The Potential Loneliness of Working Abroad that No One Ever Talks About

by Mary Ellen Dingley

One of the saddest times of my life was when I was living in the beautiful, sunny Dominican Republic. I was 10 minutes from the beach, I had all the fresh fruit and vegetables and margaritas I could want, and I was miserable.

I had taken a job teaching in the Dominican Republic to gain international work experience and to improve my Spanish. It was my third time living abroad and my second time working abroad. I thought I was ready for anything, but instead I found myself spending long afternoons in my bed, holding back tears. And what was even worse? It felt like I wasn’t allowed to be sad. To others, I was on some sort of extended vacation and I should be elated to be where I was.

Girl walking on a beach
Just because a place is beautiful doesn’t invalidate your feelings of sadness or discomfort.

When we travel abroad we often get pressured into pretending to love and gush over everywhere we go and everything we see. Everything has to be “breathtaking,” “beautiful,” and “rich in something or whatever,” but sometimes working abroad is sad and lonely and hard. We should be able to talk about that. There are challenges to living and working abroad and we need to be open to discussing them. Emotional intelligence and mental health is important for us all!

I love the quote “Wherever you go, there you are,” which has been attributed to many people as far back as Confucius, and more recently to author Jon Kabat-Zinn. When we travel and when we work abroad we do not outrun ourselves, and we certainly do not outrun real life. We carry it with us. Many people, especially Americans, seem to think international travel is always a “break” from real life, always a vacation. However, being abroad doesn’t mean real life stops, or everything is perfect, or that we are suddenly happy all the time.

Reading travel articles and books might make you feel otherwise though, and comparing yourself on social media to your traveling friends makes you feel like you must be doing something wrong. You’re not. Life can be hard, both at home and abroad, but that doesn’t mean we are doing anything wrong.

Silhouette of a girl jumping at sunset
Instagram is full of lies; no one is THAT happy ALL THE TIME.

Sometimes, we just don’t jive with a place, and that’s alright. This is me giving you permission to dislike somewhere, even if you were so excited to go work there. Give everywhere a chance, obviously, but don’t feel like you have to swoon over a city you only find “ok.” I never felt at home in London, while other people love the city! I loved New Orleans, while some of my friends just were not feeling the vibe.

Sometimes, no matter how beautiful somewhere is, our real life there will be difficult. When I was teaching in the DR I found my job challenging and exhausting. I had no friends yet and felt very alone. I had studied Spanish in Peru and found it hard to understand the Dominican style of speaking. I was carrying with me the end of a romantic relationship and doubts about my future career. I felt a heavy sadness every day that the sunshine and beauty of the beaches could not lift. And that’s ok. It was ok for me to realize I was sad and why, and to let myself feel that way. Not all of life is some sort of Eat, Pray, Love or Under the Tuscan Sun story.

A new place will not necessarily “fix” you or your life. It will simply shift it. It might solve some problems, but create other challenges.
Girl sleeping in a bed with white sheets
Sometimes you need a day to stay in bed and feel all your feels.

Eventually, after I stuck it out a month in the DR, things improved, my job duties shifted, I met some people, Spanish became easier and life looked up. Even still, I will always think back to my time in the Dominican Republic with bittersweetness. It was a challenging time, but I learned so much about myself.

Just because you're not IN LOVE with a place doesn't mean the experience won't still be meaningful and shape you in certain ways. In fact, maybe those difficulties and the disconnect between you and the place is what does the trick. It teaches you a serious lesson in resilience and making the most of what you're dealt.

Being in a place you don’t love can also help you to notice things you might not if you were head-over-heels. In the DR I noticed the inequality, how horribly some of the tourists treated the locals, and a political system that was geared against people of different backgrounds. I learned a lot about the interaction between wealthy Western tourists and a tourism-based economy. I also learned to be really careful about washing your food, because you might get parasites (not a fun lesson to learn).

Girl sitting alone on a cliffside looking out at the ocean
You might not jive with a place, and that’s okay! 

When you notice these things, or when you get sick, or when life is just crummy and sad, let yourself feel that. Even if it’s a beautiful sunny day and you “should” be at the beach. If you need to sit in bed at home and binge-watch your favorite show from back home on Netflix, do that. Do what you need to do. Don’t stagnate, but give yourself a break. Allow space to feel and rest when you are having a bad day.

This is my call to action that we let ourselves be honest about how we are doing, even when we are abroad. Especially when we are abroad, perhaps. If you set off on a grand adventure to work in an exciting foreign country, and now you’re two weeks in and crying into your last box of snacks you brought from home, that is ok. You are not broken. You are not a coward. You are a normal human with normal feelings in reaction to the challenges of working abroad.

Find someone who lets you be honest about this. Don’t spend any time comparing yourself on social media. Put down the travel books that make you feel like you aren’t measuring up. Working abroad can be hard and that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. In fact, it might mean you’re doing it exactly right. It might mean that you truly care about your work abroad and you’re invested in it, and that makes the challenges just feel that much harder. You are sad and lonely right now, but that doesn’t mean your whole life will be sad and lonely.

Close up of a woman smiling
Even if you never fall in love with your host country or job, things even out, things get better.

Working abroad is an amazing opportunity. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing, and sometimes it’s choppy waters. I do not regret any of the times I have studied, volunteered, or worked abroad. I learned what I want to do in life because of my work abroad. I grew in terms of my career, my studies, and my spirit.

If working abroad is something you want to do, go for it! By all means, take that job, buy that plane ticket, go on that adventure. And always, let yourself feel whatever you feel.