Living Abroad: What’s it Really Like?

Last month was my 10-year anniversary. It’s been 10 years since I quite my corporate sales job, sold everything I owned, and hopped on a flight out of America. It’s been 10 years since I really began living. So, what’s life on the road like?

Is it as glamourous, exciting, and fun-filled as it’s portrayed to be in the movies, or is there a reason that everybody dreams of the lifestyle, but so few actually live it? In this post I’m going to give you the top 5 best and worst things about dropping everything and hitting the road–for good.

1. Freedom!

Back home in Los Angeles I made a fair bit of money. I had a nice car, new clothes, and a great apartment right under the Hollywood sign. I enjoyed corporate Christmas parties, posh restaurants, and some of the best bars on the planet.

I also had huge monthly expenses.

My car alone cost nearly $800 a month to own and operate. I had a sailboat that cost $400 a month just to park! Throw in rent, expensive suits, and dinners out at LA prices, and it wasn’t long before my lifestyle began owning me. Then there were the credit card bills. When you go to a bar back home, it’s quite normal to throw down your credit card as a deposit and not worry about the bill until the end of the night. Then you just tell the bartender to charge it; he’s already got the card, right?

You tell yourself that you’ll pay the card off at the end of the month, but that doesn’t always happen, and little by little your debt, at 18% interest, starts to grow. Mine crept up to nearly $10,000 before I really even noticed it. Then, of course, there are mortgages, 30 years of indebtedness. Some people go through life like this. Me? I got to a point where I realized that my life was no longer mine. It belonged to the banks, to the insurance companies, and to my employer. I was just there paying the bills!

Leaving it all behind.

Today I have zero debt and enough cash in the bank to last several years here in Southeast Asia. I own nothing that I can’t just walk away from. If I don’t want to work, I take a few months off. Prior to last year, I hadn’t had a job in two years (except for building my web sites). I can do that because I have no debt and no possessions that require any monthly outlay of cash.

That’s freedom. And that’s the number one reason I live the lifestyle I do–to be able to wake up each morning and know that I can decide to do whatever I want. If I want to go to work, I go to work. If my job has grown cumbersome, I leave it. If the country I’m in no longer appeals to me, I move to another one. I can do whatever I want! Here is the story of how I set up this amazing lifestyle

I’m sure you can imagine how good that feels–starting each day knowing that you are doing exactly what you want to do, living with the reality that if something is not exactly what you want it to be, you have the ability and resources to make immediate changes.

2. Adventure

10 years on the road! My 1st was in Seoul, South Korea. My 2nd was in Manila, Philippines. My 3rd to 5th were in Beijing, China. My 6th to 8th were Back in Seoul. My 9th was is Chengdu, China. And the 10th has been spent living in Thailand. I’ve hiked the Great Wall. I’ve run the Bangkok Marathon. I’ve drunk snake blood shots on a floating bamboo restaurant deep in the hills of Vietnam. I’ve done wreck dives in the crystal clear waters of the Philippines.

I’ve flown through the rainforests of Chiang Mai, dangling from a dodgy cable (see above–I’m the one filming and laughing). I’ve done much more. I’ve done more than I ever dreamed I would, and I’ve done more than most ever will. And there’s still lots more to do. And when you drop everything, move abroad and focus on enjoying your life, the adventures never stop. Instead of dreaming about them, you live them! You live for them!

3. Knowledge

You can’t put  a price tag on knowledge. You can’t purchase the profound impact that spending time with truly poor people has on you. You can never predict the effects of being exposed to different art, music, food and culture. You don’t really know who you are until you’re exposed to behavior that is so foreign to you that you had never imagined it existed in the first place.

You never really understand human communication until you learn to speak another language, the sayings, the idioms, the nuances in languages that cannot be translated into your own. You don’t just learn new expressions. You learn new thought. And with all this new thought and exposure comes new feelings, new outlooks, and new life goals. It’s like becoming old and wise–before you get old!

4. Humility

You think you’re smart. You think you’re strong. You think you’ve got all the answers, or at least most of them. Then you show up in someone else’s land, in someone else’s world. What you think is “normal,” what you think are universally accepted morals and behaviors are seen as quite strange or even rude in other places. If you’re stubborn, you’ll convince yourself that your way is right. You’ll soon become an outcast. You’ll soon have no friends. Your opportunities will dry up. You’ll be miserable. You’ll go home thinking that other people in the world are bad and unfair. Strange. Stupid.

Or, you’ll slowly start to realize that you’re nothing but a  product of your experiences, and that the experiences you’ve had have been quite limited. You’ll start to change. Your experiences will grow. Your knowledge will increase. After time, you’ll look back at your old self and laugh, laugh at your ignorance, at how smart you thought you were. The more you experience, the more you’ll learn, and the more you learn the more humble you will become. You’ll become open, wise, free, content, content accepting the fact that no matter much you learn, you still know very little. And at that point, you no longer feel the need to prove yourself, to anyone.

5. Food

I love food. Street food. Home-cooked food. Restaurant food. You name it, I’ll eat, and, when it comes to exploring gastronomic pleasures, nothing beats traveling the world. What you thought was “Chinese food” becomes Sichuan food or Shinjang food. Korean food is not what you think. Neither is Thai. It’s more. It’s better. It’s worse. It’s so many things that you get to explore and enjoy. Eating good food, at all price ranges and in all atmospheres, whether it’s in a fancy restaurant or sitting on the curb, is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and living abroad is the best way to enjoy it.

What’s not so great about living abroad?

1. Culture Shock

Culture shock has nothing to do with being “shocked.” It really needs a name change. Culture shock is the terribly sinking feeling you get when you realize that you have lost power and control over your own life. It’s the worst part of living in foreign countries. For example, I recently moved to a new house and wanted to get the Internet hooked up. Easy, right? Wrong. Because I can’t speak Thai well enough to sort it out on my own. To get it done, I had to call a Thai friend and ask her to help me.

I also couldn’t open my own bank account. I can barely buy a bus ticket, and there is no way I can get a pizza delivered to my house–not on my own. If I get hungry and want a slice of pepperoni, I have to call someone and ask for help! At first, this isn’t too bothersome–it’s even kind of funny. After a few months, it really starts to wear you down. You start to feel frustrated and helpless, and you get really sick of asking for help all the time. Of course, learning the local language is the best way to combat this problem.

2. Career

When you drop everything and move overseas you really limit your career options. There are part time jobs, jobs on cruise ships and such. There are large corporations that will hire you overseas, but you will be a “local hire,” which means your pay and benefits are quite poor. You can Earn money teaching English abroad, if you’re a native English speaker, but this isn’t the most professional industry in the world, although it is changing a lot for the better. If you think that’s a good option for you, I suggest getting a 120 Hour Online TEFL Course

For many, freelance work is the way to go. If you can write, design websites, code software, or provide other valuable services, you can make a living on Elance. And, of course, there is Internet marketing, but it’s not easy. If you’re interested, here is a great step-by-step plan for becoming self-employed online. As you can see, there are jobs available, but “careers” are limited, and a life overseas usually means that you are “working to live,” not “living to work.”

3. Friends

I’ve had countless numbers of great friends in the last ten years. Unfortunately, most of them are gone. Some went back home to have a “normal life.” Others have moved on to new and exciting adventures. Oftentimes, I’ve been the one to up and move. One thing that’s remained constant, though, is that I have always had a revolving door of friends. Unless I settle down, I’ll never meet a good group of friends and keep them for years and years. It’s just not part of the lifestyle. Of course, this has advantages too. I always meet new and interesting people. Things are always fresh and new. Still, though, it’s not easy having to replace all of your friends every couple of years.

4. Family

The whole idea of the overseas lifestyle is to be free, free to be able to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. Getting married and having children makes this very difficult, not impossible, but quite challenging. Personally, I’ve never had the desire to raise children. It’s just not appealing to me. There is something inside of every human, though, that craves to be part of a healthy, loving, supportive family. It’s in our nature. It’s something I miss while out exploring the world.

5. Languages

Some people love learning languages. Great for them. “Learning languages is good for your brain.” That’s wonderful. “Learning languages opens your mind.” Spiffy. The truth is that learning languages takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but when you have to do it just to survive, or at least to keep your sanity, it’s not so fun anymore. And you can’t be lazy about it (see #1 on this list) or you’ll cause yourself to suffer the humility of not being able to feed yourself!

Of course, there is great joy when you order your first meal all by yourself. And there is a feeling of empowerment knowing you can survive, even flourish, anywhere in the world because you have the proven ability to learn languages. Just be prepared. Be prepared to start over again, communicating like a child, every time you move to a new country!

There are lots of great and lots of not-so-great things about dropping everything and living free. For me the benefits outweigh the difficulties by far. How about you? Have you lived overseas? Do you want to? Tell us in the comments below.

2 Responses to “Living Abroad: What’s it Really Like?”

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  1. Ah!!! I love this one. Living abroad is the best decision that we could have made for our happiness, and also the future. I think my husband relates well with this post as he was in corporate sales like you. He has felt so free, and happy since we have moved abroad. I don’t see us going back anytime soon to live in the states. Now, the question that I just can’t wrap my head around. Why don’t more people do it!?! Maybe we will come to Thailand during our vacation time, and have the chance to meet! Keep living the dream.

    Elicia from lifesajournee

  2. Ryan Wiley says:

    Ha ha….for sure, nobody appreciates the freedom of the expat lifestyle more than an ex-corporate salesman!!!

    Definitely let me know if you guys get a chance to come down to Thailand!



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