Exactly a week today I will be flying into Heathrow Airport and landing on British soil again. My three month teaching contract in Jakarta is coming to an end and so I would like to take this opportunity to share with you what I’ve learned about travelling, living abroad and life in general over the last twelve weeks.
Firstly, be wary of labels. By this, I don’t mean avoid Gucci like the plague and stick to cheap and cheerful clothing. Rather, be careful not to ‘pigeonhole’ others and equally importantly, be careful not to pigeonhole yourself. For years I’ve been telling myself that I’m ‘not a city person’; I like open spaces and fresh air and long walks in the countryside. I hated the idea of living in a busy, noisy, polluted city. I just assumed I would tolerate Jakarta rather than enjoy the experience and that’s why a short-term contract seemed just about doable. I wouldn’t have considered coming for anything longer than a couple of months. And guess what; I’ve had a great time! Yes, it’s dirty, congested, noisy and crowded but it’s also vibrant, colourful, entertaining and, most surprisingly, extremely friendly. It turns out I don’t hate cities as much as I thought I did, which is good to know for future reference.
Similarly, avoid labelling others in the same way. Although I have taught Muslim students before, this is the first time I have really lived in a mainly Muslim country and been woken by the call to prayer at 4:00am every morning. It’s the first time I’ve experienced what happens during Ramadan, seen the curtains drawn across café and restaurant windows, concealing those eating and drinking inside, and had to consider my students who were fasting, constantly reminding myself not to wander into the classroom with a cup of tea or an apple to eat at break time. Half of my female students wore headscarves, and interestingly enough, this didn’t make them subservient or unable to express their viewpoints. They were just as feisty as any other young women I’ve taught.
Lesson learnt: Refuse to take on anyone else’s perspective as your own. Go to the country, meet the people, spend time with them, chat to them, listen to them, laugh with them and then form your own opinion. Labelling and pigeonholing is lazy behaviour which limits your knowledge and does little to allow for new experiences. Avoid it at all costs.
The one constant about living and working far from home is your appreciation for your family and the place that you come from. You may argue like cat and dog when you’re together, and you may think that your hometown is crappy and boring and miserable, but I guarantee that after a few weeks away, especially in a developing country, you’ll start to see things very differently. You’ll start to miss your parents’ nagging and begin to appreciate how great it is that they’re on your side no matter what, that you can call them day or night and they’ll be there with the answer to any random life question you can throw at them. You start to wonder what it must be like to see your child get on a plane to travel thousands of miles away and know you won’t see them again for at least 12 months.
You’ll find yourself walking to work, passing young women begging by the side of the road with their babies sprawled across them, half on their lap, half in the gutter, and you’ll start thanking your lucky stars that where you come from there’s a welfare system and free healthcare when you need it. I vividly remember flying back into Heathrow after a trip to Tanzania and being so utterly grateful for the beautifully smooth black tarmac on the road into London. It was like travelling along stretched velvet compared to the potholed dirt tracks I’d been used to.
Finally, the one thing I’m always reminded of when I spend time abroad is that, essentially, we’re all the same. People are people wherever you go. By that, I don’t mean that there’s nothing new to discover; far from it. Rather, this fear we are fed by the media, that someone who has a different lifestyle from you, whose skin is a different shade, whose religious beliefs are somewhat mystifying, is somehow a threat and should be viewed with suspicion. This, I believe, is the biggest myth of all. Everywhere I’ve been – and I mean every single one of the 37 countries I’ve visited so far – I have found people who are just like me; who have the same passions and phobias, the same hopes and dreams, the same outlook on life and, most importantly, the same sense of humour. I feel privileged to have met them and honoured to call them my friends. Together, they’ve taught me so much about what it is to be human and what it is to appreciate life; the good stuff and the bad.
As one of my favourite writers, Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
So my advice would be to stop vegetating and start integrating. You’ll be amazed at the results.