – they didn’t feel any satisfaction if the hero triumphed alone. And the same has gone for me. I treasure every moment I’ve earned solo traveling. Despite loneliness or anxiety or embarrassment (you just have to go with it, y’all), I would rather be off gallivanting alone than miss out. But damn, I wish I could have shared horseback riding in the Carpathians with my friends, along with a thousand other small heartaches I’ve pushed through this year without those I cherish most.
I may not live abroad forever. That’s also something new I’ve discovered and am hesitantly exploring. My desires and goals are changing, and I have to reconcile with that. I’m not saying I’m going to move back to the States next year, or the one after, but I am starting to think about what I would need to do to make that happen. How I can make life in America sustainable (because as an English teacher outside the public schools it is definitely not). I just like having options, you know. I like the freedom of deciding, ok, this year I will go there. Whether there is Tbilisi, Hanoi, or New Orleans. And I will make it work. Or at the very least I’ll try.
This post was a bit sentimental, but I hope you don’t mind. Anniversaries usually are. I hope to see you next year for round three, because this upcoming year is going to be totally wild.