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?

Why changing countries can be such a challenge

English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 diffe...
English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 different ethnic backgrounds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excellent, helpful blog post recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, written by one of my favorite bloggers, a Canadian woman who has since re-patriated:

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I know that several Broadside readers — like Conor in Korea, Katharina in Germany, Rian in Canada, Holly in Australia, Wanderlust Gene in Sri Lanka — are living far away from your homelands (Ireland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

It demands a real re-boot of your notions of identity and belonging.

It’s not surprising to me that two of my closer friends here in New York, where I moved from Canada in 1989, are people who have moved around globally, like an American-born woman who met her French husband when they were both working in Tokyo. It helps to share international references with them — only about one-third of Americans even own a passport and many have no idea, (or interest in), how the rest of the world functions.

I left Canada in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, (double culture shock after living in Toronto, Paris, London and Montreal).  I moved in June 1989 to a small suburban New York town, 25 miles from Manhattan — whose towers I can see, glimmering like Oz, in the distance.

I lived in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. But my adjustment to life in the United States has been tougher for me in some ways than either of those, for the reasons Maria so wisely analyzes:

People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

Canadians live, as many Europeans do, in a “nanny state”, a country where it’s normal to pay a lot of tax — income, sales tax, tax on gasoline and wine and beer, even stamps — and expect a lot in return: free health care and heavily subsidized secondary education, to name two most important. You can apply for government grants for all sorts of things.

Map of Toronto
Map of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a small country in population — 34.5 million — but enormous in size. Canadians tend not to move around nearly as often as Americans, for a variety of reasons. There are only a few major cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; if you don’t speak excellent French, Montreal and Ottawa can present difficulties.

One of the major  behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

Move to the United States and you’re in for some serious culture shock and some significantly different attitudes.

Standing up and speaking out carry risks. But in the States, people go to prison, (like entrepreneur Martha Stewart), and come right back into successful business, which still leaves me somewhat open-mouthed. But the good news is that if someone here thinks you can be professionally useful to them — i.e. make them some cash — they’ll take your call or email and might meet you. In Canada you need personal introductions through mutual friends to even get someone to take your call and even then they ignore you…

As a freelancer, that’s been a big — and happy — adjustment. But I’ve also learned, after decades in the States, to be both much warier and more persistent. Wary of huge initial enthusiasm, (professional and personal), which is very American, and too often quickly disappears, and being willing to make the 3rd or 5th or 10th email or phone call because so many people are busy and overwhelmed.

Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference is bare-knuckled American capitalism. We’re all simply units of labor. Employers can fire you for any reason at any time. One editor I know just left a job after four years, after being one of the founders of a thriving website. She got one month’s severance.

(Many Americans would consider her lucky to have gotten even that much. For a country that yammers on about liberty, American workers seem shockingly cowed and powerless to me.)

Instead of unions, Americans rely on the court system, (which operates by quite different rules than other nations), to try and obtain redress, if not justice. I routinely send — and pay for — lawyer’s letters to deadbeat, cheats and late payers, who abound in the world of publishing and journalism.

You fight for your rights here, and people expect it. It sometimes feels like a wearying game of “who’ll draw first” like cowboys reaching for their pistols in some 1860s saloon.

Many New Yorkers speak to you as if they’ve known you for years — strangers on the street or train (!) have complimented me on my hair color, legs, shoes and other items in ways I still find forward and impertinent, if charming. I’ve started referring to people as “you guys”, sounding more Mafioso than elegant.

My husband is both American and Hispanic, a double cultural difference that plays out in all sorts of ways. There are days he hisses: “This not the time to be Canadian!”

Then I quote a Brit, (and a TV character at that), the Dowager Countess Grantham: “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”

What adjustments have you made as an ex-pat?

How did you feel about it?