Why One Year Abroad Taught Me More Than Four Years at College

by Alexander Heyne · 29 comments

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

-Mark Twain

In August 2010 I Moved to China.


Why not, right?  I worked for a year after I graduated university, wanted a change of scenery, and then decided to move to China for an indefinite amount of time.  (Side note: that “indefinite” time lasted 1 year before I ran out of money, and didn’t want to teach English to stay there).

No Biggie.  Here’s Why You Should Too:

  1. You are forced to learn way more than you ever ordinarily would in a year
  2. The potential use of an added foreign language is enormous
  3. It’s a guaranteed way to escape the everyday-is-the-same blues

Accelerated Learning

The degree to which you are able to learn a lot of material quickly usually depends on the urgency or how often you use it.  In a new place you’ll be learning subway & bus routes, the general lay out of the city in which you live, your new house or apartment, new people, a new culture, and potentially a new language.

Learning the language is potentially one of the most telling signs of whether someone knows the culture or not.  I’ll talk about that a little later.

Yeah moving to a new place is nerve-wrecking, and troublesome, and at times overwhelming.  But that’s the point.  Only once you get beyond the boundary (the “I already have this skill down pat” boundary) do you begin to evolve.  Stay tuned for my post on FLOW, which will go way deeper into this idea of seriously accelerating learning of skills, improving quality of life, and providing you with daily reasons to be happy. It’s ridiculously important.

我喜欢吃狗肉  (Translation: I like Eating Dog Meat)


Honestly, It’s not bad tasting.  A little stringy and fatty, but who knows what kind of dog it was I ate.  I hope it was cute, like that little doggie there =>

Regarding the myriad potential uses of another language:

From fun to practical:

  1. It makes you seem wordly (and you become worldly in the process)
  2. Awesome benefits while traveling (useful, fun, meet new friends)
  3. It makes you feel accomplished.  You’ve just learned a skill.
  4. More job opportunities (Contingent upon what language, and what location)
  5. Huge insight into the culture in which it originated

Escape the 9-5 Zombie Blues

Remember when you were little and everything was exciting, life was fresh and every time you woke up there was an adventure to be had?

What does it feel like today?  I’d bet you feel like…. most of the rest of humanity.  Monotony.  Boredom.  Routines.  A little spice here and there.  But mostly it’s that “content” everything is fine feeling.

And that “fine” feeling is insidious, because you think it’s okay.  If someone were to ask if you were happy, I bet you’d respond “Hmmm.. yeah, I think so.”  Really convincing.

A while back I read an article discussing theories as to why life becomes less fresh and captivating over time.  A theory that stuck out to me was this: As we get older, new experiences become more and more scarce.

Seen that flower.  Seen that dog.  Played that game.  Learned to ride a bike.  Seen this scenery 500 times.  I know how to get around town.

Living abroad is an opportunity to be brand spankin’ new.  Although there will be routine, there will guaranteed be fresh experiences every day, there will be serious connections that you make, there will be guaranteed learning, and you will most certainly escape the “worker bee” feeling.

Cheese Cake, Chocolate Mousse, Tiramisu… Too Many Options

The last reason I’d suggest moving abroad?  Exposure.  Exposure to a greater variety of things gives you the potential to find something you really latch onto and are passionate about.

And this is the single greatest reason to live abroad for any period of time.

Greater exposure to ideas, people, and opportunities will without a doubt leave your mind awake at night with possibilities.  Who knows, maybe you’ll stick around longer than you thought.

The potential for “aha” moments (regarding ideas) and connections (regarding people) is huge.  Remember, more experience means more connections for your brain to make.

Why Languages Are The Sum Total of Culture

There are a couple reasons why a language gives you huge insight into the culture.  I’ll briefly jump in and give you a few personal examples:

  1. Sayings and idioms in a language often have historical and cultural roots.  E.g. Chinese has 成语, which are idioms usually based upon historical tales。For example, 塞翁失马 (“The Old Man Lost His Horse”) comes from an old Taoist story, and essentially means something along the lines of a “blessing in disguise”.
  2. Languages have idiosyncrasies that often tell much about a particular culture’s way of thinking: e.g. words that are untranslatable.  关系 Guanxi is a good example in chinese, because it means much more than simply “connections.”  Guanxi also forms a massive part of Chinese culture, even in modern China.
  3. Languages are obviously how the culture’s people interact, and thus are necessary if you want to get the inside scoop

What Do You Think?

Have you lived abroad?

Do you plan to live abroad?

Is it worthwhile?  Are there reasons not to?  Any horror stories?  Feel free to share..

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica August 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Awesome post… Lived in Prague, CR for 7 months and it was amazing.

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afheyne August 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Haha it is really incomparable right? Between the international crowds you find to party with, the language barriers, the various language to learn and places to go (esp. in Europe), it beats the hell out of “ordinary existence.” I think if I had to give a person one tip to make life really come alive again it would be to move to another country for a year. And learn the language.

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Lylim | Flyleaf - Thoughts on reading, writing and the general confusion of twentysomething life August 3, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Which part of China were you in? I shipped off to Beijing for a year after graduation and it was the best decision ever. The people I met and the things I saw and what they left me with were life-changing

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afheyne August 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Hey Lylim,
I was also in Beijing. I thought it was a ridiculously cool city, I made the most international crew of friends I ever have, by far, and got to pick up a sweet language in the meantime. What were you doing there? When I came back people tried to compare places like New York city to Beijing, but it really is incomparable. Granted, there are things i didn’t like, but It was overwhelmingly enjoyable to be there and I plan on going back.

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Alison August 27, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Just interested what other theories exist or you came across about people losing that certain vigor for life with age?

Enjoyed this Alex! Moving was certainly the best thing I ever did in the sense of accelerating learning. Having a basis for comparison, and developing a second set of ideas has even introduced me to a culture at home I had never even noticed or just taken for granted, even though I had been apart of it.

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afheyne August 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Hey Alison,
I personally am unfamiliar with any other theories about losing the zest for life as one ages.

However, my personal theory is based upon my own observations: those who have a zest for life (as a general trend in their life) tend to maintain that with age, unless they are horribly disfigured or disabled.

It seems to be a trait in people that they develop. Some never do. I’m going to write some ideas on why mid-life / quarter-life crisis type stuff happens soon, so stay posted.

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Jasmine October 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I lived for 6 months in Turkey and then after a year and a half went back for another 6 months until I ran out of money. I lived in Istanbul. It was a great experience. I wrote a lot of poetry, drank a lot or tea, met a lot of amazing people, smoked a lot of ciggys, discovered how nice the black sea is when no ones there, how nice it is to ride a train to work, how vfun international love affairs can be, how crazy it is to teach English, How little English I really understood or knew, and what it’s like to live everyday as if you have no idea what will happen. I can not wait to live somewhere new. I’ve been in america for almost two years now and I feel the itch more than ever..although no one understands why I keep going back.

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afheyne October 31, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Jasmine, isn’t it ridiculously amazing?

I’ve lived in Switzerland & China, and I’m headed back to China soon, and I agree 100% with everything you wrote.

International love affairs, teaching english, how little you know your mother tongue.. and living life as a surprise. God it’s impossible to return home after.

No one will understand you — no worries. But once you move abroad, everyone understands you. I’ve been in the US now for 3 months and I’m leaving by spring. Describing that form of life is incomparable to living it, thus the reason why others have no clue what makes it so enjoyable.

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jookyone October 31, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I am from the US, and I have traveled to all 50 states (driving thru the lower 48 for 4 years), to most of the continents except Antarctica and Asia, and would hope to hit my favorite countries on this planet before I exit, and the thing I have learned is that people are fundamentally the same, everywhere.

A philosopher once said…

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

If you need to go far to get that feeling of incorporation into humanity, then more power to you for seeking it out, but humans are the same everywhere, and that’s why you connect anywhere. To say people don’t understand travelling is presumptuous at best. To say they have no clue what makes it enjoyable is a form of condescension or maybe speaks to the quality of those around you.

I am sorry you cannot get your connection where you were born or are a resident, but I’m glad you had the guts to seek it out elsewhere, as far as that may take you. If I were you, I would not presume that people can’t get that same feeling you describe within 100 yards of wherever they happen to be. For many, it does not take a trip to another part of the world to get that feeling.

Happy Travels!

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afheyne October 31, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Jookyone,

I totally agree with what you’re saying, however there is one thing.

It’s easy for us to say traveling to find far off exotic things is useless, because people are people, with the same concerns, no matter where you go. But the cruel irony of life is that you need to go to those places before you come to the revelation, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. If someone told me that before I started traveling it would have gone in one ear and out the other.

Also, I think you need to understand where I come from — I’m merely playing the Devil’s Advocate and want to make myself and others think. If I come off as insulting it’s deliberate :).

For a long time I’ve wanted to visit wise men and philosophers all over the world, and people always caution me — you’ll find it right where you are. Just like the old meditation texts, right? Well I think it’s another case of irony – the journey is required to realize the journey wasn’t needed.

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jookyone November 8, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Good points, and you have certainly not insulted me. I play a little devil’s advocate myself.

Travel safe.

Red Do September 1, 2015 at 10:57 pm

Dear Traveler,

People are the same no matter where you go is a common thing I am learning not yet entirely true. In the sense, we are all animals that live in a human run society and play by some sort of rules is true.
Yet being able to incorporate yourself into the surroundings in your backyard is one of the hardest things to do. I think breaking out of your safety zone is one of the hardest things to do so unless all my family and friends back home die, I would never step out of that circle and explore my local surroundings. GREAT POINT you brought up but it is a very hard thing to do.

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Brasilicana January 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm

I completely agree with you about the language thing; the interplay between language, thought, and culture is absolutely fascinating! And immersion is without a doubt the fastest route to fluency. During my first trip to Brazil, I learned more Portuguese in 3 months than my students do in two years of purely classroom study.

However, I think the wonderfulness of living in another country can depend on your financial situation. My first year in Brazil, I had a sweet research grant with a fixed stipend that allowed me to put $600/month into savings and do whatever I wanted. My second year, I was telecommuting, being paid U.S. wages complete with benefits, and the dollar was still strong against the Brazilian real.

But in my third year, I’ve pieced together an income from freelance teaching and translating, which means I no longer have the time or money to really do many of the things that I originally loved about Brazil. From January to March, I struggle to pay the rent since many of my students are on vacation (of which I get none).

Of course, this isn’t to say that I’d rather not live in Brazil :-) It’s just a little disappointing when the challenges of living abroad are no longer humorous language mistakes or interesting cross-cultural situations… and instead become mundane worries like finances and overwork and stress, you know?

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afheyne January 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Brasilicana —

Yeah money unfortunately gives you the ability to do what you want with life — or has the potential to serious hinder opportunities.

When I was in China I had a lot of money saved — I worked a job I wasn’t crazy about for a year, saved like a mad man, and had a ton of cash to travel & party with.

I went a little crazy seeing everything and doing everything, and near the end, when my friends were going to Mongolia or parties on Aircraft carriers in Tianjin I was sitting at home.

It also depends where you live – the expat lifestyle is great in Asia for example. I can live like a millionaire for just 30k USD/year. I don;t know what it’s like in Brazil but that’s an important quality I need to meditate on when I live abroad next.

Alex

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Ann Khee January 3, 2012 at 7:23 am

I was in Oregon, USA for 7 months few years ago. Well to be honest, I got culture shock when I landed at San Francisco airport. The shock stayed with me for awhile. But those 7 months are my most memorable moments in life. Gain a lot of life lessons. I miss Oregon!

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afheyne January 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

Ann,

where are you originally from? It’s funny, moving across the world definitely changes people — you’re forced to learn so much so quickly. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Alex

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pttl88 July 24, 2013 at 6:17 am

Hi,

I might be out of bound here, but I’ve been on a reading marathon of your blog and I came to this article about travelling soon after reading the one about how travelling won’t help you find your purpose (sorry I can’t remember the exact title). I’m having a contradicting feeling by reading both post by as they are both written by you.

Would you help me see the true meaning of both post and how they differentiate ?

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Alexander Heyne July 24, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Hi there,

I understand your confusion, so let me set it straight, (these are all my opinion):

A. Travel is always worthwhile, just for the sake of life experience, excitement, adventure. Travel as much as possible.
B. However, traveling thinking that you’ll “find” happiness or “find” yourself and magically “think up” your dream career is very flawed thinking. For most people this does not happen.
C. Chances are, travel won’t help you realize your grand “purpose” either. It may help in the process – but I’ve found that people “find” purpose by experimentation, by trying as many different things as possible.

… So I like to travel as much as possible, however, don’t think of it as some magic bullet that helps you figure life out.

Humans have a funny way of saying “we’re going to travel to find ourselves” which is obviously an absurd statement. If we have deeply rooted human problems, travel won’t make them go away.

Does that help at all?

– Alex

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pttl88 July 25, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Yes, your reply helps clarify things,

Although I felt that readers that stumble upon a single post might not get the idea that travel and finding yourself is mutually exclusive, because reading this post some might think that the benefits listed are what I need to find myself.

Thanks for your reply

Army July 26, 2013 at 5:12 pm

I would also add that living somewhere abroad for an extended time, is probably a lot different from ‘travelling’. I did the latter for 4 months and fell into the trap of thinking i’d somehow find myself. Being a traveller also allows you to abandon ship and relocate every time you feel uncomfortable somewhere., which I was guilty of a few times. Although i’ve never done it, committing yourself to a foreign environment seems like it would be a greater challenge, and a lot more rewarding. I’m not sure i’d ever “go travelling” in the traditional sense again.

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Alexander Heyne July 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Totally agree Army. It is VERY different from traveling, and I prefer it in every way.

And you’re EXACTLY right about being traveler. If you don’t like some place, you can just give it all up and go. Living in one place is much different. I think everyone should live abroad at least once if given the opportunity.

– Alex

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Lena October 18, 2013 at 2:00 am

hi! really enjoyed reading your posts.

i have a question though… this all sounds good if you have the money, how about for people like me who come from a Third World Country? When can I travel? I’ve always wanted to. I’ve worked hard, tried to save money, but it’s just never enough. I’m getting depressed by my country and its lack of progress. I feel stuck.

Right after graduation, I work and work and work and now I’m burnt.

What is your advice?

In one of your posts, you said that perhaps the answer is not in leaving. But perhaps in my situation, it is all I can think of. And I’m finding a hard way of doing it. Life is so unfair.

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Alexander Heyne October 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Hi Lena,

You’re right – I do have a lot of readers in third world countries. Some leave (like from asia/philippines/malaysia to Australia), others become entrepreneurs. You can also leverage sources like Elance.com and Odesk.com for an additional income.

It isn’t easy, and it’s not fair. You’re right.

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Miko January 2, 2014 at 11:53 pm

I did lived in abroad back in 2006. More of a exchange student really.
When I got back from it….. everything seemed different? I guess coming from a 3rd world country then diving straight into a 1st world can really mess with your head.

Then the 11 months ended (I did get a language proficiency certificate. Learning a language was a blast!)… and I went to college and graduated in my country. Very anti-climatic.

ahaha now what? 1st year of job hunting was bad tried little freelancing. 2nd year I tried several months on a 9-5 and it was just horrid. I did 3 month volunteer (with allowance) work which was awesome but was strictly 3 month only.

I still can’t let go of that.. “I went on a adventure and came back more that just whole” feeling.
That volunteer job came close to it. I also seem to have people breathing down my necks about getting a “normal” job. (Although I think they are just trying to be helpful.)

Where else do I look? or what do I look for? (Worst part of all this is meeting someone from college.. and the honest surprise they have on their face that you don’t have a job yet.)

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Alexander Heyne January 3, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Hi Miko,

Lets start with this: what kind of stuff truly interests you? And also understand that your feeling of coming back and being afraid of the “ordinary life” is totally normal. It’s not easy…I’ve gone through it too, twice. Coming back is often harder than leaving.

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Jay October 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Hmm these posts about moving abroad for a year have given me a lot to think about. As a child I dreamed about living in the UK (from Australia) for some period of time and have held onto that dream ever since. Last year I was able to travel there and thoughout Europe for a month and felt very blessed to even be able to do that as no one in my family has ever travelled before. I went by myself and being a somewhat shy and very introverted person I was amazed at how confident and brave I could be navigating around a massive city all on my own, talking to strangers etc I didn’t even think of myself as a city person before that. Ever since I came back from that holiday I’ve been trying to get that feeling of confidence and excitment back, for some reason it just doesn’t carry over into my everyday life back home.

So, the thing keeping me here is that I was fortunate to land a job straight out of uni, I work in interior design which is a very difficult industry to get into, (people I studied with have still not found jobs in the industry 3 years later) however I’ve found myself becoming a bit of a zombie lately as 3 years into the job I feel I have completly mastered it – I keep reminding myself how much others would kill for this job.

When I first started this job I was stressed and upset 24/7 with no time to think about anything other than work, coming home in tears etc. Now the complete opposite has happened and I can do it with my eyes closed.

Anyway I’m not sure if I should just take the leap and move to the UK for a year, or is it more simply that I need to take advantage of the fact that I’m not stressed at work and try and inject more life into my time after work? – (I do have a quite a few hobbies I do after work already but they are more solitary ones) On one hand I think what’s a year really? but on the other it scares me the idea of going there and not being able to find work to support myself (rent / food) and just sitting in my room depressed about not finding work, then coming back and again and going though the same thing of not being able to find a job within the industry. I don’t want that one small year to push me out of the industy completly. I also don’t have a purpose for going to the UK other than I love the country and want to explore it as much as I can – is that enough?

Sometimes this makes me feel very selfish, I think all the time about how lucky I am and how we really don’t deserve anything in this life, so who am I to throw away everything I have worked for simply so I can feel alive and excited for a year? ugh can’t stop overthinking this situation.

Has anyone been in a similar position??

phew thanks for letting me get that off my chest!

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Red Do September 1, 2015 at 11:00 pm

Continue your career in the U.K.? From reading your post, it sounds like your confident in what you do so unless interior design does not exist in the U.K why dont you look at it as an oppurtunity to advance your career and profession. Yes it might be hard, but if you do not try and apply for these positions then you will never get it

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Daniel November 15, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Nice website. I moved abroad to Beijing for 2 years during the Olympics period. I did non-teaching work mostly but certainly didn’t make the 50K you made. . though I still managed to pay off the old student loan while in China.

It is really hard to settle in one place and one job more than a couple years now. . I’m always itching for change.

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