It’s undeniable that living in another country has the potential to change your life. Whether it’s for a semester or for a decade, living abroad can influence your perspective on almost anything. Here are some of the best things I picked up from living in Europe, the South Pacific, and of course North America.
People are inherently good. This is actually one of the more beautiful things you’ll realize after traveling for a while. Regardless of what country you’re in, whether or not you speak the language, or the types of places you decide to see, the majority of people you interact with are genuinely good people.
They want the same things out of life that we do. Many of them will open their homes to you and treat you like family. It’s one of the most humbling experiences you’ll ever have with “strangers,” but by the time you leave you’ll have made connections you’ll always remember.
The world is so much bigger than you think. The fast-paced hustle of the modern world, especially in the United States, can make you forget how minuscule our individual “worlds” are. First world problems are an embarrassing comparison to the real issues people around the world have to live with everyday. It’s so easy to get caught up with how annoying your brother’s new girlfriend is or how pissed off you are that you didn’t get a promotion. Comparatively speaking, we have it pretty good and it wouldn’t hurt to be more self-aware.
Not to expect anything, but appreciate everything. Living abroad can make you more appreciative and gracious when things don’t come as easily as they once did (getting directions when you don’t speak the language, not understanding labels at the grocery store, living with foreign roommates, etc.). When people go out of their way to help, kind gestures from strangers can mean everything.
You learn how to live as the locals do. Similarly to the previous point, not knowing anyone or having background knowledge of the country’s customs means that you’ll have to adapt to local social norms. Getting around is a big one, ordering food at restaurants (and whether or not to leave a tip), how to communicate with strangers, act in public, and how to get an apartment or job are just a few examples of things that may be done completely differently in a foreign country. Being able to adapt to any kind of living situation is undoubtedly a great characteristic you can gain from living abroad.
Foreign countries have MUCH better food. Sorry to say it, but most of the countries I’ve traveled to have great pride in their cuisines and most of it is better than ours. Whether it’s tradition or for overall health, foreign food is just better quality. Many of these countries don’t import or mass-produce as much as we do, meaning a large portion of their food is locally grown and organic. Most of them ban foods that are currently legal in the United States, such as highly processed foods that have been linked to various illnesses. I’m not saying there isn’t cheap and unhealthy food abroad, but overall there’s a little more “heart” that goes into the preparation of a highly cultural and traditional cuisine.
People live more socially. I never realized how isolating American society can be until we lived in a few other countries. Most of us wake up, go to work, come home, and will maybe have dinner with family or friends on the weekends. Several of the countries I’ve lived in have communal societies that promote social interaction on a daily basis.
For example in Italy, dinner is not meant to be a quick meal so you can get back to whatever you need to do on your own. Italian dinners usually last hours, with family members utilizing the time to catch up with one another and socialize. Many foreign cultures center around piazzas or squares, which are open areas in big cities littered with coffee shops, restaurants and stores; a place for people to aggregate, talk, and enjoy each other’s company.
Work to live, not the other way around. It’s well-known that the United States is probably the hardest working country in the Western world. We work more hours, get less paid vacation time, offer no paid maternity leave (unless you’re lucky), and retire later. There’s a huge emphasis in American society on career – you have to go to the best college, to get the best job, so you can buy a house and a nice car, send your kids to college so they can do the same thing, and then maybe retire early so you can finally enjoy your life during your “golden years.”
We seem to work so hard for things that at the end of the day, may not be that important. Living abroad has taught me how much other societies value what they love, versus what they do. Whether it’s family, travel, art, sports, religion, you name it… time moves slower in these places because they’re not as caught up in the rat race. If your job is what you love, then go for it! As long as you’re fulfilled.
You’ll keep in touch with people you meet traveling more than some of your existing friends. For anyone that’s traveled, I’m sure they’d agree: there’s a certain camaraderie that’s created when people travel together. A common bond is formed and somehow friendships spring up in the most unexpected places. The stories you’ll hear are unbelievable and the connections you make with fellow travelers are incomparable to anything you have back home. These are the people you’ll always be in touch with for years to come.
Saying you’re from America v.s. California alludes VERY different reactions. This is a more of a personal realization that may not relate to everyone, but it’s still interesting to note. While traveling, I noticed that people in other countries reacted very differently when I said I was from California vs. the United States.
At first I would just say I was American, which welcomes all kinds of reactions in itself. But once I specified California, people’s expressions lit up and they were all of a sudden impressed or interested. They’d start asking questions about Hollywood, movies and famous California landmarks. I guess Hollywood trumps politics when it comes to first impressions?
Your perspective on everything you’ve ever known changes. This last point kind of sums up everything above. Your whole world changes after you live abroad – it gives you a chance to reflect on your life up to that point. You may find yourself reevaluating your values, how you may want to do things differently, learn new things about yourself you may never known, and maybe feel a bit inspired to do more with what you’ve been given.
The world is so much bigger than “you,” but you have the opportunity to make it better. There’s no such thing as a feat too small if you’re working towards the betterment of your own life and society as a whole. Travel more. It’s worth it.