Making the Most of Living Abroad

It’s a month since you moved abroad. You’re done with jet lag, you’ve found a place to live and you have a mobile phone. You’re also starting to wonder if you are fully taking advantage of your time abroad. In my experience, the shorter your time abroad, the more acute the fear of wasting your time becomes.

This is a real dilemma, because no matter how long you stay in one place, it is impossible to take advantage of every single thing a city and/or country has to offer. The key when you go abroad – like at any other time in your life – is to know your priorities and to focus on doing the things that are important to you. The dilemma is that there are often so many different things you would like to do – and especially if you have to work – that “getting the most” out of your time really requires knowing what you want and ruthlessly sticking to the things that really interest you.

I have felt this internal struggle more acutely here in Beijing than anywhere else I have ever lived. Since I’m only in China for 5 months, I feel like I need to take advantage of every single day. Yet I also have to work, write blog posts and do other things that require me to be inside, at my computer. Improving my Chinese is one of my main goals in coming to China, and I’ve been going to a class every day, but there are times when I feel like sitting in a Chinese class – instead of getting out and chatting with people – is a waste of time as well.

Then there is exploring Beijing. Visiting the city’s famous sights does not help me learn Chinese, nor does it help me learn about Chinese food (another goal here). But not visiting some of China’s most historic sights seems like a major hole in my goal to take advantage of being here.

The same could be said about traveling outside of Beijing. It doesn’t help my Chinese – in fact in some ways it takes time away from studying. Yet it deepens my experience of the country, and helps me learn about the history of China and the way that millions of people still experience China.

Reading has always been a good way for me to learn a language. But reading is a solitary activity, and it is valid to say that you could read a book in a foreign language anywhere in the world. When I was in Switzerland, my (first) host family criticized me for spending too much time inside reading by myself instead of taking advantage of being in Switzerland.

So what advice do I have about getting the most out of your time abroad?

1. Know your priorities, and stick to them. If traveling outside of the city you live in isn’t really important to you, don’t do it. Only go places you want to go, not because someone else thinks it is important that you go.

2. Have a schedule. If learning to cook is important, it really helps to have a fixed day and time every week when you learn to cook, either through a class or with a friend. Otherwise you will always find that something comes up. The same goes for any other goal you have for your time abroad.

3. Recognize your limits and go easy on yourself. You need some time to just relax and live, without being a tourist or freaking yourself out because you’re not “making the most” most your time abroad. Read alone in a park, or hang out at home. That’s ok – you’re living there, not on a whirlwind two-day major sites visit.

4. You won’t see and do everything. There is something I regret not doing from every single place I’ve lived. I regret never having gone to the banya in Russia, I regret not having traveling more around Spain when I lived in Madrid and I regret never having taken a cheese-making workshop in France. Luckily, I’m still young and I know exactly what I need to do when I go back to those places.

It’s hard to know how to best “take advantage” of your time abroad. Take it easy, make a schedule and focus on your priorities, and when you look back at your time abroad you will know that you got as much as possible out of being in a new country.