November is always a nostalgic, sentimental time of year as Thanksgiving grows closer and everyone seems to be in the spirit of sharing their gratitude and reminders to be thankful for what we have in this life. My experience living abroad in Spain is something that I don’t always take the cue to be thankful for, but it has touched almost every aspect of my life and made me into the person I am today. While Thanksgiving can often be a hard time for North Americans to be away from home, I hope that sharing my reasons for being thankful for this opportunity will provide you with a bit of comfort, perspective, and joy—especially if you will be spending the holidays away from home this year.
The reasons I have to be thankful for my time abroad are vast and endless, but I’ll try to sum them up into the following five points:
Increased open-mindedness and awareness:
Claudia and I talk almost endlessly on this blog about the importance of cultural competences (if you don’t know what I mean, see here, here, and here) but that’s because it’s something that is so essential to our experience. Moving to Spain to study abroad was the first time I really stepped out of my comfort zone. It was the first time I was ever in the shoes of the ‘outsider,’ the first time I was perhaps judged for not knowing the language perfectly or acting in a culturally inappropriate way.
This was scary and continues to make me feel vulnerable, but it has been so important because it has allowed me to have more empathy and understanding for others when the roles are reversed. It has taught me that what is normal to me is not normal to everyone, which really drives home the belief that different is not wrong and there are, in fact, many viable ways to do anything. It has made me more aware of other cultures and given me the curiosity and interest to understand them better, allowing me to connect with so many people I would have otherwise never known. And in the process of getting to know more about them, I started to know more about myself as well.
Appreciation for where I come from:
Personally, I think it’s impossible to live abroad—where you end up analyzing the new culture around you on a daily basis—and not analyze your own culture more. The times at which I started to incorporate Spanish ways of doing things into my routine as well as the times in which I resisted the Spanish way fervently has taught me a lot about who I am, where I come from, and what I value.
I may have moved here for the no pasa nada attitude and the more balanced live-to-work mentality, but my American side comes out strong when I have to deal with bureaucracy or wait forever on a simple service. I value efficiency and am a bit of a ‘hustler’ in ways I hadn’t realized until I was comparing myself again a different country’s culture. Even though I love living in Spain, there is a part of me that will always remain true to my American upbringing. And I’m proud of that. I also now recognize how fortunate I was to be born in the country I was—a country whose passport allows me travel relatively stress-free, among many other advantages.
Greater independence and self-reliance:
Living in a foreign country has taught me how to do things on my own, how to not rely on my mom to set up my doctor’s appointments, and how to survive as an adult who pays for her own living expenses. Of course, this has resulted in its ups and downs; I don’t always know the right answer and sometimes I’ve had to accept that asking for help is the only way to resolve my issue. However, being far from home and therefore unable to fall back on my parents or friends to figure things out for me has made me much more self-reliant. I now know that I can handle most anything that life throws at me on my own. It makes me more confident in my abilities and proud of the accomplishments and successes I’ve had because I feel like I can genuinely take credit for them.
Appreciation for my amazing family and friends:
But whether I can handle it on my own or not, living abroad has reminded me just how incredibly blessed I am to have the support systems that I do. While I may not have my parents and best friends living in the same city, I know that they are all just a phone call away and always there for me regardless. In odd ways, I almost feel like some of my friendships have strengthened due to the distance, allowing us to rely not our proximity to keep our friendship alive but instead to have to dig deeper to stay connected despite the miles between us.
Being far away from friends and family has opened my eyes to how much they mean to me and allowed me not to take that connection for granted. As things get hectic in all of our lives, we certainly don’t always find time to connect on a daily basis but I know that we have laid the foundation for relationships that can stand the test of time and distance. I know that my peeps back home care deeply about me and that the feeling is mutual. Personally, I think it would be impossible for me to be mentally stable enough to survive in a foreign country without that. It is only with their support that I have been able to be the best version of myself, attracting new friends into my life who are the kinds of people I know I can count on, too.
Love and belonging:
Last but most certainly not least, I am deeply grateful for the love and sense of home I have found in Spain. And when I talked about “love and home” I mean this in two separate but (now) intertwined ways. When I first moved back to Granada many people asked me if it was “for love” and I would get frustrated because others were only thinking about a romance between people when they used this terminology. For me, I HAD fallen deeply in love, but that love was for a place and the feeling it gave me. For me, there has always been something special about Spain and particularly Granada that has felt like home right from the start. That’s why I returned to Spain!
And because I followed my heart back to this country, I have since found the love of my life in a person as well. I am now married to the person whose arms feel like home even more than this city does and that would have never happened if not for living abroad. Not only would it geographically not have been possible to meet my Oli if I hadn’t moved to the south of Spain like he did but I also don’t think I would have been the person he fell in love with if not for the life experience I gained from living abroad. I am a different person for having had this experience and I honestly believe I am a better person than I was before I moved to Spain…
I can now say with gumption that I am more open-minded, more appreciative, more independent, more loving and even more loved due to my abroad experience. For me, studying abroad altered the course of my life completely. It led to years spent teaching abroad and now living abroad permanently. It has changed my life forever and for that I am truly, truly grateful.
I hope you find many reasons to be thankful for your abroad experience as well!