I have officially crossed the bridge into my late twenties and celebrated my 26th birthday yesterday. Those 26 years have been full of lessons, tears, belly laughs, and new experiences. This past year, in particular, has been such a whirlwind. Since September of last year we have moved from China to the US to Chile! I figured I would share with you 26 things I have learned by being an expat (expatriate). But first, I wanted to say thank you for all of the kind words on social media over the weekend for my birthday. You really know how to make a girl feel special! :)
1. Body language does not always work. I used to think that I could get by with using a lot of body language to get my point across. While it does work most of the time, it definitely is not a substitute for learning the local language!
2. Making mistakes is okay. There is no way to learn a language without making a fool of yourself a few times. I have asked for six prostitutes in China while trying to order some baozi (steamed buns). I’ve also asked for one noodle of fabric instead of a meter. But these always end in laughter, and I never forgot the correct word again.
3. The whole world does not speak English. This can, unfortunately, be a crutch for us native English speakers. Sometimes we just assume that everyone in the world has learned English in school, so they must be fluent. That is not the case, and it is such a reward to learn and use a new language.
4. Immersion is the best way to learn. I love learning new languages, but I get frustrated when it doesn’t come quickly. I really need to just relax. However, I have learned a few things about speeding up the acquisition process. Fully diving in to a language is the best way to learn it–reading books in that language, talking with native speakers, asking people to correct you, listening to music, watching the local news, etc.
5. Humor is totally cultural. I can’t count how many times I have either given or received a blank stare after a joke. The more Derek and I travel, the more I realize that funny really depends on where you are.
6. Travelling doesn’t need to be expensive. Derek and I are full time educators, so we don’t have overflowing bank accounts. However, we’ve still travelled to many places and have never felt like we’ve missed out. We splurge on things that matter, and we save on the things that don’t.
7. Hostels are not scary. Despite what those terribly graphic flicks told us, hostels are not damp, creepy places. We have made some great, lifelong friends by staying in hostels and conversing in the living spaces. Plus, they are the best bet for budget travelling!
8. The world is pretty small. It doesn’t matter if we are on an island in the Phillippines or walking down the streets of Santiago. We always end up having a crazy run-in with someone. Just two months ago, Derek was running in the park and ran into two girls from South Dakota! They were only in town for one more week, so the chances of seeing people from our home state was so slim.
9. People don’t always get it. It is really hard to try to explain to people why we travel. Sometimes people don’t get why we do what we do. Sometimes people aren’t very supportive of it. That happens. It is bound to happen. I just wish I could truly explain the joy and the rewards in a few words, but I haven’t found the perfect ones yet.
10. The people who invented video calling are the best. If it weren’t for Facetime, Skype, and Google Hangouts, I would be a mess. We talk to family at least once a week via video calls. It is so comforting to see the faces of the people we love. It really makes the distance easier.
11. The same for WhatsApp and social media. Say what you will about social media, but I can’t imagine our lives without it. We are able to keep up with what is going on halfway around the world with the people we love most. Also, we don’t have to spend outrageous calling and texting fees, because Brian Action and Jan Koum combined forces to create a free service just for reasons like this.
12. Language isn’t a barrier for friendship. Though it can be difficult to communicate all the time, we have made so many friends that don’t speak English fluently…or at all. It shouldn’t be a reason to miss out on a potentially great friendship. We’ve learned so much from friends around the world. One time I made dumplings with a student of mine in China. My Mandarin is extremely basic, and her English level was beginner, but we made a recipe from start to finish together and then went on a double date after with Derek and her boyfriend.
13. Researching a country’s etiquette is a must. Every place in the world has a different way of doing things. This is not saying that we have to totally change ourselves to visit a place, but we do need to be respectful of customs and cultures. For example, in the US, people almost always rub the Buddha’s head or belly for luck, but to rub the head of anyone (especially a buddha statue) in Thailand is considered an extreme insult. If I hadn’t researched that, I would have offended pretty much all of Chiang Mai. Plus, it just adds to your knowledge base of the world, so bonus!
14. Vegetarian does not mean the same thing everywhere. In Asia, I would ask for my meals without meat. It would come with pork or seafood on it a lot of the time. They didn’t consider these to be meat. If you are vegetarian, definitely find out exactly how to say what you need, so you don’t end up with a bad experience.
15. Americans say thank you a lot. In the US, we use please and thank you for pretty much everything. In some cultures, they thought we were pretty weird. In China, for example, people do not say thank you for common courtesy things like opening a door. However, we still did. That is pretty ingrained in us.
16. You can never judge a person by their government. While a country’s government might be a stark contrast to your opinion, its people are a different story. Each person is completely unique, and we can never be too quick to judge based solely on where they happen to live.
18. Open-mindedness is essential. It is impossible to travel with a closed mind. Well, I suppose it is possible, but I would highly suggest opening it before going anywhere. There have been so many experiences that I would not have taken if I had tunnel vision. A go-for-it attitude is kind of necessary, especially in cultures that bring you the most culture shock.
19. Culture shock doesn’t always hit you right away. In China, culture shock didn’t really hit me until we had been living there for over three months. I think I had rose-colored glasses for a while. Culture shock isn’t always necessarily negative either. Sometimes is smacks you in the face with something amazing.
20. Cooking is a true art form. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I would not say that I am anywhere near being a chef or a foodie. I love learning how to make different local recipes from the countries we visit. Like art, cooking has so much history, culture, and many stories to tell. There’s a reason for each step, and if you skip one, it just won’t taste the same. I love watching people cook traditional dishes, because it makes me imagine their ancestors doing the exact same thing while following the exact same recipe.
21. Some places are great to visit, but not so great to live. This is definitely a personal thing. Each country and culture offers so much, and where feels like home really varies person to person. Every place we’ve visited or lived has offered us amazing experiences that will be cherished for a lifetime. That being said, not all places are meant for us. Some places we want to visit again, but living there isn’t an option.
22. Material things just don’t matter that much. Before travelling to China, I was pretty materialistic. I didn’t think I was, but in retrospect, I’ve discovered that about myself. Derek and I have a storage unit that was jam packed full of items from our life together in the US. We had totes and totes of clothes, home decor, etc. (And, mind you, this was AFTER we downsized!) Those things were the things we had to have. Then we went to China. The best example I can think of is our arrival and departure. Upon arrival, our employers put us in a hotel (for free!). I remember I complained about the bathroom. I thought the place was pretty dingy. Then, after we lived there for 13 months, we returned to the same hotel to help a new coworker settle in to her new life in China. I went in the same bathroom, and I said, “Wow! This bathroom is so nice. I love the sink.” In only 13 months, my mindset did a complete 180! I stopped with the bigger is better, and I now try to have a minimal lifestyle, and we enjoy decorating our house with pieces that hold special significance to us.
23. Staying in touch is hard, but it is also the most important thing. Over time, it becomes harder and harder to keep in touch with friends. I have to remind myself to write an email or send a message. While I am always thinking of my friends, I sometimes forget to tell them. So, to any of my friends reading this, I will be better! I think of you often, and I appreciate you more than you know!
24. Being late is not so bad! I am notorious with my friends for always being late. It is a family thing, and it has always been that way. While I try as hard as I can to be on time for events or meeting with friends, I always end up at least five minutes late. In Abu Dhabi was the first place that this was a normal thing. People kind of had a fluid relationship with time. Oh, we said 3:00? Well, it’s 6:00, and they are just arriving. I really enjoyed this lifestyle. It was more carefree, but I will try to be on time for my punctual friends!! :)
25. We really need to cut down our carbon footprints. Travelling to different cities really showed me how much of an impact we make on the planet. In some cities it was difficult to see across the street due to the smog, while in others you could see for miles. It really makes a difference, so we should all try to keep Earth healthy! Check out an easy DIY project here.
26. We really aren’t that different. As cliche as this sounds, it is so true. If we look past the superficial, people are not that different. We all want happiness. We all strive for success. We all smile, cry, laugh, fight, and love. The way in which we do these things may be different, but that is not what matters. I can’t express how much these travels have changed me and my viewpoint on the world. I hope we can all experience a new culture, or at least befriend someone who has a different nationality or native language than our own.
^photo: Mint Afternoon’s Etsy Shop^
What have you learned from travelling? If you haven’t yet, where would you love to go?