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Gen Y Speaks: 4 lessons I learnt living abroad for 11 years

I started living overseas when I left my home country of Indonesia for higher education in Singapore back in 2009.

"Real-life experiences have a greater impact on imparting essential life lessons beyond the classroom, especially when dealing with people," writes the author.

"Real-life experiences have a greater impact on imparting essential life lessons beyond the classroom, especially when dealing with people," writes the author.

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I started living overseas when I left my home country of Indonesia for higher education in Singapore back in 2009. 

Upon graduation, I lived and worked in countries which I had never imagined I would: The Maldives and Sri Lanka.

With Covid-19 disrupting my tourism job in the Maldives, I returned to my home in Jakarta last year.

Since then, I have realised that I have learnt four important life lessons while being away from home.

1. Adaptability

Living in a new, foreign place can be daunting, yet exciting. 

I had to adapt to many new aspects, especially in terms of accommodation.

I lived in seven different places during my two stints studying in Singapore.

I always chose a sharing room, from a twin to a quad one with other foreigners, to minimise my expenses and to make new friends. 

We used to chat, hang out together, and encourage one another during hard times.

There were good and bad memories. 

Two of my most memorable roommates are Gimbey and Yunquan.

Gimbey taught me how to put on make-up for my internship interview and invited me to watch her live musical performances.

Yunquan, my first local friend, invited me to her home during a Chinese New Year holiday, letting me experience the warmth of a Singaporean family.

Some other roomies, though, were not that great. They talked loudly on the phone even though their roommates were asleep and refused to help clean our room and other common areas. 

I spoke to them about this, but some still persisted in their inconsiderate ways.

So I had no choice but to put up with those who were unwilling to change, knowing that the roommate turnover rate was quite high, as most of them stayed only for a  few months before moving out.

During my stay in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, problems with housemates-cum-colleagues could be alleviated thanks to my previous accommodation-sharing experiences in Singapore. 

I was better prepared this time round.  

What was different though in the Maldives was that my roommates were also my colleagues.

Most of the time, one of them was  unwilling to clean our room, leaving me and another roommate to do so. We argued frequently about this.

Eventually, we compromised and found a solution. Two of us would take turns cleaning the room, while the other roommate would try to keep things tidy in order to minimise the frequency of us tidying things up. 

Another instance was staying with roommates where each of us had different sleep and work schedules.

We had to agree on what time we would turn the lights off at night, be quiet while the rest were asleep, and come up with a timetable for using the bathroom.

Living under one roof with people coming from many different backgrounds for a certain period of time taught me how to adapt to various personalities and situations, compromise, and be considerate of others. 

As the saying goes: Treat others as how you would want to be treated.

2. Lending money

Just a few months after I started working as a travel agent in the Maldives, I lent a few hundred dollars to a colleague as we were quite close at that time and she said she needed the money to help her boyfriend.

I asked my coworker almost every day when she could return my money. She would then cry and said that she had been duped and had borrowed from other people as well. She could not answer my question. 

That was my hard-earned savings. I regretted lending her the money and  had many sleepless nights.

Thankfully, I eventually got my money back through my manager who set aside part of my colleague's salary for the debt repayment. 

Thereafter, whenever anyone approached me for a loan, I would be extremely cautious. 

My then Chinese colleagues taught me an apt expression to describe this kind of situation: "欠钱的是大爷 (Qiàn qián de shì dàyé)" meaning the one owing money has an upper hand over the one owed.

What I learned was not to readily lend money to people no matter how close my relationship with that person is.

I would lend to people only if they have a valid reason (such as a family medical emergency) and the loan is for an amount where I would not feel the pinch should I not get it back.

Otherwise, I would say no politely.

As much as possible, I avoid borrowing money from others. Even if I need to, I would keep update my lender on when I can return the money.

Putting myself in the lender’s shoes, I would strive not to leave the lender hanging, since it might put my reputation at risk.

The author with her roommates (top left, clockwise) Gimbey, Yunquan and Vicky. Photo courtesy of Sita Bezalia

3. Decisiveness

I thought I was independent enough until I had to make tough, quick decisions at work.One incident I will never forget involved five Chinese officials who booked five single rooms in a city hotel in Malé, the capital of the Maldives. They checked into the hotel at night time.

Due to a last-minute issue with its last available room, the hotel informed the guests that one of them had to be relocated to another hotel a stone’s throw away. 

The guests did not agree. They needed to stay in the same hotel, even though their booking was only for an overnight stay.

At that time, I was with my then-Chinese colleague-cum-roommate, Vicky, who has become one of my closest friends now. Her advice — that I should try to quickly resolve the issue to prevent a complaint by the officials — was a sound one.

So I asked a few other hotels, and found a suitable substitute which could offer the number of rooms we needed.

The guests agreed to a relocation. However, the substitute hotel cost US$750 more. 

The clock kept ticking. The jetlagged guests were waiting for a solution. I could not contact nor get an approval from my superiors, who were all based outside the Maldives. 

Mind you, at that time, online messaging applications were not yet prevalent. We depended on international phone calls for urgent matters.

Keeping the urgency of the situation in mind, I decided to move the guests to the other hotel.

I was ready for the worst outcome of having to bear the losses from my salary.

That was one of the riskiest decisions that I had to make in my career.

Fortunately, everything went well. My superior even succeeded in getting the rate difference incurred from the guests' relocation fully covered, without deducting a cent from my pay. All's well that ends well.

The experience taught me the importance of staying calm under pressure, analysing situations quickly and being decisive and prepared to take calculated risks at work.

4. Reputation

Every action done and word uttered form one's habits that eventually become the building blocks of one’s reputation.

The Maldives' tourism industry is such a small circle that everyone knows one another. Even if you do not know a certain figure personally, you would somehow hear his or her name from someone.

Thus, the importance of building a good name cannot be overstated when working in such an industry.

During a conversation among fellow tourism practitioners, these were some of the descriptions I have heard.

"You know, that is the fellow who always requests for personal commissions..."

"Do you mean that person who likes to borrow money?"

"Oh yes, he is that guy who has worked hard from scratch until he holds a managerial position, and he is still so humble now..."

"…she is the dependable and responsive one, especially when we are solving a problem."

Reputation is such an essential element in life that we have this Indonesian adage: Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, gajah mati meninggalkan gading, manusia mati meninggalkan nama meaning: When a tiger dies, it will leave its stripes behind. When an elephant dies, it will leave its tusks behind. When a person dies, he will leave his name (reputation, be it good or bad) behind.

The above experiences have helped me to be more adaptable, cautious, discerning, and mindful as an individual.

The guidance that my parents and formal education have provided me with is useful, yet real-life experiences have a greater impact on imparting essential life lessons beyond the classroom, especially when dealing with people.


Sita Bezalia is an Indonesian who used to study in Singapore and work in the tourism sector in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Related topics

living abroad life lessons Maldives Sri Lanka

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