Over the past few years, we’ve often asked ourselves if moving abroad has lived up to our expectations. And on the whole, it has. (Phew. *Big sigh of relief*) It’s an important question, I think, because of the power expectations have to shape our feelings, especially our negative feelings. There’s no disappointment, really, without (unmet) expectations.
Some reasons commonly given for moving abroad include building character, developing new tastes and skills, and boosting a career. These are hopes that many of us share when we choose to leave a conventional life behind.
Our particular expectations when we left the Pacific Northwest corner of the U.S. in 2016 were 1) to deeply explore foreign cultures, 2) to gain more independence from our birth culture, 3) to spend more time living life together, and 4) to shake up our career path. We can happily report that our expectations, on the whole, were exceeded.
Expectation #1: Deeply explore foreign cultures
There’s certainly something to be said for traveling to far-flung locales and seeing a special site with your own two eyes. The Leaning Tower of Pisa (oh, it leans all right), the canals of Venice. The forlorn shells of homes ravaged by war 25 years ago in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But to dig deeper, to learn something of the culture, of the psyche of a country, of the rhythm of its days and weeks as its people go about their lives, is a privilege reserved for those who make that place their home.
Did you know Hungary has a huge literary culture? Brick-and-mortar bookstores certainly don’t appear to be on the decline there. Or that lots and lots of little boys in Hungary are named after Attila the Hun. (If you meet someone named Atilla, odds are good he’s either from Hungary or Turkey.) And that “Ildikó” is a Hungarian girls’ name (not Japanese, like I would have guessed) that corresponds to the German “Hilda,” meaning “warrior.” That name days here are more celebrated than birthdays. That holidays — and there are more than a few — are something to plan ahead for because nothing will be open, and you don’t want to be caught unawares by another long weekend and left without bread (or kakaós csiga, or wine, or whatever you find essential to daily life) for three days. Again.
Did you know that every Mexican has a penchant for explosives (they’re called cohetes, and they’re an incessant part of life here)? That salsa as we know it is hard to buy in a Mexican grocery store — there are no plastic tubs of fresh pico de gallo waiting for you in the refrigerator section. You’ll be lucky to search out a small can or bottle of salsa casera, and that’s about it. But fresh corn tortillas are a different story. Go to any neighborhood grocery shop and you’ll find a row of Styrofoam coolers stocked throughout the day by as many as six or seven nearby tortillerías, all labeled with their names so you can be sure to get the (by all appearances, identical) tortillas of your liking. (Given some time, you, too, will develop a preference. And if you want, you can go straight to the source and by them right out of the oven, so hot they’re hard to carry home.)
The moment in which I dazzle people with all this deep knowledge of life around the world will probably never come, but I still enjoy holding those details inside myself. There’s a bit of the anthropologist in every travel enthusiast, I think. We love to compare, contrast, taste and try, and putting down even temporary stakes in a place allows us to learn so much more than a brief visit ever could afford.
So moving abroad fulfills this expectation.*
*Though, I would give it one qualification: the language barrier. Doesn’t that always rear its ugly head? Without a grasp of the language, there’s so much that will remain out of our reach. Now, this isn’t always a bad thing. Not knowing the Hungarian language meant we could go largely untroubled by the negatives transpiring in that country’s politics. But we also missed much when it came to Hungary’s music, history, humor, literature and lore due to not understanding the language. The lesson: Learn the local language when at all possible for even richer experiences.
Expectation #2: Gain more independence from our birth culture
Recently I rediscovered a quote from American writer Mark Twain about travel being fatal to prejudice. It comes from one of Twain’s early books, The Innocents Abroad, a travelogue from his group trip on a charter boat through Europe and the Holy Land in 1867.
Matthew and I had both positive reasons for wanting to get our family outside the borders of the USA — to add to our family culture more compassion and charity, like Twain mentions — as well as negative reasons, such as wanting to distance ourselves from various Americanisms we dislike. Twain’s quote well captures the positive reasons for stepping outside our homeland:
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 can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Studies back up Twain’s assertion. Researchers in 2013 set out to answer a few questions: “Does travel make people more trusting? Does travel lead people to have a more charitable view of humanity? Given the trend toward globalization and the increasing popularity of foreign travel, this will be an important and interesting question to explore,” the lead researcher Jiyin Cao told PsyPost. The researchers concluded that those who visited more countries tended to become more trusting. Visiting places unfamiliar and different also increased trust more than visiting places similar to their homeland.
I think there’s a real danger that Americans, growing up inside the borders of this powerful, rich and influential state, see the world as mostly beginning from our west coast and ending at our east coast. To many Americans, what occurs or originates from outside the frontiers is unimportant, unlovely or incomprehensible. I know my view of the world has been at times rather narrow and impoverished. I want my kids to grow up to have the broadest, most charitable views of men they can.
In addition to charity, there’s also breadth of knowledge to aspire to. It seems like people I’ve met in other countries often know more about world history, art, literature and languages than I do, and, to top it off, they know more about American history and politics, too! What a shame on me and what a loss. My American passport, though, affords me great privilege to change that, and I intend to make use of travel, as well as of homeschooling, to educate our entire family.
The negative side of this desire I alluded to has to do with a dislike of some commonplace attitudes and habits in the U.S. (I don’t have a distaste for everything American, mind you, just some of it. I’m quite fond of our American freedoms, including in particular the freedom to homeschool.) As an example, albeit a more trivial one, I was fed up with people expecting our kids to be versed in the world of Disney princesses and comic book heroes and weird cartoon creatures.
We’d be at a doctor’s office, for example, and upon leaving the nurse would want to know which sticker the boys would like: Goofy, Thor or Sponge Bob? I’d have to ask her to show the boys so they could choose by sight, since they had no familiarity with the characters she was offering. “Skinny guy or ugly yellow square with teeth, kids?” In our home, we choose not to show most of those videos; I just don’t think many of them model good behavior or are age-appropriate. These are personal choices that, yes, we could make in the States, but they’re so much easier to uphold when we’re not immersed in a society working at cross-purposes.
There are cultural characteristics we can gain and some we can omit more readily by distancing ourselves from our birthplace. There’s also the fun to be had by learning about your own American-ness from an outsider’s perspective. “American children are louder, aren’t they?” an elderly British lady once asked me, or rather, asserted, while watching my three boys clamber into their seats for a church potluck in Hungary. I never expected that assumption. “Uncouth” I might have more readily accepted, but I didn’t know American kids were seen as just plain loud.
Author Michael Swigunski notes that in Eastern Europe, Americans are known for an overabundance of smiling. “It’s considered a weird behavior of ours,” he writes in his book Global Career. I’d buy that; we definitely saw the inverse of it in Budapest, where the default facial expression of store clerks seemed to vacillate between boredom and annoyance. Turns out forced cheerfulness is not universally expected nor supplied, and the customer is not always right — not everywhere.
It’s interesting to see the places where your own culture kind of diverges from what you realize is the more common trend.Global Career by Michael Swigunski
We still have much to learn and more charity to acquire, but so far we’ve seen many benefits from traveling and gaining a bit of separation from our homeland.*
*We have so much separation that one of our young sons saw a picture recently of the old Stars and Stripes and didn’t recognize it as the American flag. Ooops. It wasn’t our intention to make our kids un-American, just slightly less all-American, if you will. So, despite that we’re terrible about celebrating holidays in our family, we managed a small fiesta this week in honor of July 4th, focusing on, you guessed it, making sure they can at least recognize their nation’s flag. Red, white and blue Jell-o was involved.
Expectation #3: Spend more time living life together
When we lived in the States, Matthew worked a 9-to-5 job at a public university. The thing about 9-to-5 jobs, though, is that they’re rarely just 9-to-5. With commute time and a mandated hour-long lunch break, he was away for 10+ hours, five days a week. We were fortunate that I could stay home to care for the kids, but this arrangement left me without much support. At this rate, Matthew was missing the better part of our family life each week, and would miss out on the better part of our kids’ childhoods, too. It was admittedly a better situation that many families have, but it wasn’t what we wanted.
Now, a few years since we made a break with that lifestyle, we still feel like we don’t have enough time together. The reality is that there’s still work to do, still bills to pay and still the endless job of parenting to sap every moment of our time and every ounce of our humility. But, when we stop to count our blessings (or, in our less noble moments, to whine about how we don’t have enough time to drink margaritas on the beach or people-watch in the park or whatever we would do if we possessed this mythical “free time”), we’re reminded that the blessings of this unconventional lifestyle are many.
In looking at the facts rationally, we do spend more time together than ever before and I have to assume more than a typical American family. We play at the beach on Thursday mornings, we go out for ice cream on Saturdays, we eat almost every meal together, and we gather at the end of the day for family worship and Bible reading, maybe a few minutes of Planet Earth before hugs and bed.
The main reason we feel like we still don’t have much time together is probably because we’ve made it part of our routine. All this together time is still gratifying, but it’s an expected part of our weeks and for that reason goes largely uncounted, I suspect. Maybe we should make our family time more unpredictable and chaotic for maximum enjoyment? Might be something to test in the future.
So life abroad fulfills this expectation, too, though maybe our family has a bit more R&D to do.
Expectation #4: Shake up our career path
Before we embarked on this overseas experience, Matthew worked at a job that required his physical presence. If we were to move abroad, the job would have to stay behind.
We didn’t have a clear vision for our career path back then, but we knew that quitting that job was going to lead to certain changes in our lives — we’d be jobless, if nothing else. We thought that quitting our location-based job might give us a push toward setting up work Matthew could do from home, an idea we’d been drawn toward for years but hadn’t yet made a move on.
What had been starting to look like a career in university administration — helping manage the daily communication needs of a medium-sized public institution in the U.S. — was becoming less of a good fit over time for our family. All of that time at the university reminded us of the value of education, however, and we began to think of school as an easy enough way to secure a couple years’ permission to live overseas. We planned to enroll Matthew in a school overseas and use our new status as a student family to acquire permission to live abroad for two years — a path that would grease our travel plans, we hoped, but that also would undoubtedly prove to interrupt our career path.
With the wisdom (ha!) and experience that the intervening traveling years have provided, we can look back at that time and list a few changes:
- Matthew works at jobs that don’t require his being anywhere but at a computer.
- He’s not on a path to be a manager or director or anything else. Sure, he does feel a bit left behind sometimes looking at LinkedIn and seeing students he’s taught shooting up the career ladder, but we remind ourselves that the corporate ladder is something we’ve never really wanted to climb. If we have the choice (and we do!), we’d rather have Matthew spending time with his family doing low-stress work than spending the bulk of his energy outside the home on achieving career advancement.
- We can pick and choose the work we do, to a certain extent. (For example: As mentioned above, we don’t like high-stress, high-pressure work, and if we’re smart enough to spot one of those jobs coming, we try to avoid it.) Having become debt-free is a big contributor to this ability, because we’re able to weather intermittent potholes on the income graph. We do have monthly bills such as rent and health insurance, but we’ve found that a meager savings generally can cover those bills when you live abroad.
- We can work together, husband and wife, on projects (income-generating or not) that we develop.
- Matthew is expanding his self-directed work, taking on more editing clients as we grow what essentially is a service-industry business, editing and providing advice on writing and organization.
This expectation certainly has been met. We’re out of the rat race. Sure, that means we won’t achieve whatever all of the other rats are achieving, but it also means we don’t have to do all of that running, either, making mad dash after mad dash to get ahead of everyone else.
We can use that time instead to work on our family culture and enjoy each other. Which — though we and our lifestyle are far from perfect — is a pretty big improvement.