6 Ways to Stay Sane While Living Abroad

Living abroad isn’t easy. Staying sane is even harder. I’ve relatively new at this expat business, but the past six months have been fun and rewarding. However, I sometimes wonder if my baseline for sanity is changing. I’ve met some crazy people and heard some sordid tales about people breaking down. For example, one guy in Korea apparently skinned somebody’s pet bunny and hung the pelt over a fan to dry. Kimchi fever? Don’t be that guy.

Here’s a few things I think have helped me. Your mileage will vary.

1. Learn the Language
This is huge. You can’t begin to understand a culture until you at least learn a little bit about the language, its structure, history, source of loan words, etc. Even with a modest effort, you can learn a little bit of the hardest language on the planet (Korean) in a few hours. While you probably won’t reach an intermediate level for several months, a few phrases can go a long way and open some doors. At the bare minimum, learn the phatics, numbers, days, basic verbs, how to ask about prices, and, of course, the word for bathroom.

As a foreigner, you can get by with a lot: your linguistic abortions won’t offend anybody, and people will appreciate your effort. Even better, after enough mistakes your abortions might turn eventually turn into (deformed) phrasal babies!

2. Build a Network
Don’t be shy. Finding people from your own culture is usually easy enough. You’ve got a lot in common, and many people will be happy to help you get settled in, show you around, answer questions, all that. Remember, though: nobody wants to hear whining. If all you do is whine, you’ll might find yourself spending another night watching Lost Season 2 for the third time ( Instead, offer to buy drinks). Nowadays, between Facebook and Meetup, meeting people is easy (to quote Radiohead). Maybe this is easier for married people. If you’re not married, find a boyfriend/girlfriend.

Of course, don’t limit yourself to people from your own culture. One of the best things about living abroad is meeting people from a radically different background and culture than your own. If you’re reading this, you probably speak English, and millions of people want to learn English. Find a conversation partner. Seek out people with similar interests; if you’re a musician, this is super easy. Other hobbies, haunt places where hobbyists congregate.

3. Build a Comfort Bubble
I don’t mean isolate yourself, but living in a foreign country can sometimes be overwhelming. You need a place to retreat. Make your home feel like a home, even if it’s a coffin-size apartment. With a laptop, high-speed internet, and local cell phone, staying in touch with people at home is (too) easy (read more here). Pictures of friends and family from home, house plants, nice art work, a small library of excellent books, and a hard drive full of mp3s all have helped me when I’ve had too much of Korea.

Also, if you’re making decent money, you might consider some kind of luxury item. For me, a $200 set of studio monitors improved my quality of life by 10000%. Totally worth the investment, and I’ll have no trouble selling them before I leave using online classifieds like craigslist.

4. Develop Positive Habits
Living abroad is great. Not only do you get to experience a new culture, try new foods and drinks, but being away from your old home gives you the chance to develop new habits and routines. However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of heading to the same expat bar, night after night, and ending your time with nothing to show but a great poker face.

If you’re not working too much, you’ll probably have some free time. The key is filling this time with things you enjoy. Find a hobby you’re passionate about and work on it almost everyday. You’ll find that without the old distractions and habits, you can put in some serious time and maybe even achieve a level of focus you never thought possible. Give yourself a chance and you might surprise yourself. Even better, find something unique to the place you’re living. Besides being a great way to fill time, it really allows you to engage with a place.

5. Try New Stuff Every Week
So, you find a restaurant you like and, after two weeks of pointing at random dishes, you find one you like. Now, when you’re hungry, you go to that restaurant. However, think of the 100 or so other items you’re missing out on…in that restaurant. While I think it’s great having a place you know and love, you could be missing out on some amazing food.

Every week, step outside of your comfort zone. Visit a nearby area, try a new restaurant, a new dish, a new phrase you learned, whatever. Make this part of your routine. This keeps things fresh and your mind active. You’re living abroad to try new things, so…try new things! Randomness in the context of a routine can make for some flabbergastingly interesting happy accidents.

6.  Recognize Culture Shock
If you find yourself constantly talking about the ‘strange’ things that ‘they’ do, comparing stuff to your home country, longing for (insert home country food here), or find yourself standing on the table singing your national anthem, you’re probably in some stage of culture shock. It’s a fact of living abroad, and if you can recognize it early, it’s easier to beat. If you work on 1-5, you can hopefully minimize the effects of culture shock. Piles have been written about culture shock, so do some research in order to know what you’re dealing with. Given time, though, things can level off, and life might even become some strange parody of normal.

On the other hand, people probably are staring at you, not because you look like a foreigner but because you’ve got food on your chin.
I’d love to hear from other people that have or are living abroad, especially people that’ve been at it a while. I know my list is incomplete. What have you done to stay sane? Chime in and let me know.

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  • Emily

    Hi. I’ve actually been living abroad for 2 months and quite honestly…..I don’t like it. I mean, I love that I am doing this experience and will be so proud to talk about it when I get home, but doing it is so hard. Your list makes sense and seems nice, but I don’t like drinking or going out to bars, especially since I’m a solo female traveler. I’ll try to do this, but I just like your point that there’s so much more time to focus on myself. Because of it, I have had time to think about my life goals and what it is that I want to do when I return home. 

  • Anonymous

    Emily, I’m sorry to hear that you’re not enjoying yourself much. This experience can be overwhelming and at times awfully lonely.

    During the first few months we lived in Korea, my wife had a hard time. However, she eventually got built a circle of friends; they started doing day trips every week or two and meeting up with about the same frequency. Once she had built a little network, she began to enjoy herself.

    Maybe the same could work for you. Just a thought.

    Good luck!

  • Nelleke

    Hi Emily, I can fully understand your feelings and I can tell you and Seth that it IS totally different when you are on your own and a female. I have been traveling a lot by myself in the past years and am living and working in Cambodia for a year now. I am enjoying it, but I see the difficulties as well. 

    Seth’s suggestion of finding a boy/girlfriend is not really an option for me because I don’t want to have a boyfriend abroad. Friend’s is a different matter, although I found out I have to be so much more careful with what I do and say, because guy’s will see any friendly word as a suggestion that I am (romantically) interested in them, while I am not. This has been a problem with a lot of guys I have met here and stopped me from seeing them again. A shame! Most of my friends here are single females. We understand each other better because we are in the same situation.
    Some of the things that help me: my current network of expats, so I have somebody to talk to about what happens to me in this country and in my work. I work for an English volunteer organization and they have a lot of other people working here as well, so we have a common ground. There are also a lot of NGO’s working here with a lot of expats who like meeting new people. Just walking around in a park or on the street in a city can help to meet new people. Have lunch or a drink somewhere – you will see that people will contact you. The funny thing is that it is easier to get contact with people when you are by yourself than when you are with two. People like to extend their networks abroad, so it is not so difficult but you have to come out of your room……… 
    Skyping with my friends at home helps a lot because they know me the best and can help in times of great doubts. Having a great place to live is the most important for me. Better to spend a bit more money on a good place and feel at home when you are at home, than stay in a dump. Treat yourself sometimes with food you know and love- like cheese for me, which is expansive but makes me feel sooooo much better during bad times 😉 

    I hope this helps a little bit and I hope you will start to enjoy your experience more after you get more used to the place you are in. Sometimes it just takes time…….

  • Anonymous

    Hello Nelleke, thanks for you wonderful comment. As a guy, I do take it for granted that I can walk around strange places with few worries. Great to hear a gal’s perspective on all this.