Boxes of macaroni and cheese provided Jackie with comfortwhile living abroad. JACKIE HOFFART PHOTO
I'm really excited about this week's topic because it comes from a reader. Someone wrote to say that she is considering living abroad, either to work or study. Will time overseas be worth it in the end, or should she stay in Japan? My advice to you, reader, is very simple: Do it! No matter how old you are or what's happening for you. Save some money, find somewhere you can go, and go!
I can still remember the moment my life changed forever. It was four days before my 17th birthday and I was on a plane from Canada to Germany for a three-month student exchange. The bump of the plane's wheels as they touched down on the runway gave me a thrilling shiver — and I knew my life would never be the same again.
Living abroad makes you a more well-rounded and open-minded person. People often say you have to leave home in order to truly appreciate where you are from, and I think there's a lot of truth to that.
I moved to Vancouver to go to university in the year 2000. Since then I've spent two years in Germany, four in Japan and two in the U.K., before moving back to Vancouver.
Now, when I walk down the street in Vancouver, I appreciate the buildings in a new way because I can see how the architecture was so heavily influenced by England.
Similarly, I can be moved by the simple joy of watching flowers bloom. This is a way of appreciating the world that I learned while living in Japan.
When people drink coffee or beer outdoors the moment it becomes warm enough, I am reminded of spring in Berlin, where people flock to the promenades to take in the warm sun after the cold winter.
How can you quantify these things? How much is your overseas experience worth once you return home? I think there are social and financial advantages to living abroad — some employers appreciate the special kinds of qualities some former expats have. But there's more to it than that.
Living abroad takes courage, but it also rewards you with confidence. Leaving your home country takes a leap of faith. You have to imagine yourself in an unimaginable circumstance. You have to embrace the fact that you will not be able to understand everything around you (the culture, language, etc.). You have to be prepared to be far from the comforts of home (food, family, friends). You become flexible, you learn to adapt.
I think everyone living abroad builds their private hybrid world that provides some comforts when they are feeling overwhelmed by their surroundings.
Food is one of the most important sources of comfort for people, and lack of familiar foods is often the first thing that triggers homesickness. I never felt guilty about having my parents send me boxes of macaroni and cheese (a boxed pasta-and-processed-cheese mix). It's a North American classic that always made me feel better.
Whether you are studying or working abroad, I recommend that you join some kind of course, sport or social activity that suits you. These experiences can often tie you in with your new community in ways that sometimes school and work can't.
Making friends at any age can be hard, but it's been my experience that people are more patient and more interested in people from other countries. It's up to you to leverage that; to find "your people" and make friends. It's not enough to just show up in a foreign country. You must make an effort to integrate yourself in your new world once you are there.
I sometimes joke that the reason I spent four years in Japan, instead of my initial plan of one, was because it took me so long to deal with the culture shock that I felt I had to stay. By the time I started acclimating to life in Japan — through a combination of studying Japanese and the end of my long-distance relationship in Canada — I felt I had invested too much to leave after only one year. It was hard work getting used to living in Japan!
And so one year turned into two, two became three, and suddenly I'd been in Japan for four years. That's around the time I decided to try something new, but I wasn't ready to return to Canada just yet. So I decided to move to the U.K. on a two-year visa, which ended last year (as some readers will remember). Now I'm back in Canada and I love it more than I ever have — or knew I could, when Canada was all I'd ever known.
Next time: My topic is ... rainy season