Writer and life-long expat James Baldwin once wrote, “I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.”
In the last decade, I’ve traveled to nearly 40 countries and lived in five, in Disney World and on a cruise ship. And while I’ve learned a lot about the world, I’ve found that the most profound insights I’ve gained over the years haven’t been about a specific country or culture, but rather, myself. The following are some of those insights.
1) I’m good enough as is (frizzy hair and all)
Whilst I’d grown up being told to “just be yourself” by parents and well-meaning guidance counselors, I never thought of it as more than a cliché catchphrase until I visited Asia. Until then, I’d always worn my naturally curly hair straight, spending hours fighting my curls into submission with a flat iron.
After seeing straight-haired Japanese friends spend their paychecks on expensive procedures to achieve the curls I’d spent most of my life trying to hide, I realized how foolish I’d been.
As Judy Garland said, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.” I learned that it was better to be my messy and wild-haired self than an imperfect imitation of one of my friends.
Me, rocking the curly blond hair-do and two of my Japanese friends, at a club in Tokyo, Japan.
2) Being alone is okay
Dining out or going to the movies alone is not the scary, humiliating or lonely experience I thought it would be.
3) I can be my own best friend.
There were many circumstances in India when I had to depend on my own smarts and inner strength for survival. Whether it was fighting off attacking monkeys and would-be-muggers or navigating entire cities with only a map for company, solo travel taught me the importance of self-reliance.
4) Live in the moment (even if the moment involves being dirty, wet and lost)
From nauseatingly bumpy bus rides to wasted hours spent in hot and dusty bus stations, traveling can be a fairly miserable experience . . . if you let it. Over the years, I’ve learned that fighting the present moment and wishing it different frequently makes a bad situation worse.
I’ve found that, oftentimes, making the best of a situation is as easy as grounding myself in the moment and shrugging away my irritation with a simple, “it is what it is.”
As author Greg Anderson said, “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” Photo by crlbvi.
5) There is such a thing as too many choices (and American supermarkets are proof of that)
After living in Germany, where I only had two or three cereal brands to choose from, I now find shopping in super-sized American grocery stores to be a needlessly stressful experience.
While having a lot of options is usually considered a positive, when it comes to grocery shopping having so many choices can be overwhelming. Photo by Artbandito.
6) The only problem most people have is that they have no problems
India and Nepal taught me that with the exception of war or famine, most of the situations people view as problems are really just inconveniences or minor set-backs. Instead of feeling fortunate and content, though, many of us in the West seem hellbent on creating, in the absence of any real-life catastrophes, self-induced drama and chaos.
Travel gave me perspective and taught me that there’s very little in life that’s worth worrying about.
7) I don’t need a flat-screen TV to be happy
After happily living off of only the meager contents of a single suitcase, I’ve realized that I need very little to be content in life.
Though I often feel the pressure to collect more material possessions, living out of a suitcase for months at time has taught me that I need very little to be happy. Photo by WarzauWynn.
8) While I may always have a type, I can fall in love with anyone (regardless of cultural background or ethnicity)
I used to have a long list of attributes potential boyfriends had to have in order for me to consider dating them and “shared beliefs and outlook on life” were at the top of that list. But as living abroad has taught me, everything you think is important can go right out the window if you meet the right person.
9) Even sea cucumbers can taste good (if you’re open-minded enough)
You can learn to like even the most bizarre of foods, if you’re willing to stay open-minded long enough to give it a chance.
10) People are basically good
I once found myself stranded penniless in Paris. My credit cards had been canceled, my debit card wasn’t working and I had nowhere to stay. An American business man, overhearing my dilemma, gave me 200 Euros so that I could get a room for the night.
The number of times strangers have helped me and not expected anything in return (from offering up their bed when a missed bus left me stranded in rural India to giving me a ride when I got caught a rain storm in Nicaragua) far outnumbers any negative encounters I’ve had.
11) It doesn’t matter if I don’t have everything all figured out (I’m not supposed to)
Belting out a Madonna song during karaoke in Tokyo, Japan.
12) It’s okay to make a fool of myself . . . People will like me better for it
Traveling in a foreign culture has an uncanny way of making even the most self-composed individuals look like bumbling idiots, and I’m no exception. Whether it was stuttering through a speech in Japanese in front of hundreds of strangers or trying to convey in broken German to a male store clerk that I needed a box of tampons, I’ve blushed and stammered my way through many a humiliation while living abroad. But though I still cringe at the memories, those experiences taught me how to laugh at myself and for that, I’m grateful.
13) I can live pretty much anywhere, so long as I have friends and Wi-Fi
This is the room I lived in when I first moved to Tokyo, Japan.
14) The best trips are ones that I don’t enjoy until I return home
Two weeks of relaxing on a beach in Tahiti is nice, but the vacations I’ve gained the most from are ones that were the most difficult. Between stomach troubles, muggings and narrowly avoiding being hit by lightning atop two different volcanoes, the four months I spent in Central America were some of my most miserable but also my most life-enhancing.
Though at that time, my friend and I were wet, cold and exhausted from our climb to the top of a volcano in Guatemala, we learned a lot from the experience (i.e., check the weather report for thunderstorms before attempting to climb an active volcano).
15) Traveling isn’t for everyone
Although traveling has had a monumental impact on my life, I’ve learned that it isn’t the answer for everyone. Trying to force it on those who have no interest is pointless and won’t win me any friends.
What life lessons have you learned from traveling or living abroad? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this article, you might also like: 9 Things I Learned Tracing My Roots in Romania.
Unless stated, all images author’s own.