Taking the Road Up North — Living Abroad

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Do you have a stable job?

Are you married? Kids?

At my ripe old age of 30, I should be answering ‘yes’ to all the above questions. My social media is constantly reminding me that I am defying social norms.

Yes, I do want to be financially independent, I do want to get married, and have kids at some point in my life. But somehow, uprooting myself to another part of the world means unstable income, and lower chances of finding a suitable life partner.

Moving abroad

Since quitting my (slightly high-paying) stable job as an auditor some years back, I have been straddling between cultures and for the past three years have been living in a part of the world where my roots come from. It is an irony that my parents moved our family down south to a small little prosperous country when I was a baby, to seek a better life; and having grown up, I left this cushy life to move back up, even farther north, for a less comfortable lifestyle.

I am blessed with looks that blend in with the locals, and although that also means I do not get the grace that most foreigners are granted with, it does bring cultural barriers down. Their national language is the same as my mother-tongue, having learnt it from primary school till pre-university, yet their local accent is much deeper, rougher, and foreign-sounding to my ears when I first arrived.

There sure were many adjustments I had to deal with — from living with my family to living by myself — no breakfast magically prepared when you wake up in the morning, nobody fixing your router when the Wi-Fi is down, no one to open the door for you when you forget your keys and get locked out of your house.

I was blessed with a new community of friends who gather regularly, yet I was yearning for the deep kind of friendships and bonds I had with friends back home. I am grateful for technology, it truly transcends borders, yet when restrictions are imposed on Internet access, it is very frustrating trying to catch up when connection keeps dropping in the middle of conversations.

Culture shock

When I first arrived, I loved everything about the place and the people. They were so friendly and approachable, and I loved the weather — coming from a place with four seasons of summer every year, I cannot tell you enough how much I love that the cold lasts for at least half a year there.

But soon after being thrown into a new culture, with my support system so far away, it was easy to slip into a “complain mode” and compare the people and place with where I came from. I knew I was going to a less developed region, and I thought I was ready to adapt, yet when things go wrong, it is just all too easy for resentment to creep in if we do not guard our hearts well. I started to judge the people, thinking that their ways of doing things are so backwards; I hated how they push me on the bus with no regards to personal space; I looked down on their ethical values, or in my eyes, lack thereof; Old buildings have no elevators and I could not stand walking seven flights of stairs to my apartment after a long day and with heavy groceries in my hands. And did I mention that winter is really depressing?

People would tell me that it was normal to feel this way. Culture shock — that’s what they call it. I have gone through the various stages of culture shock: Honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. Of course, when I make trips back home, there is also re-entry shock.

Learning journey

The biggest lesson I have learnt in overcoming culture shock and to actually love the locals is to take my coloured lenses off. I had to stop viewing them through my “first-world” culture perspective and remember that these are people who deserve love as much as I do. I had to go back to history and remember that these people and their ancestors lived through tough times that shape their culture today. All of us need more empathy and less judgment. I needed reminders of why I chose to move to this place.

Despite the difficulties that I faced, and the challenges that lie ahead, taking the road less traveled is a journey that I would press on daily. This journey has opened my eyes to the world, in a much deeper sense than just taking a week-long holiday or embarking on a summer internship. It has led me to discover more about myself: my strengths, and also the ugly parts that surface only under immense pressure. Most importantly, I am discovering that this journey is deepening my faith which never fails me and carries me through it all.

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