5 Things Moving to Another Country Taught Me About Myself

Last year, I moved from Boston to Norway.

Living abroad has always been something on my radar—and when job opportunities arose for both my partner and me in Stavanger, we jumped at the chance. Like many people who move abroad, I was anticipating the things that most people ask about. How’s the food? Have you learned the language? What’s the weather like? How are the people different?

I have answers to all of those questions, but to me, the more interesting side of my experience is how I’ve been forced to learn, grow, and expand my boundaries as a human. Many of the most important lessons I’ve learned have been unexpected, and wildly meaningful.

Living with Uncertainty

Moving to another country has been riddled with uncertainty. A huge part of this has been tied to the immigration process. Just like the local cuisine, every country’s immigration process has its own, unique flavor. Norway’s process left me in a limbo of uncertainty for over a year—and I had to learn how to deal with that. (Aside—I know that for many immigrants and foreign workers, this process can drag on for multiple years, and they can and do face hardships must worse than I did. This is my story.)

The first hurdle in uncertainty was managing my expectations during the waiting period. Application processing time was listed at 6-10 weeks. Naively, I was hopeful that mine would come through on week 6, or week 7. No, no. It happened on week 13. My expectations left me checking my inbox, multiple times a day, for weeks on end, and worrying about something that ultimately I had no control over.

The second hurdle came when the decision finally arrived—because that decision was a rejection. Leading up to this, I tried to prepare myself for that outcome. But despite what I told myself, I never believed I wouldn’t get the permit. So when it didn’t come through, I cratered. I was filled with anger, frustration, helplessness, and then more anger.

This meant that I had to start all over, with a new, different application—one that was easier (hopefully) to get, but offered less freedom. After months of waiting, I was back to the beginning, with an even longer waiting window of 6 months. Because my partner’s permit had been accepted, we were able to relocate to Norway while I waited for the decision. Great!

Now I was living in the country, but was unable to work, unable to leave while I waited, and unsure if the application would be accepted. I’ll be honest—this process was painful. Really painful. I had days of overwhelming worry, and moments of boiling anger. I often felt like calling up the government agencies and cursing out whoever was unlucky enough to pick up the phone. I seriously contemplated working illegally, under the radar. Ultimately, the work I had to do was inside myself.

I learned from the first go round to hold the wait times loosely, and focus on what I could control. To keep sane, I built loose plans for what I would do if I were forced to leave Norway. I also built loose plans for what life in Norway would be like if my permit came through. I mentally lived through both, and found the good in both options. I gave up checking my inbox, and focused on getting outside, and exploring the beautiful country I was living in.

Eventually, after 10 months, my permit came through. I had not only achieved residency, but I had developed an enormous skill: I had learned how to exist, and be relatively OK, with a huge level of uncertainty. Maybe someday, I will be in a place where I can not only be OK in uncertainty, but thrive in it. This process brought me one step closer to that.

Finding the Balance between Adapting and Remaining True

Every culture is different. Coming from the East Coast of the US, I’m used to a tightly wound, goal-centered, driven mindset. Life in Boston is filled with hustle, and when the hustle slows down, you find a side-hustle. The way I was raised, satisfaction comes from busting your ass.

It didn’t take me long to learn that Norway’s level of hustle is different.

Norway’s workweek is 37.5 hours. Everyone gets at least 5 weeks of vacation a year, and all business grinds to a slow crawl for most of the summer. When Norwegian citizens retire, they all get a comfortable pension from the government. University education, healthcare, and loads of social services are all provided by the government.

Many aspects of this system are appealing to me. Better work-life balance. Prioritizing connection, leisure time, and the well-being of citizens. And yet, to me, there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from throwing everything I have into a task, getting things done quickly and well, and then being proud of the result. Like a proper Bostonian, I also like to stab out in different professional directions beyond my day job, and take on new challenges, because that’s often where I learn and grow.

Even though that works for me, I can’t expect the people here to adapt to my work ethic. This has not been easy, especially with those that are working under me.

But I am learning to respect the mindset here, and yet still be true to myself. I work my tail off when I need to, but I’m learning to be OK when others do not match my level of hustle. I am learning to slow down, too, and have a better work-life balance, while still holding onto what works for me. Working to find that balance between the new and old is a rewarding challenge.

Having Hard Conversations

Historically, I have been conflict avoidant. I am the diplomatic one, who tries to stop a conflict before it starts, and I will often shove down my wants and needs in order to not enter conflict. Leaning into conflict, and taking care of myself is something I’ve been working on for years, with slow, but gradual progress. The process was put into high gear when I moved to Norway.

One arena is party noise from upstairs neighbors. In Boston, where we lived before, super loud parties often warrant noise complaints to the cops. Here, the mentality is ‘it’s just what young people do,’ and everyone is expected to give them a free pass—even when the bass is so loud that the ceiling is bumping, and I can’t sleep before work the next day, many days in a row.

The job I walked into was challenging from the start. Confusing communication, chaotic structure, understaffing, and inconsistent leadership styles led to a stressful, and dysfunctional environment. I also discovered that it’s not very common for employees to push back against management, at least compared to what I was used to. But I cared about this job. I wanted the business to succeed. And I hadn’t moved all the way across the ocean to get run over.

The result has been a number of hard, ongoing conversations—that spanned months. I’ve learned how to stand my ground, and speak my mind, in a way that I never have before. I’ve tried to retain my diplomatic approach, while not letting it take over. With all of the uncertainty about how long I would be able to stay, I wasn’t as afraid of losing my stability by sticking my neck out too far at work. For the first time in my life, I consistently stood up for myself, even though it was often very unpleasant.

Some good things came of those conversations. Some things stayed the same. But learning how to flex this muscle has done wonders to my confidence. It has helped me professionally. It has helped me in my relationship. I still slip into my old patterns, and I have a ways to go. But the progress is undeniable. Leaning into conflict like that was rough, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

There are No Wrong Decisions

Late this spring, prospects of staying long-term in Norway looked bleak. It was unclear if I would be able to stay long-term on the residence permit that I received, as it was bound to expire, and it was not the ideal permit. On top of that, my workplace was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and trying desperately to find new owners to scoop up and try and save the business. I was in a dilemma. Do I pour myself into a job that has such questionable prospects? Do I buy a car and get settled into life here if there’s a good chance that I will have to leave in 4-6 months? Or do I pull the ripcord now, cut my losses, and start planning a move back stateside?

When I looked at this crossroads with a perfectionist mindset, I believed that one of these decisions was the best decision, and my goal was to find that decision and go with it. With a progress mindset, any decisions I made would be a good decision, because I would learn and grow from it, and doors would open from it down the road.

I’ve embraced this progress mindset as best I can, and it has offered a shred of peace in an otherwise tumultuous circumstance. Uncertainty still dominates my life, but it’s my choice about how I choose to react to it. I choose to prioritize my growth over a quest for unattainable perfection.

Transitions are Hard but Worth It

My whole life, I have dreaded transitions. When they arrive, I am overwhelmed by fears and worries, and the transition period itself is completely miserable, as I’m just counting the seconds until it is over. It happened when I first left home and went to university, and again when I spent a summer volunteering in Brazil. It happened when I graduated college and stepped into the workforce. It happened when long-term relationships ended, and it happened when I moved to another state. Every time, the transition sucked—and I told myself that I was bad at transitions, and I would always be bad at transitions.

Then I moved abroad. This transition has been on a whole different level. With visa complications, rampant uncertainty, and learning to stand up for myself, not to mention navigating a foreign place in a foreign language, it’s been an ongoing, and exhausting, transition. At over a year and a half and counting, this is by far the longest transition period of my life.

Many months in, I hit a point where I stopped focusing on how bad it was, and looked at why it was so miserable for me. My partner was going through the same transition, and she was not wrecked by it like I was.

It wasn’t the transition that was the problem. It was me, and how I approached it. It was the story I told myself, that I didn’t have what I needed in order to thrive in transitions.

That story is not true—and everything I’ve learned from this experience is evidence of it. Settling into uncertainty, leaning into hard conversations, embracing progress over perfection, and letting go of things I can’t control—those are all the skills a person needs in order to thrive in transition. I am building that toolset. I am becoming better, and more capable, at handling transitions—I just need to believe it.

Moving to a foreign country has been an emotional rollercoaster full of twists and turns I never would have anticipated. It’s held pain and suffering. It’s produced insane growth, skills, and awareness.

I can say, at this point, with 100% confidence, that it has all been worth it.


Jonathan is a writer and rock-climbing routesetter currently based out of Stavanger, Norway. He has worked as a magazine editor, a corporate storyteller, and his fiction is represented by Jabberwocky Literary Agency. When he’s not wielding words or making people fall off walls, he’s probably outside somewhere, hiking or climbing or surfing poorly.


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