I have been living away from home for a long time now – it’s almost a decade since I moved out for the very first time, as a naive sheltered 17-year-old girl. Nearly five of those years have been spent in New York City. That’s half a world away from India, away from where I grew up, away from all the people I love the most. I have had to build my support system from the ground up, while also learning to navigate the streets, conduct research in a new lab, and understand the culture of a foreign city. It’s been quite the ride, and I have lived and experienced every moment to the fullest – the highs and the lows, the twists and turns, the victories and delights, and all the bumps and bruises. And while I have many, many thoughts on how my life has turned out based on all the choices I have made so far, it’s hard to sum up what this phase of my life has meant to me. What does living all alone in a foreign country entail? Is it the best of times, or the worst of times? Is it a glamorous adventure, or the toughest of challenges?
The best part of living abroad by yourself? Most definitely the independence. The freedom of living life on your own terms, and exploring the streets of a strange and exciting city. The sheer independence of not having anyone to care about what you wear, where you go, or what time you get back home. The ability to test your own limits and set your own curfews. The liberty to spend your money on whatever you deem necessary, be it Seamless deliveries at midnight, or a cute mermaid tail blanket just because you saw it and now cannot live without it.
Living abroad by yourself is when you can immerse yourself in a whole new culture. It’s fascinating to observe how fast people walk, the left-right escalator etiquette, the public transport system. And if you live in NYC, every now and then you’ll come across a new location which seems strangely familiar – before you realize, oh right, countless movies and TV shows have been shot here. Oh, these are the steps in Central Park where Blair and Chuck from Gossip Girl got hastily married. This is the Roosevelt Island tram which White Collar’s gorgeous Neal Caffrey climbed up to escape capture. You can scout out all the famous locations, but you can also hunt down tiny little bookstores, in alleyways you wouldn’t wander down in the dark, and find new hidden cafes with nondescript doors and wonderfully eclectic interiors. Everything is ready and waiting to be discovered – like being in a real-life choose-your-own-adventure book with multiple chapters and endings just waiting to be explored.
Living abroad on your own also leads to self-exploration. You end up surrounded by a completely new culture, and you get to decide if you want to hold on fast to your own culture, adopt the new one, or find your own unique blend of old and new – your own set of beliefs and rules, and use them to fine-tune your moral compass. Living abroad is the time when you can figure out who you truly are, far away from all the expectations and societal pressures – getting some distance is what allows you to recognize those, and realize how much you’ve unquestioningly internalized. You can now question what you’ve never questioned, behave in a way you’d never have imagined, figure out the person you truly are – underneath all the people-pleasing, expectations-fulfilling, rule-following persona you’ve developed over time naturally and unthinkingly because that’s just the way it was. Living abroad allows you to remove all those masks and uncover how unconscious your core beliefs and biases are. It helps you grow into an authentic, messy, real version of yourself – and forces self-discovery like nothing else. Living abroad is an exciting, thrilling, and fascinating experience – I highly recommend it!
What’s the worst part of living abroad by yourself? Once again, the independence. The anonymity of being all alone in the crowd, and not having anyone who cares about what you wear, where you go, and what time you get back. There’s nobody who would automatically check in on you. It’s surprisingly easy to become isolated. You’re all by yourself in a completely new place, and every step is a new challenge – from finding the nearest grocery store and navigating unfamiliar social situations, to filing for taxes, and getting your social security number. Coming home at the end of the day can feel dreary, because you’re welcomed only by your (most likely, unmade) bed, and perhaps a plant or two. There’s no warm food on the table, no warm companion to ask how your day was. There’s no automatic social interaction after coming home, unless you specifically make plans with friends. You’re completely by yourself, and while that sense of freedom is liberating, it can also get lonely.
Also, the whole process of figuring out who you really are and testing your limits and beliefs is not easy. It’s unnerving to question what you’ve always held true. The transition period while you’re coming to terms with loosening your grip on the old belief system, and building a new one? It’s uncomfortable. It’s disturbing, because all of a sudden, ideas are fluid instead of rigid – and if you can’t rely on what you’ve held onto for twenty-something years, what’s the guarantee that this new system will serve you? All the absolutes start dissolving into relatives, there is no perfect right or wrong anymore. While building your own system from the ground up is essential for personal growth and self-awareness, the process can be rather bewildering . Change is good, but change is also hard, and while adventures are really exciting, they are by nature quite terrifying as well.
Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Would I head out on a whole new adventure, or would I prefer stability and familiarity? Will I spread out my wings and fly out to a whole new phase of my life, or will I hang up my boots, and say, enough flying, I’m done – I know who I am now, and am happy with it, so now, after having accumulated all that experience and knowledge – watch me put down my roots now?
I’ve thought about it long and hard, and my conclusion is: while the idea of safe familiarity is tempting, so very tempting at times – I am an adventurer at heart. I’m always looking for the next challenge, the next hurdle, the next battle. I am not the kind of person who would be happy to settle for just good enough – I always want to be better, do better, strive for more. That path isn’t always easy, but it’s the path I choose. It’s the path I want. The bumpy one, with the crazy ups and downs. Because while the lows can be devastating indeed, the highs are just so incredibly rewarding. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. So bring on the next adventure. And watch me fly!