There and Back Again: Learning and Growing Abroad

November 26, 2013

A while back I wrote a blog post titled The Five Things That Happen When You Move Away From Friends and Family. I am now keen on tweaking it and retitling it “The Way I Was, The Way I am Now: The How and Why.” We are all familiar with the popular adages that run along the lines of  life being a journey, and to “enjoy the trip of life” because you can find happiness while living it rather than seeing happiness as your “destination.” I feel this way to a point, but at times, we only realize how we have grown from an experience after the fact.

There and back again...learning and growing abroad

Upon moving to France to study the language and pursue my life-long (I was 20 at the time) dream of indulging in the culture, I was immediately in love. In love with the people, the language (…sort of a given, I was a French major), the food (my host father was kind enough to always cook something “végétalien” pour moi) and the pure thrill of being far, far away from everything I had ever known. However lucky I knew I was then, and even though I knew that experience would change my life, I did not quite understand the impact it would have on me until about two months ago (upon returning from South Korea and roughly 3.5 years after my French adventures). Never would I have imagined that I would be moving with my husband to Asia in 2012, before I had taken my first trip abroad in 2010. The simple fact that I am now married would have seemed so foreign (get it?) to me during my time frolicking through the Parisian streets and my times sipping coffee next to the Loire River in Tours. My point here is that every experience we go through shapes us. Every single negative, positive, joyous, destructive event holds within its grasp the ability to build us up to our most mighty and strong or to tear us to pieces. It is up to us to use these experiences to better ourselves rather than let them crush us.

After landing in JFK airport from Seoul and greeting my family I realized that I am so much more of a “real” person than I used to be, precisely because I turned those intense experiences for the positive. We can accept our new fate as a tourist, embrace the culture like a local, fall in love with the people or reject it all together. Although I never imagined (or planned on) living in South Korea, I decided before I left to make the best of my time there, and I did just that. Of course, you always do the same when visiting a foreign country or even just indulging in a foreign culture while staying comfy within your own home (i.e. cooking delicious Indian/Italian/French etc. food in the comfort of your own kitchen or learning a language in your spare time.)

 

1. Do not be ashamed of your lack of language skills.

When I was leaving for France, I spoke with someone who had been there a few years before who warned me about the French and their distaste for the “butchering” of their language by tourists. This could not be more false. Of course there are people who are opposed to speaking to others in general (usually those wearing headphones, have their faces bundled in scarves etc.) but you will always find someone who is willing to help. So, be polite, courteous and if all else fails start using well-known, general hand gestures (this saved me in Korea.) People typically want to help other people and will not blatantly ignore you if given the chance. Note: younger people in foreign countries tend to be more open to speaking with foreigners and 9 out of 10 times speak some English! Also, as dorky as it sounds, carry that dictionary! Yes, electronic translators and your iPhone work great too, but chances are when you need them they are lost forever in the abyss of your purse or are out of battery/service range etc.

2. Before you leave for your trip, make a list of everything you want to do when you are there, then cross off at least half. This will relieve the pressure of having to see it all.

Make sure you are being realistic with your time . Do not feel bad about not being able to see every landmark, restaurant, tourist spot that the tour guide book suggests. You are human and you have needs too, like aching feet that force you to sit and people-watch while sipping a cappuccino in Naples….not that this happened to me or anything.

3. Be safe.

Use the same rules you would in your own city but be even more cautious. Never leave a bag/drink/wallet/phone etc. unattended, even for a second. Also, know which numbers to call in case of an emergency and have them written down and in your wallet/bag at all times.

4. Take pictures but do not spend all of your time on social media.

Yes, of course by all means take a million photos of your experiences, but try to enjoy the moment rather than focusing on what everyone at home will think/how jealous they will be. You can revel in that in real-life when you post them from home. One of my favorite quotes from the beautiful and ever graceful Jackie O. is about doing just that : “I want to live my life, not record it.”

5. Savor every second.

Take a second while you are getting ready to go out for the night to watch the sunset. Wake up early to get the best spot on the beach then lay there and soak up the sun (with SPF on of course!) to your heart’s content. Do not ever feel guilty for laying around on your vacation. Love the time that you have to yourself and let yourself be recharged by these new experiences.

 

Typically, people return from living abroad and say that they cannot wait to do it again. I always said that I left half of my heart in France when the plane took off and headed to New York, but I do not think that is true anymore. My whole heart is here with me and my family at all times–it’s just that sometimes it wanders through my thoughts to the other places I have called home.

Also by Kate: Healing Power of Nature

Wednesday Cafe: Crumbly Autumn Stew Pup Treats

Freedom Friday: Lemon Herb Pasta with Chickpeas

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Photo: Moyan Brenn

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Contributing Editor Kate Coffey is the founder of Forever Fascinated Blog, a vegan, the lucky co-parent to Miss Wednesday the Wonder Pup, a French speaking/lover of anything French U.S. Army Wife who is on a mission to spread the good word about living life to its fullest! You can also follow Kate on her Instagram and vegan organic pet treat shop, Wednesday Cafe.

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