Christmas day is fast approaching and for the first time I find myself feeling intensely lonely and homesick. When I first moved to Scotland in August, I did not realize how much it would impact me to be away from home during the holidays, but let me assure you that it has indeed hit me harder than a truck going at full speed. The Christmas season has especially been made harder for me as countless people have well-meaningly asked me if I would be going home for the holidays (as if I have over $1000 just to blow on one week) and because I have been graciously invited to numerous people’s houses on Christmas Day, but had to turn down every single offer due to the fact that I will be working. Yet, as difficult and stressful as these four months have been, I honestly would not change them for the world. They have been some of the most life-giving, special, and meaningful moments of my life and I would highly recommend that everyone spend at least six months, if not a year, abroad.
When I first boarded the plane four months ago, the lady I was sitting next to at the airport asked me what I was doing and why. When I told her I had plans to go overseas and live in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future she asked me if I knew anyone there. My answer was: no. I do have a handful of friends in the U.K. and until recently the Republic of Ireland. I even know a married couple in Glasgow, and for that I give thanks to God. I am eternally grateful that I did not move to some foreign country completely to be alone and that I have been blessed with an exceptionally good community through L’Arche which has been far more than I could ever ask for or imagine. But I did not have any close ties in Edinburgh itself upon my arrival and I had no idea how it would turn out. For all I knew, it could have ended horribly with me bagging to pack up within the first week of my assignment. I’m definitely glad God had other plans for me and for my time here. After the lady found out that I didn’t directly know anyone over here she said something that has stuck with me, and at times haunted me during my short stay in Scotland: “you must either be really brave or completely crazy.” Looking back on this statement I definitely believe it was a mixture of both.
Many people have spent considerable time abroad for different reasons. Perhaps they went on a short term mission’s trip for a month or two, took a semester abroad or decided to vacation at a ski resort. Yet there is something completely different about going somewhere knowing that it will be short term versus knowing that you may be in it for longer than you imagined. I have been to several different countries, I’ve experienced different cultures first-hand, and I am no stranger to the airport, but still boarding that plane alone for the first time in my life without a supportive group of friends travelling with me, and with the knowledge that I would have to learn to put down roots and call a new country home was a daunting experience for me. I don’t think it matters how old you are when this happens. You could be 18 or you could be 80. Your very first exposure to 24/7 life in a completely new culture is going to shock you at first, but in the end I believe it will definitely all be worth it.
I have faced many obstacles since I have been here and it has not always been easy. Sometimes something as simple as no store in the whole country carrying my favourite brand of mouthwash or having to ask a Scot multiple times to repeat themselves because I can’t understand their thick accent makes me wonder why I came here in the first place…especially on days when I am already missing home. I can only imagine how much harder it must be for people who don’t speak the language or know a single thing about the culture when they first arrive. Yet at other times I truly enjoy immersing myself in a new culture and getting beyond the mere tourist traps and into actual people’s homes to hear their stories, what matters to them the most, and what their favourite places in Edinburgh and Scotland are (and I can guarantee you that it’s often not the Castles).
Yet through all of this, I have definitely seen how God has been sustaining me. In another blog post I will be sharing some ways that I have been able to keep calm and make the most of my overseas’ journey and I hope these suggestions will be most beneficial to you especially if you feel a personal calling to mission’s work or international adventure. But for now, I would like to leave you with some of the most major lessons I have learned abroad and why I have become convinced now, more than ever, that every person should have an experience like this:
- Living Abroad Makes You More Globally Aware
One of my favourite professors from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Dr. Brad Noel, once gave a sermon on how to understand God’s will for our lives. In his message Noel said that sometimes we physically must move to a different place in order to experience God in a new way. This definitely has been true in my case.
Since coming to Scotland I have become way more interested and invested in issues like homelessness, poverty, and mental illness. Of course I was exposed to all of these things during my time in Toronto because I walked past homeless people every day, however, at that time in my life I didn’t have the same pastoral heart that is beginning to emerge at present. At first this may sound completely crazy and you may wonder why. The reason is because we often miss what is in our immediate surroundings. When we walk past the same homeless person every day, we often close our eyes to them because they make us feel uncomfortable. We may be so preoccupied with where we are going that we just feel we don’t have time to reach out to them with a smile or a word of encouragement. Yet since coming to Edinburgh I am walking past different homeless people and all of a sudden I am beginning to notice who they are and what their stories are. Another main reason for this is because over in Scotland I don’t have access to a car. I could take the public transit, but oftentimes I just feel like the exercise and the walk isn’t so far, so because I am not in my safe iron cocoon I have no excuse not to pay attention to where I am going and who I am passing on my way.
Relatively early on, I also was introduced to the Young Scot movement that reaches out to young adults from 16-26. The Young Scots have incentives for students and full time volunteers such as myself to explore various places in Scotland and also to do online activities. Suddenly I have been immersing myself in topics related to the environment and learning about the impact that I personally can make on the earth. Their website and weekly updates have been an opportunity for me to see beyond myself in a way that I just never chose to pay attention to before when I was still living in my home country.
Another important lesson I learned is how to stand strong in my faith even when no one else is doing so. Although I attend church at least two or three times a week, the people I am often in contact with are largely atheists or nominal Catholics. That’s not a shame against them as I believe religion is a matter of personal choice, but coming from such a strong Christian environment all my life, this has come as a complete shock to me. I went from hanging out with Tyndale students whose idea of “fun” was to have a prayer meeting and Bible study 24/7 to being within the European culture where Christianity is very much out of vogue. In fact, what you may have read or experienced about the European culture being atheistic is totally true. Yet it is a hardened atheism. It is not an apathetic atheism, but largely a once held Christianity that has since become passe. Many people in Europe have no interest in godly things nor do they wish to discuss anything religious with you. They tend to be highly intellectual and scientific and don’t believe anything that logical reasoning and physical proof can’t convey. This has definitely been one of the most challenging things I have had to learn to adjust to. Yet one day it really hit me because I was at my church’s Bible study and we were reading a passage from the Book of Revelation about the martyrs. This sparked a discussion on martyrdom even within our current world today. As I reflected on this I realized that many people in our world are facing religious persecution. They may have been completely disowned by their families and they may be the only Christian within miles, but they still hold fast to their faith even though they are completely without support. This taught me that even though it may be extremely difficult and painful for me to stand alone, it’s what I am meant to do. Ever since that day, I have had a new interest and thirst to read the Bible and to spend time with God daily even though there is so much pressure around me telling me that this is a waste of time and not to do it.
Granted, this may all sound completely strange to you. Scotland is, after all, a first world/developed country. I essentially have the same access to all the services I would in Canada, but let me assure you that issues of poverty still do exist even in these sorts of countries. Also, there is a tendency to think that because I moved to an English speaking Western country, the culture must really not be so different than Canada after all. I will admit that Scotland and Canada do share similar values and outlooks on life and for the most part I have not experienced culture shock like I might have had I moved to an Asian or African country. In some ways, this has made my experience abroad much easier. I’m not struggling to learn a new language (except Scots – which is like English but with a wee bit of slang… it’s really not too hard to pick up) and so therefore I have more time to get to know the locals right away. On the other hand, sometimes being in a culture so similar to your own makes it more difficult. The reason is because everyone would expect you to feel homesick and to miss your culture if you were in a completely new country. But when the country is similar to your own you often times will personally feel the difference, but yet you will find that many people are not as sympathetic to you and they may even be ignorant about some of the cultural changes because they have assumed you do things in the exact same way. So, it definitely has its pluses and minuses.
- Living Abroad Gives You A Greater Appreciation for Immigrants
I come from immigrant families on both sides. My grandparents and my parent’s older siblings were all born abroad. Of course I knew this growing up and it was actually one of the main reasons I had this internal stirring to spend time abroad. It’s not something that my parents necessarily understood at the time, but I knew it was an important piece in my life that I really needed to come to terms with and experience for myself. After being in Scotland for four months, I definitely have a whole new appreciation for my family background.
My Mom’s Dad first came over to Canada when he was around my age. At that time he had no idea what would await him in this new country, but he boldly set out alone in search of a better life. All he had with him was the clothes on his back and his prayer book. It was a belief in God that sustained him during the first little while when he initially put down roots in this strange country. My maternal grandmother, then came over when she was pregnant with my mother. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to make such a long journey as a pregnant woman, especially because at that time they did not have the same resources available that we do today.
When I consider this, I see how easy I have it today. I actually knew the language when I arrived over here and the journey was considerably shorter as I took a plane rather than a boat, but still it has its challenges. I know how often I miss home. I think about my friends and my family every day and I pray for them. One of the highlights of my week is definitely when I can Skype people back in Canada, but I can imagine how much harder it must have been in my grandparent’s generation. Back then, they did not have access to things such as Skype, Facebook, or Email. Their only choices were either to send a letter and wait weeks to hear a response or else to make a very expensive phone call (which they probably could not afford often at all). I can imagine how much anxiety this must have produced since distant relatives and close friends were not able to be in contact about the most important life events such as weddings, the birth of children, or even deaths for weeks on end. Additionally, they were not able to easily contact people back home to say something as simple as that they had arrived and were doing well in their new country. I definitely have so much respect for the courage my grandparents showed since I am now living this life myself…but in a much simpler and easier way.
- Hello, Confidence
Going abroad has definitely been one of the best ways to build up my confidence and personal development. Although I am an extrovert, before coming to Scotland, I sometimes would make decisions just solely based on my network of friends and my comfort zone. I turned down really great educational opportunities because I wanted to stay in Toronto close to the people I really loved, and when considering placements chose not to go abroad until just now because I was afraid of what I would miss. The truth is: if you go abroad, you will always miss out. Your friends will invite you to events even though you’re not there. You will wish you could go, but you will know you can’t. You may have to miss out on a friend’s wedding, baby shower, baptism, or engagement. It may seem like you really are not gone all that long in proportion to the span of your entire life, but let me tell you: a lot can happen within a year or even within 4 months. Yet, you can’t live your life preoccupied with the “what-ifs” or else you are never going to end up pursuing your dreams. After four months, I am now much more confident in what I want out of life. Of course there is a part of me that yearns to go back to Toronto and be with my friends, but there is an even greater part of me which knows this will likely never be a reality and so I must get on with my life and accept the inevitable that Toronto is no longer my home. Don’t get me wrong. This has nothing to do with my friends. I still love them to bits and wish I had my old life back, but I have now learned to let go of places of familiarity. I have learned that it is possible to thrive and develop friendships anywhere you go. So as I look forward to my future, I do so praying about where God would like me to be located and also where the job opportunities are. I am no longer afraid to move to a different province or even a completely different country, because I know I can manage. I know that I can pick up the culture and learn new things even when I show up without knowing a single person. I have learned that community can happen anywhere and thus I should not limit it. In fact, the most exhilarating and life changing moments can happen when we are far away from those we love and care about the most.
One thing I have really loved about being abroad and that I highly recommend is that when you are in a completely new setting, you have the opportunity to start over. Back home people will always be stuck in this mindset of who you were. It doesn’t matter if you have changed, they just can’t seem to get past it. This is especially true when you consider the people who saw you grow up. They saw you when you were struggling in your teen years, and now they have a difficult time letting that go and seeing you as the capable adult that you are. But when you move to a completely new place, people have no expectations or ideas about who you are. You have clean slate and can introduce yourself in any way that you choose.
Back home people saw me as a complete extrovert, yet over the last three years since starting L’Arche I have noticed a change in myself. I have begun to notice that I am not as extroverted as I had thought and that I actually like time alone. This was very difficult to explain to my friends because they continued to see me as an extrovert, even though I tried to tell them I was changing. Sometimes they would assume that maybe I was depressed or stressed and had things to do because I would rather watch a movie in my room instead of going to a late night party. But since I came over here, people don’t know this side of my life. Of course, they know I’m an extrovert, but they didn’t have any ideas of how extroverted I am. Instead I have developed a real love for exploring neat places on my own. I still do like hanging out with people and being friendly at my church group or doing something fun with my coworker once in a while, but I also feel completely at ease going for a walk in the park or even to the cinema by myself. In the past, I would never do these types of things because I had told myself I needed to be with people 24/7 since I was convinced I was an extroverted extrovert.
Likewise, travelling abroad on your own can also be very good for introverts. You may be quite shy, but you will have to challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people in order to survive in your new country. You may be rubbish with directions (as I am), but you will learn how to ask random people on the street where to get to where you are going and even when you are in a big city like London or Manchester, you will have the confidence to ask around until you get to the right airport terminal. After these 4 months, I am no longer scared to take random buses or planes by myself because I know that I’m truly not that bad at finding out where I need to go. I’m not even afraid of driving manual on the other side of the road (but that’s a different story).
- Living Abroad Helps You Understand Important Issues From The Local’s Perspective
One of the coolest things about living abroad is the opportunities to have coffee with a local or to go to their home for dinner. This gives you time to actually get to know how they feel about important issues, and is really quite nice because you get to experience the culture for what it is. Oftentimes when you go to a country for a tour, the guide only takes you to the nicest parts and he or she completely neglects any areas that make their country look bad or that will make tourists feel uncomfortable. This is quite unfortunate because it does not accurately represent all of what happens in a country.
In Scotland at the moment, one of biggest issues is whether Scotland should separate from the UK and gain its independence. Before coming to Scotland I really didn’t understand the depth and importance of this question. But now that I have read so much of their history and also talked to many locals, it has begun to make much more sense. I have a greater appreciation for why some people think they should separate and others think they shouldn’t. It has also given me a completely new understanding of some of the issues my own country is facing at the moment especially as I consider how Scotland and Europe in general is dealing with issues such as the refugee crisis or ISIS.
- Lastly, Going Abroad Can Help You Put Down Roots.
This last part may sound the weirdest of all the things I have said so far, but it is definitely also the truest. Going abroad has shown me exactly what I want out of life and what I need to do to get there. It has made me a more patriotic Canadian and has allowed me to be more conscious about the things I often take for granted about my own country. Whenever I am outside of Canada, I take pride in my country. I love showing people some of our customs and introducing them to some of our foods. At the same time, I also learn new things abroad that I hope to take back to Canada and introduce to people there. I see ways in which Canada exceeds, and also ways in which Canada lacks, so it is truly eye opening.
I’m not going to lie to you: going abroad can be one of the loneliest times of your life. For the past 119 days, my mind has flopped back and forth between loving every minute of being here and being glad that I made this trip to thinking it was the dumbest mistake I ever made and questioning why I ever did it. I think this is completely normal, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. Do I wish I were still back in Toronto and would have accepted my job offer there? Absolutely. So my mind and heart are in this constant tension. But now herein lies the real question: Am I glad I did it? Yes, because it has honestly been such a time of profound growth and I sincerely doubt I could have experienced these kinds of lessons in any other way. I hope that should you go abroad your experience will be just as good as mine. If you have been abroad for more than a month or two, I’d also love to hear your thoughts. What were some of the most transformative experiences you had while living abroad? What would you change? What advice would you give to other restless travellers? How did you maintain your sanity and sustain your friendships back home? I look forward to hearing from you.