21 January, 2016

Things I've Learned from Living Abroad

Living in a new country is a unique experience. It's hard for me to put it into words for people who have never experienced it, but the German word einzigartig comes to mind: it means "unique," "singular," exceptional" or "peerless." Leaving the familiar and leaping into life abroad comes with its share of struggles and insecurities, and it pushes you out of your comfort zone in so many ways, but the enrichment and the life lessons that also come with it cannot be replicated by staying comfortably at home. After living for almost a year in Spain during college and now for more than two years in Germany, here are the most important lessons I've learned from living abroad:

1. Doing things in a new language makes everything harder

This one might seem obvious enough to leave out, but it's something that I continue to run into even after almost two and a half years. Things that I wouldn't think twice about in the United States, like grocery shopping or ordering coffee, take much more concentration and effort when I have to do them in German. This has gotten much easier as my German has improved, to the point where the two examples I named are now no longer stressful, but at the beginning each small, everyday interaction like that took an extraordinary amount of energy. Add to this the privilege of visa applications and visits to the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) that non-citizens enjoy and you've got yourself an exhausting situation.

2. Sleep is much more important than I used to think

This may seem like an odd thing to learn while abroad, but it has become very obvious to me in the past few months and is directly related to the first point above. My ability to speak German, and by extension my ability to easily perform everyday tasks and function in social settings, is directly correlated with how much sleep I get. If I'm tired, everything seems much more difficult and I retreat into my anti-social shell. But if I've gotten enough sleep, suddenly I'm a social butterfly who isn't afraid of speaking what is essentially my third language. I've therefore become much more aware of when I go to bed and try to keep a consistent bedtime (which can be hard when I have to wake up early for class).

3. Never take anything for granted

Things that you never even considered could be different will be different when you live abroad. What you're allowed to throw in the trash is different in Germany than in the U.S. The lines on the roads are different. The windows open differently. Bank accounts and debit cards are different. Which things are available in which stores are different. Moving abroad will always involve differences that you aren't expecting, so your best bet is to assume that anything could be different than you're expecting at any time.

4. America is very self-centered

As just one small example, there are American websites that I interact with that have absolutely no way to indicate that I live outside the United States. It just doesn't occur to most American companies and organizations that Americans would live, or would want to live, anywhere but the United States. This can be a problem, which I usually solve by entering my dad's address or zip code, but it's still very frustrating. (When I enter my German zip code, American sites think I live in Atlanta, GA.)

This point is also very apparent when you note the typical American's ignorance about world events and geography, and the continued widespread belief in America that the U.S. is the best country in the world, despite overwhelming evidence that other countries top America in basically every way that matters (not that I'm biased or anything).

5. Possessions are less important than people think

After moving around fairly frequently as a child, I had already begun to grasp the truth of this statement. Every time I've moved I've lightened my load of things bit by bit, until now what I own fits in a few suitcases and a few boxes. The uselessness of most of the things we own becomes way more obvious when moving requires consolidating the most important things into two suitcases (or even one!) that weigh less than 50 pounds each. While people who remain in one place can afford to be sentimental about their stuff, when you're on the move and preparing to cross an ocean you realize that keeping the teddy bear you've had since you were three just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

6. International banking is a huge pain!

We've reached the point where almost everything banking-related to done online, so why on earth are there still ridiculous fees for banking transactions between two countries? There is no way that an international transaction costs the bank any more than a normal one, yet we are still hit with frustrating and outrageous fees when using banking services internationally. Even PayPal charges an extra fee for transferring money from one country to another. In a world that is as internationally-focused as ours, it's about time these useless fees were eliminated. Europe has managed to do it, so when is the rest of the world going to catch on?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything I've learned and discovered while living abroad, but these are the six broad lessons that have been the most important. Living in a new country is full of new discoveries; I wonder what new lessons Germany will teach me next!

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