Lessons Learned from 10 Months Abroad

What I learned about the world:

Knowing about different cultures leads to less judgment: The more you understand about different cultures the more tolerant you become. Or at least I believe this to be true through my own experiences. Stereotypes generally exist for a reason, mainly because there is truth behind the common themes in different cultures. The more I have traveled this year and spent more time with different people and cultures I have come to notice some commonalities. I have noticed that I tend to judge people less about the qualities they have that are solely dependent on their culture and more about their personality and qualities as a person. Because judging someone based solely on his or her cultural standards is somewhat unfair. Instead I feel that understanding the characteristics of a culture leads to the understanding of a person and therefore less judgment (for me).

 Or to put it more eloquently, let’s just refer to the words of Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable view of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Being Bilingual: There are two key realizations to this one.

The first is that many cultures, excluding native English speakers, know a second and sometimes third and fourth language. As I traveled around the world and saw how so many other cultures and nations knew multiple languages, including English, I started to question our own language education. I started to understand that, in my perspective, America was doing something wrong and began to realize the utter necessity of being bilingual. I quickly am humbled when I am in a different country and the tuk tuk driver, front desk receptionist or waiter is speaking English fluently, while I ignorantly speak in English to everyone not pausing to think whether they understand or not. And most times when I ask “how did you learn English, you speak so well?” a good majority say self taught, learned on TV or went to night class, in addition to their 3 day jobs. Although English is a necessity for some of these people in the line of work they are in or their country provides, it still continues to impress me…. especially after the amount of effort I put into learning a different language and how difficult it has been for me.

The second part of this realization came from having a quad-lingual partner. Daniel always says he was lucky that he had parents that were different cultures because he didn’t work to learn 4 languages and that it just came organically. And although that might be true for him and others that know multiple languages, it is undeniable that having those skills instilled in you from youth, a skill that you didn’t have to work for, is key. Which brings me to my next lesson learned.

Bilingual/cultured kids: I think it is extremely important to raise your children bilingual. I have worked and worked to learn Spanish and after taking 3 years in high school, a Spanish class in SF, classes for 2 months in Barcelona, and living 6 months in Spanish speaking countries, I still struggle with the Spanish language.

Meanwhile, Daniel picks up languages like it’s second nature. Therefore, I have seen how essential it is for me to raise my kids to have this cultural capital from the get-go. I not only see this as an essential skill to have but also something that gives them the ability to travel, learn and experience life in a different way than I can. I find this such an important skill in life and I can’t wait to pass it along.

Along similar lines as language comes cultured children. Being a teacher I believe it is important to have children that understand about many cultures and have tolerance for all thoughts and difference of opinions. Therefore, traveling, living or studying abroad is important for me to provide for my children one day.

USA: What I have learned about the US. Although we definitely have our problems, so do a lot of other countries. When you stay in your own country for too long, you tend to think that those problems are the only things that matter and that your problems are the biggest in the world, which in all honesty seems pretty understandable. It’s where we live, so it seems reasonable to consume you. However, the more I’ve stepped outside into the world, I understand more about other countries problems, how the US affects other countries and world problems, but also how the US is its own country and although it is on everyone’s radar…  it isn’t the center of the world, and it is important to realize that.

Another thing about the US that I realized was through an activity that Daniel and I did while bored one day. We decided to talk about the countries we’ve been and say the best and worst things about each place, in comparison to other countries. So here are mine about the US:

The best thing about the US: It’s amazing how diverse it is. It truly is a mixing pot of all things and after being in different countries I truly understand how unique that is. The food, the people, the religions, the languages, and the vastness of the country are all so different. It is truly incredible, about a country so new and so big.

The worst thing about the US: Is the amount of stress that comes along with the culture. Americans get 3 weeks of vacation while to other countries that is laughable. Americans work long, hard hours, to get up and work longer harder hours. We have the fastest, best technology in the world but if that gets delayed for a second, immediate stress. We truly live in a remarkable time but sometimes I feel Americans forget is to stop and smell the roses, which we should all take a second to do before it’s too late. Another thing that comes along with the stress and rat race of the US comes the harsh, direct nature of our citizens. Although, necessary at times, a big culture shock coming home was how anxious I felt around strangers not knowing if my encounters would be of a positive or negative nature.

What I learned about traveling:

Weather: Traveling during the best season for the location you are traveling to is important. Traveling during monsoon season in Asia or winter in Germany, although still great and exciting, isn’t always ideal. If you are only going to visit a place once or twice in your life, it is important to see that place in all its magnificent glory.

Location: Is also extremely important, whether that be neighborhood, proximity to transportation or city center and attractions it is key. Even if staying out of the city or away from the chaos is cheaper and/or quieter, you will thank yourself if you find the location that is best for the experience you are looking for.

Research the country: Get to understand the ins and outs of the country before you go, the best way to get from the airport to the city center, what currency to use, do you need a visa, what are the tops things you want to do, top neighborhoods to stay in, hidden gems, talk to your friends, read blogs, understand the country customs and traditions before heading there to make your experience a little more rich. And then when you get there, don’t just travel, learn. Something that I truly enjoyed throughout traveling was taking tours of the cities we visited. You learn so much history about the cities and countries and in return the rest of the trip paints a much more vivid picture when you have a backstory of what made the traditions and culture so rich.

What I learned about myself:

After traveling for 10 months there are definitely common themes that emerged from my personality. What I really learned about myself were the following.

Family and Friends: I love having a group of “my people” near me. As much fun as meeting new people and exploring new things was, I kept thinking about how much fun I would have if my family and loved ones were there with me. I realized that for me, I am the happiest when I have my close group of friends and family around me.

Routine: I love having a routine. Although I can be spontaneous and adventurous, I feel my most at ease and productive when I have some sort of routine. I think that’s why teaching is such a good profession for me, because you have to be organized, with a purpose and a plan each day in order to survive. This is something I already knew about myself but became even more prominent when planning our days abroad.

Passion for writing: Being an English major and English teacher you would think this would be obvious, but it wasn’t. Not until this trip really. I started writing this blog for my mom and dad, mainly to keep them updated and to recount this trip for my future memory. However, the more and more I started writing, the more that I actually continued to write it for me. I love organizing my thoughts on “paper”, seeing them take shape and have a flow. Putting my own voice and perspective into our many experiences. The more I wrote, the more natural I thought it was that everyone loves to do it. However, after Daniel mentioned multiple times that I should just write the blog and not him because it wasn’t really “his thing”, I knew that it wasn’t just a hobby but a passion and one I hope to continue in some shape or form.

What I learned about my relationship:

The number one question that most family, friends and even strangers asked us was “do you guys ever fight?” and the answer quite simply is “yes, of course”. Although Daniel and I are pretty compatible in our eyes and both fairly non-confrontational, spending 24/7 for 10 months with anyone will cause some tension. However, living together for 10 months means that we really only had each other and had to be with each other no matter what. Meaning, you can’t just fly home when you get angry at each other. And calling home to vent about the other person was near to impossible because of the time change. Instead, we had to deal with our problems right there and then.

This made us talk about a lot of things that we would usually ignore, place on the back burner or just sleep on and forget about. And even though I wish we could have done just that at times because some of the fights could have been resolved if we had somewhere to go or someone else to talk to, it made us talk a lot. We talked about the differences about each other, about ourselves personally and about our relationship in ways we were never pushed to before, and that has made all the difference.

Another thing that we both came to understand on this trip is although we love each other and loved traveling with one another, there is something to be said for the niceness of missing one another. Even if it’s just going to work and coming back together at night, or going on a girls/boys weekend getaway or even a night out, the idea of missing someone is important and I think makes the relationship even that much more special.

What I learned volunteering:

Length: When we were signing up for these organizations, 2 weeks seemed like an eternity and 2 months seemed like starting a new life. However, the more and more we stayed at these places we realized that it is the most meaningful for you and the organization to stay for 2-3 months. 2-3 weeks might seem like forever but once you get the hang of things it almost never seems like enough time. However, obviously not everyone has summer offs or you know 10 month long vacations, so 4 days, a week, whatever you can manage is just as amazing.

Education: Education has many differences and similarities around the world but what I found most interesting is that a teacher is a teacher no matter where you go. I found this out when I talked to teachers in different countries who had the same troubles, complaints and achievements as I did. Of course there are strategies that work better, cultures that thrive, respect that is there or not.What was most important to me is that I realized how much I love teaching and although it is extremely difficult and frustrating at times, I always found myself coming back to it and thinking about my return to the classroom.

 Little things make a difference: After volunteering at 4 different places these last 10 months I really came out with 1 theme. And it was this: little things do make a difference. And for me that was really important because I have spent a lot of time debating the importance of my actions in the grand scheme of the world. I came to this realization that if you find something you are passionate enough about, then you should do whatever you can to help that cause.

This came most clearly to me when volunteering with animals. I really am passionate about the treatment of animals, and that can be a tricky conversation at times.

Daniel asked me the other day, “how are you going to explain how you don’t support animal tourism but you still eat meat?” and this is how I responded, which kind of sums up my opinion on making a difference not matter how big or small.

“I am not trying to be an extremist, nor do I think that is a requirement to be passionate about something. Do I want to fully commit to protecting animals, yes of course. Do I think that is 100% possible for me, right now? Not entirely. But does that make me a hypocrite; does that mean I shouldn’t try? No. I think it means that I stick with an area that I can contribute in. For me, right now, that is not participating in animal tourism, trying to eat more sustainably and most importantly being knowledgeable about what the effects of my actions are on a global level. That is what is important and that is what matters most to me.”

And that’s all she wrote… sorry that it is quite lengthy and a bit wordy but all in all there are the main lessons I have learned in 10 months of travel. Thanks for staying with me through it all!




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