How Living Abroad Helped Me Grow and Change My Life

living abroad

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” – Danny Kaye

This is my sixth life. Or is it seventh? When we move to a new city, especially if it’s abroad, it often feels like we started living a completely new life. Like we are a different person compared to the one that left home.

Living in a foreign place feels much different than going there as a tourist. As a tourist, it seems much harder to experience the way the foreign culture breaths and it’s much harder to find the nooks and crannies which locals are well aware of. But immersing myself in another culture was a worthwhile, mind-expanding experience.

I’ve asked myself why that is, what happens when we move to a new city?

We get shocked out of our minds.

Literally. I could not have imagined a scene like this in my wildest dreams, even though we’ve all heard stories of how liberal Dutch people are: imagine a coffee shop in which one could enjoy cannabis is placed in the heart of Amsterdam city, right next to a church, which is sitting comfortably next to Amsterdam’s famous red light district filled with ladies of the night seductively trying to beckon you over, all the while kids are walking about the premises minding their own business.

Seeing something so far out of what my surroundings taught me right has shocked me and made me smile at the same time. It helped me grow because I realized that nothing is inherently good or bad, it’s only our perceptions that make it so.

My mind was also blown during the first few encounters with Asian traffic, which made me feel like I was the frog from Frogger, the classic arcade game.

Getting shocked out of our minds is eye-opening for a few reasons:

1. We live in the moment much more often, without even trying. When I am shocked, I have no time to think. Mind-boggling experiences tend to do that to all of us!

2. We learn about ourselves by finding new personal limits we might have never thought were there. And then we break them, and our comfort zone expands. I never thought I might be uncomfortable to see children near prostitutes, but it did stick out in my mind.

3. After experiences like these, we get to see the world with a new, refined set of eyes. And this is excellent, because, as Wayne Dyer put it, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.

4. Doing the things we fear increases confidence, as suggested by Steven Aitchison.

A great way to ground ourselves during these changes in the way we view life is to meditate. At least it helped me tremendously.

We get to reinvent ourselves.

When I moved to Belgrade, which my first city away from home, it felt like I could finally get rid of the expectations everyone in my environment had of me.

The biggest obstacle to change is often the people closest to us, as we are afraid of disappointing them. It’s much easier not to bother with what people will think now, but back then it felt terrifyingly uncomfortable to do something my parents or my friends did not expect of me.

In a new city, we almost get to start our lives over. It makes replacing old habits with new ones seem easy! In fact, we have to make new habits, as everything is new for us.

The best habit I picked up after my move to Belgrade is to walk for at least two hours a day, and I haven’t dropped it since. Walking allows me to get to know the city I am in much better, it’s a good exercise and it’s also a form of meditative practice.

The changes that happen within us once we move cities can be so powerful, that I often remember the past not by year, but by the place I’ve lived in at that moment in time. It feels like I’ve led completely different lives – I just hope that I have more lives than cats do because I’m close to nine. :)

We learn that people everywhere are people just like us.

A man that worked in a guest house (kind of like a hostel, these are common in Asia) I was in during my stay in Bangkok came from Myanmar in search of a better life.

He had 12-hour night shifts, working six days a week. His work visa alone costs his monthly salary every year. In about eight years he’s worked at the hostel, he got to go home to Myanmar where he could see his children only twice. Lucky, now his wife is also working in Bangkok, but he told me they only get to see each other for a little bit every few days, at his workplace.

He knew his situation was less than ideal, but instead of letting it all get him down, he spoke with great vigor of his plans to open up a business back in Myanmar.

I realized we had much more in common than it seemed at first glance. His hopes and dreams are not much different than mine, nor is his struggle to materialize them. But he had a much more difficult starting position in this life than I did. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be too keen to trade places with him.

We find happiness in unexpected places.

Trying out a pomelo (it’s a fruit that resembles an orange and a mildly sour grapefruit) was extremely joyful for me. This is quite an ordinary fruit in Thailand, but I had no idea it even existed before I came here.

I usually travel just with my backpack. It consists of clothes and my laptop, from which I do my work. Apart from a desk to put a laptop on and stable WiFi, the only other things I find necessary for a life that makes me happy is a warm bed to have a restful night in and a shower. By moving often, I’ve realized that we really don’t need more “stuff” in order to have a fulfilled life.

The reason I would recommend everyone go and live in a different place at least once in their life, and preferably abroad, is because by doing so I’ve learned that no one is much different from us, I’ve learned that every way of living life is ok and breeds just as many happy and many unhappy people as does life back home and I’ve expanded my consciousness drastically. In my mind, nothing beats that.

In what way has travel helped you grow? Do you have any positively shocking experiences from your trips home or abroad? Please share them in the comments!

Photo by Dheri Fikriyanto

9 thoughts on “How Living Abroad Helped Me Grow and Change My Life”

  1. That is so awesome that you have had the chance to travel abroad and experience different things. I also have had this chance and I think you are absolutely right, We often get comfortable in our little zone of where we are that we don’t venture out. But when we do then we learn great things and gain perspectives we would not have gained otherwise. It is the beauty of human nature.

  2. How interesting – and a good reflection for me. I’m preparing for a longer trip alone, including multiple weeks in new cities abroad. I’m sometimes asking myself why I’m even drawn to go there, and the feeling is that it is to find an unknown part of me, to allow myself to change. Thank you!

  3. Great posting! You’re right on the money about expanding comfort zones.

    When I moved from one state to another, I was able to kick a cigarette habit cold turkey. You’re right about being able to reinvent ourselves & form new habits.

    When I travel abroad I also examine home (USA) from a different perspective and always find it rewarding to chat with Europeans about differences & similarities.

  4. Curt, thanks for the comment and awesome job on kicking the nasty habbit!

    I also enjoy talking to people from different countries, and especially different continets. :)

  5. Dear Igor, is so pleasant to read such a good article. I’m just starting a new life for a whole year, or maybe 12 lifes, in 12 different cities around the world and besides its a hard time to be far from family, wife and kids, its an amazing experience to go deep in our selves to find the balance between growing for the world while still keeping your roots and values.
    Congratulations for the way you shared your experiences.
    Hope to read more from you.
    Best regards.

  6. Hey Igor, I’m posting this long after you wrote your essay. I’m 44 and live in NYC and, while I’ve lived throughout the U.S. (LA, Atlanta, Florida, Boston, a small town in Massachusetts), I’ve wanted to experience life abroad for probably 20 years now… You said it can be hard to make such a decision out of fear of disappointing those close to you — that resounded with me. I’m middle-aged, and yet my parents’ disapproval of my dream of teaching English abroad has always stung and been a big reason for never trying it. (Though that responsibility does rest with me, most of all.)

    I just want to experience life in another country. I’ve never felt in my corporate jobs that I make any difference in the world — to be able to teach people English would feel as if I’m making a difference in a job, for the first time.

    I don’t have much in savings and it might be challenging to find a job whenever I’d return to the States (though who knows what I’d learn about myself in another country), but working corporate jobs for 20 years hasn’t garnered me much in savings anyway, so there’s no guarantee another 20 doing the same would change that.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your perspective. :)


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