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5 reasons you should live abroad and 2 reasons not to

Updated: Jun 29

There is an open air museum in County Durham, UK called Beamish, which is a large space in. the countryside with several recreated villages that allow you to experience how British life has evolved over the last two centuries. In one part showing life in 1900, you can walk into and experience an emigration office. It was common enough at the time for people to decide they should sell up everything, buy a one way ticket on a ship and leave Britain to seek fortune in a glamorous location like America (think Leo in Titanic). You didn’t even need a visa or passport, just enough adventurous spirit and some cash.

My experience was a lot less swashbuckling. The opportunity to work abroad just fell in my lap and my company is so supportive that the whole emigration process was very comfortable. Being lazy and having never actively sought to live abroad, I may not have ever done it if they hadn’t put it on a plate for me, but now I find myself approaching a decade in China with minimal regrets.

While the optimistic globalism of 2016 may have taken a bit of a career break, i still find the experience an absolute life-changer and believe more people should do it (or force their kids to); so here are a few reasons why you should give it some serious thought and ,for balance, some downsides.

The case for:

  1. See the world

Obviously. Living somewhere else gives you a new “base” to both see lots of places that were out of reach as well as athe local sights that aren’t quite important enough to make a specific trip to see. For example, living in Europe it’s easy to hop on a cheap flight to Spain and see the wonders of Barcelona, and return a year later to another part of the country to run away from a cow, or see a tomato festival.

In the same year (finances permitting) you could perhaps see Italy and Germany. It's feasible. But if you wanted to go further afield, to Japan or New York it would be a “once in a lifetime trips”. If you came to China for 2 weeks you'd have little option other than to try and cram in as many of the big ticket items as possible knowing you’d probably only come once. If you live far abroad you have a completely different profile of travel opportunities available to you and the world feels much more accessible.

2. Learn new cultures

The world is absolutely full of incredibly rich cultures that all have taken different paths since those apes first stood upright, shaved off their body hair and started speaking different noises to each other. Most of what we know about other cultures is based on what we see, hear and read; and most of the time that’s going to be a second or third hand viewpoint that might focus more on a negative or positive aspect of

that culture. It’s only when you gather significant experience of a culture that you can begin to understand it. That’s fascinating on its own. But you also then realise what a culture is, the impact of it and how the

strengths and weaknesses manifest, and that in turn helps you understand your own culture more and gives you a completely different perspective on life. It’s this additional perspective that drove most of my artwork.

3. Learn a language

I never bothered much with languages at school; I didn’t see the value of it as an Englishmen, most people would speak English. Why waste my time and malleable brain learning another language? I did however have no problem seeing the value of spending hundreds of hours playing Championship manager in my bedroom. Why?

Good games are said to have 4 main underpinning characteristics. Relatedness (a link with human relationships, or emotion), Autonomy (allowing you agency to do things  by a yourself), Mastery (the feeling of improving skills or completing tasks) and Purpose (a clear goal or mission). Learning a new language is a perfect game. If my purpose is to enjoy my life, I have countless options to do that and millions of little language problems to solve on the way. As I level up, I unlock new skills, knowledge and more complex puzzles and get immediate rewards. I can only solve this through relations and understanding of other people.

4. Change yourself

Moving away from everything you know changes you. Like when Yoda tells Luke to go into that tree and confront his fears, and he meets Vader, kills him and realises he is in fact confronting a part of hisself, dropping into an unfamiliar environment forces you to deal with your inadequacies and insecurities and learn about your strengths and how to flex them. It’s hard but good exercise usually is. You have to deal with fears, loneliness and failures which teach you a lot about yourself and open you up to change. You

need to make new friends, deal with strange situations and learn all the time. For me, I found huge boost in my creativity and the confidence to explore it and express it. Those ingredients were inside somewhere already but covered up by something else and going through the car wash of international migration allowed those things to shine. If I hadn’t ever moved, the website you are reading this on probably wouldn’t exist, nor would most of the paintings.

5. Take the opportunity 

Not everyone can move abroad. It’s a luxury and a privilege to be able to do it. And I’m only talking here about willing and voluntary expatriation,  not people needing asylum etc. It needs resources and circumstances that many don’t have. If you are lucky enough to be able to do it, you definitely should give it some serious thought. In most cases I think there’s some serious long term benefits to you and those you’ll impact that make it worthwhile; and you’ll be aware of that because you’ll have experienced more about the way people live and appreciate what you have got rather than worrying about what you haven’t.

The case against

  1. You’ll miss stuff

Part of the deal is you will miss life events, important sporting events, home career opportunities, your favourite cakes, the smell of the air when you wake up, the sense of humour and sense of zeitgeist. You’ll fall out of contact with friends, you’ll see your family much less often and it’s almost impossible to ever fully share the experience you’ve had (because you’ll find yourself boring everyone after 3-4 minutes). Communication technology and ease of travel now means it’s much easier to keep in touch than it would have been for the 1900 emigrant from Beamish receiving a letter every six months (how did people keep their contact addresses up to date?) but the same technology makes it feel life moves faster and there’s more to miss out on. This is definitely something a lot of people struggle with.

2. Not everyone loves it

Some people are incompatible with certain cultures; and that can be hard if you move somewhere that doesn’t work for you or maybe it’s good for you but not your family. If the 5 points above aren’t of interest to you its worth thinking hard. Sometimes the finances are tempting but if that’s the only attraction then its may become an unpleasant endurance event. If you aren’t prepared to adapt, it can also be difficult as you may struggle with the fact that your way of life you have at home doesn’t 100% accompany you. You can walk around naked and shoot guns in some countries, in others this would be frowned upon. If nude gunfights are the only way you can enjoy yourself, you will be unhappy in those countries. 

Closing argument

The fact I did a 5 vs 2 shows I’m obviously positively biased about the notion of being an expat. However because the vast majority of people won’t have experienced it, you’ll have significantly more available evidence to support the two downsides and if you are currently happy with your situation you are highly unlikely to actively disrupt that. 

My goal here is to get people reading this to plant a seed so that if the opportunity arises for you or someone you know, or some decision like where to study or where to retire comes up, it’s easier to put some things in the “do it!” Column. 

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