Living abroad changes us in ways that are unimaginable and certainly not easy to convey. In this article I will try to sum the up the most important and tangible skills and benefits I believe I have gained from living abroad, and how I can use them to make my and others’ lives better:
Flexibility: living in a different culture means continually having to understand and accept diverse and sometime unfamiliar behavioral codes. This is an almost unconscious process when we live abroad, and it does make us more flexible when faced with change, more adaptable. This is a hugely important resource in present days, when we are often confronted with significant and sometimes sudden changes.
Increased knowledge of ourselves: when we relate to a new culture, we take ours as a starting point for comparison. For example, when we observe how people greet each other in our new country, we realize how we do it in ours. This is just an example, but everything we do in the new context sends us back to our culture, our country and ourselves, thus increasing our awareness of who we are, our limits and where we come from. This makes us stronger, more focused and assertive.
New languages of the heart: learning a new language, besides opening a privileged door into a different culture, makes our minds more flexible and agile. However, mastering a spoken language takes time, and it sometimes is not enough to express our feelings. By living in a “new language”, we learn how to creatively resort to the language of our hearts, and to express ourselves so as to be able to touch the hearts of others.
Humbleness: by realizing we need others to survive, we learn to become humbler persons. We recognize our weaknesses and dependency, and become more sensible when we spot the same characteristics in others.
Creativity: learning how to function within an unknown system pushes us to take decisions on the basis of few or no elements, often quickly and spontaneously. This process has incredibly effective consequences on our mind and our capacity for improvisation, also and especially in human relationships.
Self-assurance: when we get to a new country, we are like children – suddenly all our experience and knowledge is deleted, we have no means or tools to interpret our new environment and learn how to live within it: we are “culturally naked”. Initially it is a continuous trial and error process. Getting to know a culture implies making endless mistakes. These mistakes, however, make us stronger and more self-assured.
Relationship capacity: in a sedentary kind of life our relationships are generally more “protected”, because they develop within a familiar cultural framework and through known communication codes. On the other hand, relating to others abroad means integrating an element of the “unknown”, which weighs on our relationships. We have to pay attention to what we say and how we say it, in order to avoid offending others, and we continually strive to properly communicate and to understand beyond cultural and linguistic barriers. This practice widens our capacity to listen, relate to people, empathize and culturally understand.
Freedom from prejudices and respect of diversity: there is nothing like getting in contact with diversity to realize how many prejudices we have and how easy it is to dismantle them when we approach what is not known. Living abroad helps us understand how diversity is an integral – and beneficial – part of our world. In international working settings, an open mind free of prejudices will help us welcome and sustain new ideas and different approaches.
Increased empathy: there is nothing like going through an adjustment period to make you understand how tough it can be to be deprived of your comfortable, known and warm culture. Once we experience this, there is no going back: We are forever in a privileged position to understand the feelings of others.
Direct knowledge of the world: as expats, we are directly exposed to life. We don’t see suffering, troubles, fights and disparities through a screen, but touch them with our own hands. The 11 year old corpse lying on the street of Lagos is real; the young Palestinian in Jerusalem with hands behind his head and jeans at the ankle under the soldiers rifles is there in flesh and bones; the refugee crossing the border and running with her child in her arm to desperately find safety is no longer a TV story.
It is important not only to recognize how exposure to the world and to diversity changes us, but also how we can effectively use these skills to make the world we live in a better place.
I am sure you have many more skills and experience to add to my list – I would delighted to hear them.
Claudia Landini, October 2016