In less than a week, an important anniversary is coming up for Kristin. It will be two years since she packed a couple bags, boarded a plane, and moved to China.
Kristin’s first view of China from the plane.
Simon also celebrates his anniversary every year in November.
While these are the dates we left our home countries for a long-term life abroad, we each had several short-term trips beforehand, and we continue to take short trips now – ranging from 3 or 4 days to a couple weeks.
We believe strongly that travel is always a worthwhile, character-shaping experience, whether you are gone for days or years – but the two experiences couldn’t be more different.
If you are considering which one (if not both) is for you, here are a few thoughts to consider.
There are very few things more exciting than stepping foot off the plane at the start of a holiday. Everything is so new and fresh! And one of the most positive aspects of short-term travel is that this feeling keeps – your wonder and curiosity isn’t going to go stale. Your brain actually functions differently in a foreign environment – it’s even been compared to falling in love. You become hyper-aware of every little detail and the smallest things are exciting, creating a state of euphoria.
Loving everything about Oman!
Also like falling in love, short-term travelers have a much easier time overlooking differences in culture that might start to nag them if they had more time to settle in. The rose-colored glasses stay on for the duration of the trip.
On the other hand, short-term travel can become intense and exhausting quickly. If you have a travel companion, you are probably with them most hours of the day. With limited time to experience the culture around you, you might not be giving yourself a lot of down time or space to process everything you’re experiencing. We are nearly always ready to head home and just do nothing for a day or two when We finish up a short trip.
To start with, living abroad is not really traveling, and the expectation that it will feel like an exciting adventure each day is only going to lead you into disappointment.
Arriving in your new country often starts off rough. You might feel the same excitement of the short-term traveler on arrival, but those feelings are also mixed in with competing pangs of insecurity and stress. Where are you going to live? What’s your new job going to be like? How long until you’ve made some good friends? How do you set up new bank accounts, phone service, and insurance? Where’s the closest grocery story?
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, and dealing with all these little details in a country that has slightly different expectations and etiquette than your own will likely lead to some culture shock.
But culture shock is only temporary if you let it run its course. With time, you’ll find yourself feeling an attachment to this county that you never felt during your short-term travels. You will develop genuine friendships with locals. You’ll feel comfortable, familiar, and at home as you walk the streets. You’ll start to roll your eyes at some of the cliche and over-the-top travel advice given about your city.
Bangkok is home now.
This new county has become a part of you – and this is where the cultural identity of an expat is a bit strange. Here is how someone explained it to me before I moved abroad: you can never 100% be a part of the new culture you’ve moved into. But after awhile, you won’t really fit 100% into your home culture, either. The expat community becomes its own “third culture,” but it’s a small one.
Finally, you’ll reach the most comfortable stage of living abroad – but for those with the travel itch, it may also be when you start to get bored. Nothing feels foreign or challenging anymore. You have a routine. You always know what to expect. Where’s the adventure?
At this point, you may choose to move on, and here’s where we’ve experienced the final difference between a short visit and a long-term stay: your memories when you leave.
When only spending a week or two in a country, memories are pleasant and light-hearted. But after setting up a home, as temporary as it was, it will always tug on you in a way that is more bittersweet. Continue with this life, and you’ll find you are always homesick for many places. It’s a deeper experience, but a more painful one.
For those of you who also lived abroad, can you relate? How do your experiences compare to ours? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
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