I’ve been reflecting lately on solo living abroad. Something I’ve done quite a bit of, and something that many people I know (both men and women) won’t consider doing. And this causes me to ask myself why I do it?
Why leave the comfort zone?
There has been plenty of downside to it this past year in Qatar. Are the upsides worth it?
Oddly, as I reflect on my living abroad experiences, I realize they’ve been best when I undertook them alone.
I entered into expat situations with someone else twice. Once with a boyfriend in my twenties when we lived in India, and once in my thirties when I was married and my then-husband and I spent a year and a half living in Italy. Prior to that I’d lived on my own in Switzerland and England and Italy, and currently I’ve lived in Qatar for three years on my own. (I can include Mexico as well in a small way: when I did a 3-week language course there, I attended it on my own and chose to live with a Mexican family, rather than with others from the United States.)
Looking back at the experience of living in Italy with my then-husband, I realize how often I was ill at ease and felt less able to connect with the culture and the local people. Sure the main culprit was the troubled marriage. I was focusing on the dynamic between him and I instead of on the culture and getting to know locals. But even if I had been living abroad in a happy marriage, or with a good and enjoyable friend, I bet I would have focused more on the person I was with, which would have detracted from bonding with locals.
The first time I moved abroad on my own I was twenty and already knew from traveling around Europe on my own when I was 19, that what may sound scary at first can lead to a fabulous enrichment of one’s life.
Setting out on each expat experience, any nervousness that might have raised its head was overrode by the confidence I had about how enriching it would be.
Living abroad on my own pushes me to develop social skills; to learn to make friends even with people who may have vastly different beliefs.
My brother and sister have often commented that I am so much better than they are at being social, and creating community. Was I born that way? Probably not. The number one reason is because I have been willing to travel on my own and live abroad on my own.
As an expat on my own, I am pushed to go deeper: to make more effort with language acquisition, to make more local friends, to have deeper conversations with locals about our lives, about the state of the world, about our shared humanity.
Not only does this give me greater social skills but it gives global purpose to my little life. I believe in what Gandhi said, the more friends we make around the world, the less likely we are to go to war against them.
Of course sometimes living on my own in a different culture is lonely, and sometimes it’s no fun to struggle to comprehend other cultural norms alone, or to face inefficient bureaucracies on my own, or to be alone at Christmas with a burnt foot, unable to make myself a meal. But would I trade it?
Would I trade it to remain in a comfort zone?
Would I trade it for complacency?
Would I rather remain afraid of taking a risk?
Would I trade it because all the challenging things are exhausting?
Being abroad on my own is good for personal development and for enhancing cross-cultural understanding.
It’s vastly enriched my life and it’s given me a certain uncommon type of inner strength and resilience. And it’s allowed me to be able to name times when I know I’ve made a difference in tolerance and understanding in the world.