4 Challenges I Never Expected To Experience While Living Abroad

December 11, 2014
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pink pangea foreign correspondent When you move to a foreign country, it’s funny how the big things you worried about before leaving end up not being such a big deal. Not being able to find your way around, not meeting people, safety, and so forth. These end up being easy to handle. Instead, it’s the little things that never even crossed your mind that create the biggest challenges while living abroad.

A big part of these struggles have to do not just with a new culture and way of life, but a new language. Particularly if you move abroad with little to no knowledge yet of your new language (Tip: take some lessons before you arrive!).

Some of the biggest challenges moving abroad, for me, have been:

Moving Abroad: 4 Challenges I Never Expected

Living Abroad: 4 Challenges I Never Expected

Grocery Shopping Abroad

Ah the first grocery shop in a foreign country… Ask any expat about their first shopping experience in a strange new place. Orienting yourself is difficult enough, but trying to find somewhat familiar products, or at least a rough equivalent to what you’re used to can be quite a task. Plus, when you find something familiar, trying to decipher the unfamiliar label is another challenge entirely. You might know the word for “milk” but can you decipher between long-life, full cream, and low fat?

The first shop inevitably involves lots of standing and squinting at various items, attempting to read the language, and trying to gather from the pictures whether this is in fact what you’re looking for. What should take 30 minutes, takes an hour. Then, when you get home, you tentatively open what you’ve bought and try cooking with it, which either brings you a sigh of relief or a new food experience–which can be both good and disastrous.

milk in argentina

Finding Your Size Abroad

Curse whoever decided that clothing and shoe sizes were going to be different in every continent! After putting off buying a much needed pair of shoes for a few months, I finally gave in and marched into the shoe shop with my size, when it dawned on me that the system here is entirely different to the one back home.

For most people, that means having to take a wild guess while looking at the shoe. Or you could have a lucky situation like mine, where the shop assistant–or shoe god–took one look at my feet and brought me the boots. I thought they looked a bit big and tried to argue, but he gave me a knowing look and made me try them. They were perfect, and now I know my size.

I then had a similar experience when shopping for jeans. After guessing and trying various pants and sizes, I was close to giving up when I walked into a store specialising in jeans, and the assistant handed me the perfect pair. However, unless you find two magical size genies like I did, be prepared to try on a few sizes before finding ‘the one’.

Dealing with Mild Medical Complaints Abroad

One of my biggest fears before moving abroad was having a major medical problem overseas. The more realistic problem? Going to the pharmacy with mild medical-related complaints and trying to explain them in Spanish. Whether it’s trying to find your birth control pill (and having a 10-minute misunderstanding because you’ve managed to pronounce it slightly wrong, and the pharmacist doesn’t understand you) or needing to explain an irritation to get the right medication, these visits can be a pain. Beyond headache and stomach ache, chances are you don’t have the vocabulary yet to describe what is wrong and what you need.

Experiencing the Every Day Miscommunication Abroad

Even the most ordinary every-day tasks become challenging when done in a foreign language. When you have to sort out a problem with your phone, when you’re trying to order something you haven’t learnt the word for yet (forcing you to use your best charade skills), or you’re trying to have a basic conversation with your taxi driver or the person in the elevator with you; communication is just not easy in a language you’re not yet comfortable with. It’s a constant reminder that you’re a fish out of water.

However, it is precisely this challenge that makes living abroad so rewarding and satisfying. Not being able to communicate intensifies my motivation to learn the language. Being out of my comfort zone every day reminds me that I’m alive and on an adventure, and this pushes me to try new things and seek more challenges.

Because ultimately, it is the challenges in living abroad that help me grow and develop. This way of living outside of my frame of what is ‘normal’ and what is comfortable is addictive. To go back to a life where I’m not pushed to learn something new everyday, and where I don’t feel confronted on some level, is not something I want. Instead, give me an adventure, complete with challenges and discomforts. It’s far more exciting than a life of comfort and familiarity.

About Nicole Eberhard

Nicole Eberhard was born and raised in South Africa and has always been an avid traveler. After completing an MA in English Literature last year, she now finds herself in Buenos Aires, working as a writer and part-time English teacher. Follow her on Twitter at @nixtravels.

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