How living abroad changes us



When you move abroad, you tend to think about the experiences and friends you will make.

However, how you will change due to the experience is not something you can foresee or predict.


Photograph: iStock

Text: Shani Bishop


I have lived aboard three times now. As a child, in my twenties and then in Denmark a few decades later with my own children. Each one has changed me. Living abroad as a child didn’t appear to make any difference - it only became evident when I got to University. While I was happy to travel to Portugal for my dissertation and visit a friend in Mauritius, most people stayed home. After University, I lived in Japan. None of my university peers followed suit, and to be honest, I didn’t notice. It’s only now that I see it with clarity in the rearview mirror. Living abroad in Japan in the 1990s was rare, and people were often surprised that I wanted to go. So when the opportunity to live in Denmark came up, I was really keen. Three generations of my family have lived abroad as children, and I was keen my kids did too. Since leaving Denmark, I have noticed more differences in myself and my children.


Skills developed as an international

Since returning, the main difference I have noticed is my levels of courage and fearlessness. Meeting new people is a regular occurrence for expats - I think you just get used to it. Since returning, I approach strangers easily and form new friendships with ease. As we all know, some friendships are short and intense and others more prolonged and lasting. I used to only want the latter in the past, but now I am fine with both. This acceptance was beneficial for me as it has allowed me to enjoy the ‘now’ more.


One friend at the international school in Denmark was especially good at networking, and I learned a lot from her about how to be successful at it. At the new schools in the UK, I am happy to form parent WhatsApp groups and invite people around at a much earlier stage than before. At a party recently, a friend said, ‘Shani knows everyone’. This did surprise me but does support my theory.


Expat life is often very sociable. My friend lives in Hong Kong, and she loves how sociable it is. She expressed a worry that when she returns home, she will be limited in the scope to socialise, but I think because her mindset has changed, she will continue to be sociable but just in a different way.


How the kids change

One evening on a tourist walk in Copenhagen, I noticed that the kids from different international schools seemed to interact really easily. It was almost instantaneous with no shyness at all. If kids are coming and going in your classroom, then changing and welcoming them becomes your norm. At my son’s new school, he volunteered to be a buddy to a newcomer, so this instinct obviously stays. The arrival of children from different cultures also encourages curiosity in all things international. My son’s favourite club at his new school is Culture Club which I am sure you’ve guessed it the one centred on different countries. The session about Sinterklass before Christmas he could have taught!


The main difference I see is independence. They don’t seem to need the hand holding that their friends do when approaching new situations. Travelling and taking on new challenges seem less daunting, and they are definitely more courageous than I was at their age.

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