Gender & Identity Life

Living abroad has taught me one important thing

When I packed my bags to move to Colombia for a year, I anticipated a lot of things: culture shock, language barriers, initial discomfort. I figured, though, that after a few months I would settle into a rhythm. But one of the most challenging aspects of this year is one that I didn’t even think to prepare myself for: being alone.

I was placed in a town outside of a large city. Foreigners here are scarce. I have often found myself a spectacle and answering the same questions over and over again while wondering if the only reason people take an interest in me is because of my foreignness.

I work at a university as an English language assistant. While my days are long and I spend a lot of time planning classes, I still find myself with empty afternoons. I go to the gym, I run errands. I watch Netflix. When imagining myself living abroad, I didn’t envision the day-to-day normalcy, and yet that’s what the majority of my time has been.

At first, so much solo and unplanned time was difficult. I moved to Colombia almost immediately after graduating college, where my life was hectic. There were always things to do and places to be, and I found myself craving any stretch of time where I didn’t have an unchecked item on my to-do list looming in the background. But actually experiencing that reality has been a different story. Confronted not with checklists but empty stretches of time, I have found myself contemplating what I was really doing here in Colombia. I found myself realizing how much of a crutch keeping busy was for me during college, and that not having an occupied mind meant that it would run wild with worries and what-ifs.

I’ve always been a socially anxious person, constantly searching for external validation on my decisions. Pre-Colombia, I seldom did things by myself. Part of this is because I grew up with a twin sister, and part was because I felt like doing something without someone else meant that I was making the wrong choice. I’ve always had someone to compare my actions to: my sister, my friends, roommates or classmates. There was always a reference point to check my progress and decision making. But in Colombia, I have been mostly on my own. I don’t have an abundance of group chats to ask if someone wants to grab a meal or head to the gym. This has been a year of seeking out what I want to do: it’s so easy when you’re surrounded by others to let yourself blend into communal interests and choices.

When I first got here, I planned trips with other people, felt the need to do what everyone else was doing, and criticized myself when I didn’t feel like I was having a great time. I would go out on the weekend even if I didn’t want to. I would only visit new places when my friends went because the thought of navigating the buses and interacting with strangers in Spanish felt way too intimidating.

Pushing myself like this has been difficult, but noticing progress has been extremely validating. If I want to go out to lunch and the handful of people I know can’t accompany me, I’ll go by myself. I did a solo movie trip for the first time recently and really enjoyed it. The thought of taking a trip by myself doesn’t totally horrify me anymore, though I still haven’t done it.

Being able to be alone has given me autonomy. It has given me self-assurance in my own decisions. It has made me realize that I’m capable, and has forced myself to ask important questions about what I really enjoy, and what I have feigned interest in. It hasn’t been easy, but being alone has made me appreciate myself more than anyone else’s approval ever could.

By Paulina Rowe

Recent graduate and Real World novice from the University of Connecticut with BAs in Psychology and Spanish. Current Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Colombia. Interested in working towards education and gender equality.