Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How Living Abroad Makes You a Better Person

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at, and I'll let you know how you can start participating! 

"What is my life?"

I asked myself that a lot when I was abroad - not in an existential "meaning of life" sort of way but in a "how did I end up riding in a purple van down a country road in Eastern Europe with a bunch of drunk and singing locals at 2 am on a Wednesday" sort of way. The happy, the awful, the ridiculous, it all piled together into bright colors and voices and the smells of city streets, cow poop, homemade wine, ocean breeze, coca tea. I wondered what my life was, and how I would tell these stories. I didn't wonder, not nearly as often as I should have, who I was. Who I was becoming, the person I was creating by choosing this life of travel. But it has shaped me, for better or worse, and I think mostly better. 

I am a huge advocate of travel, for everyone. Whether it be the next town over or the next continent, travel teaches us about humanity. Not to pull an "AP essay trick" but I'm about to quote a famous but mostly noncontroversial American author-  Mark Twain once said:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
More specifically than just traveling, bopping around through hostels or booking a vacation once a year, living abroad can truly change you. Some people say it's not living abroad unless you are there for a year. I think it's being anywhere for a month or more where it's not vacation - somewhere you have a job, get a paycheck, have responsibilities, habits, daily schedules, connections. When you budget down to your very last peso to make it until your next payday and know exactly which colmado has the cheapest black beans, when you pick which path to take back from school depending on whether or not the cows are being herded yet or you spotted that crazy neighbor on her porch. Certainly, the longer you stay the more living you did. But living isn't only counted in time.

I've gained a number of strange quirks from traveling, and I certainly have not exorcised all my bad habits (like talking about myself too much - oh wait, I have a blog...helpful redirection or indulgence?) but I believe I have become a better person by living abroad, and I'm sure many other travelers would back that up. Some ways that I believe living abroad makes us all better - 

1. Humility 

When you are in a culture you don't fully understand, speaking a language not your own (or not speaking it), you might as well be five years old. It's humbling (and sometimes humiliating) to be spoken to like a toddler, left out of decisions because you won't understand, depending on the goodness of others for even the smallest of tasks. This came out the most when I lived with host families, first in Peru, then in the country of Georgia. They held my hand to cross the street, did all the talking for me, told me to change clothes when it was cold and chuckled at my attempts to assert my maturity. It's worse in places where you don't speak the language, you can't argue your point, defend or explain yourself or give any retort when they look at you with a face of condescension and pity. 

Even harder though was having things that were respected back home get nothing but a shrug. Did my neighbors in the Dominican Republic care that I had traveled, did well in university, held competitive internships? Nope. They just looked down on me for not being able to cook traditional Dominican food, not growing out my hair and not having a man. Feminism, independence, degrees and my tricky swing dance moves that got me invites to parties back home meant nothing to them. 

The most humbling was when I argued with my host family in Georgia about being sick. They didn't believe in germs, didn't listen to my warnings about spreading my throat infection, told me it was due to me showering at night, thought I was ridiculous for missing a party when I was shaking with fever and ignored my attempt at "I told you so" when they got sick from sharing unwashed water glasses. So even my elementary grasp of basic science leads to nothing but derision? How's a girl to get respect around here other than marrying the next door neighbor who wears Bill Cosby sweaters and making lots of Georgian babies?

 But it isn't all frustrating cultural stories - staring up at snow-capped mountains, wandering in perfectly built ancient cities, feeling lost in the majesty of the Hagia Sophia or in the midst of chanting in a tiny chapel - this is humbling. Realizing the plethora of music, poetry, art that I have never even heard of, the great stories I have never known. My stories, culture, childhood is just another among billions – nothing says that more than a foreign country, proud in its ancient history of conquests and kingdoms, that can’t care less that you do things differently. Opening up to their story is humbling in a healthy way. We are one of many, and many have gone before. 

2. Resourcefulness

Living abroad, whether it's in a posh apartment in Paris or in a hut in South America, draws on your resourcefulness. You must be resourceful in communicating, in doing all that pesky visa paperwork, in making new friends cross-culturally. I spent a lot of time in Georgia communicating via broken Georgian, hand-motions, google translate, photographs and random Italian and Spanish words. Long conversations were exhausting. 

Throw in a developing economy and somewhat shaky infrastructure and resourcefulness multiplies. We built a "sofa" in the DR out of mattresses and old sheets. One of my culinary creations was from Ramen noodles, onion, and beef jerky snacks someone gave me. (When you are on a budget...) (The Haitian kids I taught were even more amazing - creating toys out of discarded suitcases, old tin cans, scraps of wood.) Living abroad draws on sources of creativity that you never had to tap into before. 

3. Independence

Living abroad, especially at first, you are often totally dependent on the goodwill of those around you. But at times you must strike out on your own without the support system you are used to, often without the language you are used to, the cultural standards you are used to and definitely not the traffic rules you are used to. Living abroad helps you be independent in many ways, and figuring out transportation, whether to cross borders or just get across town, required the most independence I've ever had to muster. By the time I could use the Tbilisi metro without checking the map fifty times I was so proud I could burst. (Don't worry, I was humble again when I realized I had been taking the wrong marshutka, the one that required me to walk half an hour home, for a month. I could have been dropped off nearly at my door). Figuring out Peruvian micros and mototaxis, Georgian marshutkas, Dominican carritos - it all took a huge leap of faith, and a lot of getting lost and asking total strangers for help. But now, as I have just moved to a new city I feel confident enough to drive around, get lost, attempt the buses, explore. Public transportation isn't for the faint of heart, especially when you can't even fully pronounce your destinations name, but it will breed in you a feeling of freedom and independence like no other. If you can figure out how to get around, then you're free. You can come and go as you like and no matter how much of a child you feel in your Georgian village, a wide world awaits you and no one can stop you from going. 

Living abroad forces independence on you, taking you far from your support system and throwing you straight into the jungle. And that independence has to hold too - the support network may be waiting back home, but they will never truly understand your experiences when you return a different person. And to me the first step to independence is getting on that grimy, half-broken piece of machinery they call a bus and taking it where you will. 

5. Skills

Maybe you would say skills don't make you a better person - then I would say, ok, but if you were stuck on a desert island who would be the better person, the really nice guy or the guy who knew how to make fish hooks out of his toenails? Who would be saving the lives then, huh? While you might not learn life saving techniques abroad, you will pick up skills, some that you might have never known you needed. The skills I can add to my Resume of Life (which is waaaay more interesting than my Resume of Work) are Traditional Georgian dancing, cooking rice the Haitian way, hand washing bedding in a bucket, rejecting men in various cultural contexts, chasing away dogs, chickens and (gently) children, drinking wine out of a ram's horn and looking good without much opportunity to bathe. And if nothing else, you pick up great stories to tell at parties.

 But seriously, living abroad gives you many skills, such as language skills and, really just as important, the ability to perceive cross-culturally, to live in multiple perspectives. The history of the world is littered with tragedies from interactions in which different perspectives and cultures were cast aside like so much garbage. And I'm not just talking that whole "we don't believe entire continents have a legitimate culture" tragedy from our sordid past, but more recently, when swaths of my own country can't speak to each other, or even about each other, without being spitting mad because no one can sit down, stew for a bit in a culture different from there's, pick up some new rhetoric and perspective, and start a different sort of conversation. 

Being able to live cross-culturally is something that many people come across the hard way, perhaps growing up on the move, or being children of immigrants - "third culture kids" feeling like they don't entirely belong. But they are also blessed, as we all can be, by the ability to lift themselves out of one culture and into another, the ability to be on the inside or on the outside and to understand multiple viewpoints. That can make better people of us all. 

4. Courage

We could all use an extra dose of bravery - to intervene in that awkward situation, to stand up to that intimidating person, to speak out from a place of vulnerability. I know I gained most of any courage I do have from living abroad. Because it's scary. Danger scary, like riding in careening marshutkas or hiking down a Peruvian canyon in the night in a thunderstorm. Socially scary, standing up in front a bunch of kids who you can't understand and they can't understand you. Coming down to try to talk to your host family when you would rather hide in your room. Reaching out to people who may not want to befriend you because of your foreign accent. Taking a risk. Getting up to dance. Stepping on that plane.  

I returned home from the Dominican Republic shell-shocked. I had been very sick, and I retreated inside myself into a small space where I felt forced to go from the stares, the shouts from strange men, the poverty I felt helpless against, the sickness I couldn't stop. I went long days without talking. I avoided crowded areas. I was pushed back out of my shell when I went to my summer job in Texas and I found that I wasn't so scared as I once had been, no matter the situation my demanding job often threw me in. I have ten minutes to come up with an activity for a group of forty kids to last two hours? Hey, at least they speak English – bring it on. And now, facing a new life in New Orleans, feeling like I've bitten off a bit much, I'm not afraid. The end is never really the end, and when I feel scared I remember being lost in Istanbul, stranded by the road in Greece, shaking in a Dominican hospital, in a wrong mototaxi in the wrong side of town in the most violent city in Peru. I'm not saying those were places where I showed remarkable courage, but I learnt courage. Those were places where the kindness of people and, I believe, the kindness of God, kept me safe. Strangers pointed me in the right direction, gave me rides, fed me soup. 

Yes, I can say, when the going is tough "I survived x event, so I can survive this!" and nothing is wrong with taking courage from memories of my own tenacity. But I can also say that there is great kindness in the world. And these both give me courage, and that serves me well every day. 

So go. Travel. Live abroad - for a summer, a season, a year. Work odd jobs and be bad at them. Work great jobs and be fabulous. Live with intensity, but also just live - with bills and habits and routine. When I felt bored and restless in Lima was when I really knew I lived there. Live with friends whose language you once barely spoke and who now you can guess their next words. Live with a favorite corner store and bus drivers you recognize. 

Live so that when you are ancient, you remember a hushed afternoon buried in winter's first snow up in the Caucuses and it fills you with peace. Peace and courage and humility and all of the bits and pieces of other places and people you have picked up. So go. 


  1. Living in a foreign country for a significant period of time isn’t for everyone. When it comes to living in a country look like a wonderful, positive, enriching cultural experience. The reality is that living abroad is not all sunshine and rainbows. Actually, it’s really hard. It challenges you emotionally, mentally, socially, and physically.Living abroad makes you more open-minded. Although, I think if you made the choice to live abroad, you were already open-minded to begin with! If you’re somebody who doesn’t like trying new things, don’t move abroad. I

  2. I agree Zareen! Thanks for reading!