I was recently invited to submit an essay to an online journal run by my alma mater, about global citizenship. Needless to say, this is right up my alley, and I happily signed on – the only problem is that I have a LOT to say about this month's topic, about how living abroad has changed me.
I failed miserably at keeping to the fairly short word count, so I thought I'd post the full length of what I initially wrote.
I'd love to hear what you think – have you lived abroad? How do you think it has changed you?
I recently sat on a panel at a women’s travel event in my hometown of Boston, titled, “How to Keep Traveling While Staying Put.” The other folks and I fielded questions about how to hold on to the feeling of being on the road, even if you didn’t have the ability to travel as much as you’d like.
This seems like a fairly straightforward proposition—go to museums, strike up conversations with new people, take photographs and try to appreciate where you are through the eyes of someone not from there. Comments from the audience pointed at the way that one can get stuck in a rut at home, but no one was offering why; what is the causation between location and freedom of spirit? Something wasn’t quite making sense.
Then, a youngish woman mentioned that she had been considering moving to a new apartment. She was excited about exploring a neighborhood she didn’t know well, but since it was an acknowledged “bad” neighborhood, her family didn’t approve. Her frustration made it clear what we had been tiptoeing around: the freedom that so many people find when on the road isn’t about being on vacation or feeling the thrill of discovery. What we’re feeling is freedom from the baggage we carry when we understand cultural signifiers.
In one’s own environment, where the line between “safe” and “dangerous” is clear, it’s easy to make the choice to stick with safe. “This neighborhood’s good, that one’s bad… people here dress a certain way… watch your accent or slang to blend in…” It’s never-ending, this list of subtle social signposts that we all get comfortable with, and blind to, in our own homes. And there’s something comforting about understanding these signals on a nuanced (or occasionally invisible) level; I think reaching that level of fluency in local customs is really how a place becomes home.
But there’s potential for freedom when you leave this security, particularly for people who rub up against the limitations of unacknowledged social conventions on a daily basis.
When I spent time backpacking in Europe during my senior year at Smith, I didn’t know the difference between a good neighborhood and a bad one, and stayed in red light districts, grim workmen’s blocks, and high-end luxury apartments, solely because I had no way of knowing the difference before I arrived. I talked with strangers, had romantic affairs, and drank wine before 5pm. Years later, stuck in the Sinai desert after flash floods tore up the main road, my friend and I jumped out of our car to push a stranded taxi out of the mud. We forgot that we weren’t in modest Egyptian dress—and a local man, grateful for the help, grinned at me as I wiped the mud off my arms and serenaded me with “American Woman.”
When I moved to London for graduate school, I found it to be the worst street-harrassment culture I’d experienced in the West, and was unable to exercise English restraint—I blithely flipped off men, not even managing the two-fingered gesture that could conceivably mark me as a local. And where my British classmates had spent years following a narrow educational path, I was seen as a novelty, able to move from a degree in economics to one in dance.
But loosing mental constraints is not always fun, or necessarily responsible. Traveling in rural India, and fed up with haggling over every purchase once I’d learned reasonable prices, I didn’t realize that calling myself a student wouldn’t elicit sympathy and make me sound less well-off—on the contrary, my formal education marked me as prosperous in a way that should have been embarrassing. And I once cracked my foot, tripping over a low ottoman in a dark Prague club as I scrambled to get away from a man whose attentions had quickly gone from flattering to creepy without my noticing the left turn. When we realized we were going to be stuck during Sinai's flooding, we were invited to stay the night on the floor of a local restaurant – we decided to leave once we realized that our group, containing three foreign women, was outnumbered nearly two to one, and the police were closing down exit points along the road. The queasy shadow of distrust in my stomach grew swiftly once we saw we’d also been cheated on our dinner bill and they were asking uncomfortable questions about boyfriends, husbands, and why we didn’t trust them to look after us.
Even attempts to follow local rules can backfire. The reason I wasn’t dressed appropriately in Egypt was because we ended up trapped in our taxi overnight at a rest stop where only men were out and about; all women in the vicinity had been reduced to the occasional pair of eyes peering out from another also-stranded vehicle. So we stayed put, uncomfortably squished in the back seat of a sedan so that it appeared our male friend, in the front, was “in charge of us.” The rest of the night, we barely drank water so we could avoid needing to leave the car to pee—I was ill from dehydration when we finally made it back to Cairo.
As an adult, I find people are more willing to pay to feel secure, both at home and abroad. Two years ago, I traveled to Colombia with my employer, a tour operator for older Americans, and we visited a popular open-air roadside restaurant to learn to make arepas and enjoy some coffee. It was a middle-grade establishment, but I saw the plastic chairs, scuffed tin plates, and local dogs walking through the dining area with fresh eyes as some of our travelers got out their hand sanitizer and remarked on the general shabbiness. I thought about how, if any of the employees spoke English enough to understand, they might go home that day feeling ashamed of their perfectly respectable job.
I returned to Boston for a few years, where I found real comfort in knowing exactly what slang meant, what constituted “polite” behavior, and how to navigate the pile of logistics—health care, phone contracts, apartment leases—that always surprise me in their differences across national borders. It was relaxing in a way I’ve never known abroad. And now, I’ve just moved back to the United Kingdom, where though I have the supposed advantage of English family and citizenship, and the social signifiers are expected to be clearer to me than to others, I find that many days I feel like a stranger.
For many people, travel is most enjoyable when they can bring a sense of security abroad with them, for example staying at a certain style of hotel or visiting sites that accommodate their language; the disorienting experience of ignorance is thus made temporary. To be fair, there’s a particular type of endorphin rush that comes with knowing that you have the ability to make yourself comfortable wherever you are. But I have a theory that, in the end, doing this means carrying your fears with you as well.
For me, the value of having lived internationally is that I can do the opposite—I don’t have to carry a sense of familiarity with me wherever I go, with its associated limitations and complacencies. Rather, I can carry with me a sense of comfort in the strangeness, a freedom from obligation to every cultural expectation put on my body and mind—young, queer, female, and many other complicated things as well.