Working Abroad: What it is Really Like to Leave it All Behind

“The parted water reunites behind our hand. Pleasure is taken out of pleasant things, profit out of profitable things, power out of strong things, as soon as we seek to separate them from the whole. We can no more halve things and get the sensual good, by itself, than we can get an inside that shall have no outside, or a light without a shadow…Drive out nature with a fork, she comes running back.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation,” 1841

As with every decision we make, there is a very real cost that comes with the decisions to work and live abroad. And because the decision to move abroad places such a strain on relationships, the cost can be far more visceral than ones that only involve money, time or convenience. I made the decision to move abroad, but make no attempt to pretend it was an easy decision or one without sacrifice. For better or worse it is a life changing decision, one that everyone who wants to move abroad has to make.

This is my story of making the decision to move abroad, the sacrifices I have made to do so, and what I learned from it.

Saying Goodbye

For me, I felt the weight of my decision to move internationally at its heaviest in August, 2014. I was headed back to Portland after working for three months in New York. My girlfriend of two years was anxiously awaiting my arrival.

My return would mark an exciting beginning for our relationship: she had studied abroad the year before in Austria, and we lived in different cities when not in school, forcing us to spend much of our time apart. My return to Portland would be our first chance in a long time to be a “normal” couple with both of us, we had thought, living in the same city for the entire next year. I would be looking for a job while she finished her senior year of college.

But there was a catch. Two weeks before getting on the plane back to Portland, I had been offered an opportunity to work in Hong Kong. I had accepted the position, and was scheduled to spend 10 days in Portland to grab my belongings before flying to Asia.

But there was a catch. Two weeks before getting on the plane back to Portland, I had been offered an opportunity to work in Hong Kong.

Wanting to tell my girlfriend in person, I waited until I got back to Portland to tell her I would be leaving indefinitely. She would be picking me up at the airport excited about our next year as a normal couple. Meanwhile, I had a flight booked for the other side of the planet.

Once home from the airport, I told her the news that I would be leaving. Failing miserably, I tried to explain why it was important for me to move halfway around the world to a place where I didn’t know anyone, thousands of miles from family, friends and an amazing girlfriend, with no tangible or logical reason for doing so besides the fact that it was an opportunity I felt I needed, and wanted, to take.

This likely would have been a far more painful experience had my girlfriend not been one of the most level-headed, understanding and compassionate people I have ever met. And while upset about being separated again and what it would mean for us, she also accepted that at 21 years old, it was important for me to do what I felt like I needed to do with my post-college life. That it would be unfair for her to make me wait for her to finish college, and that she understood I would have to take the opportunity to begin an adventure I had always hoped for.

I was incredibly lucky to have been in a relationship with someone like her, and am thankful we are still close today. But I had to say goodbye to a person I really cared about, and it was a decision that at the time I couldn’t even be certain would pay off. There had been the very real chance I ended up hating Asia AND losing the girl and all would have been for not. And that possibility weighed on me.

The Sacrifices of Living Abroad

The truth is, if you are going to work internationally, far away from home, you have to accept that the decision to live abroad involves some very real sacrifices. I can’t fly home for every birthday or wedding or event. I see my mom once a year, and haven’t seen my dad or sister in two years. You will lose touch with some friends, and your relationship with others will be diminished as time goes by and you grow farther apart.

This is just the nature of things. It is tough to be a good friend or partner from thousands of miles away.

Are you okay with missing your friend’s wedding? Can you handle seeing pictures of your friends out together back home and you not being with them? Are you comfortable with having a largely digital relationship with your parents?

The issue people run into is not realizing beforehand this sometimes stark reality, or pretending like this isn’t the reality of situation at all. Going into the decision of whether or not to take the leap abroad, it’s critical to present yourself with an accurate depiction of the sacrifices you will be forced to make. Are you okay with missing your friend’s wedding? Can you handle seeing pictures of your friends out together back home and you not being with them? Are you comfortable with having a largely digital relationship with your parents? These are all very real considerations you have to make.

The Sacrifice of Action…and Inaction

The cost of my action, to make the decision to move to Hong Kong, was very real. It hurt my girlfriend, which I hated having to do, and we ended up not continuing our relationship once it was clear I wasn’t going to returning to the States.

Standing at that fork in the road, between staying home or heading to Hong Kong, I had to weigh the very real cost of inaction against the cost of action. Inaction would involve staying in Portland and living a normal life, ending up teaching or working internships in the city I grew up in, doing the nice, if not mundane, things that life in Portland involves. Action involved gambling on a job in Hong Kong, a city I knew little about and certainly had no connections, and seeing where that path would lead me.

The path of inaction involved far more certainty, but the question I kept coming back to was: at 21 years old, is this really the time in my life where I need certainty?

The ultimate conclusion I came to and couldn’t ignore was, in fact, no.

What I learned About Life’s Opportunities

What I learned from making this first big life decision is that doors of different opportunities do not stay open for the same duration; that is to say, certain doors simply stay open longer than others. For example, you can get married or have kids at 23 the same as at 33; those doors in any practical sense “never” close.

The biggest advantage you have when you are a recent graduate is flexibility and time, making it the ideal time in your life to gamble on a dream or long held goal and step through the door that may soon close.

But the opportunity to move away to another country with no financial or professional strings attached is a situation unique to your early 20s. This door is more fleeting, it is more urgent in nature. The biggest advantage you have when you are a recent graduate is flexibility and time, making it the ideal time in your life to gamble on a dream or long held goal and step through the door that may soon close.

For me, the doors of opportunity to live a normal life in Portland, or to get married or to have children remain open, and will continue to be open for the foreseeable future. The door of opportunity to live in Hong Kong, however, was fleeting. I simply had to step through before the door closed.

Accurately Assessing Life Decisions

Any door that stands open before you, every opportunity you are presented, involves associated costs or sacrifices to step through. To have only the good aspects of something and none of the bad is a fallacy. In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes about exactly this in his essay “Compensation”:

“The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.”

We cannot make big decisions in life, whether it is to move abroad or get married or accept a new job, without being honest about what the real costs and benefits are of the decision. Had I decided to stay in Portland, I would have been comfortable in a familiar environment, but also aware I had given up a potentially incredible opportunity. Now that I have decided to move, I know the cost of doing so was losing a relationship I truly cared about. Neither was free.

Life, while calculated, is a guess. But certain opportunities are more urgent, while others have a longer expiration date. Identifying which are which, and being honest about the costs of both action and inaction, certainly help form a clearer, but not perfect, rationale for making big decisions.

But one thing is certain: no decision is without sacrifice.

Have you ever made the decision to move abroad? Have any thoughts on my story of doing so? 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.