My phone alarm started twinkling at 7 a.m. yesterday. I crawled out of bed and slipped on gym clothes and running shoes. I worked out. I returned to my apartment. I munched peanut butter toast while opening my laptop to begin my day of working from my cozy home office.
Such an uneventful start to a day that carries so much significance. In 2016, it wasn’t January 1st that felt like a fresh start, it was January 2nd. That was the day I left the United States with a backpack and a suitcase to start over in South America.
It’s been a year since I landed in Colombia. In the span of that year, I found a job that sponsored my work visa, started a freelance writing side hustle, moved into my own apartment, furnished that apartment, made friends, joined a women’s soccer team, snagged a boyfriend, improved my Spanish and gained about 20 pounds pigging out on delicious Colombian food. This isn’t meant to come off as a brag (especially the gaining weight part), but it’s more to show how dramatically different my life was at the end of 2016 compared to the beginning of 2016 – all because I decided to live in Colombia. This is what I learned after a year of living abroad:
A cliff seems higher when your toes are dangling off the edge
I had always wanted to live in another country, but it wasn’t until I started making concrete plans to do so that it felt like such a gigantic risk. Fantasizing about writing from a Parisian cafe or wandering around a Moroccan souk is a fun way to pass the time in a waiting room, but the risks and challenges of living abroad don’t become as apparent until the gritty planning starts.
How would I get a cell phone plan? Would my Netflix work? Would I be able to drink the water? These were the minute questions that flooded my brain. Then came the significant, anxiety-inducing ones. Was I making a mistake? Would this ruin my career? Would I come back broke? Could I handle being all alone?
The cliff I planned to jump from grew higher with each passing day and each new question. The days before I left were agonizing. January 2, 2016 rolled around. By that time, I had quit my job, moved out of my apartment, given away almost all my stuff and said my goodbyes. There wasn’t much else to do besides get on the plane, so that’s what I did. I closed my eyes and jumped and everything worked out beautifully.
Now that I have been living in Colombia for a year, I am looking at the cliff from below and it’s really not that high. Moreover, now that I know I can survive the jump, I am more self-assured about surviving any other figurative cliff jump. If for some reason, I had to pick up and start over in a new country or go back to the United States, I know I could make it work. I wouldn’t be as terrified…probably just a little scared.
Work-life balance isn’t just a buzzword
Before moving to Colombia, I was a radio news anchor in Florida. I used to wake up at 2:30 a.m. every weekday to be at the station at 3:30 a.m. We were live at 5 a.m. whether we were ready or not. I often worked 50 to 60 hours a week and lunches (more like breakfasts) were frantically eaten at my desk between newscasts. I was always exhausted. I was constantly stressed. I wasn’t healthy. This is the life of a broadcast journalist. But I knew the job would be all-consuming even before I made it into the industry, thanks to professors and intern mentors pounding that into my head. “If you want to do the news, you’re not going to have a life.” I was fine with that. I was fine with volunteering to host radio shows for extra cash on Saturdays even though I didn’t need the money. I was fine with not having a proper work-life balance because I never had one before.
Now that I work in Colombia as a marketing writer and blogger instead of a broadcast journalist, I see why everyone is pushing this whole work-life balance thing. My company lets me work from my Bogotá apartment two days a week. My coworkers and I take leisurely lunches and the weekends are mine to enjoy. I no longer feel like my life is consumed by work.
The flexibility my job provides has most definitely improved my quality of life. In general, I am more relaxed, have more time to focus on my hobbies and no longer feel like my identity is tied to my job title. If I ever start looking for a job with a new company, salary and growth opportunity will no longer be the most important components I would consider – an employer who facilitates a proper work-life balance will be a must.
On a side note, my flexible work schedule isn’t directly attributed to living in Colombia. The country observes tons of holidays, but most Colombians put in more than 40 hours a week and lots of people work Saturdays. I lucked out with my company.
Privilege comes with the passport
My United States passport means I can visit so many countries without needing a visa, including Colombia. However, Colombians and people from many other countries need to apply for a tourist visa just to step foot in the Unites States. It’s costly just to apply for these visas, and a denied application doesn’t mean you get your money back.
That’s just one of the many instances of first world privileges I benefit from in Colombia. Almost every Colombian I met this year has been welcoming, even though I am an immigrant. I am perceived as a person whose presence in Colombia somehow improves the country instead of diminishes it, just because I was born in the United States. That positive perception doesn’t fall on every immigrant. The Venezuelans I know, including my boyfriend, have not received as warm of a welcome while trying to settle in Colombia. A fact that is sadly ironic considering the thousands of Colombians who fled to Venezuela during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
And just how some people who benefit from White Privilege also deny the blatant racism that still plagues people of color in the Unites States, I originally questioned if other immigrants were really being looked down upon in Colombia just because I wasn’t being looked down upon. “You’re just being overly sensitive,” I told my boyfriend when he mentioned how he felt unwelcomed, specifically in Bogotá. But then as our relationship became more public, I started receiving microaggressions and occasional rude comments about dating a Venezuelan, even though it’s no secret my dad is also from Venezuela. I wish I would have checked my privilege sooner.
Knowledge may be power, but so is language
During the first two months of living in Colombia, I was very shy about speaking Spanish because I didn’t want to sound stupid. Even though I had studied the language in school, I had forgotten a lot of words and spoke very slowly. As someone who studied Communication and made a career out of talking into a microphone, it was – and still is – frustrating to know exactly what I want to say, but the message gets convoluted because of my limited vocabulary.
Then at some point, I realized the only way to get better was to try. So I made more of an effort to speak Spanish with my coworkers, I watched more Spanish language shows on Netflix, I went on dates with guys who only knew Spanish. Slowly, my grasp on the language improved. I began to dream in Spanish. I was able to differentiate between Colombian accents. Spanish words and phrases popped out of my mouth with less effort.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not fluent and there are still tons of words I don’t know. But I am so glad I arrived in Colombia with the foundations of Spanish so I could focus on improving rather than learning the basics. Even with my simple sentences and thick accent, I was able to make connections, explore the city on my own and integrate myself so much more smoothly compared to if I would have arrived in the country not speaking a word of Spanish.
It takes a village
An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it also takes a village to settle an immigrant. I came to Colombia alone, but so many people helped me create the life I lead today. The first friend I made in Colombia personally escorted me to a job interview because I had never used the bus. A Colombian family rented me a room before I found my apartment. A neighbor set up my cell phone plan. A coworker taught me the bus system. Teammates drove me to soccer games. My boyfriend and his family were there for me when the pangs of homesickness were the strongest.
I have never experienced more change in one year than I did in 2016. I can’t wait to see what 2017 is going to throw my way.