Lessons Learned from Living Abroad Right After College

It’s safe to assume that we all have that one friend who ventured abroad, probably got burned (in the many ways that one can get burned) on his or her first few months, decided to go back home to recover, and reflected on the experience from a perspective only the comforts of familiar territory can warrant. I’m that friend for my less than 200 Facebook friends who wondered, as I suddenly updated them with a silly photo of me chilling in HKIA, why on earth I was back in Asia so soon when I seemed to be having the time of my life in Europe.

Even before graduating from college I had already made plans to leave. Perhaps I left Manila too soon. It was a hard decision to make but wide-eyed and hopeful as I was, in the name of independence, I made it anyway. Now the tide has brought me back home indefinitely, and I figured this is the time to look back and make the most of the experience that left me with nothing to show for but a set of battle scars and a dire need for change. Here are the most important lessons I picked up immersing myself in a culture wildly different from my own, falling in and out of love multiple times in a few short months, and getting my first dose of reality after being sheltered far too long.

1. Things will inevitably get lost in translation.

Island girl secretly hating the cold (Alegría-Dulantzi, Spain)

It’s tricky enough to live in a country where the majority does not speak your mother tongue, let alone live and work in a region where they are adamant about promoting their own language, which has nothing to do with any other. Such was my experience in the Basque Country. At work, I was surrounded by people who would on occasion blurt out Basque phrases at me out of habit, because I happened to be the only non-Basque and non-Spanish speaking person in the whole school. After all, I was the English conversation assistant, what did they expect? Well, the experience sucked, but it also forced me to learn. I came to Spain with a meager B1 to B2 level of Spanish, enough to order pintxos on my own. I left the country being able to express all my frustrations about living there to native speakers themselves. And Basque? Let’s just say I tried but for now I’m convinced I have other things to learn in this lifetime.

2. Love hurts.

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Being the splash of color this city never deserved but actually needed (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain)

Man, oh man. I don’t even know where to begin! The thing I learned about love is that while it comes in many forms, it will always, at some point, hurt. That’s just how you know it was true. I fell in and out of love so many times in the span of eight months, I often wonder how my bruised up heart is still beating. I’m not just talking romantically here – I fell in love with work, with friends, with animals, with lifestyles, even with 100 Montaditos and bottomless pints of Radlers. Everything was as foreign to me as I was to them. I fell in love with everything and everyone new, with the feeling of being in love with them, with the feeling of falling out of love with them. As soon as I fell out of love it became hard to fight my first instinct, which is to simply love. When you have as much capacity for love as I do, it feels almost like breathing: if you stop, you die. That is why I was burned out: I gave and gave and gave for everyone around me to reach their own potential expecting nothing in return. But after this experience, I learned to always guard my heart – that way I can love right, starting with myself, and show it properly.

3. Home is where the heart is. 

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Never stop learning in life and don’t forget to laugh (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain)

Strangely enough the last time I was ever homesick was also the first time. It was back in eighth grade when I went on a beach trip with new friends and felt completely out of place. I have since traveled to so many places without my family and even lived in Spain twice, but I never felt genuinely homesick again, not for even a second. What I did realize is that whenever I missed home while I was away, it was due to a longing for the good things I was lucky enough to have experienced. It was never a bad thing. In the first place, I left primarily to become more independent, both financially and emotionally, and came back having done exactly what I sought out to accomplish. It was just a matter of slowly realizing that home wasn’t as bad as I always painted it out to be; I only needed distance to come to terms with that fact. I know one day that I will have that same realization about Spain. The important thing is that now I know from experience that home is always where my heart presently is, wherever in the world that may be.