This fall I have now lived abroad for 5 years in a row, in two different countries, and in total I have spend 6.5 years living in 4 different countries away from home. I will move again in the next year, hopefully back home, but who knows.
So here is what I have learned from this experience of short (3-year stays) in different countries by now.
1. People will not ask. People from your own country do not really want to know what living in another country is like. People abroad will not ask you anything about your home country. I have been really surprised about this. Every holiday trip causes more question than being from another country or actually living in another country. By now I have come to the conlusion that people view the existence of other countries and different way of doing things as threatening.
2. Friendships disintegrate. After 5 years all my friendships with people back home have now finally died a quiet death. We have tried, but it was impossible. Life experiences became too different. With every visit, people at home seemed to become a bit more narrow-minded, and a bit more defensive, as if I was critizicing them by living abroad. This is very sad, and I don’t think can be fixed easily by moving back home. I now think a loss of relationships is just the price you pay for the extra life experience you get by living abroad.
3. Moving to a new country involves an amount of suffering that people who have not done it will never be able to understand. You lose everything at the same time: your home, your friends, your work environment. Nobody is waiting for you at the new place, and you immediately have to start working and functioning again as if nothing happened. It is painful, especially for someone like me who has problems to get used to new things and gets very attached to places and people.
4. Visits by relatives are extremely exhausting, since you will find they are extremely suspicious about new things, and not able to really take anything in, like you are yourself when you are on holiday, only that you don’t realize it. You cannot transmit your excitement about some aspects of your new country to them, and they will like the most stupid touristy things best, which you have long become sick of. They will thoughtlessly make critical remarks, not realizing that you are proud of your new home.
5. It is apparently impossible to love a new city like you love the city in which you first fell in love, in which you first went out with your friends, in which you first felt free. I always cry if I go back home to my home city, because I love it so much. I would never have expected this. But I never expected to be gone so long either.
6. I suspect that it is not possible to be as happy and relaxed as you could be at home. Things will always be somehow off. You will always be homesick about some things. If you stay only three years in a new country, you will always only be scratching the surface of the place, because you have no past and no future there.
7. People will regularly confront you with the stupidest stereotypes about your home-country, and for some mysterious reason love to mention negative thing they hear about it, not realizing that this is offensive. Back home people will annoy you with stupid stereotypes about other nationalities. If you try to correct them, they will go deaf.
8. You cannot stop following the news back home. Even if you know it is not relevant for you anymore. And it is hard to care about the politics of the new home. At the same time, the news back home seem exceedingly strange and narrow-minded.
9. Somewhat soberingly, it is easiest to become friends with people from countries neighbouring your own. People from the same country always flock together in the face of the new place which scares them on some level. And there seem to be some weird cultural barriers for getting along with people specific nations. I never manage to get along with US American and English people, while I get along with Canadians and Scottish. I don’t have an explanation for this.
10. Despite all of this, you learn. Some walls crumble. Some things look very different from a distance. Time slows down when you discover a new place and get to know new people. Life does not go by without you noticing.