The other day someone found my blog by Googling, “is settling down abroad a bad thing?”
My first thought was what a weird question. I sort of didn’t even really understand what that person was trying to better understand by conducting their Google search. Were they concerned about the safety of living abroad? The financial issues? The societal pressures that come from family and friends back home?
It got me thinking about living abroad and how my life has changed in the last eight years since I left the US. When I left all those years ago, I hadn’t really planned on never coming back. I wasn’t really thinking about that at all – I was off on an adventure! I was going to travel! I was going to write! I was a grown-up I could do whatever I wanted!
Now I look at it a lot differently. I look at how my life has changed, how much I’ve grown, how lucky I’ve been to meet so many amazing people and learn so many fascinating things.
It’s a conversation I’ve had with many an expat friend. We all agree that there’s just something about the way you act when you’re abroad that makes you feel like you’re living a better life, even if where you’re living isn’t necessarily a much better place than your home country. Things seem brighter, shinier, more fun.
Obviously, this is all subjective. This has been my personal experience. This is all based on what I love about my life, health, and wellbeing as an expat and why I think living abroad enhances all three of those things. Is my quality of life better abroad? Right now the answer is absolutely yes.
A Sense of Adventure
Since the day I moved abroad back in September 2010, my mindset to daily life has totally shifted. Living abroad, experiencing new things almost daily, has heightened my awareness of things that I never even paid attention to before. I’m more aware of the smells emanating from random shops. I notice the weather more. I notice the sound of people accents and the unique-to-me phrases they use that I’ve never heard before.
Living abroad has given my life a sense of adventure that I don’t think I would have if I was living in a place that was utterly familiar to me. It forces me out of my comfort zone in ways that I don’t realize until it’s already happening. I don’t purposely put myself in these situations, but because I am constantly being confronted with new situations, I have no choice but to adapt, to grow, to learn something about myself in the process. I love that.
Access to Affordable Healthcare
If we’re going to talk quality of life, I guess you have to bring up the fact that going to the doctor’s office doesn’t require me to take out a private loan or go into credit card debt. Private healthcare is very affordable for me here in Mexico on the wage that I earn as a freelancer. If I need to visit the dentist, the gynecologist, the eye doctor, I can do so for a fraction of what it costs me in the US.
Pharmacies are very affordable as well. I can get most medications there without requiring a visit to the doctor first. This includes the contraceptive pill, antibiotics, and cortisone creams. There is a doctor at my local pharmacy four days a week and if I’m feeling under the weather, I can visit him for 20 Pesos (just over $1 USD).
When you leave your own country, uproot your life, and try to live somewhere completely different, it’s really important to understand that you have to not only look after your physical health, but your mental health.
This really interesting survey from Aetna International is all about expat wellness. It talks a lot about the reasons that people moved abroad in the first place, but it also addresses how living abroad, away from everything that you’ve ever known, can really effect your mental health.
It’s something I wish I’d learned about a few years ago, something I had to learn the hard way. When you don’t have a support system around you like you would back “home,” you have to cut yourself some slack, realize that life can feel a little bit hard, and learn how to rebalance. I used to have a lot of anxiety around whether or not I was making the right decisions and I still have to check in with myself regularly, but now I know what signs to look for in myself.
Aetna International interviewed 32 families from different countries all who uprooted their lives, and in many instances, the lives of their children, in search of a better life, a better job opportunity, a better something. I really liked reading about why other people chose to move abroad, it’s something that always fascinates me.
Fresh & Affordable Produce
One of the things that I feel greatly contributes to my health and quality of life here in Mexico is the access to fresh and affordable healthy food. Every Tuesday, a local farmer’s market, called a tianguis, comes to my street. I go there armed with 500 Pesos (about $30) and I buy bags and bags of oranges, mangos, bananas, tomatoes, green vegetables, mushrooms, ginger, avocados, and a pile of fresh tortillas. I always come home with change.
It’s been so much easier for me to have a healthier lifestyle because I can afford to. When I go back to New York to visit family, I can’t actually believe the price of things anymore. Buying a few groceries for dinner costs me almost as much as my entire week’s shopping in Mexico.
This wasn’t always the case when I lived in other, more expensive countries. When I lived in New Zealand and in South Korea, I worked a lot. My job consumed me and I wasn’t very happy because of it. One of the main draws to moving to Mexico was that I could really get serious about my freelance writing career without worrying too much about running out of money.
I would consider myself an easily stressed person. I get anxious about pretty much everything from deadlines to making sure I don’t forget anything at the grocery store. I used to really struggle with conflict (although getting older and firmer in my opinions has changed that a lot).
Working a stressful job has been something that I know adds to this anxiety and makes even the hours that I’m not at work a big struggle. Having fewer financial obligations here in Mexico has meant that I don’t have to take a high-stress job with long hours. It’s allowed me the freedom to build a business that I’m passionate about, that makes me feel fulfilled, and after a lot of work, means that I don’t have to work all that much.
I’ve been here for two years now and while I know that I’m working hard the hours that I’m at my laptop, I spend fewer and fewer hours glued to the screen than I ever have in my adult life. I have been able to earn a lower income than I would need in countries like the US or the UK, I’ve built up a business that is sustainable going forward, and I work about 20 hours a week.
There’s no way that I could sustain this lifestyle in the US with the current income that I earn, which would mean either going back to full-time work or taking on a ton more freelance work to be able to earn more money (and therefore working a whole lot more).
It’s Not for Everyone
Living abroad has been great for me, for my goals in life, for my quality of life and happiness, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. If moving to different countries, having tons of different jobs, and acclimating to different languages and cultures has taught me anything it’s that happiness can be discovered in the most unlikely places, even in your hometown.
I don’t think I’ll live in Mexico forever and I don’t know that I’ll ever move permanently back to the US. What I do know is that I’ve seen what my life can look like in different countries and environments and it has changed me.