Along with the advancement of communication and travel technology, the world has become an increasingly interconnected network. One no longer needs to rely on the grandiose tales of Paris as told by that one crazy uncle to get a sense of the city. Just type it in on Google and, Voilà! Paris!
But anyone who has travelled abroad can tell you that this is not the case. We may think that the Internet, movies and a host of other media have given us a “global perspective,” a sense into what living outside of the US is like, but these insights are incredibly limited. Only by experiencing a place and its people first hand can any true understanding of cultural feeling be gained. And in the US, where the State Department cites 64 percent of citizens as not owning a passport, how accurate can our “global perspective” really be? Any idea of Paris will probably be based more on Hollywood movies than on interaction with actual Parisians.
While traveling the world is a huge step in the right direction, what is necessary to gaining the true sense of a place is sustained exposure. This means staying for a long time in one city, more eloquently described as living abroad. Two weeks in Madrid will make you an expert on all the tourist attractions. Ten months will make you a local.
Living abroad is of course a momentously difficult thing to do, not just practically but mentally. It requires uprooting yourself from everything you know and are comfortable with and submerging into the unknown. Why would anyone want to do this?
First off, the benefits are life altering. As part of a specific culture, people ascribe to a certain way of understanding the world. Most people do this without even realizing it. We think of things as a certain way and assume that this is how everyone else in the world understands them too. Things that we take for granted like sense of humor, social etiquette and work ethic are way more culturally specific than they may seem.
I remember flying through the Mediterranean desert in Angel’s car. This was during my 10 months studying in Spain, and I had come down to the southern region to visit my cousin and her husband Angel, a Spaniard. The guy’s a sweetheart, but our interactions got to a point where I really started to doubt whether he was joking around or actually brutally insulting me. He was relentless.
It turns out that this is pretty normal in Spain. Friends curse at and insult each other all the time. They don’t take it too seriously. Being my overly sensitive American self, I did. Adapting wasn’t too difficult. My friends in the states probably thought I was an a-hole when I got back though.
And this is just one tiny example of the cultural perspective that can be gained by living abroad. The longer you spend outside the culture you grew up in, the broader your perspective on how people should act will grow. New Life ESL’s website for teaching English in China sums it up nicely: “You’ll start to see the world and life itself through the lens of another culture, political structure and value system…You might discover that some of your values were cultivated by cultural programming and that you don’t actually believe them.”
Imagine everything you do becoming a conscious activity. This may sound strange, but think about how much of our lives are performed almost unconsciously, automatically. We repeat certain routines to such a point that we do them without thinking. Have you ever arrived somewhere in your car and suddenly realized that you can’t even recall the drive?
Living abroad makes you conscious of everything. The buildings, houses, advertisements, street signs, language, clothing: a walk down the street becomes a sensory overload of new information. Not to mention the self-consciousness. As a foreigner transplanted to a new culture, you will struggle so awkwardly to fit it. It’s actually hilarious. I met up with some Spanish friends at a manifestación in the center of Madrid one day. I had on plaid shorts, white high socks and some beat up Converse, iconic Cali-bro attire. “Hostia, ¡California!” (their nickname for me was California). Eduardo slapped his palm to his forehead upon seeing me. They all but forced me to roll my socks down. I looked way too “guiri” (Spain’s equivalent of gringo), apparently.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though (is that even a saying?). Loneliness is a part of living abroad that cannot be denied. Merely trying to get accustomed to a new culture, the prospect of actually making friends is daunting. It takes serious effort (yes, you have to try to make friends), but it ends up happening before you know it. Debby Poort, an ex-patriot therapist in the Netherlands, suggests joining groups and organizations where social interaction is inevitable. This might include clubs, gyms, classes and the like. She also emphasizes the importance of being open to meeting different kinds of people, stating that: “…by changing your view on whom or what an ideal friend should look like or believe in, you can allow more people into your life who could potentially be a friend to you.”
A great resource available in most big cities around the world is language practice groups, which are often informal meetings held in local bars. People from all over the world get together to practice the language of their host country. It’s an excellent opportunity because it allows you to work on the local language as well as socialize and potentially make some cool friends.
Language barriers are probably the biggest challenge of living abroad. The trick here is to not be afraid. Use your hands, your body, find a way to express yourself. Any decent person will try their best to understand you. If someone brushes you off for not speaking their native language impeccably, they aren’t worth your time of day anyway. The Internet is an incredible resource for picking up survival phrases. Google Translate has vastly improved over the past several years, with Google Translate “fails” at an all time low.
In terms of personal growth, living abroad is probably one of the best decisions a person can make. The uprooting, loneliness and awkwardness that go along with it require abandoning all sorts of previously held beliefs. You will get to know yourself better than you ever have before. The surroundings by which you previously defined yourself would be gone. It’s really scary. But it is also totally liberating.
While it may not be for the faint of heart, I recommend living abroad for at least a year to everyone. Even if you hate it, you will come back with a greater appreciation for your hometown. If globalization is ever going to be a positive thing, it’s not going to be through technology or media. It’s going to take the citizens of the world meeting each other and gaining a true global perspective, one that involves considerations beyond their own country. Save up that cash-money. Better to spend it on a trip to South America then on an iPhone 5, nah?