Ok. Ok. I fully understand that blog posts on this subject have been done before. I am not the first and certainly not the last person to write about it.
That said, it is easier for me to write about what I learned while abroad than to keep it to myself. Posts I wrote while living abroad are scattered among this blog and another one, (https://jasonoffthepath.wordpress.com/). The latter was created specifically to chronicle my time in Costa Rica.
As background, I left my post at a reputable, hometown corporate law firm in 2015 and moved to Costa Rica. Previous to that, I battled the job-loathing and loneliness that comes from being unsuited for my work and living as a single person in a town full of young married people for 3 years. Toward the end of the third year, I devised a plan to vagabond in Latin America for 4 months and then continue on to Asia for 1 year. My extended travel itinerary, however, didn’t go quite like that.
I went to Costa Rica for 7 months instead of 4, because I wanted to perfect my Spanish (no esta perfecto ahora). Then, I returned to the USA and begrudgingly job searched for 5 months until I found a “real (soul-crushing) job.” Wanderlust still close to the surface, I could only fake it in the real job for 4 months. So, after a frustrating stint as an account executive with a fortune 500 company, I reset my sights on finishing my originally planned adventure.
Months later, I boarded a plane for Hong Kong and made my way to Shenzhen, China where I would spend the next 6 months. Neither time nor money can replace my experience there.
All in all, it took me 28 months to leave my lawyer job and return home from China instead of the originally planned 16. It was all well worth it, but I was a donkey about it. I will explain the reference later.
To encapsulate everything I learned while living in foreign countries would be to trivialize it, but here are some of the things I feel are too profound to keep to myself.
- Being US American and speaking English equals being in the world’s 1%–In my second post on my Costa Rica blog (https://jasonoffthepath.wordpress.com/2015 /08/21/first-impressions/), I eagerly documented this understanding. It hit me like a ton of bricks right after I set foot in Costa Rica and in China for the first times. This is two-pronged: First, being from the USA comes with innumerable advantages. The least of these advantages is the standard of living. In no way is this a knock on anyone, anywhere, but to appreciate this everyday is mandatory for living happily in the USA. Second, speaking English as one’s first language is perhaps the single greatest advantage ever enjoyed by any person in the history of the human race. English is the international language of business. Training centers and English schools thrive in nearly every country in the world. In the USA, however, we do not have reciprocal training in foreign languages. Is this because we are lazy? I say “NO.” English-speaking Americans are not punished for being monolingual. English is where foreigners from different nations meet. We are as others would be in our circumstances. As an example, I regularly attended a workout class while in China. The instructor was from Brazil and most of the other attendees were Chinese. Neither party spoke English as their first language, but the class was given in English. English was the meeting point and the most commonly discernible language. Being a native English speaker is a greater advantage than almost anything else.
- Living abroad probably WON’T lead to career progress–This one was tough to swallow. On one hand, I steadfastly believe that adjusting to living in a foreign country is challenging and rewarding no matter who you are. For me, it required perseverance and adaptability that I may not have been able to gain otherwise. We are creatures of habit and habitat and are bound to get a little disoriented if moved to a strange land. Learning to survive abroad requires tenacity, stick-to-itiveness and character. These skills are valuable intangibles. Gaining these intangible skills, however, does not necessarily translate to career advancement. I no longer expect potential employers or colleagues to see these skills as a direct indicator of future career success. Realistically, US employers want a candidate to have direct successful experience doing the exact thing they are hiring someone to do. Do you know any companies looking to pay someone to live abroad and tell people about it? I don’t. Personally, I will always treasure what I learned from living abroad and wouldn’t trade it for any amount of career success. That said, my career is not any further along than it was when I left to venture out of the USA.
- People don’t really give a $h!t–Taking the plunge to remain in a foreign country for an extended time is a fascinating undertaking, but don’t expect everyone you know back home to understand that. I previously completed law school, but equate going abroad as “Life School.” I learned as much about myself and the world in 13 months abroad as I did from 6 years in the working world of the USA. I wanted everyone back home to know what I found out. Unfortunately and fortunately, friends and family went on living their lives. People have to eat, sleep, drink and be merry whether you go to China or not. They are interested in things you can tell them about life abroad, but I would probably have had this realization one day whether I stayed in the USA permanently or not. This is a commonly recognized phase of reverse culture shock, which I talked about in one of my YouTube videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0204Q1dg03s&t=9s).
- Good People are Everywhere–I need not delve into generalizations made about people from different cultures. Before I went to China, a friend, who was opposed to me going, told me, “the people in China suck.” He had never been to China before saying that to me. If you are abiding by the Golden Rule while living abroad, you will attract others who are doing the same. You may not be able to climb the social ladder as easily as you can at home, but you will find good people if you act like a good person. This means multiple things in different situations and you do need to be careful about who you involve yourself with, but, if you keep integrity and kindness at the forefront of your principles, you will be fine. If you do the above, here is what happens. You will arrive wide-eyed in your new country expecting to take on all of the experiences the new place can offer you. At first, you may agree to doing exciting things with people you may not normally associate with, because you are in your new country. After spending time with these new acquaintances, you will discern whether they are good for you. If so, great! You have found some people who will comfort you while you adjust to being there. If not, you should, and hopefully will, slowly distance yourself from these new people, because your survival may depend on it. Then, you may be lonely for some time, but you will eventually find the right people. At the beginning of my time Costa Rica, for example, I was introduced to someone who seemed to like a lot of the same things I did. Additionally, he went to college in the USA and spoke perfect English. I realized, however, he was associated with some of the less polished people in town. He, for example, told me his friend pulled a gun on someone in the previous week. I quickly took this to mean he wasn’t careful about who he was friends with and that I wasn’t really interested in meeting any of his associates. So, I stopped responding to his messages and stayed lonely for a few weeks until meeting a great group of friends whom I am still close to today. They didn’t hang out with people who pulled guns on people. The point is, you can find good people if you are willing to step away from bad people.
- The good ones make all the difference–Doubling down on my previous point, being around good people provided me with as in-depth of a cultural experience as possible in both Costa Rica and China. Hospitality is a virtue shared by good people everywhere. Once you feel comfortable among who you associate with in a new country, you will let your guard down and allow yourself to take in everything that comes your way. In contrast, if you are concerned about the character and quality of the people you interact with, you will subconsciously put your guard up hindering your ability to fully embrace the new culture. We are the average of the five people we most associate with. This is truer when you are in a place in which you don’t know anyone.
- You will never fully close the door–I cannot fully grasp this, because I haven’t lived the rest of my life yet, but, so far, Costa Rica and China are still a part of my life. I hope it stays this way forever. I don’t ever want them not to be. The people I made friends with, the world knowledge I gained and everything else I got from being abroad won’t just disappear now that I am back. A beautiful thing about life is that you can’t retract the boundaries of your horizons once they have been expanded. I cannot unsee, unfeel or unobserve what I experienced while abroad. This was the whole point.
- “Don’t be a donkey.”–I learned of this philosophy from one of my favorite podcasts. It comes from a fable in which a donkey is equally hungry and thirsty and is placed equidistant between some hay and water. The poor animal cannot decide whether it wants to eat or drink and eventually ends up dying of thirst and hunger. Here is a link to a better explanation of this fable: https://jeangalea.com/dont-be-a-donkey/ I fully confess that I was a donkey toward the end of my time in Costa Rica. Earlier in this post, I told you I originally planned on going to Asia after Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I acquiesced to what other people wanted me to do and moved back to get a real job between my Costa Rica and Asia time. I hated it, but more painful than that was that I still wanted to live in Asia while trying to get a new job in a new city. Instead of fully completing my travel and THEN re-entering the US working world, I went to Costa Rica for 7 months, got nervous about my career prospects, came home and wasted 5 months looking for a job I didn’t want, re-entered the working world prematurely and then quit so I could move to China for a while. As you know, I ended up getting to Asia, but wasted a lot of time and money figuring out that that was where I really wanted to be for a little while. I was a donkey.
In sum, no matter how much time and energy I spent away from home, it will prove to have been more and more worth it as time goes on. Some of the lessons I referenced in this post may be things you feel like you already know. That may be the case, but my personal understanding of them is to astronomically deeper than it would have been had I not gone abroad.
My only regret is not fully committing to living my fullest life abroad sooner, but that’s just another thing I learned from doing all of this.