Things You Learn While Living Abroad

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Whether you are a TCK, studied abroad, went on an international mission trip, or really spent any significant amount of time in another country, you will find that you return "home" with life changing knowledge.  This knowledge changes the way that you view the world, people, and even yourself.  Perhaps you are looking to make an international journey and are wondering what you will get out of it.  Or maybe you have learned these things, but forgot after spending some time back "home".  For these people, I would like share with you some of what you have to look forward to or give you a refresher course to those who forgot.

1. Most of the world lives very differently than how we (Americans) do, and they are happy
If you travel to almost any other country (most particularly second and third world countries), you will quickly realize that people live very differently.  Their houses are usually at least half the size of American homes and the number of people living in them doubled.  Rather than every family member with a license owning a car, the family all shares one (if they have one at all).  Walking, riding bicycles, and taking the bus are all very common modes of transportation.  They might where the same outfit more than once in the same week and not think twice about it.  Indoor heating and cooling in the home is not typical.  And they don't upgrade their computers and phones every year (if they own them). Although the American mindset is to be unsatisfied by all of these inconveniences, people in other countries are still happy.  To me, this is the best example of how physical articles don't bring true happiness.

2. Family is most import, the individual not as much
Sadly American society has instilled in us that its alright to focus on ourselves.  Other cultures believe that the needs and the interest of the family unit should be prioritized over the individual's.  I really like this mindset, I find that it helps to keep people accountable.  Before saying or doing something, one would question how those words or actions would reflect on his/her family.  Teenagers and young adults that work may find that instead of keeping all of their earned money, some (or all) might need to go towards the family and that's good.  They are willing to do that and know its right.  This is not to say that the individual's needs go unmet, it means that family needs go before personal wants.  Respect and awareness for each other's needs in the family all coincide with the wellness of the family as a whole.

3. The elderly should not just be respected, but honored
This is true especially in Eastern and South American cultures.  In these cultures, someone who has lived a long life must be honored.  It is disgraceful to put one's elderly family member in a nursing home (unless serious medical reasons require otherwise).  It is understood (and even expected) that eventually the child will grow up, move out of the house, and later live with parents again while taking care of them.

4. Education should not be taken for granted
In the United States education from primary school through high school is free.  That is not true in many other countries.  In some countries, children are ever able to attend school or they may not receive quality education.  Continued education (college and on) is even less rare.  While in the States it is almost expected of every high school senior to be applying for college, many countries' high school seniors are already considering their career routes and making plans accordingly.  And those who have the money, often try to get there higher education in the United States or Europe.  So, the next time you are complaining about your 8:00 am class, think of all the people who would love to have your opportunities. This is not to say that people in other countries are less intelligent, formal education is not everything.  There is a lot to be said about experiential knowledge, and often with that, wisdom that books can never teach.

5. People are innately good 
Yes, there are bad people all over the world and you have to be careful, but in general people are good. You may be amazed to find that people are genuinely nice and are willing to help you (or at least try to).  Especially if you are a native English speaker, they love to practice their English and will gladly help you learn a few phrases of their language in return.  If you are willing to take the time, you will find people who are interested in hearing your story, and you may even find yourself entertained or touched by theirs' in return.  I would never recommend anyone to become unaware of their surrounding or not being cautious, but you may just find yourself rewarded if you keep your mind and heart open to those you encounter (this is true everywhere, not just when you're away from home).

6.  There is no "one stop shop" 
There is no such thing as Walmart in many other countries.  You can't go to one place to buy your groceries, clothes, plumbing equipment, and home essentials.  Instead there are a lot of 'mom and pop' shops that each provide a different need.  It does make a quick run to the store more difficult when you need to buy both eggs and batteries, there are also advantages.  Food tends to be fresher, shop owners get to know their customers better, and you probably won't waste as much time wandering around trying to find what you are looking for.  You will learn to appreciate things more, when they are not as easily accessible. I remember how much in awe I was of Walmart every time I came back to the States.  My family and I just couldn't believe all of the bread options (and seriously have you ever truly appreciated the cereal isle?).  When foreigners go to Walmart for the first time, their reactions are always so much fun to watch, it helps keep you appreciative of  all the commodities we have.

There are many more things that you learn while living overseas.  These are just a few that I come to mind.  I would love to hear your stories and things that you have learned.  If you would like to share, please feel free to comment.  


  1. Thanks so true and interesting. Just because we do something a certain way does not mean that it is the only right way to do it.
    Thanks, Kathleen