In 2012 I spent almost three months living in Singapore as a part of a training program for a year in the mission field (which is a story for another day). I was 21 years old and had only ever left the country for a five-day trip to Costa Rica, so I was full of anxiety and nervous anticipation. I knew nothing about the tiny city-state at the southernmost tip of Malaysia, other than the jokes I’d heard at some point about gum being illegal (and it is … you can chew it, but they don’t sell it anywhere).
After nearly 33 hours of travel, I landed. I felt small, homesick, and overwhelmed by how different everything was from home. As I rode with the people who came to pick me up, practically strangers at that point, I fought back tears of exhaustion. I was so far from home and overcome by all the different smells and little nuances of this new country.
Over the next few days, and several tearful calls home, I began to wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake. I slowly adjusted to my jet lag, but could barely choke down the tofu or lotus soup that my very hospitable host family gave me. Once I started my training program, I was on a rigorous schedule and barely had time to sleep. I missed my family deeply and the reality that I still had over a year to go felt crushing.
This was a critical moment that faced me, and it wouldn’t be the last. We all have the choice in moments of discomfort, fear, or stress to turn back or to face challenges head-on and take them as opportunities to grow. I have to admit I wasn’t a very willing pupil at first, but I learned some really valuable takeaways that are true in both Singapore and America.
Here are the 3 life lessons I learned from my year spent overseas:
1. Trying new, intimidating things provides an opportunity to discover things you enjoy.
I’d never used public transportation before Singapore, and as silly as it seems, I was super intimidated to try it. Thankfully I didn’t have a choice and was thrown headlong into figuring out the whole bus/MRT system after only a handful of hours in the country. Much to my surprise, I survived. I even started to love getting on the MRT and riding it farther and farther each chance I had, and actually got to the point where I felt relaxed and at home during my commutes. In fact, towards the end of my training, I’d take buses and trains all day on my days off to explore. To this day, traveling around on new transportation is fun and exciting to me, which I wouldn’t have ever learned had I not put myself in a situation that made me uncomfortable.
We all have the choice in moments of discomfort, fear, or stress to turn back or to face challenges head-on and take them as opportunities to grow.
2. Your culture doesn’t necessarily get everything right, so open up your ears and listen.
As humans, we tend to be very egocentric in our thought process as we deal with others, and potentially even more so when we interact with people of a different nationality or culture than our own. (Sometimes we don’t even need to leave our small sphere of influence to meet others that have different experiences and wisdom to share!) No matter how much you think you know, you can always learn more! I started asking questions and made an effort to observe others and their mannerisms. I took my cue from others as to what was culturally appropriate and I tried to follow it as best I could. After I made friends, I was able to have open dialogue about things I didn’t understand, and I learned so much. To this day I try to cultivate the mindset that I’m a student, and I have so much to learn from others who are different from me. It’s a genuine way to connect with others and I can continuously be studying and growing
3. You can handle much more than you ever anticipated, and come out the other side stronger.
We all have periods of time when things are stressful, difficult, and overwhelming. My training period in Singapore was all three of those at once at the highest degree. I consistently only slept five hours a night for nearly two months, spending my very full days following a rigorous schedule that consisted of early morning runs, fasting regularly, learning Swahili and doing any number of chores and cleaning. It was honestly the most physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing period of my life so far, and I made it through. So many situations in life that challenge us are temporary—they have to run their course and we will get through to the other side. Remember, you are made of grit and grace and you will make it.
I wouldn’t trade this time in my life for anything in the world, and I’m thankful that I can take what I learned as souvenirs on my journey forward. It was difficult, but critical in shaping me into the woman I am today. So, my friends, don’t ever pass up the opportunity to grow, even if it is wrapped in difficulty or discomfort.
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