4 Things I Have Learned During My First Year As an Expat
As I write this, I have finished my first year as an expat and am about to embark on my second one in a different country.
Teaching English abroad and living in a completely different country has been a challenge in more ways than one. I have grown immensely as a result of the things that I have learned during my first year as an expat. Here are just a few of them.
4 Things I Have Learned During My First Year As an Expat
1. Being able to communicate and be understood is a luxury.
Up until now, I have traveled to many places including China, Australia, Japan, England, and Mexico; as someone who has studied multiple foreign languages, I have relied heavily on those language abilities to communicate and survive. Having only studied Chinese briefly, I came into Taiwan with an extremely rudimentary vocabulary.
This proved to be a difficult thing for me to live with. My Asian appearance made people think that I was a local. Even when I was with a foreign friend or acquaintance and those foreign friends asked questions, the locals would direct the answers to my friends’ questions to me.
Granted, I made the choice to focus on my work and not take Chinese courses, but I have to admit that I at least expected to learn more Mandarin than I did. I also expected that I would pick it up a lot faster. Foolish, perhaps, but that’s the truth.
I was overwhelmed with relief when I went back to Japan for vacation; I could understand what was being said, communicate what I wanted, and get around fairly easily. Living abroad in a place where I didn’t have the ability to communicate very well made me realize how much I had taken the ability to communicate for granted.
I now understand how foreign students feel when they come to the United States; they are in a totally foreign country with limited language skills, and even the simplest things seem daunting. Having this experience here in Taiwan has made me more empathetic toward students from other cultures and I have a newfound appreciation for how important language skills are.
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2. People can, and often will, surprise you.
First impressions tend to stick, but people can change their minds, myself included. When I first walked into one of my larger classes, I was intimidated and overwhelmed by the sheer number of students. They were loud, didn’t always follow directions, and they seemed to speak more Chinese than English. The combination of all of these factors gave me the strong impression that they didn’t like me or at the very least, wouldn’t care enough to say good bye.
I was wrong.
Over time, I surprised myself; I started getting attached to these students. I looked forward to their energy, cracking jokes with them, and teaching them. Eventually, the size of the class didn’t bother me as much, and each student grew on me.
While I’m sure that not everyone in that class loved me or cared, the students give me with a card (that was really a note) that they had written entirely in English. Each member of the class signed it, and I was very touched by the fact that they had chosen to give me something, which they could have easily chosen not to do.
People can surprise you. People that you start out liking may turn out to be someone you end up despising; by the same token, someone you start out hating could turn out to be your best friend. My experience in Taiwan showed me that people can and often will do simple little things that grow to mean a lot to you. I am grateful for those small acts of kindness, and they mean a lot to me.
3. You’ll have to be okay with being alone.
Each time I spend an extended period of time abroad, I find myself getting more and more comfortable with being alone. With that said, being in a foreign country can be terrifying. It can be a very comforting thing to have someone go with you or do something with you.
However, being an expat in a foreign country forces you out of your comfort zone; it forces you to do and try things that you might not have considered otherwise. My experiences in Taiwan further highlighted my introverted tendencies.
Although I was social, I learned that I was nowhere near as social as I thought I was; even though I liked spending time with others, I also enjoyed having time to myself in my apartment watching my favorite shows and taking care of myself. I gradually got used to the idea of doing things on my own without depending on another person.
This is not to say that I am perfect at it, but I am much more comfortable with the idea of being alone now than I was when I first set foot in Taiwan.
4. You are so much stronger than you think you are.
Close family and friends have told me that they have had confidence in my capabilities for years, but being the cynic that I am, I never really believed them. Let’s just say that although I may not go around tooting my own horn, I am much more inclined to believe them now.
Being in Taiwan, away from my comfort zone forced me to grow; completing a year long contract and sticking it out despite the difficulties I faced has given me confidence. At this moment, I can’t say that I’ve fully grasped the magnitude of what I’ve just done and what a big deal this is for me. However, I can say with certainty that I can look back and say with confidence that I am a strong individual, something that I have struggled to believe for years.
Looking back, I don’t know how I somehow mustered the strength to honor my commitment and stick out the contract; as I learned, your time as an expat will force you to overcome countless challenges that you may not face at home. You will learn who you are as a person: your strengths, weaknesses, and countless other things about yourself that can help you for the rest of your life.
Being an expat has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Although I am leaving Taiwan with mixed emotions, I can’t deny that this span of 12 months has taught me things that I will hold onto for the rest of my life.