living abroad

10 Ways Living Abroad Changed Me for the Better

 

I don’t think it’s possible to live abroad, to completely immerse yourself in a foreign culture, and to not come back changed. If you don’t see something, do something or think something that makes you either want to change or be the change while you’re traveling long term, especially in lesser developed lands, you probably aren’t doing it right.

This is not to say there is one right way to travel. Everyone has to find what works for her/his goals, schedule, desires, etc., whether it’s squeezing in a weekend holiday, a two-week vacation, a few months of summer or living abroad indefinitely. I’d say those of us who fall into the latter, we do so open to change, perhaps even willing it to happen. We’re there to learn, to explore, to teach, to help, to do something that makes a difference in our own lives or others.

I don’t think anybody will disagree that the longer one stays in a place, the more she/he is likely to learn. Perhaps there’s a direct connection to the two: the more we learn, the more we change. 

While I’ve traveled to a number of different countries, I can only claim to have lived in three outside of my home in the U.S.: Spain, Thailand and China. In each location I learned an invaluable amount about life, cultures, economies, humanity, poverty, myself and the world.

And each learning experience helped create the woman I am today.

Here are 10 reasons why I’m a better person as a result of living abroad:

1. I’m more open-minded to religion.

Sadhus in India

Sadhus of the Hinduism faith in Varanasi, India

I grew up in a very non-religious household. We never went to church (aside from weddings and funerals), and never used the word God outside of the popular sayings, “Oh my God!” and “God damn it.”

Traveling abroad, first to Europe and then to Asia, I took advantage of the numerous opportunities to visit gorgeous cathedrals, temples, wats, churches, mosques, etc. that represent places of worship for each religion, and I loved it. I now enjoy learning about Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism and Christianity because every time I learn something new, I can better understand those who choose to follow an organized religion, however loosely. I still consider myself rather unbiased in any direction, accepting the title, “agnostic,” if I must, as I pull my favorite parts from each one and use them how and when I see fit.

2. I’m more curious about cultures.

Rishikesh India urinal

Outdoor urinals seem to sprout from the roadside concrete in the most random of places in India. This one is in Rishikesh.

I don’t remember taking a geography class in school after fifth grade, and even then I only remember learning the state capitals and memorizing all of the –ystan countries. That is to say, we rarely talked about the other side of the world in my primary and secondary education, less stories from an amazing high school history teacher who filled our days with wonder about his time in the Peace Corps in Africa.

I can’t remember ever taking a class that discussed different cultures around the world until I decided to study in Spain. Then, our pamphlets were filled with what to expect of the differences in another culture, how to cope with culture shock and what things we might find strange about moving to another country. Now that I’ve experienced it in a few different places, I know this is one of my primary reasons for traveling – learning about how the locals live, and learning to accept (however difficult) the parts that are so outside of my norm that at first I might find them weird, such as scooping water to flush my toilet, dirty kitchen environments, eating an entire fish head or leaving the milk on the counter.

3. I do things because they scare me.

Jumping off a cliff in Crooked River, Oregon

Me jumping off a cliff into the Crooked River, Oregon

If I listened to every person who has told me not go somewhere or not to do something because I might get hurt, or taken advantage of, or abducted (thanks, Taken), I would have never left my small hometown of 700 people. As a result of my travels, I now believe if you live your life in fear, you aren’t really living. I want to feel alive, every day, especially if that means putting myself into situations that terrify me, like couch surfing across India, jumping from cliffs and bridges, or cooking.

4. I’m not afraid of dying.

Burning Ghats at Varanasi

Public cremations along the burning ghat in Varanasi, India.

This might sound silly, or completely unrelated, or even religious, but I do believe that I’ll die when I’m supposed to. This is kind of related to the above point, but I think it speaks volumes for itself. I used to fear dying, but perhaps a few brushes with death can change you, or perhaps witnessing death at a public cremation in India can make one see that life shoudl be celebrated, not mourned, and the next one is still to come. But most likely, this change is due to living a life I actually want to live, which means I can die without regret.

5. I trust my gut.

Bikaner, India Tuk Tuk Drivers

Taxi (tuk tuk) drivers in Bikaner, India

Traveling solo, perhaps particularly as a female, I’ve had to learn to trust my gut entirely. Every situation, every person I meet, every taxi I climb into and every stranger’s house I sleep in means I have to listen to my body, to be a quick judge of the energies in the room and make a smart decision to either follow through or back down. Once I started listening to these inner feelings, I trusted they would never lead me astray. So far, they haven’t.

6. I follow my heart.

Koh Kood Thailand Sunset

A sunset on Koh Kood, Thailand

My long-time readers know this has been a learning process for me, or at least that realizing and vocalizing the reason for my often-rash decisions are due to letting my heart lead the way. I didn’t know this is what I was doing when I first made the decision to teach abroad. I, as usual, thought I was making a very calculated decision, but I’ve since learned otherwise. When I was in India, being forced to decide what to do in the near future (to return to China or not, and then what), I finally tuned into the rather loud voice that was coming from my heart. It led me back to Thailand, and it couldn’t have been a more appropriate direction.

7. I’m more accommodating to foreigners in the U.S.

Chinese Halloween teaching ESL in China

My students painted my face for a Halloween competition in China!

I love getting to know people – where they’re from, their culture, what they do, their passions and what makes them who they are. I remember countless conversations with the Asians I met who, instead of saying “You’re welcome” when I expressed my gratitude for them making me feel at home in their country would simply say, “You and your people would do it for me in America, I’m sure.”

“I’m not sure,” I would say, and try to explain to them that assuming someone is a foreigner in America can get one into a lot of trouble. It’s not obvious here, like it is there. We Americans are from all over the globe, and assuming someone doesn’t belong because of the color of their skin would be shameful.

However, that said, I do make more of an effort to differentiate who might be a tourist or an expat, and reach out to them, including the cooks at oriental restaurants and the exchange students on campus. Prior to traveling, I didn’t reach out to anybody I feared might not speak English.

8. I whole-heartedly believe at least 95% of the people in this world are good.

Kumbh Mela Allahabad India 2013

The crowds walking to the Kumbh Mela Festival in India

I think the majority of mankind means well, and they aren’t out to cause harm or create fear in others. Putting trust in strangers is not an easy thing to do, especially growing up in America where we’re taught at a young age not to trust anybody we don’t know, but doing so in a smart way will probably lead you into unforgettable experiences, and perhaps into new friendships.

9. I’m an avid couch surfer.

Couchsurfing in India

Nittin, my Couchsurf host in Shimla, India

This could be a product of all of the above – the idea used to scare me before I put trust in my gut and in others. If you haven’t heard of Couchsurfing, it’s what it sounds like: the act of sleeping on local’s couches for free, while traveling through town. There’s a social media website set up especially for it, and it’s fabulous. I know it’s not for everybody, but traveling this way really does open your eyes to how the locals live, you get a first-hand experience with the culture, and a free teacher to ask questions of. Some of my most memorable experiences have stemmed from crashing couches (often beds) in stranger’s homes and exploring their homeland via their recommendations.

10. I now know I need travel in my life.

The author in Koh Chang, Thailand

Me overlooking the landscape on Koh Chang, Thailand.

I’m good at it, and it’s part of who I am. I might not travel for such long periods of time again (or at least not all of the time), but I know that this world is a rather large textbook, and I’m dying to read and learn what’s on every page.

Have you ever lived abroad? If so, where? And how did it change you?

 

10 Ways Living Abroad Changed Me for the Better

Written by:Jessica J. Hill
Related MissAdventures

 

34 Comments

  1. Ashley says:

    Great post as usual! I agree with all your thoughts about how living abroad changed you.

  2. Kris says:

    What a wonderful post! I agree with everything you say. I’m so thankful for my opportunities to travel and live elsewhere too. Thanks for this post.

  3. Kris says:

    Thanks for this great post! I agree with everything you have said. Being able to travel is such a wonderful opportunity.

  4. Liz says:

    Wonderful post. Living abroad would be a wonderful experience, our plans are to do that one day. But traveling in general and making an attempt to get to know locals, customs, and trying to participate in the culture can change you to a certain extent; even if you are not living there. We are huge advocates for travel (obviously) but we really believe that it changes people for the better. If more people traveled – then we truly believe that it can help make society & our world such a better place.

    Thanks for the post!
    – Liz & Josh
    http://www.PeanutsOrPretzels.com

    • jessicajhill says:

      I agree, Liz & Josh! I tried to include long-term traveling as well, not just living in a place…though I tend to say that after spending a few months in one place, you can probably say you lived there. What are the rules for that?

      I love your last point. I think you’re right. Travel opens our eyes to so many things and if everybody were able to do it regularly, we probably would have a lot more peace in the world. And a lot less war.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment!

  5. Adelina says:

    I can definitely relate to many of these. The one that stood out to me most is #3 doing things simply because they scare me. People are always shocked when I give this as a reason to do something. Glad to know I’m not the only one!

    • jessicajhill says:

      It does sound like a silly reason to those who don’t do things that scare them, but I’m with you. It makes us feel alive…and perhaps it’s a little stubbornness inside that just wants to prove to ourselves we can do it 😉

  6. Bhuwan Chand says:

    Make it 99% – the number of good people in the world – or maybe even is few notches higher…

  7. Lol, either you deliberately marked point 3 as 5 or you just shuffle points at the last moment and forgot to edit it. Either ways, a great post.
    Regards

  8. Samantha says:

    Love this!! It’s so amazing to look back at who you were before you traveled and now afterwards. The difference is unbelievable! I look back at myself a year ago before I moved abroad and now and I can’t believe how much it has changed my for the better. I am still learning everyday but these are all great reasons to travel and see the world.

    • jessicajhill says:

      Agreed, Samantha. My favorite part about traveling is learning, about the place, the people, the culture and myself. It’s amazing, and so much more. Where are you now?

  9. Jennifer says:

    We’ve been living abroad in Italy now for nearly 5 years and I’m definitely changed because of it. Some ways good, like being much more open to other cultures, and in some ways bad, like being less tolerant of Americans that think the rest of the world is a horrible place.

    • jessicajhill says:

      That’s a great point, Jennifer! I have no tolerance for those people either (not just Americans), and I wish everyone could travel more and realize those negative beliefs aren’t true. The world doesn’t have to be a scary place!

  10. Aw I love #8 especially 🙂 It’s a rare thing to believe in these days, but a beautiful one. Great post, I agree with all of your reasons! x

  11. Fantastic post! Travel would definitely change you as a person and give you a whole new perspective!

  12. Great post. I love the photos of India. Living and working abroad is definitely a life changing experience.

  13. Sally says:

    Hey there, I just want to let you know I loved this post. Travel is such a great way to learn about others, as well as ourselves. And I too belive that most are well-meaning. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Afterglobe says:

    Great post! I think that as American we are taught to fear so much. It's sad. I'm glad to see your experience helped you open your eyes, learn about all the good out there, and get over some of those fears.

    • jessicajhill says:

      You’re so right, Kimmy. Unfortunately, I think all cultures have their own fears and good reasons for having them, but it is a shame when those fears hinder us from seeing the true beauty of this world!

  15. I’m currently doing something like this now and I’ve got 6 so far. And we have 4 things in common: 1,2, 4 and 8! :))

    • jessicajhill says:

      Oh I’d love to read the list you come up with! I think when we travel, especially with an open mind, we have the potential to grow and change in so many wonderful ways. Those are great numbers to have in common!

  16. Susie Morgan says:

    Lovely post! Traveling makes us really mature and wise. I am also more open-minded for religion but also to other cultures and ways of living. I have learned so much from the people that I’ve met during my travels. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Susie! I agree that I also became more open minded to religion and cultural differences. Now I love learning about things that I don’t understand right away 🙂

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