36 Things I’ve Learned in 3 Years Living Abroad

About halfway through writing my July monthly roundup post I realized that July actually marked my 3-year expat anniversary! For those of you who are new readers, I started this whole living abroad adventure in Jakarta, Indonesia, roughly three years ago, in July 2014.

Back then, I had just wrapped up a year-long backpacking trip that started in Thailand and ended in Colombia. My boyfriend Aaron was offered a job teaching at a university in Jakarta and we decided to go for it. I was super excited about the prospect of living abroad. But I was also terrified. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I knew in every fiber of my being that I wanted to take the plunge into the unknown.

I honestly had no idea that one year in Jakarta would lead to three years abroad. And I really had no idea that this journey would eventually lead to stints living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Beijing, China. This was not the plan!

But I guess that’s life.

This expat journey of mine has been an enlightening one. It’s been thrilling and challenging and everything in between. Name an emotion and chances are I’ve experienced it. And I’ve learned a lot – about the world and about myself – along the way.

I suppose this post should be titled ‘3 Things I’ve Learned in 3 Years Living Abroad’, but (thankfully) I’ve learned more than three things! So I decided on 36 – one thing for each month I’ve been living abroad in Asia.

So without further ado…

36 Things I've Learned in 3 Years Living Abroad - Travel Lush

1. I’m probably never going to live a conventional life… and that’s OK

Sometimes it’s scary going down the path less traveled. Most people my age are married, have kids, houses and traditional careers. I don’t have any of those things. There are times when this makes me wildly insecure. But honestly, this is the life I was always bound to lead. It might not be “normal” but that’s OK with me.

2. No one back home will ever truly understand my life

Anyone who’s ever lived abroad or even traveled long term will understand this. I can rattle on about my life in Beijing or my travels in Indonesia, but it’s impossible for someone to really get it unless they’ve done it too. I’m actually fairly certain my stories bore my friends and family back home to tears. (Sorry guys!)

Traipsing around ancient Javanese temples in 2015.

3. I’ve learned to say “thank you” in a million languages

Terima kasih (Indonesian), grazie (Italian), khop khun ka (Thai), xièxiè (Mandarin)… We’ll, it’s not a million per say, but you get the gist.

4. Living abroad doesn’t mean I get to travel all the time

I always have grand plans to explore every nook and cranny of my adopted countries, but the truth is life gets in the way of traveling — just like it would back home. And sadly I haven’t done anywhere near as much traveling in the past few years as I would have liked. After all, I do have to work. That being said I have had the opportunity to visit tons of countries in the past three years, so I’m not complaining!

5. I really hate apartment living

It looks nice but pure evil lurks right upstairs.

Does anyone out there really like living in apartments? Because I really, really don’t! Perhaps it’s because, before living abroad, I always lived in houses or townhomes, but I really don’t like living in apartments and sharing walls with neighbors. I will say I’ve had really bad luck with neighbors during my three years abroad.

6. Being a vegetarian makes me feel super socially awkward

Living abroad, especially in China, has made me really self-conscious about being a strict vegetarian. I’ve noticed, mainly since moving to Beijing, that I rue going out to meals with people because I know that I’ll be slowly eating the sole plate of greens while everyone else is chowing down and looking at me with pity and confusion in their eyes.

7. That no matter how different we are, we’re all just people

During my time abroad I’ve met people from all walks of life, from different countries and various religions. It’s been eye opening for me because I never would have met these people had I not moved abroad. I’ve always felt so warmly welcomed by the vast majority of people I’ve met while living abroad, even if we don’t share a common language or culture or religion. More often than not I’m greeted with a smile, a genuine curiosity and complete kindness.

me on motorbike
Motorbiking around Bohol, Philippines, in 2014.

8. That I’m more independent than I think I am

Yes, I’m doing the whole living abroad thing with my boyfriend Aaron. I’m not sure I would have lasted this long without him! But so much of this journey has been on my own. We both work in very different fields and are having completely different experiences. I’ve learned that I’m capable of being much more independent than I ever thought I could be. In the past three years I’ve found jobs, traveled solo and stepped way outside of my comfort zone. It’s been empowering.

9. That the longer I’m away, the more I miss my family

I’ve always been the girl who just wanted new experiences. And for me new experiences meant I needed to get out of the US. I’m not sure why, really. I’m grateful for my time abroad, because it’s been life changing. But I miss the hell out of my family… and my cat too.

10. That I’m not sure I will move back home

I always thought I would go home, but the longer I’m abroad the more I realize that a life outside of the US looks pretty nice. In certain parts of Asia the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in my hometown of San Diego, California, and life in these places is pretty sweet (especially in the Balinese villa from where I composed this post!)

Yep, I could get used to it here.

11. That I’ve got to have a sense of humor or I’ll go insane

The things you put up with living in Asia – language barriers, cultural differences and incessant construction – things are bound to get weird and frustrating. But sometimes you’ve got to laugh it off. Having a sense of humor is so key.

12. That I suck at learning languages

My last name is Lopez. I was always placed in bilingual classes as a child. I took Spanish 2 three times during my high school and university years and practically failed out of Spanish 3. I’m the worst at languages!

13. I really hate the sound of buzzsaws and roosters

I live in Asia where there are a lot of buzzsaws and roosters. And I don’t like them.

14. I have a serious obsession with mock meat

vegetarian food in phnom penh

Asia’s obsession with mock meats is basically a dream come true for me. Though I really wish they would discover Tofurkey. I miss that stuff dearly.

15. That living minimally is totally possible and enjoyable

I’ve always been really frugal, mainly because I spent my entire adult life saving for my next big trip. Now that I’m older and have (a little) more money I definitely splurge on things that make me more comfortable but I live very minimally and buy very little. I can fit my possessions in a two suitcases, and I kinda like that.

16. That random acts of kindness are key

Smiling at someone, or helping them when they drop something without noticing, or generally just being patient and nice to people is good practice in general. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this while living in Asia. I always appreciate it when people are kind to me. And I love giving that back.

me at monas (1 of 1)
Pondering life in Jakarta in 2015

17. That FOMO gets worse with age

It’s getting worse and worse. Is it just me?

18. That placing myself in uncomfortable situations is rewarding

Me traveling solo in Bali in 2015. I was so nervous but ended up having a blast all my by lonesome!

Things like traveling solo, pushing myself out of my comfort zone is something I have to do so often living abroad. It’s petrifying, especially for a super introvert like me. But every time I conquer a new fear I feel so rewarded.

19. That career opportunities will come that I could have never imagined

When I moved to Jakarta my big plan was to teach English because I thought that was the only thing foreigners could do abroad. But I wasn’t an English teacher, and public speaking is my biggest fear. I had a background in journalism and magazine writing. Thank god my paths crossed with someone in the newspaper industry and landed me my first international writing gig at The Jakarta Post. Since then I’ve managed to remain in my field in every country I’ve lived in. I consider that a huge blessing.

20. It’s OK to admit that life abroad isn’t perfect

Perhaps I’m just overly honest but I feel like I often write about the tough situations I face living abroad. Because it’s truly not always easy. At least not for me. I feel like we should all feel free to talk about the good and bad. I always appreciate hearing honest thoughts about life, abroad or otherwise, from the blogs I read and the people I meet. But I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on people living abroad to pretend that everything’s OK all the time.

Leo Carrillo Beach
I do miss California sometimes. It’s just so beautiful there!

21. The cost of living in Asia is exponentially cheaper than the States

I look back at how expensive it was to live in California and it just boggles my mind. High rental prices, a car and car insurance and gasoline, eating out and just buying a ton of crap I didn’t really need. My cost of living is so much lower in Asia and my dollar goes so far. And I love that.

22. I love working from home and working remotely

One of my many offices in Indonesia

I actually used to work from home a lot back in California. But because most of my work abroad has been freelancing, I’ve had the opportunity work from home and work remotely for most of my time in Asia.  Working from home isn’t for everyone. But I’ve learned that I am way more productive, focused and happy when I work on my own terms.

23. I love blogging

Before I moved abroad the idea of putting myself out there online terrified me. I’d literally never composed a Facebook post before I moved abroad. And no, I’m not kidding. But for some odd reason I got the wild idea of starting this blog. I guess my love of travel, writing and giving travel advice outweighed my fear. I wish I had all the time in the world to just blog. Perhaps someday I will actually figure out how to make a living from blogging. I’ve been doing it as a passion project for over three years and I’m still not sick of it! Plus, this blog has helped me land each of my jobs abroad. So it’s actually paid off!

24. I don’t want to be a digital nomad but I really want to work for myself

When I moved abroad I didn’t even know what a digital nomad was. If I had, perhaps I would have attempted to go down that path at some point. But after three years of moving around year after year, I realize that I’m craving a bit more stability. And I’d love to find a place that I can call home(ish). But I’d also love to work for myself, on my own terms. I’m inspired to have met and connected with so many bloggers and freelance writers during my time abroad who have done just that. That’s definitely the direction I aim to go in in the near future.

25. I love living in places with cold weather

I was so scared to move to Beijing, which is known for its bitterly cold winters. But guess what? I kinda love the cold weather! I love dressing in my thermals and hoodies and wearing super tall wool socks (I love socks). I love experiencing the seasons change and I love the snow (though it honestly doesn’t snow that much here). After a lifetime living in sunny San Diego and years living in hot and humid Southeast Asia, the colder Beijing seasons have been such a refreshing change.

walking around the Forbidden City
Exploring the Forbidden City in my winter coat and beanie in 2016

26. That somehow I always manage to adapt

Getting dropped into not one, but three new countries in a 3-year period was so challenging. I’ve had to hustle to find work, figure out the ins and outs of how everything works (figuring out how to pay an electricity bill in Jakarta is unbelievably challenging), and create a life from scratch time after time. It’s not always been easy. I’ve had so many breakdowns, but somehow I always manage to adapt… at least so far!

27. Things will get hard

Sometimes it’s hard to admit, but homesickness, loneliness and that what-the-hell-am-I-doing feeling will inevitably strike. BUT…

28. Things will get better

With time, I always seem to adjust.

street art phnom penh
Wandering the streets near my apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2015

29. You don’t have to be in your 20s to move abroad

I moved out of my house, sold all of my stuff and left San Diego when I was 31. It was supposed to be a 1-year trip, but I’m still abroad four years later. This living abroad thing isn’t just for the kids.

30. People back home will never understand that I work

Everyone is constantly asking me where I’m traveling. Sure my Instagram feed is full of pretty travel photos. This summer I posted a ton of photos of Bali’s beaches and rice paddies because they were literally in my backyard. But I was really in Bali working – Monday through Friday, 10-6. Just like a normal person. Except I did so in Bali… so kinda like a normal person!

outside the Forbidden City

31. That I suck at apartment hunting

Seriously. I have a poor track record. I hope that after three years of living abroad I’ve learned a thing or two and I’ll improve in this area. I sure hope so because my apartment in Beijing is the worst!

32. That living an “unconventional” life is not only possible but it’s normal abroad

I love meeting people abroad that have managed to make this lifestyle work. And I’m always fascinated by how others make a living abroad. I’ve met everyone from bloggers to journalists to NGO workers who have taken the road less traveled and found a home in a foreign country. It’s inspiring.

33. Go with your gut but use your head

I learned this early on during an ultra-scary taxi ride in Jakarta. I didn’t go with my gut, and I didn’t take necessary precautions. I learned that as a woman who is often alone, I need to be prepared.

34. Things have a way of working out

Living abroad is definitely like a roller coaster ride – there are ups and downs. But in my experience things always manage to work out. Sometimes, when things get hard, I need to remind myself of this. That even though things get rocky and even though I often have no idea what’s coming next, everything will work out in the end.

35. Making friends is unbelievably important

I’m not so great at putting myself out there. But when I do it’s so rewarding. I don’t know what I would do without my friends in Beijing.

36. That living abroad will change your life

There’s just no doubt about it. It definitely changed mine.

Have you ever lived abroad? Do you want to? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

13 thoughts on “36 Things I’ve Learned in 3 Years Living Abroad

  1. Hahahaha, I think that there will always be room to learn as long as you are willing to step out of your comfort zone. It may not always be good or ideal but you can always find some learning points from it. I’m glad that you have managed to get this far, you deserve a pat on the back too! I missed my family so much during my break in New Zealand, I don’t know how I would be able to cope living away for so long or maybe if I had the change to visit once in a while, I would be able to cope better? Perhaps…haha

    And I also agree that I would love to work for myself but not as a digital nomad. I suck at blogging as a digital nomad and I love blogging too much to burden myself with it as well. Anyway, happy 3rd year abroad anniversary!! 🙂

    1. Thanks Sha! It’s so cool that we’ve known each other (online at least!) this whole time. Yeah, I really miss my family and being away from them is the biggest drawback of living abroad. I am trying to get back home once a year, but still it’s not enough!

    1. It definitely changes your life! Oh man, I’d definitely like to get back into the freelance game. But I would really just love to 100 percent work for myself one day. We shall see!

  2. ‘Love your post!

    Yep! I’ve been living abroad since I graduated at university. First, I went to the Czech Republic & Slovakia, and the plan was to stay there for 6 weeks, which ended into 2 years! Then I went to Asia for a year. Then I moved to Germany, and I had absolutely no idea, that more than 15 years later, I would still be there lol!

    Ha! Ha! My family didn’t understand it at first, but I’m the crazy one, and they just grew to accept that I would never “return” home!
    Victoria @TheBritishBerliner recently posted…The British Berliner is 4 years old. Hurrah! Let them eat cake!

    1. That’s amazing you’ve been abroad for that long. I’m so intrigued by what it was like to live in Slovakia! It’s so true, I NEVER imagined I’d be living in Beijing. It’s funny where life leads. Haha, I’m sure my family views me as the crazy one too.

      1. Ha! Ha! I lived there many, many years ago. And even though the two countries were split and living in harmony, it still felt like Czechoslovakia!

        I took my son to visit both the Czech Republic and Slovakia last year, whilst the Czech Republic had moved on and built on it’s history, heritage and beauty, Slovakia was still the same, and hadn’t changed at all! In fact, my son was not in the least impressed, and that started at the train station of Bratislava, and the constant (still) scamming in the Old Town!
        Victoria @TheBritishBerliner recently posted…How to be a German – 10 ways to do it!

    1. Haha, being a vegetarian is tough. It would be very tough to travel here as a vegetarian if you don’t speak the language. But thankfully I have a kitchen and can cook for myself 😉

  3. So many of these points I’ve experienced myself. And it can’t be any truer than #36.
    I lived in the States for 3 years and when I came back to Indonesia more of my old friends thought I was weird. I don’t mind though 🙂

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