8 Things I Learned From Living Abroad for a Year

Lesson One: don't let strange Honduran men try to buy you shots and then ask for eight million photos with you in front of their restaurant. Just kidding, that isn't one of the lessons, but it should be.
Living abroad is a leap of faith we make because we hope somehow we will end up greater than the sum of our parts. I left my job, friends, family, hobbies, and steady life in Toronto, Canada in August 2012 and moved to Mexico City to start what I hoped would be a journey of a lifetime. I'm still here as of September 2013 and set to (finally!) leave next month.

What a journey it has been and yes, oh what I have learned. Did I end up greater than the sum of my parts? Hell no! I'm just as confused, angry, vindictive, and crazy as I've always been. But I experienced things and I got at the most vulnerable parts of myself that would have been harder to access otherwise. As such, I saw the parts much clearer, even when I wished I could look away. Here's what I learned:

1. You Won't Learn the Language Through Osmosis

Sad but true, simply being in a foreign country isn't like sticking a disc drive in your brain and pressing download. Sure, you'll learn how to read a menu, understand how much money the nice lady wants for your chocolate bar, and a few other choice basics but the rest is up to you. You have to actively seek out friends who speak that language, convince them not to speak English to you, and then dive in. The only reason my Spanish is passable is because I live with my Mexican boyfriend and I forced myself to stop relying on English as a crutch. Even then, I could have studied and practiced waaaaaay more.

2. You Don't Know What Love You Need

When I lived in Toronto I was convinced that I wanted to marry a tall, rakish, bookish type who was well-traveled, spoke three languages, was an expert in some obscure subject, and moved in high circles. So then, someone who would look great next to me in our Toronto Life cover shoot as the next hot with-it couple. Oh my God. Did I have any idea what it takes to love? To commit your life to someone? Probably not. When I eventually fell in love with my live-in honey, Miguel, I realized that while he has none of the above characteristics, he has the patience, humour, sweetness, vulnerability, fortitude, audacity, and unending reserves of love to make a (future) marriage work. This is what love is. Now I know.

3. You're Not Above the Bad Shit ... 

I come from a comfortable background and have never experienced any grade-A bad shit. I guess I somehow expected to sail into Mexico City solo and have a whirl of a time. That could have happened but it didn't because guess what, bad shit happens to everyone with no rhyme or reason. That I was threatened and stalked by my schizophrenic superintendent here and then thought to be an intruder by the police when I called 911 and then couldn't sleep forever (I still can't sometimes) was just ... well ... random bad shit that I'm not above. There's no lesson to be learned about it except: too bad.

4. ... Still, Life Has a Way of Delivering What You Need

Who knew that Mexico City would deliver to me one of my best therapists who is available twice a week, works downtown, speaks fluent English, and charges a head-spinningly low rate. Go figure. I felt sometimes that I didn't live this year, I survived it, and God knows where I'd be if I didn't have the support of a really great (and cheap!) mental health professional. I worked the hard shit for nine months and I came out better. Somehow this gift was practically dropped in my lap and I took full advantage of it. Thanks, man upstairs.

5. Your Friends Will Disappear

Are you depressed yet? Yes my dearests, all your wonderful chums that you spent so many hours with and shared so many experiences and thoughts and moments with will mostly fade into black. Why? I have no idea. I think it's because people tend to be very immersed in their specific milieu and it takes a rare person to be pulled out of that. In fact, I think it's healthy to live in the moment and place you inhabit. You just have to let them go, focus on your journey, and know the ones you love the most will come back to you in some form. The silver lining is that one out of all of them, perhaps the one you least expected, will faithfully and cheerfully keep in contact and keep the friendship alive. Then you really know you have a live one.

6. Your Plans Might Change Entirely

I came to Mexico City a year ago wanting to teach English for three months and experience living in another country. The plan was to then set off to Central/South America to do the backpacking thing. Where am I a year later? Still in Mexico City. Right. I did get to Central America for five weeks but I met Miguel and everything changed. He had a full-time job but wanted to travel so I waited for him to be ready. Is that romantic or suicidal? I don't know because living in Mexico City is no picnic and I wouldn't wish a year of it on anyone. But plans changed and I stayed. South America could wait.

7. You May Lose All Sense of Self

Without my band of brothers, my job, my Toronto-related writing work, my language, all my favorite holes, and other identifiers of self, I felt completely lost abroad. I could never be busy enough to satisfy some benchmark of productivity, I never had enough friends to feel like I belonged, I didn't have enough cultural references or clarity of communication to make myself feel understood. Sure, there were great moments and plenty more uncomfortable but eye-opening stuff but I seriously struggled with my sense of self. Which is why I left Toronto in the first place -- to see what else there was to this thing called Bronwyn. And so.

8. You Might Actually Experience That Magical Transformation

Why else do we leave it all behind to travel other than to search for something more? Well and to get away from horrible but strangely seductive ex-boyfriends. I had some vague idea of being more Bronwyn, of being more alive than I could in a familiar environment. Let me tell you, sometimes I felt so alive here I wished for nothing more than the comfortable numbness of a pub night at home. But what did happen is that I eventually quit my English teaching job and starting writing full-time, something I thought only unicorns and magic bunnies could do. I also finally submitted and had my novel (10 years in the making) accepted by a Toronto agent. And then wrote another novel. I'm still as fucked in the head as ever but my dream career is finally on track. That, my friends, is a magical transformation.

What have you learned from living abroad? Would you like to live abroad and if so, what would you like to learn from the experience? Share, my Internet friends, in the comments below.

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7 comments:

a.g.lewis said...

i love this - so happy for you, bronwyn... well done!

Jen said...

Honest post, thank you! Is your partner going to come back to Canada with you?

Melanie said...

I love your blog. I travelled for a year around the world and Mexico city is one of my favourite cities. I really want to move there for a while to work on my spanish and I find your observations really helpful as I know that visiting and actually living there will be two completely different experiences.

B.Kienapple said...

Thanks Melanie! Mexico City is pretty cool and can be livable if you find the right place and people. I'm living in Coyoacan now which I like so much better. Email me if you need anything!

kay said...

I just stumbled upon your blog while researching Cameron Highlands (I'm going there next week!) and I just want to say how refreshing it is to read just honest thoughts. I just graduated from college in the States and I moved out to Singapore for a 6 month internship. My life is undetermined after January and this is something that terrifies me! I completely can relate this post about things you learn while living abroad. SOO much learning and and confusion and growth and happiness and sadness and excitement and boredom all literally happening at the same time. Thank you for your wisdom and in letting me know that I am not alone in my feelings!

B.Kienapple said...

Hi Kay! Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you could relate to my post. There's a lot of pressure to make living abroad incredibly transformative and positive. But it's a big scary thing to do, especially if you're very young! So of course there's going to be bad with the good. But the most important thing is: you were brave enough to move to Singapore. That is an incredible thing and no matter how it worked out, you should feel proud of yourself for taking such a leap of faith. As for your next step in life, listen to what your heart needs next. Do you need to move back with your parents and plan? Do you want to take another journey? Don't be afraid to experiment and fail! I always wish I had allowed myself to experiment more when I was in my 20's. Despite what people may lead you to believe, those experiments won't determine the rest of your life, not at all.

Joy said...

Hi Bronwyn,
I stumbled across your website and blog online and just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading it! I hope you do get resettled in Canada if that is your wish, but it was good to hear how cheap it is living in Mexico.

I'm a writer too, my website is joybennett.com. Have a great day,
Joy

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