Tempered Expectations: What You Can and Can’t Expect from Working Internationally

In anticipation for any big life decision or event, we often imagine the future in terms of extremes. It will either the greatest decision or the worst decision, an enormous success or unimaginable disaster. The decision to work abroad is no exception. While considering life abroad as an option, we imagine ourselves at both ends of the experience bell curve.

On the unimaginable disaster end, you may imagine being away from home resulting in losing touch with friends and family. You may picture being stranded alone somewhere not speaking the local language, not being able to make friends, hating the food, missing out on friend’s weddings and birthdays, and ending up in the fetal position with your phone not working despite having full bars and not understanding why. An international nightmare, if you will.

And on the other end of the spectrum, working abroad is the life-changing event you always needed! Everyday your life is like an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”! And in your white button up shirt and aviators, your international adventures lead you to learn new languages and enjoy local cuisines as you chat about politics with the local people. You take up yoga, get a tattoo in a foreign language, and totally mellow out. You dance in waterfalls, play with exotic animals, prance around a fire with native peoples as they accept you as one of their own. You fall in love with a local of your guest country, make love on the beach with the moon glowing above you and a book of poetry buried halfway in the sand.

Though both the extremes of the experience attract more of our emotional attention, the reality of working abroad is sure to be far more moderate. Yes, you will have incredible lows, and yes, there will be incredible highs. But your day to day, while still more exhilarating and exciting than life back home, will eventually find an equilibrium.

So what can we reasonably expect from our experience abroad?

You are Not Going to Anthony Bourdain Everyday

As I wrote in What Neuroscience Says About Living Abroad, living abroad by default lends itself to a more engaged daily experience than living in the town you grew up in. The food is different, the culture is different, the language is different, all contributing to a more interesting day to day living experience than the scenes that you have been exposed to for the last 20-odd years.

But despite what the Snapchats and Instagrams of backpackers and expats alike may suggest, life working abroad is largely comprised of the same facets of life as at home. Monday through Friday you go to work just as you would at home, and sometimes you will work on the weekends as well. You need to go to the gym, do some chores here and there (though less than at home) and probably enjoy a hobby or two.  

People jumping off a dock
This is what everyday living abroad is like. Just like this.

Of course, the weekly grind is carried out with a completely different backdrop which undeniably makes the said grind more exhilarating. Given the choice of driving a Camry to work through suburbia or my old Honda motorcycle across Da Nang’s bridges with a view of the city skyline, I will take the later.

But when working abroad there is business to attend to, an office and desk to work at, bosses to make happy. The weekends are a great escape and offer 48 hours of an international vacation with plenty of time to play and Anthony Bourdain until your heart’s content, but the work week is still 40 hours long and more hours are taken by the daily tasks necessary to sustain oneself.

The Experience Will “Change You”

I want to differentiate between the personal and professional development you can expect from working internationally. I have written fairly extensively about the professional benefits you will experience from working abroad, and believe that as a young professional it is an invaluable learning experience.

However, the unreasonable expectations for personal “changes” are the ones I want to quell. People often have problems with themselves or are not happy at home and they attempt to out run those issues by moving abroad. They believe that they just need a “fresh start” or a “change of scenery” to improve themselves, become happier, lose weight, find love, etc.

Unfortunately, these problems are often the symptoms of deeper underlying problems, and those tend to board the plane with you.

Working and living abroad will likely not “fix” you. You are not likely to come back “a different person.” There are exceptions, of course, but to put that type of pressure on the experience, to make living or working abroad a self-help magic bullet, is to set yourself up for failure from the beginning. No matter how many bowls of Pad Thai you eat or night markets you visit, you are still the same person you were at home, and the issues you faced at home are likely to carry over to your new country.

That isn’t to say the experience won’t help you grow as a person or change your perspective on different aspects of life or introduce you to new ways of thinking. In fact, it almost certainly will. But if you are looking to make a seismic shift in who you are or believe that being abroad will magically fix your emotional issues, I am afraid there is a good chance you will be disappointed.

When you Visit Home, Everyone Will Want to Hear About Your Adventures.

You have arrived on your first trip back from living abroad, sitting down with your friends who you haven’t seen for months for dinner and drinks. You excitedly await their interest and inquires into your international experience. Oh, how you will fill them with worldly wisdom and stories of adventure! Watch as their eyes grow wide and jaws drop at the stories you tell of foreign cultures, international mishaps and life changing experiences.  

Just kidding. No one gives a shit.

Your first conversation back home will likely go something like this:

“Hey man, how is [insert the country you now live in]?”

“It’s good!”

“That’s cool. You see the soccer match last night? We lost.”

End scene.

Friend sitting around a fire.
Read the room. Don’t assume everyone wants to hear about your international experience.

Your friends don’t want to hear about your life abroad and this is no fault of theirs. There is no way to talk about working abroad with your friends from home without sounding at best pretentious and worst like a self-absorbed, gloating a-hole.  In 2017,  who wants to hear about interesting, cool stuff that they weren’t apart of? Is there nothing worse than hearing about what your friend did with other friends? Me thinks not.

Don’t blame your friends for their disinterest. You aren’t an 18th century explorer. For one, you didn’t discover your guest country and, two, your friends saw every Instagram post, Facebook update and Snapchat Story. They are filled in. They know what you did.

So please, don’t be that person.

Save your stories for Grandma, she is actually interested.  

Have you spent time living or working abroad? How did the experience match up with your expectations? Let me know on Twitter @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.