Navigating the Unknown: Unveiling the Challenges of Living Abroad and Finding Resilience in the Journey

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Photo by Eva Darron on Unsplash

Leaving home can be a challenge on its own. Everything is new and exciting but also terrifying and full of challenges. Adding to the stress of moving to a new country, learning to live using a new language daily takes the process to a new level.

Early Experiences: A Journey Begins

My journey started when I was younger than most, with a six-month stay in the UK at the tender age of 12. I had always had an adventurous heart and an unexplained draw towards England. That half year at a secondary school in Milton Keynes set the course for the rest of my life. Coming from Norway, most of us understand English at a young age. However, I would soon realise the struggles of going from a decent understanding of the language to being completely immersed in both language and culture. My first lesson in culture had begun. 

You wouldn’t think England and Norway would be too different, but being dropped into a secondary school, I now know differently. My first surprise came even before starting when it was made clear I would need a school uniform. This was something I had only ever seen worn in TV series and movies. Having never worn one, I must admit I looked forward to the simplicity of the idea. No more trying to figure out what to wear, especially what would be “cool” in a new country. Fortunately, the uniforms were in shades of black and maroon, which likely enhanced my overall enjoyment of the experience.

Another shock was how different the curriculum was. My younger self had no expectations per se, but part of me thought things like classrooms and lectures would be the same. In Norway, you mostly stay in one classroom; if you have different teachers, they will approach you. In England, I had to figure out how to navigate the hallways as each lesson was taught in different rooms, sometimes in a completely different building. We have that in Norway, too, to some extent, but only for some of your lessons! 

Embracing Diversity: The Path to Personal Growth

After this experience, the yearning for something other, for newness, had set in, and little did I know that the next 24 years of my life would involve travelling, working, studying, and exploring the otherness in other corners of the world so much so that it would shape me as a person.

It’s by meeting other people with cultures and backgrounds different from our own that we can take an honest look inside to see who we are. Do you go out with a fear of the unknown? Do you shut down? Or do you stay open and curious?

My biggest takeaway from living among natives in different countries is to stay open and curious. Even if you don’t understand or agree with something, your first reaction should not be that it is wrong or bad, but rather, why is it like this, and what can I learn from it?

Unraveling Stereotypes: Challenging Perspectives

We can look into rudeness and directness to give examples of qualities or stereotypes ascribed to certain countries and cultures. These are two objective sentiments that change depending on where in the world you might find yourself. Knowing many Dutch people, I can tell you their directness can throw you for a loop if you are used to living in shy England for years. The stereotypes of rudeness attributed to Swiss people or the perceived arrogance associated with Norwegians are other examples of how someone from a country with the opposite culture can perceive a different culture. It’s a cultural behaviour that, once you start to integrate, you begin to see what they truly are. 

Let’s take a closer look at the stereotype that Norwegians are arrogant. In the Norwegian culture, we prioritise direct communication and assertiveness. This might come as a bit of a shock to countries that value modesty and indirect communication—especially mixed with the Norwegian’s reserved demeanour. Additionally, Norway’s fjords, mountains, and harsh climate historically necessitated a strong sense of community and resourcefulness among its inhabitants. Outsiders could misinterpret this self-sufficiency and resilience as aloofness or arrogance.

Being an outsider inevitably creates a barrier until you become familiar with the unspoken norms and customs of the culture and its inhabitants. It is, therefore, always essential to stay open-minded when encountering other people and places. 

The main challenges in a new country

Learning a new language

These days, we are fortunate that the world has become increasingly international. Like many others my age, I grew up watching American sitcoms growing up, and as an added piece of luck, having grown up in Norway, they were in their original language and not dubbed. Because of this, most kids growing up in Norway in the 90s had some grasp of the English language. However, after moving to the UK when I was younger, I quickly realised that American and English were two very separate things. English dialects could be more tricky to follow than American ones.

I still remember sitting in class, not understanding the lessons, and having difficulties communicating when I lacked words. My saving grace was the patience of the people I would soon call friends and their understanding when I would use the word ‘thing’ to replace any word I did not know in a sentence. 

Learning and accepting the culture

Most European countries are similar to each other. While on holiday, you might not notice much of a difference. The challenge comes when settling down somewhere longer, where you get exposed to the unwritten rules or norms everyone else follows instinctually. One such rule is queuing. English people are renowned for being good queuers. A fact I did not know extended to everything, even boarding buses. I dread to think how many passive-aggressive looks I must have gotten those first few weeks of starting university in the UK.

Finding ways to make new friends

Making friends as an adult can be difficult for many reasons and isn’t necessarily only an expat problem. The added struggle of language and culture barriers can make the task seem a tad more daunting than simply moving across the country. However, I would argue that the answer to making friends in any situation is the same. It has to do with effort and getting out of your comfort zone. Whether taking a class in something, seeking out other expat communities, or taking the initiative with work colleagues. The key is to be proactive in seeking out new people. In my experience, it takes approximately one year before you settle into a new country and new friendships. Keep trying and be patient with yourself and others as you move forward and settle into your new reality. 

Understanding how the country works

How do I pay my taxes? What is expected of me when applying for jobs? What are the unwritten rules in the work environment, and how do I apply for a visa? There are more questions than answers when moving to a new country, and knowing where to find the answers is not always obvious. I was fortunate to have a family to help me in the UK, and for Switzerland, I slipped straight into a big expat community that was always willing to help with the perplexing ways of this new country. In Bali and Australia, my go-to method was online research. I read every blog and article I could find online about the process and what to expect or avoid when arriving. Once I arrived in the countries where I knew no one, I spent the first weeks getting to know the people I bunked with in the hostels and even the hostel staff, who mostly were travellers themselves. 

If there is one thing I have learned above all throughout my experience with travelling, it’s never to feel embarrassed to ask for help. Most people are happy to help you out, and maybe you’ll even make a friend in the process!

Words by Karoline Bakken

1 COMMENT

  1. I really enjoyed this article! I have spent the last year living in Japan (I’m from Ireland), and I still catch myself viewing certain cultural differences as ‘bad’, and make an effort to appreciate that they are what makes a culture unique. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

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