Thinking of moving abroad? You don’t have to have it all figured out right now. Start by making a list of countries you would like to see. You can narrow down your list by asking yourself the following questions about countries that interest you. Are you moving abroad to teach, or are you moving abroad to become a digital nomad? Are there visa requirements? What is expat life like? What is your budget? How many years do you plan on living abroad? These are just a few questions that you must ask yourself when you are deciding where to move. I got super lucky because I applied for a teaching position and got a job offer a day later. A few days later, I signed the teaching contract and my school booked my Emirates flight. Looking back, I’m amazed at how perfectly it all worked out. If you have ever yearned to live abroad, you can, and should make it happen. Read on to see how moving abroad changed my life.
1. You learn to be open to the unknown. Unless you stay in the expat bubble and make a conscious effort to avoid any and all new people and experiences, you will find yourself in unique situations. Moving to a new country and not trying new things is like going to Thailand and ordering a burger instead of the Pad Thai. While there’s nothing wrong with having a little comfort food from home, I urge you to say no to the burger and try new things.
One hot, humid evening as the sun was setting, while walking on Al Shabab Avenue to Western Union to send money home like I did every payday my first year in Bahrain, I stumbled upon Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) birthday party. I bet that’s something that doesn’t happen every day. I heard faint music in the distance, and as I got closer, I realized it was playing from a big, black speaker in front of someone’s house. Colorful streamers, lights, and a banner with Arabic calligraphy hung on wall of the symmetrical, traditional, beige home making the street look festive. I passed several more houses with a similar setup. That’s when I noticed tables covered in large, silver platters piled high with food. Women in flowing, black abayas wearing hijab and men in crisp, white thobes stood at their front door talking animatedly and laughing with their neighbors as the music played in the background. I tried to observe discreetly, but my curiosity got the better of me when I saw long lines of men lining up at the tables of food and walking away with foam trays like they were getting takeout. I had never seen anything like it, and I was intrigued. It looked like they were celebrating something, but were they also selling food, I wondered? I hadn’t gone far when a woman’s voice called out through the dark from across the street, “Habibti, taali.” As she beckoned me to come closer, she pointed to an array of dishes of fruit and samosas and Arabic sweets. As we spoke, she handed me a plate full of food and told me that they were celebrating Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) birthday and they were giving food to everyone in his honor. As we stood chatting, they invited me in. I thanked them politely and agreed to stop by on my way back.
Back from Western Union in my full sweaty glory (Bahrain is HOT and humid even late at night even during the summer months), she introduced me to the whole family. Mom, dad, aunties, nieces, nephews, and a sweet, elderly grandmother all acted as if it was perfectly normal for a total stranger to be in their home. Soon after introductions, she brought out a jalabiya for me. “Try on?” she asked? I nodded and she draped it around my shoulders and lightly on top of my head as an auntie nodded approvingly. I was led to a formal living room and seated on plush, velvety floor cushions the same color as the purple and gold velvety curtains that draped luxuriously from the ceiling down to the floor. They brought me a plate of fruit and more sweets and brought out yet another beautiful jalabiya for me to try on. They adorned me with gold bracelets and rings while everyone watched and fussed over me. I felt like a proper princess, even though it had been a long day at work and I was very much aware of the sweat glistening on my brow and upper lip from walking from one end of Al Shabab Avenue to the other in the humid, Bahraini weather. (I’ve come to love the humidity here, but it was definitely an adjustment.) After they took pictures of me, we said our goodbyes, and the incredibly kind and generous Bahraini woman gave me her WhatsApp number and told me to please stop by anytime for dinner or just to have tea with her and the family.
2. You will immerse yourself in the culture. Experiencing other cultures is the best way to learn about the world around us. My impromptu celebration for Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) birthday was just one small example of my experience with the culture here in Bahrain. What better way to learn about cultural traditions than to be a part of them? One of my favorite celebrations in Bahrain is Bahrain National Day. It’s a huge day at school. Students dress up in colorful, red and white jalabiyas and gold-embroidered dresses. Boys where traditional thobes and ghutra. Teachers also get to wear beautiful dresses, and students put on an annual musical show with Bahraini music and traditional dancing.
Sometimes, I find myself counting how many different nationalities are in one room at a time and how many different languages are being spoken. Almost everyone I know, including my students, speaks at least two languages, and sometimes three. I work with people from Bahrain, USA, Canada, South Africa, Egypt, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Venezuela, Peru, Spain, Mexico, Morocco and Syria, and the students in my classroom are just as culturally diverse. I’ve taught students not only from Bahrain, but also from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Morocco, Palestine, Jordan, and the Netherlands. It stills blows my mind having conversations with my six and seven-year old students about their travels in Europe, Asia and North America. These kids have had a beautiful upbringing full of culturally rich interactions and experiences thanks to traveling to all of these countries at such a young age.
3. If you plan it right and find a job that is a good fit for you, you will be able to save money living abroad. For the most part, it’s been much cheaper for me to live in Bahrain than at home in the States, which is just one reason I’ve kept coming back. If you can find a teaching job abroad, you’ll be able to save money. First of all, traveling from Bahrain to nearby countries is very affordable. Most recently, I was able to book a roundtrip flight to the Maldives there last year during Eid for $283 USD. I would have paid at least $1,200 USD on the roundtrip flight alone from Washington State. There wasn’t a huge time difference, and the flight was short, so I didn’t show up super jetlagged, and I didn’t waste a ton of time on traveling. And $283 for a trip to the Maldives? A dream come true. Second, the benefits that come with a teaching job in Bahrain are pretty great. Medical insurance, housing accommodation (or a housing allowance to stay in a place that you choose), a paid roundtrip flight to and from Bahrain, and free transportation to and from work. This will allow you to save close to $1,000USD per month on housing costs alone (compared to what you might be paying in the States). The medical insurance is also great here. I’ve had visits to the emergency room where I’ve been prescribed everything from Panadol to antibiotics, and I’ve never paid more than 5 Bahraini Dinar (1BD is equivalent to roughly $2.65).
4. This will be one of the greatest opportunities to travel in your life. When I moved abroad, I didn’t realize how much I would be traveling. I currently live just a short fifteen-minute drive from the Bahrain International Airport, and since moving to Bahrain, I had the chance to travel to fourteen new countries, including many that had been on my bucket list for years. I’ve to Greece, Thailand, the Maldives, Tanzania, Lebanon, India (twice!), Morocco, Cyprus, Egypt, Germany, and Indonesia, just to name a few. These are places I could have only hoped to visit someday if I saved enough money and accrued enough vacation hours. It would have taken years and lots of careful planning. I will never take the opportunity to travel for granted, but sometimes, I forget how lucky I am to be able to travel on a whim. It’s not a matter of “What will I do on my time off?”, but rather “What country will I go to this holiday?” Living in an Islamic country, there are many holidays that I wouldn’t be able to benefit from if I lived and taught in the States. Eid, the time that marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, Ashoora, Prophet Mohamad’s (PBUH) birthday. Also, if you’re traveling from the States, you can catch a six-hour flight, and STILL be in the States. Here, you’re in the United Arab Emirates in forty-five minutes, and in countless other places (including every place I’ve been to these past three years) in less than the time it takes to fly halfway across the States.
5. You gain a new point of view and develop empathy for others. In addition to speaking Arabic and English (the second language spoken here), many students also speak a third or fourth language. I feel pretty blessed to speak two languages, but not speaking Arabic as fluently as I thought I would after spending several years here is quite humbling, to say the least. I’ve always empathized with adults who move to the United States and struggle to learn English, because I know that it is not easy to learn a language as an adult with a full-time job and juggling multiple responsibilities with limited time and energy. And from personal experience, I can attest that it is not easy, peasy, lemon squeezy, at all. Mastering a new language is difficult, difficult, lemon, difficult. I hope other people living abroad have also experienced this and found it humbling, as I have, and are more patient during future encounters when speaking with someone who does their best to communicate in “imperfect” English, Spanish, French, etc. Someone speaking a broken language is a sign that they are fluent in at least one other language, right?
6. You will feel more independent and accomplished than ever. Making the decision to move alone halfway across the world to a place where you don’t know anyone will lay the foundation for making future decisions without relying on anyone’s input. Moving to Bahrain was the perfect steppingstone to what I had always wanted to do—solo backpacking—and it gave me the confidence to say, “Oh, what the hell,” and book my first solo trip to Thailand. However, as a girl, one must always take the necessary safety precautions, so naturally my first concern about moving abroad was, “How safe is this going to be?” I have never felt safer anywhere else in the world. I never think twice about walking alone after dark to go meet with friends or just to go for a nighttime walk by the corniche. In the States, I lived in one of the safest college towns, and I would never dream of doing something like that. If I was on campus at night, I would walk with my pepper spray in one hand, and a key between my knuckles in another hand. And it wasn’t without reason. During the summer leading up to my final year in uni, there were three case of sexual assault in a three-week period—and those were only the ones that were reported. It’s true that no one place is 100% safe, but to all my friends back home that ask if I feel safe living in Bahrain, the answer is yes, I do. Last year, I often made the short fifteen-minute walk from my flat to go meet friends for food or shisha in Adliya, my favorite area in Bahrain.
7. Freedom. At home, I always felt accountable to someone. When your parents are Mexican, you don’t move out just because. They want to feed you and love and keep a close eye on you until you turn 40 or get married and move out, whichever happens first. I lived at home with my parents and didn’t leave the nest until I was 25 and ready to attend university. My parents were okay with this because they saw it as an acceptable reason for me to leave home, and because I would only be a three-hour drive away. It was my first taste of real freedom. I have fond memories of living by myself in my tiny apartment in Cheney. Staying up as late as I wanted and then sleeping in. Coming and going as I pleased. Eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. Working on DIY projects in the living room and leaving them strewn about in various stages of completion. Buying a ridiculous number of mirrors at thrift shops. It was small, and a bit messy at times, but it was mine, and I treasured my own space and privacy. Moving to Bahrain was like that all over again, but ten times better. I could also come and go as I pleased, but this time, coming and going meant hopping on a flight to another country without telling a soul. It is absolutely liberating to live abroad where you have no one but yourself to answer to.
8. You’ll make a lot of mistakes and learn to laugh at yourself as you attempt to navigate new cultures. In Bahrain, it is common for women to greet each other with a kiss on the cheek upon meeting. The confusing part is that the number and pattern of kisses varies by person. Sometimes it’s one kiss on the left cheek, then one on the right cheek. Sometimes it goes left, left, right, right, while other times it’s three consecutive kisses on the left only. It’s a complicated dance, and I usually defer to the mothers and let them lead. During my first parent-teacher conferences, I was meeting a mother for the first time, and let’s just say it was a lot like dancing with someone and stepping all over their toes. I was mortified, but the mother was very kind and just laughed and said “Ma mushkila, habibiti!” I appreciated her good nature.
9. You come to realize that we have more in common with others than than we think. The more time you spend around others from a background different than your own, the more the line between “us vs them” begins to blur until it almost ceases to exist. This may be a bit of an oversimplification, but if you think about it, birth is like a lotto. None of us chose our nationality or which family to be born into. It just is what it is, and the diversity is what makes the world a beautiful place. While I believe that we should embrace and celebrate our differences—everything from the language we speak, the food we eat, the color of our skin, to the way we dress—we must never, ever forget that there is more that unites us than what separates us. We all feel pain, joy, happiness, sadness and fear. And most importantly, we all want to love and be loved.
10. Last but definitely not least, you will build lifelong friendships. I have built some pretty amazing friendships with some incredible people that I’ve met both in Bahrain, and while traveling. I’ve felt a stronger connection with some people I’ve known for a short time than with others I’ve known my whole life. I’m a firm believer that the Universe brings people into our lives at just the right time, and I’m grateful for each and every person that’s been a part of this chapter of my life. I wouldn’t trade my experiences and the friends I’ve made while living abroad for anything in the world.
If you’re thinking of moving abroad…
Bookmark or pin this post for later! Remember to subscribe to my blog to make sure you get all the latest updates.