Why you really need to leave the country (preferably for somewhere new to you)

By Caitlin Kelly

Jose's passport
Jose’s passport

A stunningly small percentage of American students ever study abroad, writes Nick Kristof in The New York Times:

American universities should also be sending people abroad, but they are still quite insular. The number of Americans studying abroad has tripled over the last 20 years, but, still, fewer than 10 percent of college students study overseas during undergraduate years. Three times as many foreigners study in America as the other way around. (note: my emphasis added.)

(A shout-out goes to Goucher College in Baltimore, which requires students to study abroad. Others should try that.)

All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.

And it’s not uncommon for Americans, of any age or level of formal education, to speak only one language, English, while Europeans who speak only three or four feel embarrassed by their cultural incompetence.

Canadians grow up in a nation officially bilingual, with every bit of packaging and all government messaging dans les deux langues officielles.

Melbourne -- which I visited in 1998
Melbourne — which I visited in 1998

And, compared to other nations, relatively few Americans  travel beyond their borders, even to Canada, where I was born and raised. From the Huffington Post:

Well, this can be said: somewhere between 11.6 and 14.6 million Americans actually traveled overseas in 2009, taking a trip lasting on average seven nights (students and travelers visiting family and friends stay significantly longer) and usually visiting just one country. These four major geographic areas are our most likely destinations: Europe (35% of all U.S. trips), Caribbean (21% of all trips), Asia (19% of all trips) and South America (9% of all trips).

America’s most popular overseas countries are: England (9% of all trips), France (7%), Italy (7%), Germany (5%), Dominican Republic (5%), Jamaica (5%), Japan (4%), China (4%), India (4%) and Spain (4%). Other significant countries visited include: Bahamas (3%) and Costa Rica (3%). With just six percent of Americans trips going to the Middle East, and even fewer, just three percent, visiting the whole continent of Africa, and two percent going to Australia/New Zealand.

My recent working trip to Nicaragua made it the 38th country I’ve been to, so far; I was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued travel so highly and could afford to visit Europe and Latin America and the South Pacific.

And my own work in journalism, has also sent me — on others’ dime — to places as far-flung as Copenhagen, Istanbul and Sicily. I’ve lived in England, France, Mexico, Canada and the U.S.; each place has taught me something I never knew before.

I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for four months when I was 14, which instilled a life-long love of that country and created the basis for my Spanish-language skills, which I used in Nicaragua once more. The photographer on our recent trip lives (!) a few blocks from my old apartment in Cuernavaca, so speaking Spanish meant I could chat with him as well.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

Yes, you can read blogs and books and watch movies, but nothing can really prepare you for the sights, sounds and smells of real daily life in a land far away.

I like the old joke — one fish says to another: “How’s the water?”

“What water?”

Living your entire life in only one country/culture/language is severely limiting. It’s hard to appreciate that you live in any sort of economic/political/religious/social culture, (i.e. accepting and conforming to norms and standards of behavior) until you plunge into a quite different one.

And, yes, it’s scary!

What if you get sick? (Most places have doctors and hospitals.) What if you get lost? (People are generally kind and helpful.) Will the buses be safe? Maybe not. But you’ll figure it out. There’s a kind of self-reliance to be gained from straying beyond the normal and known that creates a terrific self-confidence, especially for women.

One of the best-read blog post here at Broadside? How to travel alone safely as a woman.

Learning to dress and speak and behave in culturally-respectful ways — (never touch a Thai person’s head; don’t ask a French person to show you around their home; present a business card to a Japanese person with both hands) — can only serve you well in a globally-connected economy.

And understanding that owning more than one pair or shoes or books or a television — or eating even once a day — means wealth to millions of people is a helpful exercise in awareness and gratitude.

Here’s a post by an American photographer who took the plunge:

I’ve come a long way in realizing my dreams. And that was by just going for it. I never did make a plan. Once on the road, with the narrow margins of profit versus costs in travel, I never saved money. Making money while traveling is an exception, not a rule.

Even so, in my mid-thirties now, I have only a few regrets. Chief among them is the people who have been negatively affected by my lack of plan or savings. I’ve overextended my stay on friends’ and relatives’ couches, for example, when breaks between press junkets lasted longer than I thought they would. I’ve had moments where I couldn’t afford a plane ticket home.

But I don’t regret the nights spent sleeping in bus stations or the days without food to save money…It hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t change the decision I made, those four years ago, to leave everything and travel.

I would advise others considering a similar decision not to listen to those who do not support your dream. But do not shame them for doubting, either. We are all different in our levels of courage – and in the way we view how life should be lived.

Last week I had dinner with a young photographer friend, who’s 26 and still in college and $70,000 in student debt and dying to go live and work work in Beirut, Lebanon.

Go! Jose and I told him, without hesitation. The hell with two more years sitting in school, writing term papers on journalism in Chicago; he’s already got excellent skills and we’ve already started hooking him up with people who know the place and have recently lived there.

Here’s one of my favorite newspaper columns, Expat Lives, that runs in the weekend Financial Times, in which men and women talk in detail about why they chose to leave their home country and what life is like in their adopted one.

Do you speak languages beyond English? Which ones and why?

Have you traveled beyond your country’s borders?

How has it changed your perspective?

51 thoughts on “Why you really need to leave the country (preferably for somewhere new to you)

  1. Excellent blog, couldn’t agree more. The big thing about traveling is it also makes you sit back and look at how things in your own country are run, and makes for some interesting truths. Im twenty five years old and have worked in the slums of India, I was in Egypt when through the riots when the put Morsi in jail. I rode a horse 1000km across monoglia and have worked in many other countries including studying in Germany. Travel has been my best educator, or rather travel where you get involved in the local culture has. I’m proud to say I have friends from many different races, religions and cultures that have helped shaped my veiws of the world today.

    1. What a fantastic jump start on life!

      Riding across Mongolia is still high on my to-do list.

      I had an eight-month fellowship in Paris when I was 25 — shared with 28 journalists from 19 nations — Italy, NZ, Japan, Ghana, etc. — which changed my views and made lifelong friends.

  2. I still speak a good amount of Hebrew, and a little bit of French and German (I wish I was better at both and had more time to study both). Israel certainly changed me, and I’m sure traveling to England, France and Germany will do the same to me. And I’m so glad my school actively encourages study abroad programs like the one I’m going on.

  3. i think this is an excellent message, caitlin. there is no finer way to learn about the world than to be immersed in it. i’ve traveled some, and yearn to travel more. i love the unexpected, being with the real people in a place and trying my best to follow their customs and ways rather than expect them to adapt to mine. did you ever read or see ‘the accidental tourist?’ the irony was that the main character hated to travel because it was different from what he was used to at home. as for languages: i had years of french in high school and again in college and can understand and read some, speak less, but pick it up quickly when i hear it again. my spanish is kindergarten level, as i learn from our spanish teacher, who is from mexico and has a bit of a different accent from traditional spanish. i really have a strong desire to visit cuba one day and plan to find a way to do so, along with my human aid project somewhere. the sky’s the limit, really )

  4. Gilraen

    As a European I am one of those that speaks four languages of which 2 fluently (Dutch and English) and wish the other two (French and German) were better. The languages are good enough to get around and even read or listen to the news, but not to have a wok related conversation in.

    I traveled a lot, lived int three countries over two continents visited now over 70 countries (in part for work) Mind you, my counry is small, drive for a max of 3 hours and you have either crossed a border somewhere or you are in the sea.

    Going and seeing places, seeing different cultures has shown me the richness of the world. It has shown me that good people are everywhere even when I can’t understand their tongue. Mind you idiots are also everywhere :-). Personally I think it has made me a more accepting person, wanting to celebrate differences as I think they brighten life. I love tasting new dishes in foreign places. Food is a source of pride in most cultures and it always has been better in the country of origin.

    1. Thanks for sharing this! I feel DUMB with only two languages (plus English)…and 70 (!!!) countries. Wow. I am envious indeed.

      I agree, of course. The food in Nicaragua was very simple: rice, beans, plantains and a bit of protein. Almost no green vegetables, which was a first for me. The most vegetation I found (happily) was in a bowl of chicken soup.

  5. I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written here! Travel is an excellent education. I live on a small Scottish island, but my parents travelled a lot and always encouraged my brother and I to travel, to be curious, to see what else is out there.

    Although I had already travelled quite a lot, it wasn’t until I worked in China for a year that I truly realised that (as you said) different societies conform to different norms and standards of behaviour. China wasn’t always an easy place to live, but I loved it; it really was one of the best experiences of my life so far. I’ve studied abroad in the U.S. too, and even between the U.S. and the U.K. there are a lot of cultural differences, more than you would expect at first.

    Travelling and living abroad has made me more appreciative of my home too. As a teenager, a Scottish island was the last place I wanted to be, but I can now really appreciate what a wonderful place this is to grow up in, what a unique culture we have, and how lucky I am to call this beautiful place home.

    While I travel a lot, my foreign language skills are unfortunately quite poor, but not from lack of trying! I have a little bit of Mandarin, a very little bit of French, and a little bit of Gaelic (not exactly a foreign language, but a nice reminder of my heritage 🙂 ). I took an evening class in Arabic during my final year of university too, and it’s a language I would love to go back to learning – it was so beautiful!

    I loved reading this post – thank you!

    1. Thanks for such a terrific comment!

      Ooooh, you had me at “small Scottish island”…I’m very eager to get to the Hebrides (?) and re-visit Scotland; I spent my 12th summer in a stone cottage in Crieff, Perthshire.

      I bet China was a real head-spinner. It seems like a nation filled with some very deep contradictions; my book “Malled” was published there in July 2013, and that was a first for me. I haven’t been to China (although my husband has); I have to admit that Japan is much more appealing to me.

      I know for sure that the U.S. and U.K. are very different; I grew up in Canada and there are some very deep differences in behavior and expectations between those two, and they appear much more similar, with a contiguous border. But they’re not!

      1. “Head-spinner” is the perfect way to describe China! Almost nothing was familiar, and very few people in my neighbourhood spoke English, so it did take a lot of getting used to.

        Crieff is a lovely wee place! And yes, I’m in the Outer Hebrides – I would recommend a summer visit here to anyone 🙂 The winter is probably best avoided though, with winds of 80-90mph!

  6. In India often people speak three or more languages. We learn to read and write and speak these in school, but it’s not possible to know all of them. We went to live in Iraq in the 80s and it was a wonderful experience. We were never fluent but we adored the Arabic language and still love the sound of it, the culture, the music and food. Travel is really broadening for the mind. Thanks for an excellent post.

  7. We moved so often when I was a child that until recently I was always up for a good relocation as an adult. Ten different schools by my ninth year of education with four school changes in one year and on different coasts made it easy for me to learn to fit in, at least for a while. Staying in one place and maintaining relationships required a more advanced skill set as I’ve learned over the years.

    That said, I left the US for the first time in 1979 when I moved to a military post in what was then the Federal Republic of Germany and stayed there until I was reassigned back to the US in 1981. I missed it terribly at first, living in a foreign country and having so many other countries available to visit, but I traveled closer to home during the fourteen years that followed with frequent trips in the US, but nothing more distant than Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas.

    By the mid 90s I needed a passport again and began to fly off to places I’d only dreamed of seeing. Having moved to the UK, I am willing to grab either my US or British passport and go whenever an opportunity comes up and love living so close to other countries once again. I was a bit surprised to find that I had only been to 24 different countries in my life, somehow it seemed like more.

    1. That’s a LOT of moving around…I haven’t budged from this NY apt. in 25 years — after Toronto/Paris/Toronto/Montreal/NH/NY between 1982 and 1988. I hate moving!

      I envy you the proximity of all those great places…Hoping to get to Cornwall this year after I earn some decent $$ teaching this fall.

      1. Over the last 33 years, I’ve moved 23 times and I’m only counting from my early adult years. I probably had close to that same number through my childhood if not more. I think I may be finished with moving for the time being unless we find a place in Wales this summer that is too perfect to pass up. When do your classes end?

      2. That’s a lot of moving..From birth to age 30, I moved 10 times…but within Toronto the longest I lived anywhere (in 30 years) was four years in the same home.

        I have to check…early to mid-December; we’re hoping to do Christmas in Paris then I would wander over on my own in January before classes begin again (if they hire me back!)

      3. Christmas in Paris! I love Paris at that time of the year. I’ve never been there for Christmas Day, but I’ve spent two New Year’s Eve’s there. The first time was1979/1980 and the second 1999/2000. I was a young soldier stationed in Germany for the first one and for the Millennium New Year, I took my daughter. It was pretty grand both times. The fireworks at the Eiffel tower are not to be missed. Cornwall is pretty wet and chilly in January, but you can hop over our way then or come back during the better months.

  8. The issue (as I see it) with Americans is that the country is so geographically vast and culturally insular that people never even consider leaving and don’t feel motivated to do so.

    As a teenager, I spent some time trying to get my friends to come on a mini-European tour after graduation. The task caused me to appreciate the depth of cultural ignorance surrounding me.

    The scene: me (a first-gen American with highly educated European parents) in my friend’s kitchen as he begged his mom to pitch in to his Europe fund. “You can go to Europe or you can go to college,” she said. “What’s there in Europe that you can’t find right here anyway?” I was eating some cereal and almost choked to death as EVERY SINGLE THING IN THE WORLD flashed across my brain.

    He never did come and still lives in the same time zone where we grew up. I don’t know if he’s ever left, but his mother certainly hasn’t. I’m sure they have all the cable channels and really, what’s the difference between watching and going anyway, right?

    As a coda, the Freakonomics podcast recently did an episode about the ROI to learning another language. In the US, it hasn’t proven to have any positive economic impact.

    1. Thanks much for this…

      I would respond by saying yes, it’s a very big country but Canada is larger (geographically) and its citizens own more passports and have a much wider view of the world. Because…? We have two official languages (i.e. making the “foreign” obvious to everyone from birth, whether they like it or not?) We have different/better media coverage? We have a higher percentage of immigrants?

      I hear you as well on the ROI but…really? What a sadly numeric and reductive view of the “value” of what we do in life!

      It was a great joy and pleasure last week to sit on the porch in rural Nicaragua, with a half hour or so to pass with a woman I had never met — someone with whom all I really shared was a gender — and chat in HER language. I count my ability to conduct conversations for work and pleasure in two additional languages as my best choice ever: it won me a life-changing fellowship to France at 25; a FT staff reporting job in Montreal at 30 and ongoing pleasure and adventure when I travel to other countries.

      Very selfishly…it also gives me a tremendous advantage over highly-educated (but insular) Americans competing for work or jobs, but who only speak English. Sometimes it’s just the edge I need.

      1. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for traveling and speaking other languages (I’ve got a good handle on 3 and can get by well enough in a couple others). My first passport was issued when I was six months old.

        My gentle suggestion is that Americans are neither motivated by external factors (you can drive for days in any direction and still be in the US) nor, per Freakonomics, necessarily motivated by the marketplace.

        Sure, knowing other languages can come in handy in some industries. People frequently waited till I was on shift to make calls in Spanish, but precisely knowing that I was around meant that no one had to learn. I already filled that need; why bother?

        And I have very little experience of Canada but the feeling there is, as they say, “more European” (i.e. more cultured, cosmopolitan, art-oriented, connected to history). All these things encourage people to look and learn outside themselves. Very few places in the US have this feel (NYC, Boston, San Fran, maybe Seattle?). And I’m pretty sure that while CA is bigger, it’s less populous and most people live in the southern part, giving them an additional perspective on “foreign” countries.

      2. I didn’t think you weren’t!

        But to argue the point (probably too much) — so what if it’s a big place?! So is my home province of Ontario; I once went so far north in it that I could have gone to Miami (same distance). It was just a bunch of trees!

        How about curiosity?! No one has it?

        I also find American media truly appalling and also to blame for offering virtually no acknowledgment of a wider world — you would think the only foreign countries that exist are those with which the U.S. is at war (Mideast) or in which people are dying of a natural disaster or famine. The notion that there are many places to explore, full of fantastic history culture, food, natural beauty and interesting people to meet…? Nah.

        I find that pathetically narrow. The people I am happiest among are people with well-used passports and, often, fellow ex-pats. I was lucky enough to come back from my week in Nicaragua and one friend had been to Costa Rica (so she could identify) and my husband has been to many other countries for work and pleasure. Otherwise, it’s a dialogue of the deaf.

        If the only reason to do anything is only for more $$$$$, that’s just miserable. Really.

      3. Ha! We’re both defending the same position, though from different sides. I was merely providing a common mentality that I had encountered during my time in the US.

        The scene I describes above was an important moment in my life — I realized I no longer wanted to be around people who shared those ideals. Lack of curiosity is the worst insult I can think to lob at another person and I was positively surrounded by people like that the whole time I was growing up. If I hadn’t been born to foreigners who valued travel and art and history and knowledge, I don’t know where I ever would have learned anything.

        My friend’s mom — she was a teacher. She didn’t think that anyplace else held any value and she taught children for a living. These kinds of beliefs get passed practically through osmosis from all quarters. I could probably give you 50 examples off the top of my head of insanely ignorant things adults said to me when I was a child. What I can’t express is how discomfiting it is to be a pre-teen and realize that you have to put up with idiots for several more years.

        As far as the ROI issue, you’ve lived in the US long enough to understand that the main motivating principle is the pursuit and acquiring of the all mighty dollar. If it bleeds, it ledes, but if you can’t wring a buck out of, forget it.

      4. It took me a while to see how $$$$$$ obsessed Americans are. But I left Canada for a reason — the job market was stagnant and minuscule. I don’t regret leaving. But, yes, I am not at all American in that respect. I also chose NYC which is provincial as hell but at least attracts smart, ambitious people from other interesting countries and places.

        I hope to retire to France. 🙂

  9. I started learning Japanese at the age of 16 and first went abroad to Ireland and then to Japan. Now I live and work in Japan and I’m fluent, so I definitely agree it is a life changing and eye opening experience.

    I aspire to be a study abroad advisor, so I love encouraging people to travel and learn languages. However, I think people should learn and grow in their own ways. For example, even living in America I didn’t see the need to speak Spanish just because there was a large community of Spanish speakers where I lived. I even have a best friend from Honduras, but she is now fluent in French because she loves the culture and studied abroad in France.

    I also have friends who love to travel to England and I don’t discount the experiences they had on their time abroad in the UK as less valuable because they didn’t learn a language. Everyone has their own passion and everyone is unique. Saying that everyone should learn Spanish is a little ridiculous. I think everyone should have more opportunities to learn whatever language they want. Passion is a key component in going after a goal. Learning Spanish because you live near Spanish speakers or French when you live in Canada is certainly (if not predictably) useful. However, I think it’s best that people go after what truly inspires them.

    Learning Japanese was hard for me because almost no classes were offered where I lived and it wasn’t valued as a viable option. I had to go out of state for my education as is the case with a lot of my friends. We need to offer a wider variety and promote more than just the Big Five for students willing to study abroad.

    A lot of schools now are trying to encourage more travel by instating mandatory study abroad requirements in undergraduate education. Not everyone is suited for going abroad, though. But everyone should understand more about this globalizing world, and travel and language learning is a door to a never ending journey.

    1. Sounds like you know the issues well.

      I still think learning an additional language is a smart decision — and not only because it is purely useful immediately. I studied French and Spanish with one clear goal — to use those languages far from Canada while working as a foreign correspondent. By the time I had acquired sufficient professional experience, almost every media outlet had closed their foreign bureaus. So much for that “goal.” Now I use my language when and where I can, for work and for pleasure. Do I regret my choice in learning them? Not a bit.

  10. I am a traveller, as are my children. My one son paid for his own ticket to go live in Italy for a summer when he was just 16. My daughter goes to school in a different country and spent a stint as an exchange student in Argentina. My kids speak a second language. Travel to other countries matters to us. I agree more of us could speak another language.

    That said, one reason Americans don’t travel across the borders is the sheer size of the country. If you live in Kansas, the closest boder is many miles away. The Rocky Mountains are closer. We don’t have to leave the country to see the Grand Canyon, NYC, the sand dunes and red rock canyons, sugar sand beaches, the Everglades, wilderness and more.

    Don’t think that just because we haven’t filled a passport w travel stamps that we haven’t travelled. That thinking is provincial in and of itself. The culture of Miami is so different than that of Pittsburgh, which is different than Chicago which is vastly different from the culture of Boulder, Colorado.

    I know you know this, but I think this is an easy target and not nearly so black and white as so many think.

    1. Thanks, Barb. Good to hear from you!

      I agree — and know how different Texas is from NY from Seattle from Miami from New Orleans — having been to all these places myself as well. There are tremendous regional differences here in style, religion, politics, everything. I have learned a great deal from moving about and researching my books.

      But I still stand firmly behind my prejudice that leaving the country — and flailing in another language and culture — is well worth doing, even once. There is a fairly stunning lack of understanding of other nations’ political and economic choices and their relative value as models; if you never hear or see about other countries in the U.S. media (beyond fawning costly travel stories), the rest of the world remains a distant abstraction.

      Canadians also live in a huge and geographically beautiful and diverse nation. Yet for a variety of reasons (more paid vacation, lower student debt, govt health care being three that come to mind), they still travel internationally more often than Americans.

  11. I agree that traveling broadens the mind and opens you up to wonderful (and wonderfully uncomfortable) situations. I’ve been to 4 countries outside my own as well as many Caribbean islands. Can’t wait for my next trip in June! It’ll be my honeymoon in Greece! *squeeee*

  12. I love this post. I have traveled my while life studied worked and lived abroad and can’t get enough. Two big problems are cost and our lack of vacation time here in the US. People thought my husband and I were crazy taking only a nine day trip to trek Torres del Paine in Patagonia or only a week in China. But sadly that is the reality for most Americans. Plus it is ungodly expensive to fly overseas with a family now. That doesn’t stop me but I can see why it is difficult. I hope more Americans branch out and see the world. It is life changing and so important. 🙂

    1. Thanks!

      I agree — Americans have very few vacation days and, if they have no idea the appeal of a foreign country, would logically save $ and stay home. But determined/experienced travelers also learn ways to do it cheaply; (I flew as a courier, alone, to Thailand, Sweden, London and Venezuela for very low tickets costs — Thailand was maybe $700 (1994) and the ticket’s full cost was $2,000.)

      I don’t have kids, so that’s an important point. Thanks for commenting and following Broadside!

  13. I speak French and German and have travelled a lot, including to Africa. I have also lived in Germany and the U.S. – I’m from Canada. Yes, Americans can be extremely insular and living/studying abroad would expand their world-view, obviously.

  14. Mandarin, and at a pinch, can communicate in Cantonese with a lot of sign language. I was starting to learn Spanish when I was in Mexico, although being out of anywhere Spanish speaking, it’s fallen by the wayside – will be picking that up when I am next in Central America, hopefully at the end of this year.

    I have learnt some hilarious phrases in Danish (fell in love with a Dane), but nothing practical yet, so have to get on that, considering I’m looking to spend another 3 months in Copenhagen this northern summer (as an native English speaker, Danish is far easier to read than speak/be spoken to).

    I’ve been back in Singapore, my country of birth, for the longest time since I left at 18: 5 months. I’m experiencing actual culture shock for the first time since i’ve gone nomad – the shock when everything that should be familiar, makes no sense at all.

  15. GD

    Reblogged this on gemma D. alexander and commented:
    Although I agree with her whole heartedly, Caitlin Kelly has walked this talk so much more truly than I have that I feel her words are more appropriate than my own.

  16. Pingback: Boom! Broadside blasts past 11,000 readers | Broadside

  17. Pingback: Why you really need to leave the country (preferably for somewhere new to you) - gemma D. alexander

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