Most of us have lived abroad at some point in their life. In many western countries, it’s common for students to take a semester or a full year abroad and it actually counts as valuable experience in your resume – and I of all people know why. I left my home country Bulgaria 5 years ago at the age of 18 and it has been the most life-changing experience I could ever imagine.
Early on in my life I knew I didn’t quite fit in my culture. Although I had never been abroad at that point, I knew I was a citizen of the world and it wouldn’t be long till I packed my things and left. After graduating high school, I got accepted to the University of Cologne in Germany and in September 2013 I left home with 2 suitcases and no idea what I had gotten myself into. It was my first time ever in Germany and even though I spoke the language, everything was really new to me. Experiencing something so defining at such a young age changes a person faster than they can imagine. Here are four ways in which living abroad has changed my life:
1. I’m a part of an entirely different culture
You probably all know this feeling of travelling to a country you’ve never been before and facing an entirely different culture than yours. It’s always a magical experience, isn’t it?
Even though I migrated within Europe, western culture was really new to me. People’s habits were suddenly different, their manners and their thinking, too. I was faced with the challenge of assimilating this culture with all its positive and negative aspects.
Integration is an ongoing process and it’s vital when you live abroad. If you don’t learn the language, if you don’t follow the rules and if you don’t get to know the people and their habits, you might as well just pack your things and go home, because you’re never going to be a part of their culture.
2. I have to fight a harder battle
Before I explain this one, I have to underline that this has nothing to do with discrimination (at least not directly). Germany is very welcoming and tolerant to foreign people and in most aspects of life, EU citizens have the same rights as their fellow German neighbors. That being said, I’ve been to a couple of job interviews where my abilities were questioned out loud, just because German isn’t my mother tongue. Or I had to pay for services upfront because companies didn’t trust me as a credible client. And if you think reading Karl Marx and Pierre Bourdieu in your own language is though, try reading them in a foreign language. Yeah, exactly.
As time passed by, I learned not to let things like this bring me down, because I know: The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.
3. I learned to take care of myself… by myself
This was one of the toughest things I had to go through, especially in the beginning when I only knew a handful of people. Everything that had to be taken care of, I took care of myself – from paying the bills to struggling with different institutions (trust me, Germany has quite a few) and handling diverse daily-life-problems. Though this is actually a part of growing up, it is a lot harder when your trusted ones are far away and couldn’t help you even if they wanted to.
4. I found a place where I belong
I actually know a lot of people who have left my country and have wished to go back ever since. I have never been homesick (missing the people is a different thing) and I guess that’s a sign that I made the right decision to leave in the first place. I like the people here, I like the order (that’s probably why Germans like me too, lol) and I like the fact that everyone can make it here, no matter where they come from – as long as they work hard, obey the law and respect the other members of society.
My life may have changed a lot here and I may have changed, too – but I haven’t completely lost myself and I hope I never will. I kept my maiden name along with my husband’s, because it’s a part of my cultural identity that I’ll always carry with me. I’m emotional and quite short-tempered, I like saying what’s on my mind and I still think Bulgarian cheese is the most delicious kind of cheese in the world. Yep, I’m very much Bulgarian. And I’m very much proud of it.
Have you ever lived abroad and had similar experiences? If yes, how did they change you as a person? Tell me your story in the comments below!