In 2009, I was working in San Francisco at a job I wasn’t really all that happy with and barely scraping by. I started looking around for other types of jobs and even in other cities around the U.S., but I couldn’t find anything. I was interested in going back into teaching but the only good teaching jobs I found were in places like South Korea or China or Morocco. Places I had never visited with languages I didn’t have the first clue about and where I really didn’t know a single person.
In the end, none of that mattered. I got rid of all of my belongings, except a few books and what I could stuff in two check-in bags, and then boarded a plane on a one-way ticket to somewhere I had only read about in a guidebook.
It’s been eight years now that I’ve been living overseas. Not all of it has been easy. Sometimes the language barrier has been difficult (like when I needed a root canal in Morocco). Other times, the choppy waters of disparate cultural mores have been difficult to navigate (like this afternoon when we were deciding what to tip our waitress at our local Parisian bistro). Still other times, the distance from friends and family can be tough (like pretty much every day).
I think this last thing is the thing that hits people the most when they first move out of their home country.
The first time I was ever overseas was the Spring of 2001. I spent a few months in London on a study abroad. Like everyone else, I bought plastic calling cards for 5 pounds so I could call back home and chat with my mom and sister and everyone else. I waited in the rain for my turn at the red phone booth just across from Tufnell Park every Sunday night, punched the calling card number, the 20 digit code into the phone, the country code and then finally the phone number I was calling. My fingers got a helluva a workout. Sometimes people would forget I was supposed to call and I would get an answering machine. My mom and dad still had one of those cassette tape answering machines that came on with a click. “Hi! You’ve reached…”
There were loads of cybercafés all around London. For 2 pounds, charged to you every 15 minutes, you could check your email on boxy HPs and Compaqs. These places were packed with college students doing just that.
Skype? Facebook? WhatsApp? Wifi? iPhones? Samsung Galaxies? None of these existed yet.
The point is that today, keeping in touch is so much easier. That distance that was once so difficult to overcome just to talk with my friends and family back home has gotten a whole lot easier. Is it perfect? Of course not, but at least now I don’t have to wait out in the rain to call my mom and tell her I love her. I can just pop on Skype and give her a call or log onto Facebook and send her a quick note. I can even text her updated pictures or short videos of her grandson on WhatsApp!
Still, even though connecting is so much easier these days, between those bouts of status updates on Facebook and calls back home via wifi from your local café, when you’re living overseas, there is a lot of time spent alone — especially when you don’t know the language or the culture that well. Relax. Enjoy it. It’s what all of us who have lived abroad practice when we aren’t exploring or making new friends.
This is one of the true arts: The Art of Being Alone.