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Reflecting on Lessons Learned Abroad

As I head into the next stage of my professional life, I decided to take some time to reflect on the past four years I spent living in China. Although I was there as a teacher, I was also constantly learning — so much so that I often felt like I was still a student myself. Here are 10 of the lessons I learned while living abroad.

1. Ask for Help.

I like being able to just figure stuff out on my own, either by observation/research or by trial-and-error. When you’re in a different country, however, and you don’t speak the language very well (or read it at all), many tasks that ought to be simple become difficult or even downright impossible without assistance. It was certainly an exercise in humility to become essentially illiterate and have to ask my students things like “Which option do I choose on this popup window?” — but trying to hold onto pride and not ask for help usually leads to more problems, or at least delays (like restarting the entire computer instead of closing the window).

More than just accomplishing tasks, though, asking for help also creates and strengthens relationships. My Chinese friends were usually overjoyed when I asked them to help me do something, because it gave us an opportunity to spend time together, and also because it puts us on more equal footing when both people can offer something to each other.

2. Find “Constants.”

“Home” is a bit of a weird concept for me now. I’ve lived temporarily in a number of places, each one significant and dear in its own way and time. However, moving from one location to another is disorienting, and adapting to a new culture ends up distancing or even alienating you from your original culture. Having “constants” that can travel with you provides a familiar refuge when you feel overwhelmed by all of the changes.

Double rainbow and waterfall in Yichang, China

For me, some of those constants are my faith, my bullet journaling habit, and my favorite band, DAY6. Of course, keeping in contact with family and friends is also important, but these constants are things that can be “physically” nearby, that aren’t hindered by time zones or transportation costs.

3. Also Find the Right Balance Between Flexibility and Structure.

I learned pretty quickly that I need structure and routines in order to be productive. I love to-do lists and making schedules and finding new organization tools. Which is what led me to that bullet journaling habit. Unfortunately, it’s also fairly easy for that love of routine to become anxiety-inducing rigidity.

When you become a foreigner in a foreign land, almost nothing goes according to plan. Unexpected time commitments pop up, simple errands take longer than you think they will (see point 1), culture shock drains you of the necessary energy to stick to your goals for the day. If you’re shackled to a routine that keeps getting changed or thrown out altogether, you start to feel defeated and powerless.

The key is balance: setting routines that are both structured (for accountability and habit-forming) and adaptable. You don’t have to throw all schedules to the wind and follow whatever takes your fancy in that moment (unless that actually works best for you); just be open to detours when they come. Sometimes, being flexible merely helps alleviate the frustration of unexpected delays, but sometimes it leads to spontaneous adventures that you’ll treasure for the rest of your life.

4. Mistakes are Necessary.

Grass shaped into a ring with flowers

This is something that I was constantly telling my students, but that — as a perfectionist — I am constantly learning for myself as well. When learning a new language, culture, or skill (or all three at once!), the natural tendency for many people is to be afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves. As a result, we often hold back from speaking or acting until we are confident in our ability to do so without error. The problem, of course, is that that level of perfection never comes. The only way to improve is to try, make a mistake, receive correction or advice, fix the mistake, and move on.

Along with that…

5. You’ll Never Be “Ready.”

Impostor Syndrome is real, and persuasive. Whether you’re contemplating speaking in another language (see point 4), taking on a leadership role slightly above what you’re already doing regularly, or moving to the other side of the world and starting your first-ever job as a teacher, it’s easy to tell yourself you should wait for an “opportune moment” that in truth can be pushed back indefinitely.

In retrospect, the times when I experienced the most growth were the times when I took on more responsibilities than I thought I was comfortable with. They were times when I felt the most nervous and inadequate, but knew that the task was something I both wanted and needed to do. It was hard, and I second-guessed myself thousands of times, but I came out of it so much stronger and more confident in my abilities.

Rice Terraces in Guilin, China

6. Learn, Accept, and Work With Your Limits.

This might sound like a contradiction to the point I just made, but they actually go hand-in-hand. When you stretch your comfort zone and become more confident in your actual abilities, you also learn to recognize the difference between fences built out of fear and necessary boundaries. It’s important to grow and improve, and it’s also important to know when you’re overextending yourself and need to step back a little.

Pushing yourself beyond what you’re physically or emotionally able to handle — or even pushing yourself to stretch out of your comfort zone too far and/or too fast — doesn’t suddenly make you able to handle it. It mostly just makes you miserable. As an introvert who is also a recovering people-pleaser, it can be hard for me to decline invitations or requests even when I need to. I’ve learned, however, that saying “no” sometimes frees me to say “yes” when I really want to, because I’m not exhausted from doing other things I didn’t actually want or need to do.

7. Explore.

The world is so big, and so beautiful. There’s so much to see, to eat, to feel, to learn. And new things are happening all the time.

Now, I’m unashamed to say that one of my favorite things is spending a quiet morning or evening (or day, or night…) at home alone. I genuinely enjoy the peace and solitude, and need it on a regular basis. As I said above, I’ve learned that it’s important for me to intentionally take that time for myself. But I’ve also learned to appreciate and even enjoy the busy, loud, crowded public spaces. (To an extent.) Whether it be traveling to other cities or countries, or simply finding a new corner of the city I’ve already been living in, surprises are waiting everywhere. And while I rarely regret time spent at home, I’m always glad to gain new experiences and deepen relationships with others. And the time spent away always makes the coming home that much sweeter.

View of city streets in China

8. Nervous? Everyone Else Probably Is Too.

We’ve all heard that, no matter how collected a person may seem on the outside, no one has it all together. Probably we all know in our heads that it’s true, but insecurity can be extremely loud.

Growing up, I was a very shy person. I was the student who never wanted to speak in class, whether I knew the answer or not. I hated the very thought of public speaking, and did not believe what people often said about it getting easier the more you do it. Life’s funny, isn’t it? After four years of standing in front of classes of 20-40 students (and even some of 50-200!) nearly every day, I do still get nervous, but I’ll admit it at last: it does get easier.

Aside from practice, something that helped me become more confident speaking in front of others, as well as just conversing with strangers, was the realization that often they were just as nervous and unsure as I was. (In fact, they were often more nervous, because we were speaking in my native language.) The more I focus on trying to put the other person at ease instead of on making a “good” impression, the less nerves get in the way.

But even that is something that requires practice, which leads me to…

9. It Takes Time.

There is no magic formula. I’m sorry. You can’t learn a language overnight, or think your shyness away. You can’t move to a different country without experiencing culture shock. Becoming independent in a new place might mean you have to learn first how to cross the street without fearing for your life, then how to take the bus or walk to the supermarket by yourself, then how to explore and find new places (and probably tons more tiny steps in between).

Patience is key: patience with others and especially patience with yourself. Trying to fix or change everything at once just ends in frustration. Take it one step at a time, and you will get there.

The Great Wall of China

10. The People You Surround Yourself With Make the Difference.

Circling back to the first point about asking for help: none of us can do it all on our own. What kind of people do you spend most of your time with? Are some of them fellow expats/travelers who understand the challenges and emotions you’re facing? Can you offer each other mutual support, help, and encouragement?

While I was living abroad, two people came into my life around the same time. One sat with me when I experienced a personal loss; traded advice, laughter, and questions with mine; and we grew together professionally and personally. The other tried to mold everyone to their own will and pushed away people who disagreed with them. It was easy to choose which of these two people to keep in my life, but it isn’t always so clear. It can be harder to recognize or admit when someone only comes to you with complaints and negativity but doesn’t (or can’t) help shoulder your emotional burdens, or when you put more into the relationship than they care to reciprocate. Relationships should be balanced, and remember that you are also one of the people in someone else’s circle. Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can.

Bonus: It’s a Continual Process.

As you may have guessed, most of these are things I’m having to re-learn now that I have moved back to the States (which means working through reverse culture shock) and am starting up a new career and business. Just as it’s no use waiting for a magical moment of readiness to arrive, it’s also foolish to expect a time to come when all the necessary lessons are perfectly learned and implemented. There’s always more to learn, but it’s important to revisit what we’ve already learned too, because — again — change is disorienting. It is navigable, though, especially with the right tools, attitudes, and companions.

Stepping into a new stage of life.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do any of these lessons speak to you, or have you had to learn them in your own life? What did that learning process look like for you? What other lessons have you learned (and perhaps re-learned) through changes of location or career?

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