Big decisions: Living abroad

Why I moved abroad and why I’m not planning on going home anytime soon

Why I moved abroad and why I’m not planning on going home anytime soon

What to know about living abroad - Nell McShane WulfhartMoving abroad is like taking up horseback riding or learning a new language — nice to dream about, but somehow it keeps getting pushed to the back burner. For me, moving abroad was something that started in college and just kept going.

I went to college in Dublin — yes, all four years. Ireland was familiar (my mother is from there) but different enough to be interesting. And it offered the chance to visit the rest of Europe, with alluring cities just an hour’s plane ride away. I learned to pronounce “Smithwick’s” properly, to turn on the hot water heater 30 minutes before I wanted a shower, and to embrace a more cosmopolitan mindset that was full of ideas that didn’t center around America.

Postcollege, I returned to Philadelphia. I worked in medical publishing, went out all the time, shared an apartment with my best friend … and was bored. I was itching for a change, so I moved to Saigon, almost on a whim.

I wasn’t sure what to expect: I knew only that the weather was hot and the food was good. The cost of living was also lower. I ended up staying for four and a half years — zipping around the city on a motorbike, heading to the beach on weekends, and working at an expat magazine writing about the city’s food, nightlife, and culture.

This was where I started freelancing as a travel writer; Vietnam was just beginning to become a popular destination, and English and American journalists there were few and far between. Did I think about returning to the U.S.? No, although there were things I missed. Once, I flew home for Christmas and the immigration officer at the Newark airport noticed I hadn’t been back for a year. “Welcome home!” he said, and I started beaming and couldn’t stop.

Post-Vietnam, I traveled in East Africa for six months, then moved to Israel for eight months, then moved to Seoul for a year. Staying abroad made sense as a career decision: I was becoming a full-time travel writer, thanks to my on-the-ground knowledge, and writing for more prestigious publications all the time. Since then I’ve moved to Uruguay, using it as a base for travel to Colombia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and plenty of other places.

Whether to stay abroad or return to the U.S. isn’t a question any more. Although life in the States is easier — people speak English! you can buy everything online! — I wouldn’t trade those conveniences for the thrill of taking road trips up the Uruguayan coast and going to hear Argentinean bands play at local clubs. Living abroad, whether it’s Montevideo or Nairobi, doesn’t feel alien anymore. It feels like home.

Moving abroad is like taking up horseback riding, or learning a new language — nice to dream about, but somehow it keeps getting pushed to the back burner.

Financial factors: living abroad

Even in a country that seems culturally similar — such as Canada or England — you need to think carefully about your finances.

  • Where you’ll bank. In some countries, opening an account can be an arduous process.
  • What impact currency exchange rates will have as you move money between your U.S. accounts and your foreign bank.
  • How often you’ll travel home and how much it will cost.
  • How working abroad could affect your U.S. retirement savings. Will you still be able to contribute to a U.S. IRA or 401(k)?

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