The decision to move isn’t an easy one to make. Leaving family and friends is difficult, and switching jobs or industries is especially intimidating. Fortunately, change also brings adventure, self-improvement, and an exposure to sights, sounds and experiences you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.
Leaving your home country altogether is especially difficult, and phenomena like culture shock and language barriers are real and frustrating. But the conversation about living and working abroad rarely includes the flip-side to culture shock and language barriers – all the welcome alternatives to the troubles of American life.
If you want to find a happier and more comfortable life, let go of the idea that the American way of doing something or the way you’ve always done something is the “right” way of doing something. You may find that other countries, cultures and people have figured out easier ways of doing things. So here are five ways in which you may find yourself preferring a different lifestyle over the traditional American one.
Perhaps the most frustrating and monotonous part of the average American’s work day is the dreaded commute. Stressful work days, long distances, endless traffic and road rage all conspire against us to ruin our moods, already fragile as we grow anxious over the tasks we have ahead of us at the office or slump in the drivers seat, exhausted from a long day of hard work.
Commuting isn’t the only issue. Thanks to the suburbanization and lack of adequate public transportation in most American cities, Americans rely quite heavily on their cars to get around. Ever been without a car in the suburbs? Good luck getting your groceries or meeting up with friends.
Even worse, going out for drinks becomes a huge issue in America as well. Often even local bars aren’t within a walkable distance, and coming and going from downtown requires a pricey cab ride. Is it any wonder drunk driving continues to be such a problem in America?
If that’s not enough to convince you the preferred mode of transportation in America is less than ideal, then the price should. Gas prices increase constantly, and in America we have no choice but to pay them. Once you consider the cost of insurance, car payments and maintenance, it’s a wonder anyone can afford to live in America.
Now consider the case of many foreign countries, where having a car isn’t just unnecessary, but is often less convenient than other transportation options. Cities like São Paulo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, and even Guangzhou, China rank among the best metro systems in the world. In most countries across the world, you won’t find commuters sitting in traffic – you’ll find them cycling through it. A morning and evening bicycle ride can be just the breath of fresh air you need before and after long working days. By spending just a bit more, you can upgrade to a scooter or motorbike – in most Asian countries, affordable for no more than the equivalent of one month’s rent.
So, save yourself time, tons of money and stress! Escape the dependence on the car by considering an international locale.
We know that American prices are often exorbitant in comparison to other countries, but very few people understand the extent of American price gouging. A quick stroll through a fake market in Bangkok, Shanghai or Hanoi will make this painfully clear – not to advocate buying illegal counterfeits, but once you observe the high quality of the goods you can buy for a fraction of the price, you’ll question your own spending habits. Nearly everything you buy is “Made in China” anyway – so why not buy it from the source and pay a fraction of the price, instead of paying for shipping between continents and extortionate profit margins?
Even more discouraging, often us Americans aren’t just paying too much for the things we buy, but moreover we’re paying for goods of lower quality. In a typical American supermarket, the freshest produce you’ll find is spinach, whose leaves were plucked perhaps as “recently” as a few weeks before. What about those shiny red apples you see stacked so enticingly? Not so – the average apple sold in American supermarkets is already fourteen months old.
Other parts of the world have largely avoided the trend of giant grocery stores, and instead continue to rely on local farmers. A walk through any city in China will reveal that season’s freshest harvest – you’ll get the summer’s first mangoes and the fall’s first pomegranates. Wet markets across Asia, Africa and the Middle East allow you to choose the plumpest, healthiest-looking chicken or fish – and they’ll even kill and pluck the feathers or scale, gut and fillet them for you on the spot. And the prices, of course, still stand at a fraction of what you would pay in the States.
Lots of people agree that it’s important to travel abroad, to see the world, and expand your horizons. But what exactly does a euphemism like “expand your horizons” actually mean? What is the tangible reward for exploring foreign cultures?
Basically, the biggest takeaway you’ll gain from learning the ways of another place is that there is no “right” way to do something. When something is done in a way that is definitely NOT American, at first, you’ll be discomfited, annoyed or even mad. You’ll find yourself cursing a crowd of Chinese who refuse to line up in an orderly fashion, but if you can get beyond those things that frustrate you, you’ll make room for discovering those customs that may present a welcome alternative to the American way, for example, bringing cloth bags with you to the market, finding clever ways to reuse and recycle plastic, paper, aluminum and glass, waking up with the sun to practice daily Tai Chi exercises (even at age 80!), or taking a mid-afternoon siesta from work (rather than another cup of coffee).
Once you realize that the American way isn’t necessarily the “right” way, and that there may not even be such a thing as the “right” way at all, the next time you see someone behave in a way that you might initially perceive as “strange”, you’ll have the open mind to ask yourself, “Is that truly ‘weird’? Or is there a logical reason for their behavior?” International travel will lead you to greater human empathy and understanding – and allow you to pick up some of those more appealing foreign customs as well.
Learn a New Language
In the same vein, the nuances of foreign language study can teach you as much about a foreign culture as your own. Perhaps most revealing are those words that exist in one culture’s language, but not another’s – what does that say about that place? For example, the “untranslatable” Japanese word kyoikumama means “a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement.” The Brazilian Portuguese word cafuné means “the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair,” while the Russian toska translates to everything from “extreme spiritual anguish” to “boredom”. After some foreign language study, you may find yourself searching for a suitable translation of a foreign word into English, only to realize the same idea just cannot be encapsulated by English words – and you’ll learn the shortcomings and strengths of your own native tongue.
While you’re at it, you can learn some computer languages to make yourself useful in the digital economy.
The final and perhaps most persuasive reason to escape the American comfort zone and live abroad is the bottom line: dollars. Or, at least, dollars once you convert that foreign currency into greenbacks. Americans still live in relatively small numbers in other places around the world, and in countries across Africa, Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East, that means you have one very fundamental advantage – your native English-speaking skills.
If teaching English isn’t your goal, teach English on the side for cash while you pursue other business ventures. Even in industries outside of teaching ESL, as an American abroad you are still a big fish in a smaller pond, facing much less competition than you would in your home country. Take the example of this American and Canadian pair, teaming up to sell hamburgers on the streets of Shenyang, China and raking in 3,000 RMB ($500) a night. As long as America’s snail-paced economic “recovery” and debt crisis continue, your prospects look a lot brighter (and more fun!) elsewhere in the world.
If all else fails, you can teach yourself the skills to launch your own business and thus create your own job.