Whether you are living abroad now, thinking about it, or getting ready to move back into your home culture, I hope that my personal thoughts and story I’m sharing with you today can help you during your transition.
The evening Alabama sun blazed as it sank lower behind the treetops of pines and oaks. I sat in the passenger seat of the truck as the familiar sights of Highway 82 fled by.
It was the beginning of 2013, and I was on my way to board a plane that would cross the ocean and set down on a runway only an arm’s length from the ocean.
When I re-found this photo, I realized that this moment had totally escaped my mind—and a slew of emotions instantly swept over me.
Allow me to set the stage: in 2012, I spent 6 months in Hong Kong. Those 6 months shaped me in ways that equally scared me and seduced me.
I’m from a small town and although I had traveled a lot within the US, I knew nothing about Asia and its diverse cultures. I had spent my life preparing to live in Europe (I even studied Latin for 6 years). Asia wasn’t anywhere near my radar. I couldn’t use chopsticks, had never heard Chinese spoken before, and didn’t know that Hong Kong and southern China spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin.
So, having never taken a flight by myself or been anywhere outside the US, I ventured to Hong Kong and was thrown into a life that seemed exactly the opposite of where I grew up.
It clicked with me from day one, much to my surprise. So much so that two months before I was due to come home, I was talking to my mom on the phone and said, “I’m going to have a really hard time leaving this place.”
“Then why don’t you go back?” she asked. And I’m sure she came to eventually regret asking that question.
This photo, the fiery Alabama sunset, was taken only weeks later as I was heading back to the tiny, one-terminal Montgomery airport to fly back to Hong Kong for round two.
In the end, I lived there for almost four years before doing some traveling and later relocating to Beijing, where I’ve lived now for a year and a half.
As of today, I’ve been in Asia for almost 6 years. When I mentioned it to a new friend on social media recently, they humorously replied, “How?”
Good question. Life can be weird. But those 6 years are the most amazing years of my life I will ever have.
Rediscovering this photo at the time I did seemed to be orchestrated by some otherworldly force. Why the memories attached to this photo hit me so hard: in 2 days, I’ll be in the air heading to officially move to New Zealand (until the next location in who-knows-how-long).
My days of living in Asia are finished.
My heart is feeling a lot of things. Nostalgic. Contemplative. Thrilled. Terrified. And I don’t think I would have allowed myself to healthily process all of these thoughts and emotions unless I had found this photo and been catapulted into Deep Thinking Mode.
Life in Asian culture has become the norm for me, and as someone who values stability as much as I do, it’s to the point that I have a tough time readjusting to “Western” life whenever I visit back home or, in this case, move to New Zealand. (There’s a reason they call it “reverse culture shock.”)
But were the 6 years I’ve spent here worth it? Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. A million times yes.
The last thing I want is to be is one of “those” international travelers who think they’re so cool because they live in a different country. That’s not me at all. I don’t brand myself as being an international dweller. I’m not a travel blogger and I’m not trying to be Insta-Famous by taking trendy cool photos of myself as I daintily traipse through the rustic streets of Beijing or jump into the clear waters of El Nido or take a sip of an overpriced mojito in one of Hong Kong’s hidden speakeasy bars.
Where I’ve lived, like most other people, is just how life has happened for me.
Am I proud to have moved from my small Southern town to one of the most thriving cities in the world and make a life for myself there? Yes.
Am I proud to have lived in the middle of the historical Hong Kong demonstrations (literally, it was in my neighborhood) and be able to chat with my regular wet market vendors in Cantonese? Absolutely.
Am I proud to have pushed myself for the last 6 years, moving all my few belongings from place to place, sometimes every single month? You bet. That stuff is tough and takes a big toll on a person.
When you live abroad, as I said before, you’re shaped in ways that would never cross your mind unless you were experiencing them. It can hurt a lot, but in retrospect, is it worth it?
Tough stuff and all, Asia—especially Hong Kong—is truly my second home.
HK food is my comfort food (tied with home-cooked Southern meals, which I miss more often than I’d like to admit).
Hearing 98% of people around me at any given moment speaking a language I can only catch bits of pieces of is oddly comforting, too. It gives me white noise to be alone with myself and my thoughts (even though at times it can be isolating, especially when you’ve just moved somewhere that speaks a different language and you haven’t had time to learn yet).
Combine all these factors with my guilty pleasure of dairy products (which aren’t widely consumed in Asian cultures) and tendency to use a lot of Southern idioms no one else understands when I’ve had a couple of drinks, and you’ve got a recipe for mental confusion.
However, in the end: yes, it is totally possible to live a flourishing life in a culture that isn’t your home one. And yes, you can learn a new language, no matter how many excuses you make that your “brain just isn’t wired that way.”
Am I ready to move back to a Western, English-speaking country? In some ways, no (where will I be able to find my beloved cheong fan?!). In some ways, yes (I’m done with concrete jungles).
In the past, I’ve spent way more time than I should have trying to make life play out exactly according to my plans. It never worked. And it took a whole lot of failures, losses, age, tears, and even a little blood to realize that it never would. Looking back, though, I can’t imagine who I would be now if things had been any different. (Actually, I shudder to think.)
I never expected that life would happen this way for me. I never expected to live in Asia for 6 years and to call a place so different from my home…”home.”
But that’s part of my story, and it’s the reason that I am who I am today.