I grew up with a single teenage mom and a severely disabled brother, which means that from a young age I had to take charge and take care of myself. Going to college was a blessing for me, because not only was I completely ready for it, I needed it. I needed that first, true taste of independence.

Aside from adventure, I think that was also my reason for going abroad. I needed complete independence.

Having spent the majority of my 20s outside the US, this is where I have done my growing up. In a lot of ways being abroad has held me back – I am completely clueless when it comes to things like getting a mortgage or setting up an IRA. People I went to high school with have kids, and I am struggling to take care of my pet crab. However, I’m completely used to things  that I wouldn’t have had to learn back home, like navigating in countries in which I do not understand the language and dealing with visa issues.

Each country I’ve lived in has taught me something new.

Ecuador: #1 Don’t be a dumbass. #2 Things will not always live up to your expectations, and it’s OK to admit you were wrong and start something else.

I went to Ecuador for the first time when I was 19, for a short study abroad, and returned when I was 21. I did an internship for a daily newspaper called El Mercurio and for some reason, was surprised when they did not hire me on as a full-time writer, even though I was a shitty intern. Then I found a job working for a fashion and lifestyle magazine called BG (Belleza y Glamour). It was not nearly as glamourous a job as I thought and involved a lot less writing and a lot more combing the internet for possible subjects to talk about. I felt weird writing about dog spas and Gucci in a developing country in which nearly 1/5 of the population lives in poverty and the per capita income is $6,000/year.

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Another lesson: If you spend carnival in Latin America, you will spend three days soaking wet and covered in foam in a game the locals call, “GET THE WHITE GIRL.”

It took me a while to admit that I wasn’t happy, because I was too busy riding on the high of being abroad and feeling special for it. I also had other things to worry about: for example, I was only earning $3oo/month in Ecuador, which was barely enough to live on, and my six-month grace period on my student loans was about to run out. The smart thing to do was to go home.

During this time I was partying a lot – Wednesday to Saturday, basically. One night I was out at the foreigner bar, Inca Lounge, when I ran out of cash and didn’t have enough for a taxi back to mine. It’s only a 15 minute walk, so I decided to walk it. This is a stupid idea, as even though Ecuador is not as dangerous as people expect it to be, you still need to use your head. I ended up getting robbed at knife point.

Seriously, guys. Don’t be as fucking stupid as I was.

South Korea: #3 Don’t sacrifice parts of yourself to live up to someone else’s expectations. #4 Consequently, don’t let someone become your life.

In Korea I dated this dude, a fellow American expat, that I went head over heels crazy for. He was the exact opposite of me: quiet, reserved, religious. I think the reason I fell for him was because I thought he would provide the stability that I had always longed for growing up. He seemed so normal.

I spent most of my time with him. He didn’t like going out and drinking, so I stopped going out with my friends. He took life so seriously, so I stopped joking about well, everything. When he broke up with me, I was completely lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I didn’t know how to live without him.

Thankfully, my friends were still there for me. I didn’t spend a single weekend alone, cause I was too busy hanging out with all these kickass people. I wondered why I spent all my time with him when he was so boring, when I knew all these other fun and interesting people. It made me realise that in relationships, if I need to pretend to be someone I’m not, then that’s not a good relationship.

Hong Kong: #5 Just date your best friend, already. #6 Sometimes people are really fucking mean, and that’s how life is.

Part of the reason I moved to Hong Kong was because I actually knew someone here and wasn’t just leaping in blind. That person had been a good friend of mine for years, and we always knew there was something there between us. However, we never lived in the same place at the same time, and I would always freak out and run. Me moving to Hong Kong was the first time it was actually possible for us to try dating each other.

We’ve been together for two years and we live together. I’ve realised since then that I needed to make mistakes and screw things up with other people before I was mature enough to get together with him. However, don’t make up the excuse that you don’t want to date your best friend because you are afraid of ruining the friendship. If you’re not interested in that person romantically, just come out and say it. If you are, make the leap. Sure, it could end badly. But it could also turn out awesome.

Also in Hong Kong, I’ve learned that some people are just mean, for little or no reason, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you’re an expat, you’re meeting all kinds of people from all over the world. There are all sorts of backgrounds and cultures mixing together. I believe that a lot of expats have a few things in common though; they tend to be outgoing and have strong personalities (I mean, you would have to in order to move to the other side of the world, right?) This can cause a lot of clashes and a lot of problems.

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If you’re up for it, try doing stand-up comedy. Nothing else has increased my confidence and tolerance for bullshit so much as being on stage.

Sometimes people are mean and horrible, and karma doesn’t always come around to bite them in the ass, as much as you would like it to. There may never be a moment of clarity in which they realise, “Holy crap, I have said/done really mean things,” and that really, really sucks. However, there’s no need to waste time getting upset about things you have no control over. Why worry about something you can’t change? It’s much easier to go on living your life and to try to be the best person you can be.

I’m certain I would have learned all these same things back home, just in different ways. They’re life lessons that everyone figures out eventually, and figuring them out is just one step on the road of adulthood. Now, can someone please explain how to set up an IRA?

-D

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