Updated: Nov 16
One piece of advice I find myself telling students is, “You should either travel abroad or live abroad at least once in your lifetime.”
However, if you’re a parent, such an opinion may not be something you want to hear.
And why not?
We fear the unfamiliar. We fear feeling out of place. We fear being challenged. For many Americans, the concept of hopping aboard fast-moving public transportation or eating unfamiliar cuisine is truly freakish. I’m telling you, as someone who never left the country until age 20 and yet who ended up living abroad twice, I’m telling you that you must GO.
If you’re someone who has grown up in one place/region for your entire life, I need to express a thought that may sound harsh, but here goes:
You’ve grown complacent.
But hey, of course you have! We’ve all been guilty of complacency when it comes to certain habits or choices. You may have a pretty sweet deal. Maybe:
Your next door neighbor is also your mechanic, or....
Your nearby family members serve as built-in babysitters and last-minute heroes, or....
Perhaps you relish the fact that you never have to turn on your gps to find your way around because you know every shortcut, backroad, and alternate route in your town...
What happens when you’re TOO complacent? You don’t learn or grow as much. You get comfy. Too comfy. And too much comfort breeds laziness, mediocrity, and contempt. I’m not saying that these words describe you, but resistance to new places or new opportunities CAN prevent people from having deeper insight.
Since living abroad, I feel like I’m better at explaining things to my students. I have more experiences to share and more knowledge to impart. I remember when I knew a lot less, but I admit that I still don’t know everything. I’m STILL learning.
In college, I studied abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a month, and I love telling students amusing stories about how our band of stiff-hipped, graceless college students swallowed our pride and learned a popular dance called the merengue.
My mental protests of, “...But I’m Baptist and I don’t dance,” wanted to escape my lips but couldn’t, and thus I learned how to sway and spin to the merengue…or at least I gave a heartfelt attempt.
Years later, after getting married, my husband and I had the opportunity to teach English to students in South Korea. While there, I encountered a major culture clash.
I argued with my South Korean boss over more than one misunderstanding. Here’s one that is noteworthy.
During the holiday season, we were told to write a bland Christmas phrase on the board which students were to copy upon white sheets of folded paper and then decorate. The task of making Christmas cards for parents is relatively uncomplicated.
This action was a welcome deviation from the usual rigid English-language book work or vocabulary repetition, yet I still thought that the students needed more creativity. I believe that the creation of Christmas cards deserved some “freedom of expression.” Not realizing how conformity plays such a vital role in Korean culture, I allowed my students to decorate their cards with whatever Christmasy images they wanted.
This was an utmost sin in the eyes of the Korean school owner, and after another teacher found the cards and saw witty jokes emblazoned upon them (rather than the old stand-by Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” or something), I was interrogated and reprimanded. I was incredulous that my boss was so bothered over something as menial as diy Christmas cards, and though I stood my ground, I didn’t want to lose my cool and get myself fired. The plan was to stick it out for at least one year.
By the way, this uncomfortable interrogation took place on December 24th, a hallowed day which most people I knew happily vacationed from their usual 9 to 5.
Still, that didn’t matter.
There are many Christians in South Korea, so why on Earth would anyone want to work on Christmas Eve? I quickly learned that Koreans celebrate Christmas, but it’s not as big of a deal there as it is in other parts of the world. Furthermore, Koreans put work on a lofty pedestal and rarely take time off. I’d signed on to a job that expected me to keep up with a work ethic that I wasn’t accustomed to.
Later, I was told by a fellow co-worker that “The way we do things isn’t wrong, it’s just different.”
So, I never would have learned this if I hadn’t boldly ventured out. I found that I was occasionally guilty of being narrow-minded about Korean customs. Did I dislike South Korea? Certainly not; there’s much there that would fascinate and awe you. I often miss it.
I’m not writing this blog entry to talk about the beauty of that part of the world, or how you’d really like the food if you tried it. There are many sources out there that will tell you that. What I do want you to know is that spending a length of time outside U.S soil can be exasperating. It can feel awkward. But the friendships, the knowledge, and the memories you can gain from such experiences are priceless.
Earlier this year, my husband and I did a 6-month stint in London, where we were still able to run our online tutoring business. We learned a whole set of values there, some that we’d expected, and some we didn’t. We drank tea, took the tube, spoke with people from multiple cultures on a daily basis, walked miles each day, admired Big Ben a few times, and grew so adept at navigating the city train and bus lines that we could cruise into central London and get around with relative ease. We loved it…but I couldn’t live there full-time. The warm seasons aren’t long enough for me!
When tutoring my students in writing and literature, topics about other places and cultures pop up frequently. I explain to students that other places aren’t better than the U.S., but they are exciting to experience. Can foreign travel (or even traveling to other U.S states far from your own) make you a more well-rounded person?
Absolutely! Without a doubt.
Rest assured that trying new foods, befriending people of other backgrounds or cultures, or enduring challenging situations can make us better thinkers. Exploring “new territory” can give young people more to write about, and having more to write about can be an advantage when applying to colleges or when entering the workforce. Without partaking in new experiences, we risk living lives blemished with short-sighted naivety and ignorance.