What You Can Learn From Living Abroad
Professional Volleyball player Sarah Pavan shares her insight on what she has taken away from living abroad!
For the past 7 years (11, if you count moving from Canada to Nebraska for college), I have been living abroad. I left my home and family in Ontario, Canada at 17, and never looked back, allowing my career as a professional volleyball player to carry me from one continent to the next, and back again. I have been so fortunate to live this nomadic life, calling Venice, Milan, Seoul, Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro home, among others, at various points in time.
There is something so satisfying about being a “resident” foreigner, about being immersed and accepted into a culture that isn’t familiar to you. It’s like being in on a secret that tourists know nothing about, while learning and discovering new things at the same time. Over the past decade, I have learned so much from my experiences living in foreign countries, and I carry those lessons with me everywhere I go. They affect how I travel, and how I live my day-to-day life. Here are a few of them:
1. Wander off the beaten path
One of the best things about living abroad is getting to know where the locals go. In my experience, there is a huge difference between the places frequented by tourists, and those designated for locals. The places where the locals hang out are usually way better! From restaurants, to beaches, to cultural centers, wandering off the beaten path usually holds some hidden gems (and are away from crowds).
Whenever I travel now, I always ask the local waiter, barista, or tour guide where they go for their favorite meal, or where they hang out on the weekends, go hiking, etc. These recommendations have led to some of the best adventures of my life, and I never would have experienced them if I had simply looked into a guide book. This concept applies to how I live my life in general, as well. No one has ever achieved greatness by following the norm, and doing what is easy. Some of my greatest accomplishments, and things that I am most proud of, have come from doing the unexpected, and taking risks, so I encourage everyone to wander on the path less traveled, and see what is there waiting for you.
2. Take time to enjoy your life
The thing that became most obvious to me after living in different cultures is that North Americans stress way too much. Our society is one that is obsessed with status, and to achieve this, we work more. More work equals more money, which means more happiness, right? In my experience the opposite is true, because in the pursuit of what our society perceives happiness to be, we don’t take the time to stop, take a deep breath, and enjoy the people and intangible things that make life worth living.
I have lived in some very wealthy areas, and in some places stricken with poverty, but the thing I observed is that the people from places with the least economically were the happiest. There was a much stronger priority placed on family and building community than on working crazy hours to be able to afford a huge house or a new car. The joy I saw on the faces of homeless children playing beach soccer, or the smiles of the extended family spending a whole Sunday chatting and picnicking made my heart sing, and made it clear to me that material possessions are no replacement for simply enjoying where you are at any given moment. So next time you find yourself stressing out about not being able to afford that new outfit or vacation, take a deep breath and remember that perspective is everything. We all have reasons to enjoy where we are, and to love our lives.
3. Who cares what other people think?
I am someone who likes to be perceived as “having it all together.” If I try something new, I like to practice by myself for a while, so that when there are people around, I don’t look like a complete idiot (according to me). So when I move to a new place, and there are dozens of new things going on, from language to food to customs, it can be a little intimidating. For a long time, I was hesitant to try any of these things in front of locals until I felt that I had a good handle on them, but what I eventually learned is that people love that there is even an attempt being made to learn things about their culture, not that it is done perfectly. It shows that you are trying to connect with them on a deeper level. Once I got over having to do everything perfectly, I ended up learning languages must faster because I had people to help me through my mispronunciations. I learned how to use chopsticks very effectively because I had people who had used them their whole lives offering guidance everyday. These are just two examples, but there are so many more.
Today when I travel, I continue to put the ego aside and stumble through the native language, try to use the food utensils, attempt a new sport, etc. Even at home, I do what makes me feel good, and what makes me happy because at the end of the day, as ridiculous as I may feel, I would miss out on so much by worrying what people think about me. It also helps to remember that people are generally more curious and appreciative about people doing different things than judgmental.
4. Tolerance and acceptance are some of the most attractive qualities
I am going to come right out and say that my appreciation for tolerance and acceptance was taken to a new level after living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Brazil is one of the most racially diverse countries in the world, and Rio in particular is a very sexually diverse city. It was also the only place in the world I have lived where I didn’t hear any comments regarding race, sexual orientation, size, religion, etc. The absence of racism and overt prejudice made life there so peaceful, and so different from most other places in the world. This contrast has made me value those qualities in others so much more, and has fine-tuned my own sense of acceptance to a greater degree.
The world is a beautiful place, and is made so much more beautiful by the people we meet everyday, whether they are similar to us or not. Isn’t this one of the reasons we travel, and experience new things? The people we meet make our experiences so much more meaningful, so finding it within ourselves to accept others and broaden our social circles makes it so much easier to see more of what this world has to offer.
I am by no means a travel or life advice expert, but these are some things that really stuck with me from my time abroad, and that I find myself going back to daily. If someone else were to live my same experiences, it is quite probable that they would learn different lessons, and that is what is so great about perspective. No matter where you are, or where you will go, keep taking in the world around you, and keep growing. Don’t let it pass you by.