“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.”
– Anthony Bourdain.
The assumption of living abroad by people you left behind in your home country is you are on a never-ending vacation from your real life. If you are from a developing country like Nigeria, the impression of what living abroad is like stems from what is seen on the television, the internet and Instagram. Everyone knows that the moment you say you are living abroad, there are certain “expectations” from people. Everyone assumes your life is better than theirs and you are in a better place to alleviate their financial struggles.
Living abroad sometimes means you are living a double life as you are trying to keep up with people in the country you now live in and the one you left behind. It is even worse when you are in a long-distance relationship, your partner may even begin to assume you are “living life” but the reality is the struggle is the same everywhere. The assumption is “your new life” is a bed of roses and this simply stems from the fact that there are good roads, 24 hours electricity and everything is accessible.
It is interesting how most of these assumptions/expectations do not even come from your own family but from extended relatives and friends.
So what is living abroad really like?
Living abroad means you have to be independent, self-reliant and stay true to the reason why you found yourself in a new country, be it school or work. It means adjusting to the new way of doing things (paying bills monthly, preparing and dressing for each season) and importantly being a law-abiding immigrant.
Reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie feels like I am reliving a lot of experiences that are mine and others. The struggle of living abroad is real, for me both living in the UK and now Canada. There is a lot of psychological, financial and health impact (a discussion for another day) that people don’t often discuss.
Dealing with winter and summer solstice (shorter days, longer nights and vice versa) can be tricky if you are coming from a country that sits pretty close to the equator. Also, dealing with the clock going backwards in the fall and going forward in the spring (daylight savings) is something that may take a bit of getting used to. Operating in a different time zone means your body will adjust to its new body clock. So it is either you are hours ahead or behind which ultimately makes it difficult to keep up with friends and family back home.
Fitting in –Race is a thing– is a big aspect of living abroad. You may claim you don’t see colour or have lived in a place with people who all look like you but all that changes once you move to a new country. You become more cautious about how you speak and interact with people of other races.
Paying bills every month
Missing rent payment or any other monthly obligation either means you will accumulate more interest or get kicked out of your apartment. Any other incidental expense can drill a hole in your financial pocket. A while back, I locked myself out of my room with the main and spare keys in my room. The landlord’s spare key for some reason couldn’t open my door. I had to bear the financial responsibility of calling a locksmith. It’s not like Nigeria where you can call a carpenter on the roadside and pay 1000 naira. The expenses hurt me because I could have avoided it by putting my spare key outside of my room.
Making friends and missing friends
There will be a lot of sad and lonely nights in the beginning. For some people, it might be the thing that leads them to depression. In this period you miss spending family time and having your family present. It is at this time you know who is your friend as some friendships intensify while some will fade. It is hard to make friends especially if you lived in a particular country all your life. Yes, you make new friends but it will never be the same as the ones you have back home.
Improvising to make your home country’s meal has to be one of the major struggles of living abroad. This forces you to open up to eating dishes from other countries and acquire new palates. The struggle has just been too real when it comes to having African food. Thankfully places like Walmart, and Atlantic Superstore carries a wide range of intercontinental food compared to the big grocery stores in the UK. I am thankful for African stores like Kalisimbi and Flenjor Foods in Halifax that cater to African food, if not I will probably be surviving on chips and bread.
Always converting the currency
As a new immigrant in another country, you will be tempted to constantly convert the currency to the local currency of where you are from. This will just give you a lot of headaches and hypertension if you are from a place like Nigeria wherein 2023, the exchange rate to USD dollar is about 750 naira. As a student, your struggles are even worse because you are relying on money sent from home and hoping the exchange rate to be in your favour to meet every need. You will think earning the equivalent of 1 million Naira in the western world will be a sign that you are living well, but you will soon realize that is far from the truth.
In a place like North America, all forms of taxes will leave you with next to nothing to fend for yourself and save. Check out this interesting thread of Twitter of a new immigrant who was relying on the money he saved in Naira to look after himself.
The honest truth is you are the same person you were when you left your home country i.e Slim Tolu that likes food in Nigeria is the same Slim Tolu that likes food in Canada. Of course, you learn new things and the culture of the new environment leaves its marks on you. However, living abroad has its own fair share of struggles.
This list barely scratched the surface of what living abroad is really like and sometimes you just want to pack your bag and go back to your home country. I hope this post clarifies a lot of assumptions people have about what it is like living abroad.
Do you have that one or more person(s) that keeps thinking of living abroad as living life? Then share this post with them to let them know the reality of living abroad.