There were two things I did this week. The first was buying a pair of gold hoop earrings to commemorate the end of a long chapter and the start of a new one. The second being digging up these photos to remember the precise moment I realized I would be living in London a lot longer than the 1 year I had anticipated (and just celebrated) and the start of a new business venture that would make the next 6 years of my life one of the most challenging, yet rewarding.
I’ve been avoiding writing this post for so long because I didn’t know how to say it, embrace it, or even understand it. The majority of my adult life was spent in the UK and though I could call it home, it felt very foreign to me at the same time. When I came back to America in 2019, it was more of a pause in my life to assess what I wanted to do–and going back to the UK was the only option on the table. The London chapter was not easy and probably even tougher for me than my fellow ex-pats with navigating immigration, bureaucracy with a business, and trying to fit in without a support network was isolating and challenging. As much as the pandemic put a damper and hold on my plans, I think it was a blessing in a twisted way as it allowed me to figure out what it was that I wanted and needed. When I put myself outside of the London landscape, I finally got a chance to breathe and reflect. There were a lot of tough realizations that surfaced and with that I came to the conclusion that I needed to end my chapter in London. It was time as I outgrew the political risk industry and was ready to embrace leading a life that better reflected work-life balance. Alongside my thought process surrounding my decision, I think this post would be better suited for sharing life lessons I learned from living abroad.
Immigrant status is difficult.
Most of us can’t imagine what this is like, but it is tough and scary. The fact that your life could change in the blink of an eye even after living somewhere for 5+ years is intimidating. The bureaucracy, classism, racism, and everything in between are all very real. Like most Americans, I thought nothing of it when I first got to the UK and then came to realize how much of a challenge it is to do just about anything. Every decision you make from buying property, having children, to preparing for retirement has a series of obstacles attached to it specifically for immigrants. My added layer included being a woman of color–that I feel no one truly understood.
Saying please and thank you goes a long way.
This is a universal rule, but when you’re abroad it has to be amplified. It’s the simplest way of showing kindness and respect. Did I get it in return? Not really. But when you put in the effort to do small things, it makes a big difference. There were plenty of moments that my “thank you” and a smile made someone’s day and you need that positive energy on your side.
Being content with less.
I initially considered myself a maximalist because I craved having nice things. When I lived in London, I didn’t even have a bookshelf in my name and often rented fully furnished Ikea-laden flats to get me by. There was a turning point during my life abroad–my parents know me as the 17-year-old child that once lived with them more than a decade ago. After spending a few months with my mom after coming back from London, she realized how much I had changed and how content I was with what I had and experienced. I was pleased with the little things like cooked dinners and evening strolls and despite having a material-focused blog, it didn’t define me.
Embrace where you are.
With that said, being present and embracing where you are was the most important thing I had to learn since my personal relationship with London was quite difficult. I didn’t allow my parents to ship things from the US nor did I go hunting for my American favorites. Instead, I embraced everything the UK offered me and adapted to the culture to the best of my ability. The moment I realized that this country is the one that offered me an opportunity and gave me the ability to feed myself, everything just fell into place and it was so much easier to assimilate.
You will evolve as quickly as you have to adapt.
Life moves fast when you move abroad and to a place that is foreign to you. Asking a few friends who lived in other cities (and remote towns) around the world, exclaimed saying the same thing. From seeing how other American ex-pats led their lives in London, I found that those that let their new world shape who they become make them resilient and dynamic–setting them up for success!
Navigating back into my comfort zone.
The new place, rules, guidelines, stipulations, and everything in-between can be pretty intimidating. I never felt “safe” immediately in almost any situation. Being an outlier had become the norm for me and it made me incredibly resilient in the end as I learned to find comfort in tough situations, grew out of my shell, and turned those moments into opportunities. The most powerful of life lessons I learned from living abroad.
Learn to cope with change.
If there was one thing that I struggled with before moving to London it was the ability to cope with change. Even the happiest of changes made me feel anxious. Living in a transit and energetic city like London, you learn to say “hello” and “goodbye” to the sweetest people. In the tough times, you learn to accept the past and fight for the future. This felt powerful to grasp, hone, and learn.
People will not completely understand you.
Oh, they did not. I almost had to fight for a place, people often misunderstood me, and it was something I grappled with a lot even after coming back. In America, I associate myself as an Indian American with strong values and beliefs. Most of the people I met in London didn’t fully understand that side of me–often associating me with privilege that I did not have as an immigrant woman of color operating in a white male-dominated industry. I was mostly gaslit in form of discrediting, deflecting blame, using compassion as a weapon, and rewriting what happened. How I overcame those? Journaling and eventually finding my truth.
Reverse culture shock exists.
I think I’m going to do a whole other post about reverse culture shock because a paragraph just simply isn’t enough. If it wasn’t for my friend Maria, who spent time in China as I did in London, I would have felt extremely isolated. Even though I had accomplished so much whilst in London, I had very little to nothing to show for it–and everyone around me in America seemed to have progressed and moved forward with a house, new family, or anything else tangible. The added layer of the pandemic made it especially difficult, but we will deep dive into this later as I’m still elucidating my feelings. This is the dirty side of life lessons I learned from living abroad.
Learned to trust my gut, but use my head.
A lot, if not all, my situations and challenges required careful thinking. When I first started my consultancy, I was taking plenty of risks including jumping into entrepreneurship being freshly in London. A combination of trusting my gut and using my head to devise a plan landed me the most incredible opportunities! This was one of the most important life lessons I learned from living abroad.
It will change your life.
The night of my graduation from grad school, I asked my dad what I should do. My only tangible offer was from London and I couldn’t fathom the idea of being in a completely different country from my friends and family. It was only a 1-year contract with an opportunity to work with some of the most incredible leaders in my industry. His answer was simple: “go.” Through the toughest of times, the last 7 years were still the most rewarding journey. I got to spend most of my 20s in the UK to make a name for myself in the international arena as an expert–coming home with memories, friends, opportunities, and boundless strength. To think that in such a place, I led such a life. Thank you for sticking with me throughout my London journey.