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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 10 Liveable Cities Around the World
- 5 Things I Miss About Teaching English Abroad
- Back with My Ex: Thailand