People become expats for a number of reasons. Some move abroad because their job requires it. Others enjoy the experience of traveling and exploring new cultures. Still others decide to relocate for educational purposes. Another major reason for becoming an expat is love, where one partner may be living in another country. Some people also move for better weather, especially to countries with milder winters.There’s more to moving abroad that just a change of scenery. Living in a foreign country helps to boost work motivation, productivity and creativity. It can even build tolerance, improve confidence and leadership skills, thus helping you evolve at a professional and personal level. Here are some ways in which living abroad can improve you as a person.
It has been demonstrated that living abroad improves the ability of creative thinking. Experiments conducted by William W. Maddux, of INSEAD, and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern University, designed to measure creativity and spot correlations between creativity levels and living overseas, found that increased creativity was a clear benefit of living in another culture.
This was tested by a series of studies, one of which involved students who had some experience of living abroad. Some participants were asked to think about an experience in a new culture in which they learned something new about the culture and also learned the reason why people did what they did. Other participants were asked to think about an experience in which they learned something about their own culture and why people do what they do. A third group of participants were asked to think about learning something new about a sport, and a fourth group were not given any memory task.
Following this, all participants were asked to perform the Remote Associates Test, in which participants see three words and have to come up with a fourth word that is related to the other three. For instance, they might see the words paint, doll and cat. The correct answer would be ‘house’ (house paint, dollhouse and house cat). A successful performance on this task comes from thinking differently about all the words. It was found that the participants who were asked to think about their experiences learning about a new culture solved more items from the test, compared to those in the other groups.
Living in a new environment stimulates cognitive function and boosts imagination and creativity, all of which play a significant role in personal growth. Even in the case of expats who work 9 to 5, the move exposes them to new people and experiences that require a change of perspective, while simultaneously improving creative potential.
Living abroad will hand you the chance to develop new interpersonal skills since the move involves dealing with a different culture, work ethic, business etiquette and lifestyle. The exposure leads to benefits that can continue long after the expat experience is over. It can take a while to adjust to a new professional or personal environment, but it undoubtedly leads to the gaining of soft skills such as flexibility, communication skills, patience and perseverance; qualities which are as important at the work place as any of the hard skills such as academic qualifications and professional know-how.
Living abroad challenges your perspective and values, which leads to personal growth. You may be harboring odd, and sometimes incorrect, perspectives from your home country, which you will let go of. At the same time, you will adopt new viewpoints and attitudes that are your own and are not inherited from your home country.
Being an expat also means that you will experience challenging situations. You will be pushed out of your comfort zone constantly, and life will become new and exciting. You will be required to re-learn some of the most basic things about daily life, such as how to cross a busy street.
Through these challenges and barriers, there will be an undercurrent of steady personal growth. Your tolerance levels will increase, and you will find that you capable of handling a significant amount of discomfort. You will be able to handle uncomfortable things like eating strange, unfamiliar foods. In the face of adverse circumstances, you may find that you are a lot calmer.
If there is a language barrier in the new country, you will be surprised to find yourself learning to communicate in ways that are beyond words.
It is hard to develop a global perspective if you have never left your motherland, because you remain within your own culture, political system and values, which have a tendency to limit your perspective and make you experience life through these filters. Breaking away from your personal social construct and settling in a new one causes you to develop a global perspective. You will start perceiving the world through the lens of a different culture, political environment and value system. You may start evaluating your values, realizing that some of them may be attributed to cultural programming and don’t really fit into your new perspective. This can turn out to be a difficult stage, but it still carries an important benefit of living overseas.
There is no evidence to prove that living abroad can chronologically alter the length of your life. However there is some evidence that maintains it can enhance your own perception of the length of your life. An assistant neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, David Eagleman, has been studying the brain’s perception of time and he puts forth the following observations:
“The more detailed a memory, the longer the moment seems to last. The reason it feels like time is speeding up as we age is that the world becomes more familiar. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brains writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”
Living overseas means that you are exposing yourself to everything that is unfamiliar. This happens especially when moving from a Western country to an Eastern one or vice versa. The language is different, the cuisine is unfamiliar, even the smells are foreign. This causes your brain to go into overdrive as it records these new details. Thus as you keep having new experiences in your host country, your perspective of your life tends to lengthen. New memories lead to a longer perception of your own life than if you monotonously carry out the same everyday routine in your home country. Time appears to pass more slowly when having new experiences. Therefore when you are recording new memories, your perception of time is that it passes slower than if you were repeating the same experiences.
Adaptability is connected to the unfamiliar. You first notice that things are very different in a new country. Then you think of ways to adapt to the new lifestyle. For instance, you observe that the method of crossing a heavily trafficked street is quite different to how you would do it at home. You may proceed to try it out in your way while noticing other people’s behavior with discomfort. As time passes, you finally try it the way the locals do until at some point, a visitor remarks that what you are doing seems peculiar. This lets you know that you have adapted to the local norms and local behaviors. However, it may take you a while to embrace the change. Adaptability increases out of the necessity to not just survive in a new country and culture, but to thrive in it. You can even use it back home to find alternate ways of doing things.
Packing up and moving abroad takes a significant amount of courage. It can be one of the most exciting things you’ve ever done, but also the most nerve-racking. The discomfort is well worth it because diving first into the unknown is a sign of confidence. When you move abroad, you will also be putting yourself into unfamiliar situations that push your limits, and nudges you into growing in ways you never would in your home country.
You may already have friends that you have known for a long and who have become almost like a family to you. But moving overseas means that you will be meeting new people and making new friends to share your joys and troubles with. Within these new relationships, you may have conversations you would never have had at home. You will also bond with them based on the experience of living in your new country. In a new country, you will be encouraged to interact with those you may have previously overlooked, thereby challenging your preconceptions about people.
Here are some tips on how you can make the best of your experience abroad, and pave the way for further personal improvement.
This is one of the most important things for expats, irrespective of whether you have relocated by your own choice, or it was the result of other circumstances such as an international assignment or accompanying a spouse. It is all the more important to be open when moving to a country with a culture that is radically different from that of your home country. Staying in a little bubble with very little contact with the local world can eventually make you feel miserable.
Learn the language
In countries where English is one of the spoken languages, it is tempting to resort to this. But it is still important to make an effort to learn the local language. Even if your relocation is temporary, learning the language has numerous benefits. It helps you bond with the locals, who will greatly appreciate the effort you are making to learn their language. Knowing the local language helps you meet new people and discover more about the local culture. Learning new languages has also been demonstrated to be good for the brain.
Make friends with the locals
It is common for expats to reach out to other expats when they first move to a new country. There are various expat clubs and organizations that facilitate networking between expats from different nationalities. This is a natural step as one is alone in a new country and just getting accustomed to how things work. But it is also an excellent idea to make some local friends. This may take some time and effort, but it pays off in the long run and can greatly help you to feel more at home. Local friends can also help you learn the local language.
Have new experiences
The expat life provides several opportunities for coming out of your comfort zone and trying new and exciting things. Try out some local specialties or visit a landmark such as a monument or national park.
Share your experiences
One of the ways in which you can share your experiences in a new country is through a blog. Other expats may find it interesting and useful, and in turn might like to share their own experiences. Family and friends back home can also read it to know what you have been up to. Keeping a blog is also a great way to track your personal improvement as you live the expat lifestyle.
Keep in touch
Your expat life is likely to be hard on your family and friends back home as well. Staying connected with them enables them to know that you are doing well, and will also give you a chance to vent if things aren’t going so well. Schedule a video call once a week as a way to stay connected.
Remember that you are not a guest
It is common for expats to see themselves as guests in a country; nothing could be further from the truth. Your new country is now your home. It is where you live, work, send your kids to school and pay taxes!
Did you change for the better when you moved abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments! And if you'd like to share your experience of life abroad with other expats, fill out the questions here to be interviewed.