When you’re living abroad, you’ll inevitably find yourself fighting a constant battle of getting used to your surroundings. Some things are easy to get used to, but with other things, just when you think you’re used to it all, it comes back to bite you in the backside. It doesn’t seem to matter how long you’ve lived abroad, somehow that pesky feeling of not belonging, of being just an outsider, always manages to catch up with you… As one year blends into five, and five years become ten, all that changes is that you get better at dealing with it all, or so you think. You definitely get better at hiding that part of yourself, because, sadly most people you meet just won’t understand and trying to explain yourself is tiring at best, especially when the person you’re trying to explain it to has never lived abroad for an extended period of time.
When I decided to move abroad some twelve years ago I never thought that I’d stay away quite this long, but things just happened, opportunities presented themselves and I pretty much just went with the flow. That’s not to say that living abroad hasn’t affected me, because believe me it has. That simple ‘Where are you from?’ question becomes more and more difficult to answer. Should I go with what it says on my passport? Or maybe with what I feel in my heart? The latter always requires lengthy explanations, justifications and a whole lot of humour and is usually met with little understanding. Most of the time I therefore just find myself monotonously telling people that I come from Germany, which I guess is true, after all, I wasn’t only born there, I also spend the first eighteen years of my life there. Everything else is met with a respectful lack of understanding, so after a few failed attempts you learn to give up.
In terms of getting acclimated, I think I always kind of did a good job there. I had some hiccups here and there, but Ireland felt like home from day one, so in a way that made it easier to get used to my new surroundings. There were moments when I wanted to throw it all away but dad would usually come to my rescue then and remind me of all the good things I had built for myself and how I’d be foolish to throw it all away.
Getting used to living in China has however been a whole different story. Being able to speak the language certainly gave me an advantage in some aspects, but it has made life only marginally easier. There are still plenty of things I need help with and the longer I stay here, the harder asking for help becomes. You can’t help but wonder whether your friends are secretly judging you, wondering why you are still incapable of dealing with things that are a piece of cake for them. The longer I stay, the more it feels like my friends accept me as one of them, which is fantastic because let’s face it nobody wants to be an outsider, but on the other hand it just becomes more and more difficult to explain why I’m still feeling out of place, why it sometimes feels like I’m on the outside looking in.
As for my language skills, well, they have without a doubt improved by leaps and bounds, and while that makes a lot of things easier, it makes dealing with language barriers that much more difficult. At the beginning, I merely struggled with a lack of vocabulary, now I struggle with trying to explain what I mean because my choice of words are an outsider’s choice of words, not a local’s choice of words.
Arguments become more complicated, discussions become more heated and when I, in utter frustration, blame it on not being a local, it falls on deaf years, or is met with a complete lack of understanding, and the phrase I’ve end up hearing over and over again is that ‘you’ve been here long enough, why don’t you understand’. It’s a devil’s circle, because whatever you say now won’t be understood since the person you’re talking to lacks personal experience.
Travelling to another country for a holiday isn’t the same as living there for a number of years and people around me don’t seem to understand, which is why living in China can be hard sometimes. Getting used to living in China can be even harder. You’re pretty much all alone with your thoughts of how you feel like you don’t belong and how you’re just on the outside looking in. Those moments when you feel down, when you miss home, when everything inside you fights against the local way of doing things, when you desperately want people to do things the way you’re used to, that’s when you feel utterly alone. You’re wandering around the dark, desperately groping for the light-switch, and all the while you’re bumping into all sorts of things, and your frustration grows and grows, making readjusting yourself that much more difficult.
Living abroad is really just a constant battle of trying to fit in, of doing things differently, of finding a balance between what you’re used to and what is expected. Some days are easier, some days are harder, and when you’re hear things like ‘Well this is China’ or ‘If you’re this unhappy, just go back’ you just want to throw things and it takes every ounce of your self-control not to rip the other person’s throat out.
Sometimes a little bit of understanding goes a long way, but sadly most of my friends and colleagues don’t understand and I don’t even blame them. They lack the experience, they lack the ability to empathise, to understand what it really is I’m going through. What they see is unhappiness, persistent unhappiness, and they can’t deal with it, get angry even when you point out that they just don’t understand.
It seems like there are two types of people in this world, those who understand what it feels like to live abroad and those who don’t and trying to explain yourself to the latter group of people is like a trying to walk head first through a wall, it just doesn’t work. No matter how clearly you explain things, it’s just not understood. So inevitably you give up and that’s where your survival instinct kicks in and you learn to hide your true feelings. You find your own way of dealing with it all, and try your best not to let things show. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires and you end up feeling more miserable than intended. Usually reminding yourself that that too will pass, helps but, it takes time. Naturally you can’t demand that everyone around you gives up their life and moves abroad for a couple of years, but that’s exactly what you sometimes desperately find yourself wishing for.
There is nothing more eye-opening than living abroad.