How living abroad can mess with your head – lessons from an expat

February 8, 2014

Living abroad can really mess with your head.

What happens to your personality when you move abroad? Can you become a totally different person just by changing your environment?

In my experience, yes, you can.

I myself, when I moved to Spain, went from being a painfully shy, bicycle-riding vegetarian to a talkative, metro riding pork aficionado in the space of a couple of years.

Now, I barely recognize the guy I was before – dear god, what an asshole!

(But to be fair, the 21-year old Mr Chorizo would probably say the same thing about the current “me”.)

If that weren’t enough, I’ve also gone from being some sort of extreme liberal to being the sort of guy who extreme liberals can’t stand… the dreaded “centrist” who thinks most politicians are morons, and that voting a certain way DOESN’T make you a good person.

That’s all another story, which I’ll tell someday…

Anyway, the other day, a friend on Facebook turned me on to an article by Chelsea Fagan on Thought Catalog. Called What Happens When You Live Abroad, it talks about the changes in a person’s personality that can come about through living in a foreign country.

I don’t exactly agree with everything she says.

For one thing, I’ve never spent a single minute longing for Arizona – but that says more about Arizona than it does about the article.

Longing to go back to a suburban hellhole in the middle of the desert? Please!

What happens in your head when you’re living abroad

However, she does talk about about a very interesting point that I’ve noticed: a lot of your habits, beliefs and personality are just reactions to your environment and the people around you.

In other words, people do and believe whatever their social group finds acceptable, and this varies widely from place to place. Change your environment and the social circle, and you just may change your personality as well.

living abroad in Spain – biblioteca nacional en Madrid
The National Library here in Madrid. I used to spend a lot of time there, reading books. You know… in the days before everything worth knowing was on the internet.

I spent a few mind-blowing hours at La Biblioteca Nacional  here in Madrid researching personality psychology one time, and the main thing that stuck with me was this definition: personality is the tendency to respond similarly each time you’re in a similar situation. Consistency in behavior over time, basically.

And in fact, when you’re put in a totally new situation, you don’t really know how you’ll respond until it happens. I know you think you can predict your response. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be wrong a lot of the time.

What does this have to do with living abroad?

Moving abroad puts you in new situations every day for months on end, which can create a huge disconnect with who you thought you were.

If you add in speaking a different language, it’s even more extreme.

Fagan, in her article, also mentions the undeniable fact that while you’re living abroad, “real life” back home is going on without you.

Everybody you grew up with is back on the ranch getting married, having kids, struggling with obesity or an economic crisis or a divorce.

They’re becoming real estate agents, life coaches, corporate execs, engineers, yoga teachers, pencil pushers or burnouts of one kind or another.

And for the most part, they’re all still hanging out together: monolingual, badly dressed, and dating or married to people they once disliked in high school.

It creates an existential dilemma that I’ve thought about many times.

My own existential crisis living in Madrid

When I was finally ready to get the fuck out of Dodge back in 2004, all the well-meaning local ignorami tried to talk me out of moving abroad.

Surely, foreign countries were dirty, dangerous and poor.

Surely I’d be kidnapped by Al Qaeda the moment I stepped off the plane.

San Francisco was supposed to be nice, and I could live  some sort of utopian extreme-liberal pseudo-European life there, without the risk of foreign travel. And of course, Portland – why, everybody was moving to Portland!

What would have happened if I had taken everybody’s advice? Would I have been happier in a US liberal ghetto? Would I have ended up teaching yoga instead of teaching English? Would I be working behind the counter at a vegan deli, struggling to pay the rent for a studio apartment in some city that actually has public transport?

Would I be dating a woman who has a feminist critique of everything? Would I still be an undernourished (and thoroughly depressed) vegetarian? Would I be riding a fixie and drinking craft beer?

I will, quite simply, never know. In the end, these ten years in Madrid have gone by as time goes by anywhere else.

And you can only be in one place at a time.

Life back on the ranch…

Now, I try to imagine moving back to Phoenix and it’s nearly impossible.

I can form a mental picture of myself sitting on the sofa at my mom’s house, probably 7 miles away from the nearest bus stop or bar, bored out of my skull and feeling like Robert De Niro in the opening scenes of Cape Fear, doing pull-ups on the frame of his prison bunk bed – “Just wait till I get the fuck out of this place, I’mma show y’all.”

I'mma beat the shit outta your negative ass, you psychic vampire of a useless human being.
I’m no DeNiro, but this is the closest thing I could find to a picture of me looking mean.

After ten years living abroad, expat life is my “real life” and what happened before is irretrievably lost – I for one have no desire to go back to my suburban wasteland so I can marry some girl from my high school.

And what is real life, anyway?

It’s all just time passing. Stuff happening. Days, weeks and months.

You might as well spend your life in a way you enjoy… whether or not it fits the cultural expectations you grew up with.

How has living abroad changed you?

Hit me up in the comments!

Yours,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Not everybody changes a lot when they move abroad, of course. I think that in my case, being 21 years old had a lot to do with it. See also: 4 Things I Wish I Had Known About Life in Madrid. And a newer, more civilized article than this one, right here on the Chorizo Chronicles: 3 ways living abroad changes you.

P.P.S. Updated, Feb 2017 – I really don’t think about how living abroad is messing with my head anymore. It’s been more than 12 years, and I’m still not contemplating going back to Arizona. Anyway…

P.P.P.S. Okay, I finally went back and visited the US. Stopped in Phoenix, even. What a dump! Although to be fair, my mom only lives 2 to 3 miles from the nearest bus stop or bar. Anyway, here’s the report: Phoenix travel tips for pedestrians and others. Enjoy!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. I was born in southern California, lived in Mexico (which I still consider home) from 1957 to 1969. My whole family still lives there – I try to get back every year or so.

    People from the US who have never lived anywhere else don’t realize that they are so insular it hurts.

    In Mexico I grew up ‘gringa’ – tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, the five Butcher girls were kind of hard not to see. You just get used to it – and people accept you or not depending on what other things happen in life.

    Once you’ve lived ANY place other than your birth city, nothing is quite as black and white – because you’ve seen it done differently without the world ending. It’s good for you. International living is even better – it expands your mind: the things that are true will remain true, and the things that were merely convenient will get held up to the light.

    I just wish I’d been able to give my kids the same experience – visits to Mexico were better than nothing at all, but they didn’t get a chance to really live there.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts – I don’t know Spain. Yet.

  2. This is a great blog. I discovered it while browsing because I have been offered a job in Madrid and wanted to know more about long term expats. Having been an expat for ten years (France, Hungary and now Vietnam), I find your take on things easy to relate to and very funny.

    While reading this article, I was really thinking you should visit Vietnam to see how being an expat could mess with your head. Then I saw your out of place sexist comment about the white woman who is bitter because she “can’t get laid.” White women here are as much of a fetish to Asian men as Asian women are to White men. While, Vietnamese men tend to be a bit too conservative for me, I’ve quite enjoyed Korean men. However, when I bring up the unwanted advances of White men towards Asian women here, or if I try to ask a guy to calm down or talk to an Asian woman politely at a bar, I get the comment you were so quick to make, “You just can’t get laid because you are a white woman.”

    Now, I have male Anglo friends here married to the loves of there lives and they are Asian women and that’s great, but I think Asia is a very easy place to become a totally different person and that happens here all too often. Men who were never laid in high school or could not or would not sleep with anyone in the States, come here and there are certain women who will throw themselves at these men pussy first. Instead of these men being happy about it, they seem to become the very people that tormented them in high school. They become the ass-hole jock that made everyone’s life miserable now that they can get a little vagina.

    Come visit Vietnam, it is surreal whether you are a male or female expat, but this is the first place I have been where the change in people who move here seems so extreme.

    I’m saving you to my favorites and I can’t wait to read the next adventures of Mr. Chorizo!

    1. Hey Linda, thanks a lot for your thoughtful note!

      I hope you picked up on the humorous intent of my “out-of-place sexist comment.” I really enjoy your image of women “throwing themselves at men pussy first”–quite a graphic idea. I’m sure I also went through a phase of being quite full of myself because attractive European women were suddenly interested in me… hopefully I’m over it now.

      Anyway, yes, I’m sure that Asia is quite different and I’d love to visit one day. I’m sure that anything I say about how Spanish life can mess with you goes 10x in Vietnam.

      If you make it to Madrid, get in touch, I’d be happy to get together for a drink.

      Thanks again,
      Daniel.

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