Life lessons I’ve learned living abroad

Vacationing is completely different from living abroad. While both provide an opportunity to experience another culture, the latter teaches you life lessons. Thrown into an unfamiliar country, a tourist only skims the surface. When you live abroad, everyday tasks seem nearly impossible. Grocery shopping becomes stressful. Directions end up getting you lost. Simple errands and chores turn into little battles. Soon, your to-do list starts to look like a long line of obstacles.

As my time in Israel nears an end, I have reflected on the growing pains of living in another country. While moving out and going to college seemed like growing up, it doesn’t compare to taking care of myself in unfamiliar territory. Learning to laugh off the small humiliations foreigners encounter while abroad, I have decided that every freak out and stressful moment is worth it. I would like to share five lifelong lessons I have learned while living in Israel for the summer:

1. Asking for help

Honestly, I am still struggling with this one. When you are a tourist, asking for help (i.e. directions, recommendations, etc.) come naturally, since it is expected. However, when you have to constantly ask for help in your “normal” life, it becomes almost disheartening. Most people would like to consider themselves self-sufficient. Figuring out things on your own comes naturally at home, but when you are confronted with failure every day abroad, you realize asking for help is necessary.

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I’m a prideful person. While living in Israel, I’ve had to learn how to swallow my pride and give in to asking for help with simple tasks I wouldn’t have blinked twice about back home.

2. Accepting the “strange”

When you visit a new country on vacation, some of the quirky cultural tendencies go unnoticed. While living abroad, they all stick out like a sore thumb within the first couple of weeks. Some I still laugh at, others I’ve come to accept and some I’m still confused by.

I can’t write this blog post without mentioning the stray cats. There’s a crazy amount of them all over Israel. At first, it was funny and strange, but since then, I’ve gotten more accustomed to the insane number of them. However, whenever I see a stray cat wander in a building, I still find the whole situation a bit peculiar, especially since no one seems to flinch.

I still break this cultural norm: waiting at the crosswalk on a red when there are no cars in sight. Jaywalking is second nature to me. I’ve gotten yelled at by Israelis for my apparently “reckless” pedestrian tendencies. I still don’t understand why they wait (although, I heard it’s because the fine for jaywalking is quite large). Israelis appear more reckless than Americans when driving (evident by the constant and random beeping, speeding and daredevil driving tactics), but when it comes to walking across the street, they are much more cautious. I still find this cultural norm a bit strange, but I’ve learned to accept it.

3. Being more assertive

Some of the cultural norms in Israel have made me more assertive. In Israel (and many other parts of the world for that matter), there are no such things as lines. While waiting in “line” at the grocery store, Israelis quickly take advantage of you and try to cut you off. The line you had imagined in your mind becomes a funnel. If you’re not assertive enough, you’ll end up waiting in line for longer than necessary.

I’ve also learned to be more assertive and direct in my speech. Americans tend to beat around the bush. Israelis are much more direct. I’ve learned that while Americans fluff up their speech to appear polite, in the end, they are wasting the time of the other individual. It’s possible to be both direct and polite.

4. Talking to strangers

While many Israelis speak English, the language barrier still proves difficult at times. I discovered that whenever I tried to approach a stranger with my broken Hebrew, I was either met with some confusion or rudeness. But I’ve learned that a smile goes a long way. While rude at first, the majority give in when you appear friendly and respectable.

The cultural gap also adds to the uneasiness of speaking with strangers. I sometimes found it difficult connecting with Israelis because we lack many of the same cultural references. Icebreaker questions, like “What are you studying in school?” prove unfruitful when you’re speaking with a soldier. They might be the same age as you, but they’ve led a completely different life. I’ve learned to be patient. Sometimes unfamiliarity adds interest to the conversation. Now, I find learning about differences (with subtle commonalities) more interesting than having the same first-encounter conversation over and over back home.

5. Empathizing

Living abroad has made me appreciate life on the periphery. At times, you feel like you’re living life on the outside, looking in. It’s not always easy. As a result of feeling left out, I now have a better understanding of the difficulties others face in life. In turn, I am now more conscious of the individuals marginalized by society, empathizing with those who find tasks I consider easy a challenge.

Going back to the United States, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at an immigrant or migrant worker in the same light. Their struggles are sometimes tenfold stronger than mine have ever been. It’s been a privilege to glimpse through their eyes and see what they see.


About the Author
Sarah Sheafer is a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, studying political science and international studies with a focus in the Middle East.