Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival – (read the whole thing here) a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating!
Whatever path you choose in life, you have the opportunity to use those experiences in order to evolve and grow as a person. Or not. If you choose, the experience of living abroad can broaden and enrich your life. But it won’t necessarily make you a better person. Like Stephen King says, “put an asshole on a plane in Boston, an asshole gets off in Seattle.” You must be open minded and willing to do the requisite work in order to shape your life the way you’d like and become the sort of person you wish to be. Perhaps this question arises conspicuously while abroad because existing outside of your comfort zone and experiencing new things often throws an intense and magnifying light on life.
Personally, living abroad has afforded me considerable opportunities to grow as a person, and I hope that I’ve exercised that privilege to the fullest.
One experience in particular comes to mind.
I grew up with a stutter. It struck, like it usually does according to the literature, when I was around four years old. Seemingly overnight, I changed from a precociously talkative young thing into a little girl paralyzed by fear and unable to speak fluently.
My first memory of the hateful stutter is etched in my mind in stark detail, like a particularly disturbing nightmare. In kindergarten, my teacher asked me to do a reading at a school assembly, and we were doing a practice run in the gymnasium, which was empty save for our class of wriggling and bored four and five year olds. When it was my turn, I got up to the mike, and tried to read the two lines on the piece of paper that was trembling in my chubby hands. I stuttered on the first word and panicked. My throat closed up, my face flashed neon pink and I ran crying out of the room.
Thereafter, any kind of public speaking was my arch nemesis. In class, I tried to shrink like Alice in Wonderland, terrified that the teacher would call on me, even though I frequently knew the answer. I endured the public shame of attending speech therapy and the snickers of my classmates.
After public speaking, the telephone was my next biggest adversary. I couldn’t compensate for my dis-fluency with hand gestures and body language: the stutter was magnified, unavoidable. The majority of my younger years were spent avoiding situations in which I knew I would stutter and trying to make myself invisible. The worst part is that I wasn’t actually shy; I was gregarious with my friends and family and I wanted nothing more than to kick the anxiety and be myself in all facets of my life. But the mountain seemed insurmountable.
Blessedly, I grew out of the worst of it and was able to function more or less normally. I developed tricks to avoid outright stuttering – I learned to pause in odd places, which still sounds weird but is far better than the I-I-I of classical stuttering. I took jobs that required me to answer phones and talk to strangers, in an effort to confront the monster head on, but the anxiety was ever present and I felt that I always came off like an idiot. I dreaded going to work, sometimes to the point of making myself ill. I still avoided a lot of situations that would require me to speak and turned down many opportunities out of insecurity and unadulterated panic should anyone hear my stutter, or comment on the oddness of my cadence of speech.
When I went abroad for the first time, on a six month backpacking trip through South America, my biggest fear was not safety or any of the usual fears associated with solo travel. I was the most afraid of speaking, especially in Spanish, and especially when it came to introducing myself. For some reason one of the remaining vestiges of my stutter, aside from the dreaded phone, was introducing myself to strangers. I cannot count how many times someone has laughed and said, “Oh, did you forget your name?” I learned to laugh with them and make a joke out of it, even though it killed me.
I lived in Australia for two years, five months of which I spent in the outback, about 400 km away from the nearest town, Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, working in a remote shop that serviced the surrounding Aboriginal communities. It is one of the best experiences I have ever had. William Langewiesche says in his book, Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert, “the desert teaches by taking away.” Indeed, the outback strips away that which is not important and creates space in which to mine the depths of your psyche; it is like a mirror, it shows you yourself.
I worked with six other people, almost all of whom spoke English as a second language. Our customers, too, only spoke English as a second language. In spite of my stutter and my insecurity about the way I spoke, I had the best command of English in our little pocket of the outback (next to our American colleague, that is). Relativity is everything.
No one I worked with noticed, let alone made comment or laughed at my discordant speech. And even if they did notice, it hardly mattered. Most of them couldn’t speak English perfectly either. We did the best we could to understand each other, forging through many a miscommunication, using Google to look up words, drawing pictures and creating our own brand of sign language. The realization that I need not speak perfectly, that other people were envious of my abilities with English and even relied on me to make important phone calls, freed me. Living in the outback, under those unique circumstances made it possible for me to finally climb the last leg of my insurmountable mountain.
I still stutter occasionally and pause in odd places and I am still a little reticent to use the phone, but now when I meet someone, I can look them in the eye, shake their hand and say, without pause or awkwardness, “Hi, I’m Jamie”.
In the interest of a wider spectrum of perspective, and because the question is interesting, I tossed it out to friends who live or have lived abroad, and this is what they had to say:
Leandro Oliviera (Brazil)
I think what definitely makes me “better” is that before living abroad I tended to see problems, opportunities and facts in what I call “small world” perspective. The way I analyze things completely changed when I realized how small my micro world in Sao Paulo was.
Even the value of things has changed. I learned that some things were important to me only because the “small world” around me forced me to think like that. Living abroad has felt like “zooming out”on life, if that makes sense.
Lincoln Scott (United States)
Living abroad has reinforced my already present notion that humanity, at its core, does not differ all that much from person to person, given the typical exceptions for statistical anomalies.
Everybody wants to be loved.
Everybody wants to have value.
Everybody wants to feel like they matter to somebody in the world.
Traveling abroad has allowed me to see that more than I did before. It has made me more independent, more confident, more able to make critical, timeline-altering decisions, and more willing to change myself.
Nick Ducker (Australia)
Living abroad, at least for me, is a very intense process of internal reflection. You’re exposed to cultures alien to your own in their rawest, undiluted form: customs and habits that are completely different to your own. In this way you’re forced to re-evaluate your own values and question some things you’ve always taken for granted or seen as the “norm”.
With this re-evaluation comes a much deeper, scarier, revision of self. All these ideas and concepts that you have carried with you for a large part of your life all of a sudden become very menial when you realize how big a place the world really is.
I guess perspective is the biggest thing I’ve gained from living abroad. Before I started traveling full time, I was extremely uncomfortable with both my position in life and my knowledge of self. These days I feel like a very insignificant part of an extremely large, living, breathing, forever changing world. While this sounds like a depressing idea, I feel the exact opposite way about it. I mean, how many places can you fit a tiny insignificant particle of life on this mind bogglingly intricate lump of rock called Earth?
Living around the world has created within me an unquenchable thirst to learn as much and see as much as I can on this planet. Most of all, it’s taught me what is really important: To dream often and to never stop searching for your own happiness.
Ru French (Ireland)
Living and travelling abroad gave me a few things:
A great appreciation for what I have and where I’ve been lucky enough to be born (Western world citizenship, ease of travel, universal education and healthcare, etc).
The chance to meet, live and work with a whole range of different people from all across the globe. The more people I meet and stories I hear, the more I want to see the places they’ve been.
A great appreciation for the fact that we’re all one species living on this rock hurtling through space and that everyone should travel. If everyone did there wouldn’t be any racism or xenophobia.
Wieland Fraas (Germany)
I have become a better friend to myself, since I am the only one responsible for taking care of me during my travels. I’ve figured out what is important to me and what makes me happy, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Morgan Patterson (Canada)
I don’t know if it necessarily makes someone a better person. If you take a trip down to the Gold Coast here in Queensland, you’ll find a lot of travelers who aren’t very nice people. However, I think it gives you life experience that those people who never look past their own doorsteps don’t get. It gives you friends and teaches you lessons, and those things give you the option to become a better person.
Personally, living abroad has opened my eyes to other people. I am less selfish and I’m more humble after seeing people in places like Belize and Honduras living without things I’ve never realized I had. I suppose living abroad has taught me to be more conscious of other people and their cultures. I am now more opened minded and confident in myself.
Thade Hausler (Germany)
I don’t think traveling has made me a better person. It depends on how you define “a better person”.
It did give me a different perspective on life. Looking at poor but happy people in Cambodia to filthy rich Aussies with oh so many problems has inspired me to look harder at the roots of problems. And I think traveling has made me more understanding and appreciative of people’s individuality.
Also, I’ve gained a lot of social skills that make it so much easier to be nice to people.
Roisin Coulter (Ireland)
Travel has allowed me to discover who I am and to test my limitations. Before my first travel adventure eight years ago, I was unsure of who I was as a person and had no idea what I should do with my life (to be honest I probably am still figuring this one out). Travel helped me to discover some of these important life questions and to illustrate what I am capable of and how far I can be pushed.
Travel has forced me to be more independent and self-reliant, stretched my food palette and most importantly introduced me to people who on the road became like family and remain some of my closest friends. Not to mention the beautiful sights, smells and cultures I have been lucky enough to experience. Travel has enriched my life with a wealth of experience, which I hope has influenced me to be a better person.
Janice Crowe (Canada)
I think that living abroad taught me how to be more independent and self-sufficient, emotionally, but also gave me the chance to develop the skills for building myself a home and family away from home.
Sergio Malatesta (Peru)
The first thing is that living abroad is totally different to simply traveling around.
Having the chance to live outside of Peru twice in my life I can tell you that this is an experience everyone should have. There are so many little details about our lives that we don’t even notice and it takes living abroad to realize those things. In many cases it helps us realize how lucky we are and how, by the examples other people give us, we can change little details about ourselves to become better people.
One thing that has been very important to me, is that living in Canada has helped me show my mother a new perspective on some things that she had considered wrong. I remember her talking negatively about gay people. By showing her Davie Street (the ‘gay district’ in Vancouver) and the way they live really made an impression on her. I’m hoping that by showing her these sorts of things, I have helped her to be a little more tolerant.
A big thanks to everyone who pitched in on this article; it was wonderful to read your thoughts and see how our individual experiences have led us to similar and complimentary conclusions. If anyone has any other insights or anything at all to add, please leave it in the comments.
Follow me on twitter @nomadbyaccident.