To be honest, I don’t remember the exact date I boarded a plane to gain a foreign return address, but I do know it was late August 2004. I had traveled abroad before that, but in 2004 it was serious; I packed hangers.
Since then I’ve been shlepping my way through Asia, Europe and North America at various intervals and with various outcomes. But always with lots of stories.
Now, before you get the wrong idea about what you’re about to read, let me set the record straight. This is not going to be an article that’s applicable to you. Oh no, friend. This is nothing but things I’ve learned about or for myself and therefore mostly irrelevant to all other travelers, expats or armchair wanderlusters. This, you see, is purely about me. But I thought I’d write them down and share them anyway. Because I’m cool like that.
Ok, good, now we’re all on the same page here. On to my observations and corresponding life lessons:
- I am not the brave, adventurous person you read about in travel memoirs. In fact, if I did ever work up the gumption to write a memoir, it would probably be entitled, “She Who Is Scared of Spiders”. Oh, I can eat fried crickets and agree that a hole in the ground is an acceptable toilet with the best of them, but don’t mistake that for bravery, that’s just craziness. Working up the nerve to sign up for internet in a foreign country? For me, that involves nail biting, nervous sweating and a roller coaster of emotions most people reserve for major life events, not DSL. I’m also afraid of spiders.
Lesson: Just because someone’s life seems different, or foreign, doesn’t make them braver than you. They might be hyperventilating over cable installation for all you know.
- I can be really racist. I know, you’re totally not supposed to admit this when you’ve lived abroad, because clearly you’ve had your world expanded and realized your own country might not actually be the most amazing place on planet earth. And both of the above statements do hold true for me, but that does not stop me from an internal monologue that resembles something along the lines of “What is wrong with these people…” when someone cuts me off in the grocery store line.
Lesson: Always stay humble. Life should never be a “we” and “them” situation. Strive to hold an “us” mentality. Because lets be honest, you’ve cut people off in the grocery store line before too, admit it.
- I live a sheltered life. Seriously. If you’ve ever heard of an ‘expat bubble’, you’ve probably heard mention of my name or at least my resemblance as someone who lives there. Or maybe you’re unfamiliar with an ‘expat bubble’, but you’ve heard the term ‘gone native’ in reference to someone who’s completely assimilated into a culture. My picture will NOT be next to that description. Thus far in my life, my overseas experiences have found me on the fringes of the local society. Language has always been a barrier, skin color and white socks have played a role in distinguishing me as “not from around here”, but mostly it’s been the sheer terror of the unknown that has kept me enclosed in my bubble. What if I’m invited over to someone’s home and they want me to eat a live chicken or their dead dog’s cartilage or something. (True story: I was once invited over to someone house and asked to eat dumplings.) It’s hard to find the balance between being present and being comfortable. Sometimes it’s important to forgo one for the other. Both are important.
Lesson: see above.
Second lesson: the other expats in your bubble can also be amazing people, so don’t discount them; spending your time with them can be just as rewarding. There’s a high likeliness they enhance your time in a place and become lifelong friends. Also, dog cartilage is rarely involved.
- I moved abroad and gained a Starbucks addiction. It’s true. In three of the last four countries I’ve lived in, I’ve owned an MSR card (that’s a My Starbucks Rewards card, for the uninformed). The lack of one in that fourth country was only a technicality as they didn’t have a Starbucks.
Here’s the thing: we all crave stability in some form or fashion. Mine is a green and white paper cup filled with strong, black coffee with a side of plush chairs and wireless internet.
Lesson: wherever you go, find a place of comfort and stability. And then acquire their rewards card. Because stability and comfort are important, so you might as well get a free coffee with them.
- I have never had an epiphany. I was recently filling out a questionnaire about traveling and it asked when I had “that moment”. You know, that moment you plan to go out and see the world, that first itch to be an explorer, go where no man has gone before. As you might have gathered, I’m pretty happy to go where man has gone before, particularly if there’s a Starbucks. This admission is coupled with the fact that I never had “that moment”. I think I’ve always just wanted to go and see. Even if that means going to the grocery store and seeing what’s on aisle 4.
Lesson: you don’t need a lighting strike moment to set the path for your life. Sometimes you just need to do what comes naturally to you and see where it leads. That could be an art gallery or Kenya, hosting dinner parties or backpacking solo.
- Always carry toilet paper. I probably don’t need to expand on this one, do I? But really, you’d be amazed how long it’s taken me to learn this lesson.
- I need to be a sharer. I’ll be honest, when I’m back in the States my least favorite question is “where do you live?” (closely followed by “when are you going to move home?”) So at social events, I tend to cower in the corner and practice deflection techniques in case I’m approached by someone who might inquire as to where I came from. (Although if you asked my parents, they’ll tell you I came from China… the appropriate verb “lives” somehow dropped so as to imply I am actually adopted from the Middle Kingdom, despite not looking Asian in the slightest).
But my last trip home reminded me that I’m actually not the only person who has been abroad, let alone lived abroad, and I’m missing out on the opportunity to connect with some amazing people, swap harrowing tales of crunchy crickets and toilet holes and help people get a glimpse at the larger world, or at least my perspective of it, if they ask.
Lesson: cheerily accept the question “So, where do you live” and reply with a smile, “I live in __________, have you ever been?” And if they say something unpleasant in return, retort with your most eye-popping story. Or not.
- My backyard is awesome. Ok, not my actual backyard, it looks more like a prison yard. But backyard in the sense of neighborhood, community, mega city, hamlet…whatever you’ve got. Let’s go with “immediate vicinity”. I remember sitting in an introduction meeting for a study abroad program in college and the professor said that most people get to the city where they’re going to study (in this case Edinburgh) and immediately start checking Ryan Air for cheap flights to Spain and Italy. As time goes on they venture out to other cities in Scotland. Finally, with just days to go before boarding a plane home, they realize how incredible Edinburgh is and wish they would have spent more time exploring their own backyard. This has always stuck with me. It’s easy to land in a new place–whether that’s Cambodia or Indiana–and immediately wonder where you can get to from there. It’s harder, I find, to stay put and truly get to know your own backyard.
Lesson: Become an expert on your neighborhood first. Then venture out.
So that’s what I’ve got. You’re probably baffled that in ten years, all I’ve really learned from being abroad is to acquire a Starbucks Rewards Card and carry toilet paper. What can I say? Some of us are slow learners.
To be fair, I do have one more major takeaway from all of this, and this point is as applicable to you as it is to me. And it’s this: your story is amazing. Not more or less so than mine, your neighbor’s or Mother Theresa’s. Ok, yeah, I agree, her story is pretty freakin’ amazing.
But the fact of the matter is, you are adventurous for leading YOUR life, even if you are scared of spiders or have never been farther than 50 miles from your hometown or you’re a traveling medic in the backwaters of a country I can’t find on a map.
I have friends who do unbelievable humanitarian work in war zones and live in oppressive countries. I also have friends who stay at home teaching little human beings how to love others by modeling it themselves; in both of these cases (and so many more), I look at them and think “Wow, you’re really doing something with your life! You’re so much more _____________ [amazing/loving/service-oriented/patient/adventurous/etc.] than me. Your story is waaaayyy cooler. I compare myself to them and EVERY TIME I COME UP SHORT. Because I wasn’t meant to live their life. I’m meant to live mine. And someday that might mean working in a war zone or staying home with my own little kiddos, but for today it means practicing humility in my grocery store line, hanging out at Starbucks and getting to know my backyard and the people who populate it.
And yes, I’m afraid it took moving overseas for me to learn this.