I’ve always gravitated toward people who were from another culture or different in some way. To me, differences are fascinating, refreshing, stimulating. When I was a university student I had a lot of friends who were international students. We spent a lot of time together, talking and sharing our cultures. I tried to help them as much as possible with any questions about America or American life and was more than curious to learn about their country, culture, customs, etc.
But when I was a student I hadn’t lived abroad yet. Now that I’ve had that experience and am able to look back upon my time spent with my international friends, I realize how ignorant I was. I had no idea what they were going through and as much as I tried to help them out whenever they needed something, I can’t help but wish that I’d understood them a little more.
Would such understanding have made a difference? I’m inclined to think so. Even if we didn’t share the experience of living as a foreigner in the same culture, knowing that someone has been through something very similar is something very comforting. While living in Russia I had more Russian friends than expat friends. But when the going got rough, I ran to my expat friends to commiserate. No one got it except for them. And as much as my wonderful Russian friends tried to help me out with my endless questions, they would never know what it felt like to be in my shoes.
So ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that living abroad is an invaluable experience because it helps you grow in so many ways but also helps you better help your friends who are experiencing the same thing. In ways I wish I’d lived abroad sooner just so I’d have been able to help my friends more. But everything worked out and now I feel that my international friends and I can relate to one another on a much deeper level because we’ve both lived abroad (and moved back home) now.