In February 2011, I made the impulsive decision to move abroad to Istanbul. At the time, the decision wasn’t too well thought out and to most of my friends and family, it was more or less a bad idea. I had no job waiting for me in Turkey and had planned only a couch to crash on for the first few weeks. Five years later, I can say that it was the best decision of my life. In honor of those 5 years, here are 5 reasons why living abroad – truly settling and immersing in another culture – has changed me for the better.
1. It Reshaped My Values
I graduated Harvard in 2010, and up until that point, I had always been a go-getter with this constant anxiety to fulfill “the American Dream”. After all, I was the daughter of an immigrant father, who had been in pursuit of the rags-to-riches destiny since before I was born.
In college, a lot of value was placed on venturing into elite occupations, especially those in finance, law, or medicine. None of these paths appealed to me, yet I still felt the stress to stand out and be the best at whatever I did. Sure, I was Type-A, but I don’t think I was unlike many other Americans from my generation who seek the glory in attaining an immense level of success, notoriety, or fame in whatever they do. There was no such thing as comfort, settling, or just being okay with the way things were. Tomorrow always held promise, and I lived in anticipation of it.
When I moved to Turkey, I was forced to slow down. A lot. There is most certainly ambition in Turkey, but things move at a far slower pace and a lot of value is placed in relationships with friends, neighbors, and family over professional prowess. People don’t really sit at home after work or tuck themselves in early – they go out and socialize until the late hours. Meanwhile, most people are okay with the status quo and are not stressing themselves up the corporate ladder. At first, I took this dynamic as a bad thing, thinking, “Why is everyone so lazy?” But it’s not really about being lazy. Instead, it’s about making enough money to survive and then placing value on other things in life that actually matter, like family and leisure.
After five years of living in Istanbul, I’ve become much more relaxed about my professional goals and have stopped comparing myself to others in pursuit of the impossible.
2. It Made Me Fearless
Living alone in a relatively rough city has tested my street smarts and pushed me to be emotionally and outwardly aggressive in ways I normally wouldn’t be. To get things done here, you have to skip the niceties, talk louder, and push harder. I know that I am taken less seriously than a man would be (and by a much larger margin than in the U.S.), so out of necessity, I have to rise to the challenge in order to get things done in the workplace and out on the streets in everyday life.
3. It Re-Enforced My Femininity
The main difference between my friendships in Istanbul and those in the U.S. is the physical aspect. What I mean by this is that my girlfriends and I share a physical closeness that I could not even begin to fathom being appropriate with my friends in the U.S. When I walk down the street with my best Turkish girlfriend, we hold hands with clasped fingers and unabashedly poke and touch each others' bodies whenever relevant. There is no thought or intention behind it except the idea that we are both women, on the same team, and our prerogative as such is to treat each others' bodies as known territories. Now, this may be a more Turkish/Middle-Eastern dynamic rather than something characteristic of other countries around the world, but it is something I’ve come to truly love and appreciate since moving here. When I greet my friends with a hug, we embrace each other closer and more meaningfully. In this, we become not only emotionally dependent on one another but also physically dependent. We are fulfilled in more ways than one.
Meanwhile, the close physical relationship among females takes incessant comparing and judging out of the equation. I have a much stronger body image because the physical contact I experience on a daily basis doesn’t demonize the female form – it celebrates it. I am not alone in my skin – I share my body with my friends as a source of gratitude, joy, and love and they return the sentiment.
4. It Made Me More Open-Minded
This takeaway sounds eye-roll-worthy cliché, but it’s true! Living abroad does something incredible: it takes all of the boxes you’ve created in your mind that help you organize your perception of people within a society – say, America – and dismantles them. You no longer can easily compartmentalize people based on their gender, interests, occupation, race, etc. Instead, everyone becomes fair game and you find yourself befriending people who you would otherwise shun based on how you perceive the world. Living abroad doesn’t offer that luxury. Instead, it throws all sorts of characters your way and trust me, you want to catch them all! You are exposed to an eclectic bunch and you learn more not only about others and their approach to life but also about yourself. When you start to see an ounce of your reflection in people who seem nothing like you, you’ll begin to feel a shift in how you’ve boxed yourself your entire life.
5. It Made Me More Honest
One of the first things I began to become self conscious about after moving abroad was how often I infused filler words and phrases into conversation in order to either apologize for something that didn’t warrant an apology in the first place, diffuse a confrontation, or reduce the chance of an awkward silence. I was eager to be polite and politically correct and thus didn’t say exactly how I felt when I felt it, but at my own expense. In general, people are far more honest outside of the U.S. and are less inclined to be “fake” for the sake of appearing kind.
Over the years, I took on the habit of saying less and meaning more. With that, I am a better representation of myself. I’ve become more honest to my friends and family and have avoided being passive-aggressive to the point that it makes me angry and resentful toward others.
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