7 Things I Learned From Living Abroad For 7 Years


Most people seem to share a dream of travelling the world, until a giant ‘but’ gets in the way. It’s difficult to believe that with all the cheap flights and hotels available, and the wonderful creation that is the Internet, that low-frills travel is difficult for some.

I’d love to travel… but I have no money, or I’m in debt.

I’d love to travel… but I have no time.

I’d love to travel… but I have no one to go with.

I’d love to travel… but I’m scared.

More often than not, people choose to spend their hard-earned money on other things. We shop to fill an imagined need, ringing want or fulfill societal expectations, and often find that the satisfaction wears off fast. So we proceed to the next thing to plug that gap. It’s the curse of the consumerist society – nothing is ever enough.

Like other millennials, I was expected to get a degree, a job and climb the career ladder. And then when I’d saved enough, I would put down a deposit for a house, get a car and countdown till the next escape to an exotic location. And then what? What comes after the big house, the car, the kids, the handbags, the golf club membership, and the expensive dinners?

As I’ve learned, the earlier you go travelling, the better. When I first lived abroad as an 18-year-old AFS exchange student in Switzerland, I was in a small town called Recherswil that had a population of just over 1,000. It was a huge culture shock in all senses of the word – I didn’t understand the people around me, the culture was so open and so different from what I was used to: Women stripping naked in the changing rooms after a game of football, singing songs before meals, and bathrooms and bedroom doors without locks were all foreign to me… And the silence of a small town was, at times, unbearable for someone who came from a place where background noise was a constant.

St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland, 2008 (Photo credit: Sharmin Cheema-Kelly)

I had been dreaming about this growing up, had gone for the interviews with enthusiasm, attended the initiation camps in Kuala Lumpur, and did everything possible to make it happen. And then it felt like I was in a living nightmare. How did I even imagine this would be a good idea? I missed the comforts of home, the food, the familiar faces and voices, and the behaviours I never once questioned – or was questioned about – growing up. I spoke English but I felt different from the Anglosphere exchange students.

Being in an uncomfortable situation is often an opportunity to grow. In Switzerland, I had no choice but to speak German, no matter how horrible I was at it at first. If people were going to understand me and I was going to be part of anything, I had to learn the language and prepare to be corrected when I was wrong. I had to be comfortable with making mistakes as it was the only way to progress.

That was the first of my foreign living and learning experiences; I have also lived in Ireland, France and the UK. Here are 7 things I have learned from 7 years of living abroad.

1. Most learning comes from trying, failing, and trying again

Practical learning is more valuable than anything you will learn in a classroom. Focusing on what you need to do and doing it is far more important than endless theorising. There is never a ‘right’ time to do something, so stop procrastinating and start doing!

2. Know what your goals are and know it specifically

Saying things like “I’m going to save money to go travelling” isn’t enough. It has to be defined. Saying “I’m going to save RM 10,000 to go travelling by April” is much better. Make sure you’re tracking your monthly expenses and savings so you are completely aware of what you are spending on each month (it also shows you what you value in life, i.e. what you should add to or cut down on) and will also allow you to be realistic about your savings goals.

Volunteering as an English teacher to children whose parents or guardians have died of HIV in Wat Opot, Takeo Province, Cambodia, 2011 (Photo credit: Sharmin Cheema-Kelly)

3. No one’s opinion matters more than your own

Trying to live up to your parents’ or society’s expectations will only result in your own suffering, so do what you want to do, not what others expect you to do.

4. Focus on the path in front of you and not the cliffs around you

Plan your steps, follow through with them, and put your fears aside.

5. Most people are inherently kind and good

Though we come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, at the core, most people are nice even though they may express it differently. And if they do, offer them the benefit of the doubt just as you’d like to be offered the same should you find yourself in a strange environment.

6. The world is a big, big place

There are 195 countries across seven continents, and around 7,000 languages spoken around the world. You can imagine the sheer number of cultural subtleties that often go unnoticed. Be open to, embrace and celebrate differences – it’s what makes the world and your life interesting.

7. Be comfortable about being uncomfortable

This holds true for a lot of things in life, whether it’s travelling and being outside your comfort zone to running a half marathon for the first time. When you learn to ‘sit in the pain’, you acknowledge it is there, understand it, and learn to live with it as opposed to ignoring its existence.

 On our last Travel Tale, Ruby Subramaniam shared about how she pushed herself to continue travelling after a frightening robbery incident in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Read her story here: “Getting Robbed With A Gun In Brazil Taught Me A Big Lesson About Trust” 


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Sharmin is a fiddle-footed world wanderer, foodie and minimalist with a penchant for a two-pour pint of Guinness, travelling off the beaten path, tucking into bed when there's a thunderstorm, and good conversations that go on until the wee hours of the morning. She also laughs at her own jokes.

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