I spent most of this past year traveling the world with my wife as part of a time off work. We were taking a sabbatical before we start the next stage of our lives – having children. We spent almost 9 months in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. In total, I’ve spent about 18 months of my life living outside the US, mostly in Latin America and Eastern Europe. This is my reflection on what I have learned from that time.
- The hardest part of big changes is sometimes the decision to do it. We agonized over whether we could afford to leave our jobs for this long and what we would do if we couldn’t pick up the same jobs when we came back. We weren’t sure what we could do with our house. But once we decided to go and spent a year planning and saving, and then the next year actually doing it, we realized none of the problems were as scary as our worst case scenarios. We were prepared for what might happen. And there’s a peace in having made your choice.
- People are fundamentally the same, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t very different in the specifics. Everyone enjoys a good joke, worries about their family, is sad their community changes, and hopes for a better future for their kids. I’m sure I could come up with some more general examples. But that doesn’t mean that their culture and personal experience won’t see things very differently from you. Not everyone has the same idea of what a good future for their community or children is, except in vague terms like more safety and a good marriage. People may agree on the value of respecting others, but differ widely in what that is supposed to look like. The devil is in the details.
- It’s fun to see yourself as a foreigner. And everyone everywhere is as ignorant we think Americans are. Americans – especially educated, traveling Americans – see people in their country as uninformed. But most people know almost nothing about the world outside their own experience. Most foreigners from whatever part of the world are as ignorant about America as the average American is about the foreign country. And most people are as politely curious when they get the chance to ask as any small-town American is when they find out the person they are talking to is from another country.
Consider that even in Europe – which is a very prosperous place with very small nations highly integrated with each other – almost half the people have never left their own country, and fewer than 10% have traveled to a country outside the EU or it’s bordering nations. That’s pretty much the same as the number of Americans who have left their own state, or traveled to a foreign country that’s not Canada or Mexico. Not so different after all. Don’t forget, the well-traveled foreigner you’re talking to is an exception for his own country too.
- Simplicity will grow on you. You can’t travel that much without getting good at living with what you can fit in bags that are small enough to carry easily. When we got back we couldn’t believe the amount of space in our house or stuff in storage. While we do need more to have a settled life and raise kids than we do while traveling, our threshold of what’s necessary and what’s a burden to care for and clean has adjusted downward.
- Communication really isn’t all words. It’s startling how much communication can occur with pantomimes, tone, body language, and facial expression. It’s quite possible to easily make your way through a travel or meal situation without speaking any words in common. The key is context. It would be quite hard to sit in a blank room with a random foreigner who spoke no English, and pantomime wanting a bowl of ramen or bus tickets to a certain city without them having any idea ahead of time of the topic. But in the restaurant or station it’s not so hard. It makes you realize how much of the communication you have back home is more than the words you are saying.
- It’s very interesting to see what works and doesn’t in other places. Every country has some things that they do well and some they do frustratingly badly. Sometimes they don’t even bother to have a process for something you think is important back home.
- You can survive on your own and enjoy yourself, but you need people for satisfaction in life. You can have a lot of fun traveling, and find ways to amuse yourself and connect in foreign cultures – but it takes years of living in one place to really build a full life. You need a sense of community, and friendship, and the depth that comes from putting effort into the same people and places to improve your life and community. The high of meeting new and interesting people in new places isn’t the same thing however much fun it is. It’s going through the same honeymoon phase over and over again. It becomes, in the end, just more of the same.
- You can learn flexibility, but depth is necessary for real mastery. Every time you live for a few weeks or months in a new place, you have to figure out a new way to do all sorts of daily things or to understand new etiquette. But it’s surface level stuff – it’s not the same as having a career or raising a family or living with the politics and culture of that place for years. You don’t become part of the place.
- It’s relaxing not to care, but understand that you’re hiding. Especially coming from America in this time of polarized politics, it’s nice to spend time where I don’t have to worry about any politics, controversies, or social issues. Many people fall into this when abroad and there’s nothing wrong with it. The local problems aren’t your problems, and it would be arrogant to have an opinion and get involved. But understand that this is possible because you are not currently really part of any community and don’t romanticize it. They have all the same problems we do, and often worse.
- Nothing is really authentic, and that’s fine. No matter how off the beaten track you get, the experience isn’t authentic. It can’t be – you are a guest, or a visitor, or someone paying, and that’s simply not the same as a family member or a neighbor. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying people’s hospitality, especially if you are a good guest.
- People of all races and cultures will be nice to you. Because you are a guest or a fellow traveler. Every culture values hospitality, and this is great, but you should understand that this is what this is happening. Don’t read the wrong thing into it. Sometimes people experience this when traveling, especially in places they have been told are dangerous or don’t like Americans like them. They are pleasantly surprised at how nice everyone is. And they are nice, and it’s genuine.
But it’s genuine hospitality. People are much nicer to guests and paying tourists than to immigrants, or refugees, or other groups which may be involved in whatever social frictions and economic problems are existing in that place. You might have a different experience if you came back to work in their town or tried to marry their daughter.
- You are what you are. You can learn more about the world, you can become more cosmopolitan, you can leave your own country for years. But you will always be shaped by where you grew up and people will always see you that way. You might be a ‘bad one’ or a ‘good one’ but everyone knows what group you are in, because that’s how people think, including you. So travel and explore to learn and grow, but never forget where you came from. No one else will. And many people will find themselves having a stronger connection to home once they’ve been traveling for awhile.
- People who fetishize world travel and living abroad are just as clueless as those who don’t travel at all. There are people who don’t know much about anything outside their own borders, and don’t want to. On the other end are the multiculturalist, globalist snobs – often expressed as Eurosnobs in America. These are the ones that think our country is terribly racist, sexist, or unequal, and that the Europeans do everything better. But they live in bubbles and only talk to people like them even when they are abroad – the university-educated, left-leaning world travelers from that country.
Every country has problems, and often the same problems you see at home. They are often worse, but they don’t affect you as much because you don’t live there. The thing is that Americans talk about race and gender more than any other culture, and just because it’s talked about more doesn’t mean the problems you know about are worse.
For context do some digging on the immigrant situations in continental Europe, or the treatment of minorities in Asia, or the racial and gender divide in Latin America. You look like an idiot if you complain about American sexism and live in Mexico, or American racism and live in Asia, or have either of those complaints and live in Italy.
- No one really cares what you do but your own fellow citizens, or someone who wants something from you. This goes along with #13 and #11. People may be very interested to talk to you about their country, and yours. And it’s much easier to have a conversation about race, religion, or politics with a foreigner because you both know that nothing you do affects each other. The only exception is when you are talking to someone from a country that is having a direct conflict with yours – it may be best to avoid that topic.
- No one trusts someone who bad-mouths their own country. No one expects you to say your own country is perfect – that would be weird. But it’s equally weird and unsettling to find someone who hates their own country. It’s like someone who is unafraid to tell a stranger they hate their family, or who is in a job interview bashing their last company. People instinctively know the problem might well be the speaker themselves. When you find yourself in a conversation where someone is doing this, the listeners may be curious, but they are also visibly taking things with a grain of salt.
Between this trip and previous parts of my life, I’ve spent more than a year and a half living outside the US. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of moving abroad sometime in the future for work. But I would keep these things in mind, and work hard to assimilate to the local culture and language when I was there. No one likes expats who only hang out with each other and treat years in the country like some kind of extended vacation.
On the other hand, I will likely stay here. And I feel more of a need now to participate in my own community because it is the only place I really can be a part of anything without a lot of effort. It’s important to be proud of who you are and where you come from. And it’s important to participate in keeping it alive. The depth that comes from commitment to a place is a stage we all have to go through as part of growing up, just like exploration.