Wander logo

Living Abroad: Is It Easy or Challenging?

It depends whether a 'half-full' or 'half-empty' approach

By Victoria Kjos Published 2 months ago 12 min read
Bali Rice Terraces, Author's Photo

1. Are you insane? Who but a crazy person chooses to live in India?

2. You are so adventurous and brave. I could never do that.

3. I want your life!

The responses from both friends and strangers met around the world have fallen into a variation of those three categories.

For nearly thirteen years, life has been carved out largely outside my native country. In India. Thailand. Mexico. Bali. Brief stays in Nepal and Egypt.

I’d not given much thought to any of those narratives until now.

Never have I been much of a planner. Being more spontaneous and often downright impulsive throughout my life has held me in good stead. Though downsides exist to being less plodding, a more carefree approach is beneficial if contemplating living abroad.

In this later-in-life phase, the choreography definitely has been haphazard and thoroughly unrehearsed.

Since commencing my serious wandering, Joseph Campbell’s advice to 'Follow your Bliss' has been my guiding modus operandi.

Beach in Mazatlan, Mexico. Author's Photo

My replies to those comments now would be:

One. Indeed, being a tad crazy is a requirement to live in India, at least if not of Indian descent. At the very least, being a bit off-kilter mitigates the inevitable periodic, or frequent, internal screaming that borders on full-on madness.

India isn’t for the faint-hearted!

That’s the half-empty glass characterization.

The half-full view is that boredom never rears its dreary head in India.

If timorous, it’s probably more prudent to travel vicariously, watching documentaries from the security of one’s recliner.

Every day in India provides a delectably vibrant, magical, or bizarre moment to savor. I honestly and unambiguously can avow that despite the myriad maddening frustrations, challenges, and chaos of India, it always would be my first choice of residency.

Leaving on my first five-month India junket, I was prepared for intense, gut-wrenching moments and tests to physical and psychological equilibrium.

At the outset, I vowed two basic things: (1) to remain open-minded, and (2) to experience Mother India as if through the eyes of a child. Remaining flexible about the potential incredible adventures that might lie ahead was imperative.

In addition to day-to-day life adventures in a country of untold paradoxes, I received unique gifts of resilience, tolerance, patience, flexibility, and understanding.

About values. About humanity. About kindness.

Those enduring benefits proved highly beneficial later in Thailand, Mexico, and Indonesia. Mother India never disappointed.

Two. Anyone can do what I’ve done…abdicating my native home to travel abroad. I’m neither unique nor courageous.

A quick YouTube or Internet search for blogs by travelers anywhere in the world confirms this. Thousands, or perhaps millions, of vagabonders have taken the plunge into uncharted waters.

Each of us has choices —all the time, day in and day out, at every stage of our lives. The vast majority of us homo sapiens choose comfort or familiarity. And why not? It’s undoubtedly emotionally safer and more secure.

Hence, for most, it is intrinsically more difficult to choose to forego that comfort zone by packing up and scampering around the world. It’s more daunting than staying with familiar markets, medical care, drugstores, restaurants on speed dial, Uber, and critical apps on one’s home screen.

For those who bore easily or long for adventure over mundanity, however, the lack of familiarity is part of the appeal.

Scouring a new city or 'hood, even if it involves a dozen stops, for band-aids, aspirin, eggs, a chocolate bar, or a USB cord is challenging. A new way of living…and fun.

Choosing “fear" over “love."

Though simplistic or trite, my perception is that each of us ultimately chooses to live from either a place of fear or of love. The majority choose fear.

Think about it. From the time we comprehend communication, we are taught to fear things.

Crossing the street as little children. The boogeyman under the bed. The dark. Ghosts. Going into sketchy areas of town at night. Traveling alone. Walking along a busy roadside. Talking to a stranger at a metro stop.

And on and on...

Incidentally, since I was never a mother, I especially notice an inbred fear mentality from mothers.

As one example, when walking the same morning path covered dozens of times, whenever crossing a street, my friend/a mom cautioned me “to be careful,” as though I couldn’t notice a car approaching the corner. Not surprisingly, she has neither traveled outside North America nor taken a trip anywhere alone.

Similar sorts of warnings are frequently offered by others with kids. It’s an instinctual protective aspect of parenting. From toddlerhood, until we leave the nest, we’re warned or chastised by parents, teachers, family, neighbors, and preachers to fear.

We’ve even got scads of folks who are “God-fearing,” a concept I’ve never understood. The idea of loving God has always resonated with me.

Unsure when the internal shift occurred for me, or if it was innate, I’ve never succumbed to fear. Choosing to view life instead from a love-based perspective makes an enormous difference. Not only in outlook but in one’s mental and physical health as well.

What about fears or concerns often raised?

1) What if I die penniless?

Why is poverty such a hideously feared state anyhow? Someone once pointed out to me that poverty is not considered a “crime in India.” It’s merely a condition suffered, and accepted, by millions.

Likely, no human longs to live suffering destitution. However, never aspiring to be wealthy it’s not been my dharma.

When accepting the world via a love-based perspective, one discovers that“we always have enough." The internal programming, our egos, and cultural pressures continually push the envelope regarding “what" is enough for many of us.

I loved the comment in a recent article by an author, who stated succinctly, " I love being retired and unable to afford all the things I don’t need."

2) What if I become ill in a foreign country?

If it occurs, I shall deal with it. Competent healthcare providers practice medicine everywhere. And, yes, many are even superior to in one’s native home, the typical inculcated bias of wherever we’re raised that our medical care is excellent there.

In every country outside the United States where I’ve sought medical treatment, I’ve been keenly aware of a sincere healing approach, willingness to spend as much time with me as needed, and incredible warmth and kindness of staff and physicians.

3) With no family abroad, who will watch out for me if I survive a doddering stage?

A plethora of options always exist. I’ll find a caregiver if necessary. My “adopted” Balinese son and his wife live minutes away.

In Asia, elders are respected and honored and not considered disposable or unpleasant problems. Younger generations care for parents and grandparents; it’s an honored part of the culture.

My adopted “family” — dear friends in the countries I’ve lived in — are as loving, thoughtful, and generous as any biological family. Amazingly, when informing my current landlady that I planned to die here, she replied, “Well then, you should come and live at my house.” She was serious.

4) What if I don’t love my chosen new locale?

If a place is not an ideal fit, it’s not a harrowing ordeal to move. One is far less encumbered by needless personal “stuff” when living in another country. Amusingly, my expat neighbor recently remarked how burdened she now feels owning a set of pots and pans.

That occurred after residing for two-and-a-half years in Mexico. I discovered my soul wasn’t sufficiently nourished by sand and surf.

So, I moved to Bali…a fantastic decision! The many months of study and research on where to relocate was in and of itself a marvelous, stimulating adventure.

The 1933 FDR quote, attempting to comfort United States citizens in the depth of the Great Depression, is legendary. But I find it apropos for daily life:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Three. Anyone... indeed...can have my life!

As I’ve been writing about for nearly thirteen years, I wholeheartedly endorse the vagabond life.

Living or traveling abroad is exceedingly rewarding if an individual’s mindset is open to challenges, change, and new adventures. Any traveler will attest that personal enrichment from foreign cultures and traditions is unparalleled.

A well-traveled, wonderful, erudite friend from the States, who amusingly considered me her heroine for traveling solo, planned to spend several months living in Portugal sans a companion.

As her impending departure day approached, she began experiencing apprehension and fear while questioning her sanity for taking such a momentous leap alone.

I continued as her major cheerleader. Knowing she’s an amazing, tenacious woman and lovely human being, she would be fine, and I firmly believed she would thrive.

The verdict? Indeed, she utterly adored the freedom. Of being alone. Of making decisions independently. Of being responsible to or for no one. Of making friends with strangers and neighbors. She’s committed to another even longer extended solo trip next year.

The realities

Despite being an avid promoter of the myriad benefits of living abroad, I’m not Pollyanna-ish regarding all aspects.

Glowing “travel brochure style" reviews and hype in certain international publications touting the innumerable, excellent reasons to live abroad conveniently neglect to mention the difficulties all foreigners face in unfamiliar lands.

Negatives and downsides exist in one’s home country as well. Hence, one needs to balance the benefits against the challenges if contemplating living elsewhere.

As one might guess, I lean toward the “what’s the worst thing that can happen/risk-taking” approach. But for the more cautious, there’s always the tried and true "Pros" and "Cons" columns on a yellow legal pad. Or, if truly ambivalent, use my brother’s approach of tossing a coin: heads we go, tails we stay (although I’m not suggesting he’s used it for such an essential decision as moving abroad).

Survival tips

To thrive in a substantially unfamiliar culture, these are a few of my strategies.

(1) Adopting a personal mantra — or two or three — to repeat regularly when feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.

Those exasperating moments always occur, and having a simple coping mechanism has been extraordinarily helpful.

(2) Learning some of the local language. When not fluent in the native tongue, additional challenges abound.

Accepting that reality while attempting to learn a bit, along with making Google Translate, as well as Google generally for images, one’s best friends has proven beneficial.

For example, I was attempting to purchase Scotch tape, having looked in three different kinds of stores. Who would bother packing that to ship across the globe? It has to be available everywhere.

Finally, I ended up at Ace Hardware, whose merchandise variety is substantially more expansive compared to the United States. Not knowing the Indonesian generic word for adhesive tape and inadequately explaining its purpose to the clerk, finally, in a moment of clarity, I realized, “Duh, the Internet! Find a photograph."

That delayed yahoo-moment has saved me countless times since looking for items in shops.

Locals appreciate any attempt to speak their language regardless of how feeble one’s grasp, accent, and fluency. Admittedly, I’m linguistically challenged and lazy about undertaking the necessary ongoing, consistent study and practice to learn a new language.

Nevertheless, amusingly, because I always spoke a few Spanish phrases to shopkeepers in Mexico, they frequently commented on how good my Spanish was. Sadly, they didn’t realize I didn’t speak much at all, but at least my pronunciation was decent.

On Bali, I’m usually able to discern if locals are Balinese, whereupon I make a point to greet and thank them in Balinese instead of Indonesian used with other islanders. Such small efforts acknowledge respect for foreign hosts. Likewise, many have remarked that I speak Balinese; again that’s untrue aside from a few words.

Having now lived in four countries where I didn’t speak the local language has been an enlightening wake-up call. I better relate to — and hope I am more empathetic toward — non-English speakers who immigrate to the States or any English-speaking countries.

(3) Endeavoring to adopt a more relaxed existence. The concept of “time” is more fluid. Life’s rhythms, especially in Mexico and most of Asia, are typically slower than in Western culture. Hence, adjusting one’s lifestyle accordingly dramatically minimizes stress and needless anxiety.

A less harried existence is often a significant appeal for choosing specific locales, especially for retirees. Nevertheless, those of us raised in more go-go, rush-rush cultures quickly become frustrated with the snail’s pace elsewhere.

Regardless of being cognizant of this issue, we are tested regularly. Over time, the longer one resides in his or her adopted home, a person’s temperament mellows and evolves.

(4) Cultivating relationships with local residents. Individuals have diverse needs and desires. Some expats spend their entire time amongst other foreigners because it’s most comfortable for them.

As an avowed introvert needing large swaths of solitary time, I neither seek nor long for much social companionship. Hence, wherever I’ve lived, my dearest friends always have been locals, not expats.

Not only have all residents been incredibly welcoming, helpful, and generous, but it’s more intriguing to learn about their culture, religion, and lives instead of rehashing life or events in the States.

(5) Accepting bureaucratic snafus is commonplace, tedious, and time-consuming. In my limited experience, governmental processes in less-developed countries are staggeringly inefficient.

Rules and regulations are unfamiliar, may change frequently, and are often cumbersome. Office hours may be limited (closings at 2 or 3 p.m. are not unusual), and holiday closings are frequent.

For example, the one attempt I made — and ultimately abandoned — to obtain a change of residency card would have involved a minimum of ten trips to various places and officials in several locations, including the local village chieftain, police station, city office, and on and on.

Frustrating yes. Annoying yes. Character-testing yes.

One learns to develop a keener sense of humor, relax, and carry a good book.

Choosing to live abroad necessitates accepting certain realities

If able to accept, and expect, them, life abroad is indeed easy...with a sprinkling of adequate character-building challenges.

Far outweighing occasional inconveniences and difficulties are the kindness of locals, lack of hideous political drama, gentler pace of life, little violence or crime, and memorable, often life-altering, adventures.

Tibetan monks in training, McLeod Ganj, India. Author's Photo

Your time is valuable! I’m honored you chose to spend some of it here.

Victoria 🙏😎

© Victoria Kjos. All Rights Reserved. 2024.

travel tips

About the Creator

Victoria Kjos

I love thinking. I respect thinking. I respect thinkers. Writing, for me, is thinking on paper. I shall think here. My meanderings as a vagabond, seeker, and lifelong student. I'm deeply honored if you choose to read any of those thoughts.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


Victoria Kjos is not accepting comments at the moment

Want to show your support? Send them a one-off tip.

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.