For the past 5+ years, I have lived abroad, mainly in Southern Asia. That would be about 3 years in Thailand, nearly 2 in Malaysia and almost 1 in Sri Lanka, to be exact. It was never my plan to live abroad ever, but sometimes life throws curveballs your way and you find yourself in places you’d never expect.
As a person from a Caribbean decent, it was always my dream to visit the land of my parents, Trinidad, and had life gone according to my plan, I would have at least seen it once. But I would probably also still be living in Canada, too. That wouldn’t have been a bad option at all, but I doubt I would have learned as much as I have in the last half-decade if I never left my comfort zone.
Today, my life is rich with experience and life lessons thanks to my journey in life, and now I’m ready to share that with you.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from living abroad.
1. Visiting a country and living in it are not the same things.
As an expat who spends most of my time in tourist areas, like the beach, I get to meet a lot of tourists. It helped me realized that tourists have nowhere near the same mindset as us expats, and that’s what makes us different.
When tourists go out to visit a different country, they are essentially coming out to sight-see. To me, a lot of them seem to be in this “la-la land” state of mind where they feel like they’re in a dream, while they just look a bit lost and uber-excited to the rest of us. Tourists may travel to experience new things and “dabble” in new cultures, but they remain happy outsiders who are only too eager to tout the fact that they’re on vacation.
One of the key differences between tourists and expats is how they spend their money. When a tourist visits a country that isn’t first-world, they often find that things seem cheaper. They also save up to go spending on vacation, and as a result, they blow a lot of money paying more than they should because they get charged “tourist” prices.
As an expat, you learn to catch onto these things and you start to wisen up. In the beginning, none of us really mind because we know we’re outsiders. But just like living in your home country, you’re going to want to start finding deals and savings as you build your new life abroad.
Another key difference between tourists and expats is the level of respect shown to a country’s culture and laws. Tourists tend to take these things for granted and can easily offend locals out of their “ignorance.” But as an expat, you learn to respect and be wary of these things, knowing that taking them for granted could jeopardize your ability to comfortably remain abroad for the long run. So, locals tend to have more respect for expats because expats show more respect. But who doesn’t LOVE a tourist who’s willing to blow their money on your business?
2. North America is not the pinnacle of the world.
Growing up in the vast country of Canada, I always felt that being North American was a significant thing. I remember parents, who had migrated to Canada from other countries, telling us kids that we didn’t know how privileged we were to be born and raised in North America. And for all that it’s worth, that is true.
Growing up a North American gives us the empowerment of knowing our rights, choosing our place in society and the opportunity to build your life the way you want. That has a lot to do with our socialist/democratic government that governs Canadian society. But there was a time that I couldn’t imagine how any country could be any better.
While much of the world has different governments and social structures, there are lots of people who are extremely proud of their homelands and think that they come from the best place in the world, even though it’s nothing like Canada.
Living abroad in other countries taught me to appreciate those differences and realize that a lot of countries are truly great in their own way. America might be the current superpower, but it isn’t everything. Nor will it ever be.
For example, there are countries in Europe that offer free education for all levels, and all nationalities. There are countries that have beat the global warming trend and are setting examples for the rest of the world. There are countries that rate higher on the happiness index than Canada or the United States.
My point is, no country is the pinnacle of the world. There are some that are great and some that aren’t so, but each nationality shines in its own way.
3. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
As you travel around the world and you see millions of unique faces everywhere, you start to question your own paradigms when it comes to beauty, and even fashion. Things become so different once you pass familiar borders, and the further you travel from what you know, the more different the standard for these things become.
For example, as a North American, we love the look of tanned skin and blonded hair. It gives us a glowy , golden-goddess look that people will pay through their nose for, down to buying fake locks and artificial tans.
Travel out to the East, however, and you will discover that no one cares for that look very much here. In the Eastern side of the world, the look of pale skin against dark hair and stark red lips is still in, and has been for hundreds of years.
This is probably due to their ancient history and culture, where the wealthy stayed indoors, becoming pale and protected from the sun, and the poor did the labor that tanned and darkened their skin. As a result, being beautiful and wealthy meant pale, fair skin that was coveted by all.
As you can see, these differences are more than deeply rooted in culture and taste, but rather strongly founded in the unique history of the different regions of the world. Hence, beauty is different for everyone, and that will never change. Once you really start to absorb the world abroad, it changes the way you see things and the way you expect things to look.
In fact, if you’re like me, it will change the way you understand beauty altogether.
4. The world is a small place. The internet makes it even smaller.
Before traveling, the world felt like a huge place. Everyone in Toronto was related to someone from somewhere abroad, and it was easy to discern that there were more places in the world than one could reasonably visit. It was hard to imagine what traveling around in all these foreign places could feel like, either.
But when I started traveling, suddenly the world began to feel like a really big backyard. The longer I stayed overseas, the less risky and adventurous it felt. And this probably had a lot to do with the fact that I could communicate with people and businesses in those countries long before I ever met them, allowing me to set my trips up before I made them.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks to the internet and communication tech, the world isn’t so big anymore. I learned a lot about where I was going and where I was staying from researching online. I got to see where I was going before I got there, and was even able to make plans there before I arrived, even in countries where I had no real contacts.
Once you start traveling around like that, the world doesn’t feel so big anymore. It’s not much different from traveling to a neighboring city, except that you require a passport to enter and a means to communicate with others. The vigilance of staying safe is the same no matter where you go, and when you’re a seasoned traveler, you learn a thing or two about how to protect yourself and your valuables overseas. But you can get robbed abroad just like you can get mugged in your hometown, so it isn’t that different after all.
It comes down to your general sense of awareness. And the more you’re aware of, the less of the unknown there is to surprise you. I guess that’s why the world starts to feel smaller once you get familiar with it.
5. You don’t know what you don’t know.
Dare I say it, North Americans – especially us Millennials – are highly presumptuous people who think they know a lot. When it comes to certain things, we definitely know a lot about them, but the truth is we don’t know everything. And we don’t know what we don’t know. But we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that what we know is all there is to know, and as Americans – particularly Torontonians – we think we are so exposed to more than the rest of the world.
Let me be one to say that there is no such thing as an untraveled person who knows what the rest of the world truly has in store. You can’t even fathom it until you see it for yourself.
For example, when some of my close circle – who had never visited Thailand – learned I was planning on spending the next few years there, they felt it necessary to tell me what they heard about it.
They heard that Thailand was dangerous, that heroine grew there, that people stole organs and sold them on the black market there, that prostitutes freely roamed the streets on the prowl and kids got kidnapped.
My response to this is the same now as it was then. There are bad people doing bad things in every country. If we live only in fear of the dangers the world presents, we might as well burrow under the ground and live there. And even then, that isn’t 100% safe either. Neither is hiding away on the ocean or stowing away in the skies. We also have natural disasters to worry about, pending wars and corrupt leaders. The world isn’t safe.
But you know what? There are a lot of good things about Thailand, too. Like the fact that it was ruled by a legendary king who was loved by his people, and I got to live in Thailand during his time.
The word “Thai” means free, and Thailand is truly the free land in many ways, like the ease of living or the the fact that locals can pick the coconuts in your yard and sell them on the side of the road for money, without the government taxing locals for the fruit or the vending space.
In Barrie, Ontario, where I’m from, you can’t even legally give your neighbors produce from your own backyard, because it’s not FDA approved.
In Thailand, people collect garbage and recycle it for a small fare. In Barrie, the municipal government is responsible for collecting garbage and recycling. If someone were to go house to house collecting beer tins from recycling bins to return them to the Beer Store for a small refund, they could be charged and fined for that. That’s because once you put your recycling out in the bin, it is officially government property and anyone who takes it is technically stealing if they aren’t the hired garbage or recycling man. Bet a lot of people don’t even know that, and they live in Canada!
My point is, don’t believe what you hear, especially when it’s only negative. Accept that you don’t know what you don’t know and some things are worth seeing for yourself. It’s better to ask questions than to make assumptions. Even when you find answers, it’s safe to assume you still have more to learn.
There was so much I didn’t know before I started traveling. There is still so much about the world I have yet to learn. And the truth is, I don’t know what I have yet to learn until I learn it.
6. We look different, talk different and even eat different things. But we’re still the same in the ways that matter.
Growing up in Toronto exposed me to a lot of people from all over the world who had all come to Canada to be Canadian. That meant I got to see a lot of different looking people. It gave me the chance to understand that even though we all looked different, we had unifying similarities. But at the time, the most significant similarity to me was the fact that we were all Canadian. We represented Canada’s diversity and that’s what made us the same.
Naturally, traveling abroad, you meet a lot of different looking people, just like you would in Toronto. The difference was that they represented other parts of the world, they had different cultural values and social norms, different fashion senses and different preferences for colors and flavor. That made them seem extremely different to me, even though they didn’t look that different from the multicultural people that made up Toronto.
Living amongst different local cultures, I felt like a total alien. I ate rice with a fork. Others did with a spoon or their hands. I slept in a room with a 16 degree (Celsius) A.C., others couldn’t sleep if their room fell below 24. A lot of the ways that we do things back in Canada are different from the way people do them in Asia, and that was really obvious to me in the beginning. But the longer I lived there, the more I realized I was just like these people, or maybe they were just like me.
There a few things about humans that universally make us the same, and I’m not just talking about the color of our blood.
Our needs are the same. The need for food, shelter, clothing, companionship. Our capacity for kindness exists no matter what your racial background is. Our desire to learn and grow, to evolve, feel happy, be loved and find peace are all the same. Even though we are different, we could still work together towards the same common goals, language barriers and all.
Some languages are universal, like that of love and friendship. But you don’t get to see how powerful those differences are until you step away from all the similarities first.
Living abroad made me realize that we are all the same, like little pieces in a grand puzzle. We all fit together somehow. It just takes time to find our unique place.
7. Foreigners who make it all the way to Canada deserve some respect.
Finally, one thing that needs to be said before I wrap this post up is this: moving to a new country is hard. Canada is pretty much on the Northern-most part of the western hemisphere and it’s colder than it is warm. If you can manage to handle just the weather changes alone from living there, kudos to you.
My family moved from Trinidad to Canada, and my sisters and I ended up being born there. As kids, we didn’t worry about how our parents got jobs, made friends, found business contacts or paid the bills. Building a life for ourselves as Canadians kids meant going to school for free every day and meeting the other kids in your neighborhood. And kids are nice, so it wasn’t hard for is to make friends. But I never stopped to consider how truly difficult it must be for it foreign parents to integrate into a new country with a family and kids. Then I tried it myself, and now I have a whole new sympathy for the parents who migrated to Canada, especially for those who have to face a language barrier.
As high-school kids, we were sometimes mean. We would say things like “if you come to this country, learn the language,” in an unforgiving way. We talked as if English was so easy to learn, and like building a life in Canada was simple science.
But it wasn’t just Canada to them like it was to us. To them, they were living abroad, like I am now. Canada, no matter how much it seemed familiar to us Canadian kids, was foreign territory to our parents and they had to face the challenges of life abroad when they left their home countries to be in Canada.
Now, I never actually planned to live abroad even though my life worked out that way. And many times I have even considered moving back to Canada because being the resident of a country that isn’t your native home can be really hard. It’s not easy making friends that you can trust, finding people to do business with that won’t rip you off or even finding your way around to the best places to shop and eat, like the ones the locals would go to. In fact, integrating with locals isn’t all that easy in any country.
And now, at nearly 30 years old, I finally understand that.
Heck, mastering a new language is hard. Living in Thailand, I went to school to learn Thai for a whole year and I still could hardly use the language to communicate. But in Canada, we expect everyone to learn English.
We were lucky to be born Canadian, but we wouldn’t have been so fortunate if our parents weren’t so brave. These “foreigners” that come to Canada and make a life there deserve respect.
Sure, there are a few people the country could do without…honestly, but every country has that.
But the ones who move abroad and make positive changes deserve some respect and acknowledgment because that is hard.
Living abroad has taught me so much, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been humbled and opened up by life, and I’m just excited to see what life has in store for me next.