These days, the travel industry in its entirety is so glossy and polished.
Being a mid-twenties Filipina, some of my fellow Filipinos — more often than not — assumed that I lived in Belgium because I married a Caucasian man. Either that, or that I simply wanted to run away and travel because I’m a trust fund kid and my credit card must be lucrative.
While I used to sometimes make my newfound friends in Europe believe that I ran away from home to find a Caucasian man to marry — and make jokes out of sheer speculations back home, they were clever enough to think that I was merely studying or working in a foreign country. No one assumed nor asked “are you really here to marry one of our countrymen?”
Kidding aside, lo and behold, I came back home and generally got the half-assed “You’re so lucky you have tons of money!” assumption and infuriating “I thought you got married!” exclamation. (Filed under: Situations that made me want to eye roll myself into another dimension.)
However, even in expat land far, far away, fairytales don’t exist. It may seem like an escape from your usual 9-5, or an unlimited vacation, or a great move “for the gram” you spend a lot of time curating. But in reality, it is constant hard work — it can be a pretty tough adjustment and it’s only going to get better or worse from there. People who have lived in another country will nod their heads in agreement.
So before you grab hold of the sugarcoated carte blanche, here are the struggles of long-term traveling and living abroad (no one tells you about anymore):
1. It’s a looooong process (Pre-departure and Arrival Procedure)
Imagine waking up, mid-autumn, in a foreign country you’ve been dreaming and researching about for the past couple of months or years… Wonderful, isn’t it? And then you realize that in the next few days, you have to wake up early despite the serious jet lag and having to adjust to the weather as soon as possible just to have your residence permit processed. Consider yourself lucky if you already have accommodation and a job for your whole stay sorted out when you arrive. From negotiating rent to setting up a bank account, nothing is easy nor familiar while transitioning abroad.
In my case, I had to wait for almost 8 months to finish all mandatory pre-departure requirements such as medical tests, work permit, health insurance, international driving license, visa interview, and visa; not to mention the grueling process of sending original documents from the Philippines to Belgium and vice versa. Even so, it was the safest way to kick-start my crazy dream of an unconventional life away from home.
The procedure, definitely, is a vital experience in itself, and it could absolutely prolong the agony. But don’t give up! Besides, it’s only a warm up.
2. Feelings of alienation exist
You will try to adapt, sure, but miscommunication is truly unavoidable because of language and cultural barriers. It can get frustrating, but hey, you need to be the one to adjust, not the locals. You will have to remind yourself from time to time that you are where you are to experience not only the best parts and to fully understand that it is how it is.
I remember spending over an hour the first time I went to a hypermarket (Carrefour) in Brussels just to buy a few things for dinner because I couldn’t understand even basic French back then, and confusing a staff because I was pronouncing boeuf de surlonge wrong.
Also, amidst all the adjustments, you will surely miss speaking (and even cursing) in your mother tongue, but because of the time difference, it can be hard to find time to communicate with people back home.
3. You win some, you lose some
And will eventually lose a few more. Literally.
One painful truth is, your loved ones will move on even without you. There will be frequent texts and calls and they will ‘like’ your posts and tell you how much they miss you, but they will move on. Life goes on as it should for them, too.
While I was away, most of my friends had moved on with their lives and were getting married, getting promotions, buying houses, and having children. Some still partying every night and curing their hangover the next day.
These things are inevitable and I’m glad I’ve learned to distance myself when it doesn’t feel right for me anymore, and to stop forcing friendships. You will learn the art of saying no and get used to being alone and independent, and that’s ok.
4. Guilt is a frequent evil visitor
Leaving is a selfish decision; it is and will always be our family’s and friends’ devastation. You will miss out on bachelor/ette parties, birthdays, baby showers and weddings. You will not be able to physically be there for your loved ones’ high highs and low lows.
You will get used to the silence that follows your “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to make it” announcements, and you will feel guilty because of being away when they need you.
I, for one, often felt guilty for seeing new places and visiting different countries while my family or friends were having a rough time back home. Even though I know it’s my life and I get to decide how I live it, living abroad sometimes made me feel like a bad person.
5. You’ll feel really, really lonely
I was really fortunate because I had a host family and some culturally diverse housemates in Brussels. But even though I was never *really* alone, I experienced a deep sense of loneliness I’d never known before.
The unfamiliarity of the surroundings makes even the toughest cookies out there awfully homesick.
I will never forget eating loads of instant lasagna on Christmas Eve by myself, feeling miserable, while scrolling through my Facebook feed and seeing my friends celebrate Christmas with their families.
Sometimes, you have to pretend that you are having a great time alone abroad so your family won’t worry too much about you. Sometimes, you have to cry buckets of tears just to get it off your chest. You may experience the ‘Why did I even leave?’ depression, especially at times when all you can do about your sadness is to go out to ease the pain (but unfortunately couldn’t because it’s -10°C outside and your tropical ass is going to freeze to death.)
6. Contrary to popular belief, it is not glamorous
Well, obviously, you gotta do the grunt work — the physically exhausting and boring tasks. It’s a daily battle that almost always leaves you questioning “Is this what I really want?” while preparing your food for work the next day to save money and stuffing your depressed face with Camembert and cheap wine, or while riding a train at rush hour in Southeast Asia.
Unless you’re well off or someone else is paying for you, you will need to drag your lazy ass because the work won’t do itself. Go to the market, wash your clothes, wash your housemate’s clothes for extra cash, get another job, get extra jobs, work twice or thrice as hard.
7. Loss of sense of belonging
You are allowed to have a complex range of emotions when you straddle two (or many) different worlds. That’s a normal part of moving abroad. For me, the hardest part of living abroad was feeling like I belonged neither here nor there. I would get mad at Belgium and I would get mad at the Philippines, and I felt like I was in limbo.
Admittedly, I had lost my sense of self and individuality along the way, and I was out of my mind making highly emotional decisions for quite some time. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language became the repeated question “What am I missing?”
8. Temporary romance
Don’t go searching for true love. Especially if you’re not ready — expat or not. Or better yet, don’t focus on finding it. For starters, chances are you’re just bored, or lonely, or lost.
For instance, I dated a European guy in Manila way back and boy, was it a disaster. It was all fun and lovey dovey until we talked about where we stand which apparently didn’t turn out well and I, for sure, was furious and heartbroken.
After some time, I found myself in his shoes while I was in a foreign country and understood how hard it really is to commit to a serious relationship; considering the lifestyles of the persons involved, individual goals and plans for the future. Also worth mentioning, the what seems like an endless longing for belonging and the need for temporary comfort (See: Tinder) which are often mistaken for love.
Now I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find love overseas — I know people who have successful international relationships. But, always be careful and live mindfully.
9. Shit happens
And when it rains, it pours.
It’s not just about finding a country where you feel like you somehow belong, or searching for an instagramable café in Paris, or planning for your next immersion. Beneath it all are (more) bills to pay, personal loans, seemingly never-ending debts, languages you couldn’t comprehend, necessary things to make yourself preoccupied, the occasional breakdowns, and having enough courage to continue and survive day by day.
All I’m saying is that whatever you experience becomes a part of who you are — shit happens and you become the total sum of your experiences.
10. Reverse culture shock is a real thing
You become a permanent foreigner; never quite making it as a local, and never feeling satisfied at home. Your home country now drives you crazy, you feel totally alone, and…you’ve changed. There’s no going back.
Like boot camp for the soul, having lived abroad accelerates every thing in massive ways.
Apart from all these, there’s a myriad of other factors that make the move truly an incredible challenge. There are no guarantees, promises and certainty about anything. But despite all these struggles, though, you will find yourself enriched by the change; the struggles are truly just a part of a growing process and if you’re able to adjust, you can bet you’ll be a much better person for it.
Kids, better to struggle for the things that make you tick and tick things off your bucket list, than nothing, anyway. Life is too short.
P.S. I’m leaving again in a few weeks, this time for a brand new life in China—SURPRISE!