Why do Americans Who Have Lived Abroad Describe it as “the Best Experience of My Life”?
Could this say something about life or culture in America?
Might it say something about aspects of life experience here in the U.S.?
Or instead, is it more about the experience of stepping outside your everyday world and into something wild, unknown, and magical?
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentiment. An American who discloses that they studied or lived abroad, and then, following the revelation, they comment something like, “it was the best time of my life. One of the most awesome experiences I’ve ever had. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
I can think of several people off the top of my head who have said this.
A colleague who studied in Paris, France, told me it was one of the best experiences of her life and that she would go back in an instant, even to live there long term. My boyfriend’s colleague/manager lived in Paris for a year and said it was one of the most incredible experiences of his life and he would recommend it (living abroad) to everyone. And then just the other night, a young woman in the writing class I’m taking said she lived in Spain for a year and it was one of the highlights of her life thus far. An old friend and roommate of mine who worked in Hong Kong for a time said it was amazing. I’ve had colleagues over the years who studied abroad and loved it. And I’ve spoken to people who moved somewhere foreign and far-flung to teach English and said it changed their life, that it was a phenomenal experience.
I’ve met numerous people over the years, in classes, at workplaces, friends of friends, who have mentioned they either studied or lived abroad for some time, and all of them have echoed the same sentiments.
“It changed my life.
“It changed me for the better.”
“It was the most fantastic part of my life so far.”
“I still think about it.”
“I would do it again, no question.”
“I would totally recommend it to everyone.”
I have a friend/colleague who has worked in Boston for almost three years now (he is from Italy). He and his wife did long-distance for two years. She stayed in Italy while he was here in Boston doing work and studying. They are interested in eventually building a life in London, England though. Why? Because they love the city and atmosphere, they will have better job prospects there than in Italy, and they prefer it in England to the U.S. (in his words).
One of my dearest friends who lives in Germany (she is American and from the mid-west) has been there for like, 8 years now. She also lived and studied in Ireland and describes this as the most awe-inspiring, fantastic time of her life. She is potentially interested in living somewhere like Portugal next. Her husband is Bosnian.
Another one of my best friends who lives in Germany (she is German) lived in America for a year and absolutely loved it. She has expressed intrigue towards living in Canada at some point since she loves how it looks in photos and says she has “heard great things.”
And yet another friend of mine while I lived in Germany (he was American) had lived in several places throughout Europe before landing in Germany. He too loved all of this and expressed much openness and interest toward living in other places still.
I have lived in Florence (Italy) (for seven weeks), Prague (Czech Republic) (for two months-ish), and Frankfurt (Germany) (for four years).
I would absolutely live abroad again. I strive to. The experiences I had living abroad were fabulous, awe-inspiring, thrilling, and nerve-racking. All were novel adventures. They were some of the most growth-inducing, inspiring, exciting experiences of my life.
So, why might it be that a majority of people who have this experience (of living abroad for a chapter of their life) feel this way?
It’s novel, new, foreign, and thus, exciting
Speaking from experience, each day tends to contain something eye-catching, interesting, novel, or thought-provoking when living abroad. Because you are somewhere foreign, new, and thus, experiencing something exciting, you are also more apt to notice all of these different things that cross your path.
Walking through the imposing, architecturally awesome Frankfurt train station on the way to work. Sampling a novel food during lunchtime at the school you are working in. Learning a different word in another language. Getting tea with a friend and noticing interesting attire/fashion you hadn’t yet seen before on others. Making a cake and having to translate all the ingredients and instructions from this country’s language to English using Google. If you’re living in Europe, realizing you can jet off to Portugal for a week for like 700 euro total, including airfare and Airbnb (instead of the, say, two grand it would cost to do such a thing from America).
Watching a brilliant, bright snowfall cover all the charming, timberwork German homes. Going to a Christmas market and wandering the area that’s all aglow, the air smelling sweet, and ducking into shack-like stalls selling various foreign holiday goods. Being invited to the family home of a romantic interest for Christmas and partaking in their traditions, in terms of drink, food, gameplay, and more. Spending time with a close friend and her family, picking up on the words in this new language that you now know, as well as witnessing the traditions of their family. Wandering this new city each day and discovering something novel, eye-catching, different, and as a result, wonderous. Speaking your own first sentence in this new language and realizing that people understand you. And realizing that you are, slowly but surely, piecing together and building a life in this place.
Most, if not every day spent living in a new country, contains interesting, noteworthy, or new experiences.
Since it’s outside the boundaries of what you’re used to, your mental antennae is far more poised
Adventuring and living somewhere novel and foreign almost causes you to…sit up and take notice to a greater degree than you would otherwise.
When you live in your home country, where the language is your own, you know the streets, are familiar with the transport system, the traditions and mannerisms, it can be easy to sort of…zone out. To tune a lot of things out. To stop taking as much notice. To move throughout your daily life on autopilot.
When you head off to a different country, suddenly, you notice things.
Your eyes are more open, with renewed excitement and curiosity. You might not know the language so you’ll learn new words each day, which becomes a thrilling thing. You’ll try novel foods. You will come across different ways of living, traditions you hadn’t heard of, new mannerisms and customs, etc. You will see things you’d never seen before. You’ll notice interesting architecture unlike that from your own country. The weather might be different. The music could be different. There may be more freedoms and will likely be differing customs from your own country. You are going to meet more worldly, interesting people from varying cultures and places.
You get the idea. Every day becomes more of a curiosity and discovery.
There are moments that are scary, stressful, or uncertain, and these help you grow
Believe it or not, while these experiences are not always enjoyable as they are happening, they are very often fulfilling, satisfying, and result in a good feeling after the fact. Situations will come up that are challenging, anxiety-provoking, or strange. It’s unavoidable when jetting off to and starting a life in a foreign, novel place.
Filling out certain beaurocratic paperwork. Worrying about being on the right train and then discovering you went for two hours in the wrong direction. Saying the wrong word in a foreign language and causing a faux pas. Getting lost. Feeling lonely for the first few months as you find and build new social connections. Comparing the unfavorable aspects of this new place against your old country, and wondering if you made the wrong choice. Missing family and friends from back home.
Hell, just making the choice to move across the world, packing up all my things into four suitcases, and saying goodbye to close friends here was terrifying. I had no idea what I was going towards because it was unknown. Was I making a grave error? Would it be horrible? What if I made no friends? What if I couldn’t get a job? What if something awful happened?
Guess what? None of that happened. Instead, like the plethora of people who have said this to me, living abroad was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. I would recommend it to everyone. And I would do it again if the right opportunity presented.
And yet, as you experience and surmount each of these emotionally challenging or outwardly difficult moments, you will realize that on getting through them, you feel…empowered. Stronger. Resilient. Resourceful. Excited. More worldly. More capable.
And you’ll grow armed with a boatload of interesting, inspiring stories to tell.
The diversity of friends you will meet will be memorable, inspiring, and sometimes even incredible
When living in Frankfurt over the course of four years, I created close connections with friends who were men and women. My friends were from Germany, France, India, England, America, and Iran. They ranged in age from mid-twenties to being in their sixties.
Most of the friends I made in America, both prior to living in Europe and then following my return, are all Americans.
This isn’t to say that one cannot find foreign friends when living in America. One absolutely can. Somehow though, living in a place where there was major diversity made the opportunity easier and more apparent. Especially if you move to a place that is known as being diverse, such as Frankfurt was.
You will experience more magic
Sitting in a soaring, gothic, breathtaking church and watching a famous boys choir sing chill-inducing Christmas carols (no instruments needed, just their voices echoing throughout and filling the space around you).
Wandering charming, storybook towns blanketed in glittering snow.
Sampling some of the most delicious, novel foods you’ve ever tried.
Embarking on adventures to different cities and countries in your free time.
Finding new favorite restaurants, cafes, and activities in your new home.
Strolling down streets lined by the most lovely of little shops and buildings.
Being kissed by someone you love (or are majorly crushing on) in a gorgeous, foreign setting.
Partaking in traditions of that country that are new, such fun, and possibly even incredibly awesome.
Connecting with and making close friends from all sorts of exotic places and, as a result, learning so many interesting new things, viewpoints, and ideas.
Riding trains through scenic, novel locales.
Watching musical or cultural performances you would not have seen at home and those which leave an impression on you.
Starting a travel or foreign food blog and having a great time documenting your adventures abroad.
This list could go on and on.
You will unearth different sides of yourself
I found myself feeling way happier, lighter, more inspired, buoyed, and more positive. Not all the time, of course. I also had moments in which I felt afraid, or stressed, or lonely. But I found that more often, I felt happier, lighter, and more excited.
Part of it might have been being further away from my family, which in many ways, resulted in less stress and upset because I wasn’t so close to some of that dysfunctional stuff and thus, felt less affected by it. Yet, meeting different types of people also brings out more hidden sides of yourself. Venturing to places you’ve never been can be nerve-racking and thrilling. Getting to know a brand new city can be anxiety-provoking and elating. Finding new hobbies and loves will bring to the surface different sides of yourself you hadn’t experienced as much prior.
You see the world, your home country, and even yourself through new eyes afterward
Knowledge can be depressing. Knowledge can also be uplifting and life-changing. Either way, knowledge is power. You cannot make sound decisions without the most information possible.
Thus, if you’ve only ever lived in one culture and one place, how can you possibly know all that you’re missing?
How can you know that where you live is an ideal fit for you?
How can you know what wonders and incredible experiences you might be giving up in the limited time you have alive to discover them?
Ignorance can be bliss. Ignorance can also be missing out majorly.
Less choice can be less stressful. It can also be…stunting and less vibrant.
When you venture to new corners of the world and spend a significant degree of time there (not just two weeks, more like a minimum of a few months and maybe even a year or two), you experience different ways of living, new customs, novel people, and alternate ideas. Some of these will feel worse than what you knew and were used to. Others will be an improvement and a breath of fresh air. And many of them will change your life for the better.
Either way, it’s highly likely that you are going to come home and tell others, your eyes alight, your heartbeat going fast, “my god, it was one of the best times of my life. And yes, I would absolutely do it again.”