Last week I was asked this question: How has living abroad changed you? As with many questions asked of globally mobile people (Where are you from? Are you settled yet? Where is home? etc), I had to pause before answering. Did this person want the short answer or the long answer? The truth is, I could write a blog post the length of a dissertation in answer to this question, but don’t worry, I have plucked 6 ways, that living abroad has changed my family and me, from that very long list.
Before we begin though, there’s something you should know about my husband and me…we are planners. Even before we married we had our lives all planned – well, the location part of it anyway. We had identified the country, the city, the suburb, the street and even the side of the street in which we wanted to one day buy a family home and set up for life. We actually achieved it by buying the worst house in that street just before the arrival of our second child. We were very happy in our “little corner of the earth.” Turn the clock forward 5 years and the call came for us to relocate to South East Asia. Our world was turned upside down as we moved out of our comfort zone and into the whirlwind that is the globally mobile life.
Mark Twain once wrote, “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 of one’s lifetime.” If our family is anything to go by, I think he has a point.
So here are 6 ways living abroad has changed us (in no particular order):
From our little corner of the earth we were thrown into a melting pot of cultural diversity. Our host country provided the perfect platform for Mark Twain’s statement to be lived out. In our first year abroad I was convinced that my children spent more time celebrating cultural public holidays than they did actually attending school. By the second year, I was embracing the holidays as my children sat at the dinner table, regaling us with cultural knowledge and understanding about the significance of the day.
Over the ensuing years, I believe we have developed international mindedness. No longer do we view news reports, listen to conversations or make decisions purely based on our “little corner of the earth.” We have a broader worldview, are more cross-culturally aware and want to continually deepen our knowledge of world conditions and global dynamics. We are by no means walking encyclopedias but there is a consciousness there.
Living abroad has helped us to develop respect for others’ cultural heritage and the pivotal role that plays in a person’s identity. Being mindful of a person’s background and cultural heritage tells them that it’s ok for them to be who they are whilst providing us with the ideal opportunity to learn, understand, reflect and connect on a human level. I see an open-mindedness in my family members. Those dinner table conversations have us all developing our critical thinking because we understand that there are different points of view and we use these when trying to make sense of the world.
I left our home country determined that our family would “hang onto” our Australian cultural heritage. Whilst that is my cultural heritage, it is not entirely my children’s. Their cultural heritage continues to be shaped by the places they have lived and I now see that as an asset, not a barrier. The cultures in which they have lived are shaping how they view the objects and events in the world that surrounds them and as the world continually becomes more globalised, they will be well placed to be cultural bridges between and among worlds.
Yes, I admit it, I have become intolerant (seems a little odd given my previous point!). Specifically, I am intolerant of western ethnocentrism – that “my way or the highway” thinking; that “you came to our country so do it our way or leave” attitude; that bulldozer “we know what you need” attitude without consulting the local community. I suspect Twain would call this narrow-mindeness.
The reality is that the West is not always the best. In fact, no one specific culture has it 100% right but if we could all just listen, learn and teach others about what works and does not work in our cultures, we could save ourselves a lot of heartache and make a lot of progress towards peace in this world.
Arriving in a new country, not knowing a single soul, places you in a very vulnerable position. Chris O’Shaughnessy describes it as cultural nakedness. I had known this feeling before. My domestically mobile childhood had seen me experience being in the minority more times than I care to remember. I had to quickly develop strategies to survive in the new subculture whilst working very hard to connect with others. Over time, I moved from that place of cultural nakedness to the “new normal” until I had to do it all over again in the next location. Fast forward 20 years and I saw it through the eyes of my own family members when we moved abroad. It has changed them. They now understand what it feels like to be on the outer and I think it has given them the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Being in the minority has helped them to understand and share the feelings of others who are finding life difficult. This is Empathy – a skill our society desperately needs, given that in 2016, we care about others 40% less than we did in the 1980s.*
This current student generation, Generation Z, are predicted to have 17 different jobs, 5 different careers and live in 15 different homes. Change will be their constant companion and they will also be agents of change. They will need to have the ability to change, to thrive amidst the chaos of change and to remain authentic people throughout the whole process.*
By living abroad, we were thrust out of our comfort zone (remember that little house on the exact right side of the road) into a chaotic world where nothing was familiar. We have said more hellos and goodbyes than many people do in a lifetime and come to feel almost comfortable with the feeling of being a little uncomfortable. We have worked through a myriad of challenges associated with transition to & from a new country but I feel that we are better equipped to deal with all the transitions in our lives. We now view change as a challenge, not a threat and that planning I mentioned earlier, well, we are more flexible these days. In fact, as a family and individuals, we embrace change.
By moving internationally, we left behind a solid support network of our extended family and significant friends and arrived in our host country knowing no one. Each of us quickly realized that we had to stick together and in the years that followed, we have built a solid family unit who really do enjoy spending time together. Often this is at the expense of others as we’ve come to rely on each other, delight in creating lasting memories, establishing family traditions and solidifying relationships between our sons, our sons & us as their parents and my husband & I. We are united and stronger as one.
International mindedness, respect, intolerance (of western ethnocentrism), empathy, adaptability, unity – could these be part of what Mark Twain meant when referring to “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things?” We are a long way short of perfect but, as Twain predicted, by stepping outside our comfortable little corner of the earth, we have learned a great deal about others and ourselves. Our world has been turned upside down…and we love it! Living abroad has changed us and we are so grateful for the opportunity and experiences.
So what about you – how has living abroad changed you?
Photo Credit: feileadhmore