5 Things I have Learned from Living and Working Abroad

Sorry for the late post, guys, but I was thinking (dangerous, I know).  I am soon beginning my sixth month here in Germany.  While that hasn’t been long compared to some expats (ie my mom) but combining it with my other abroad experiences:

My semester in Spain

With my mamita in Madrid at the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
With my mamita in Madrid at the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

My summers in Peru

Going to school with my cousin in Trujillo, Peru
Going to school with my cousin in Trujillo, Peru

I feel that I can impart some of the things I have learned from living and working abroad (at least up until this point).


1. You will make mistakes

You might as well face the fact that you will stumble with every step as you enter a new country.  Whether it is the language or custom, you will make a mistake.  But you need to also realize that it is ok.  This is the only way you will learn.

In reference to languages, there are a great many people out there who have studied other tongues but won’t speak it because they are afraid of making a mistake and sounding dumb. You are not dumb.  Languages are not easy and you will only get better by speaking.

When I was about twelve, my family and I went to Peru.  I refuse to talk to my family.  I was so self-conscious about my Spanish that I would only speak with my mom, dad, or sister in English.  This enraged my mother and ended up being the reason I was sent to Peru the next year by myself.

First Christmas/New Years away from home in Peru
First Christmas/New Years away from home in Peru

There is no way to learn a language faster than being forced to sink or swim.

There’s also nothing more liberating than learning to navigate the airports by yourself at thirteen.

When it comes to culture, this brings me to my next point.


2. You will anger others and be insulted by others because of the culture

This is part of the learning process.  All cultures have their own rituals and social expectations and sometimes you will learn them the hard way.  For the most part I have breezed through the German culture relatively unscathed….except in the work environment.

I only say this because I have worked in the same German company for almost three years.  When I first started, there was a lot of friction between the Americans and the Germans.  This was due to the fact that both cultures work differently.

I am not going to lie when I say that most of the problems had lain with the Germans.  This is because the group that came over had never worked with anyone not-German before.  As Americans, we are used to dealing with different working styles and cultures because (in case you forgot) we are a country built by immigrants.  It was funny because as I interviewed with them, they asked me several times if I knew how to work in a bicultural environment.  I told them that I had spent my entire life in a bicultural environment (try navigating Christmas in my house!).  But I have a feeling this question was not extended to the Germans.

It got to the point where we had to take a multi-cultural training course so that we could properly learn both sides.  It was really cool! Everyone came out feeling a lot better and with more understanding.   This was because we openly discussed everything.

You should always explain how and why your culture does certain things and also ask from people in other cultures.  There have been some misunderstandings between T and I but we have always talked about it and understood the other a little better because of it.

It’s easy to get insulted by something another culture does but it only takes a moment to think “hey maybe they just don’t see it that way.”  That’s ok! There’s no reason to get angry over, just talk about it!

3. There will be days you feel like a failure.

My job as a Microbiologist is hard, even in English.  There are days I feel like a rock star and I totally have this moving-to-another-country-thing under control and other days…..not so much.  A perfect example is today.  I was making stupid mistakes that made my confidence drop by the second.  I had only made two mistakes (that were easily fixable) but by the second one, I actually started to cry at the lab bench.  I am embarrassed to admit it, but it happened.  I felt like a moron (because it was something I should have known) and I felt like I was disappointing my co-workers by making rookie mistakes even after 5 months.

But I got a good pep talk from my team coordinator (Josi) who had told me to take a break and walk it off.  I was actually performing a test I had not done in a while and was learning a more complicated concept at the same time.  “It’s ok,” she said (in German).  “That’s why I am here, to look out for you.”

I was able to finish the test and it turned out perfect.  So it wasn’t the end of the world.

While I was feeling down, I realized that I really shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  Maybe I was a little too confident before but I was also not a complete failure.  My mom didn’t rejoin the workforce until years after living in the States, the same with other family members who have taken their time and tipping their toe in American culture before swimming out into the job force.  Most had studied (like an aunt who was a dentist in Colombia had to get recertified in the States or my godmother who went for university).  This didn’t make acclimating any easier, it was just something different they didn’t have to deal with.

I, on the other hand, have been flung into the deep end.  I fortunately have plenty of people to help me stay afloat.

4. You will find yourself missing the strangest things

I saw on a friend’s Facebook wall something concerning Pop-Tarts.

Courtesy of Reddit
Courtesy of Reddit

Seriously?! Who decided it would be a good idea to make unfrosted Pop-tarts?

Immediately my brain went,

“OHMYGOD you need Pop-Tarts.”

I told this to my mom last week and she immediately said, “But you haven’t eaten Pop-Tarts in years.”

I knew she was right but logic isn’t always my strongest suit……

“But I must eat the (processed) food of my childhood.”

She just laughed and asked me which ones I wanted (which are strawberry and s’mores, in case you were wondering)

It’s ok to miss things.  It’s ok to miss home.  It’s ok to miss Pop-Tarts.  I had already covered this topic in my post about homesickness.

5. But you will find new favorites

When it comes to soft drinks…I actually find myself prefering Spezi over a coke.  A Spezi is like coke mixed with Fanta.  On those hot summer days, I enjoyed it more than a coke!

Found this delight in a German shop in Indianapolis
Found this delight in a German shop in Indianapolis

Definitely give your new place a chance and try to new things.  You will find that while there is no replacement for things from home, you can still find new favorites to help find your niche in your new home.


This is an ever evolving list and I will keep learning! But in the meantime, what about the other expats out there? What things have you learned when moving to another country?

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