Addicted to novelty since 2001

Living Abroad Makes You a Better Human

This is a long, long overdue essay for the 100 Bloggers project. It was originally inspired by a post that Colene wrote.

For the first few weeks I lived in Dublin, I nearly died on a daily basis. They drive on the other side of the road there. I never actually got behind the wheel of a car, not in that backwards, backed-up city. Nor did I risk death on a bicycle. I looked the wrong way before I crossed the street.

My parents didn’t instil the habit of looking both ways, and I’d regularly break my stride off the curb inches from a passing bus. Pasty Irish faces would zoom past my nose, leaving me dizzy in a cloud of diesel fumes. In Canada, pedestrians are king. In Dublin, they’re insects–quarter is neither asked nor given from drivers.

My friend Colene recently wondered aloud about her lack of wanderlust. In particular, she doesn’t want to live abroad: “Is it too simple to say that I am constantly learning more and exploring the mysteries and possibilities of where I am now?”

Those of us who live in the West have the privilege of living in another country. In human history, this kind of mass migration is an extremely new idea. In previous
centuries, living on another continent was strictly for the very lucky or the very unlucky.

Why live abroad? There are as many answers as countries to choose from. To escape; to be discovered. To advance your career or to pause it. To learn a new language; to forget the old one. To follow love, or leave it behind.

For me, it was mostly boredom. Life was too easy in Vancouver (a city that specializes in complacency–just look at our sports teams). I saw living abroad
as a challenge–a means of shaking up my life.

But where to live? Having never lived outside of Canada before, I took a scientific approach. For my first time, I wasn’t keen to try work and live in a foreign language. That left the UK, United States, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. The US was immediately rejected, for reputation and proximity to my home nation.

Australia and New Zealand seemed too similar to Canada. They’re both nations of a similar age with strong ties to Britain. They both feature enormous land masses with small populations along their habitable edges. They both massacred their indigenous populations.

In the UK, only London appealed. I wanted to live in a large city. Thanks to British cinema, in my mind, Liverpool and Manchester were horrible sprawls of row-housing and Soviet apartment blocks.

That left Dublin. My analysis was borne of ignorance. We enter new nations as we enter the world–utterly naive. Before you go, you think you know what you’ll struggle with. You see the glaring differences as the most difficult–the accent, for example, or differing social attitudes. In truth, it’s the thousand tiny details that throw you.

At the corner store, the clerk asks “are ya okay?” Am I okay or not? Which do I choose if I need assistance? It’s an extremely Irish phrase, reflective of their disdain for the service industry. At the bank, your deposit is a lodgement. At the pub, chips are crisps and fries are chips. Importantly, pants are underwear.

But that’s just terminology. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate the busy sidewalks of Dublin’s shopping quarters. To this day, when I visit I find myself narrowly missing oncoming pedestrians. It may have to do with the wrong-side-of-the-road syndrome, but compensating for that doesn’t help. I solved most of these tiny differences, but walking down the street has proved far too nuanced.

Adam Gopnik captures these tiny differences brilliantly in his extraordinary book about moving abroad with his young family, Paris to the Moon:

Fish and plugs are the two great differences, the two things that are never quite alike from country to country. Fish are sort of alike, but maddeningly not exactly alike. You have to learn the translations. A bar is sort of but not quite a sea bass, a ronget like a red snapper but actually smaller and more dapper–weirdly snappier. A turbot is not a flounder. Even French oysters, the most delicious in the world, have a salty, sea brine, bracing taste, not better than plump, sweet American oysters, but different–far more different than the difference, real though it is, between French lamb and American, or a French chicken and a good American one.

In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes this sense of otherness as the mirror-world. Here his American narrator describes London:

The plugs on appliance are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.

When you combine the few major differences and the thousand tiny ones, you get a transformative experience. It’s a cliche to say that travel broadens the mind, but it’s a cliche because it’s true.

I’m a fundamentally different person because of my time in Ireland. Not just because I say “everything’s gone pear-shaped” or “that’s bollocks”, but because I understand how another part of the world thinks.

Understanding two nations helps you understand all the others. Living abroad makes you a better human.

11 Responses to “Living Abroad Makes You a Better Human”

  1. Myles

    I can’t accept your argument that you’re a better human being for having lived in another country. I understand that your experiences may have had a profound affect on you but people can be more personally transformed by that which they’re thrust into involuntarily.

    Living abroad may have given you a broader lens through which to peer at the world but how has it changed the way you interact with others? Or the way you see yourself. Simply dealing with the physicality of experiences that may appear new in a foreign milieu are but the everyday rut of the nationals around you. How can eating a piece of fish with a different name improve your world view?

    As for myself, I can say that the birth of my disabled daughter has changed me irreparably. I like to think that the scale is tilting towards the positive but how can I be sure? I know that my understanding of people’s actions has changed and I try to see the best in people. I think I have an insight into my strengths and weaknesses, which leads me back to your friend Colene’s query: “Is it too simple to say that I am constantly learning more and exploring the mysteries and possibilities of where I am now?”

    thanks for letting me ramble…

  2. Darren

    Myles: I’d argue that “having insight into your strengths and weaknesses” or having a broader perspective will, 99 times out of 100, make you a better human. These people agree with me.

  3. col

    thanks for that post darren, i was wondering when you were going to write it.

    as for the points that myles raised, can’t we say that you both are right? any new, different and challenging experience will inevitably broaden your mind and change the way you interact with others?

  4. Chris

    I’ve never lived outside of the country, and I may not do so. I HAVE lived in BC (both northern and lower mainland), the Yukon, all around Ontario, and Newfoundland (where I was born). Within Vancouver I’ve lived in UBC dorms, near VGH, in Kerrisdale, in East Van, and downtown.

    I think the real point you should make is “don’t live in the same area all your life”, which I agree with. Canada is a huge and very diverse country, so I don’t think that going somewhere else based on national borders is necessarily better than exploring your own country.

    Also, what would you say to the people who think that it’s far more beneficial to go to a country with a different language and learn it? Would that not involving “having insight into your strengths and weaknesses”?

  5. tasha

    I’m reading this post and comments and it seems to me that doing something outside of the ordinary, stretching one’s limits, trying new things (you get the idea) is what helps us develop ourselves.

    Living in another country is an excellent example, as are the others mentioned in the comments. I think the point to be made is that anyone looking to be a well-rounded person, or looking to improve one’s self, should be seeking these opportunities. And one should seek them as they appeal to the person. Simply moving from Chilliwack farmland to downtown Vancouver is like moving to another country! Studying to be a mechanic when one is from a family of doctors is a big change and would open that person’s eyes to a whole other world (or … country even?) Reading about Buddhism or the Bahai faith when you grew up strictly Catholic provides a different viewpoint.

    My point is to generalize what you’ve said about living abroad and say that overall one should not be shut in complacency, rather be seeking new information, experiences, places, and people.

    ps: The tab ordering is messed up here. I tried to tab from my name to email and it took me to the top of the page to the Contact link

  6. alexis

    I agree 100% with this post. Personally, I’m more interested in living in the developing world, as I enjoy the contrast and I find it really challenges me to look at my values and the way I live as a Westerner.

    I want to live overseas again, and I’m really interested in living in China…

  7. Rob

    Every time I move to a new city I find myself in new situations that teach me a lot about myself.

    I feel like moving abroad would enhance that experience, which is why I’m off to Austria in a few months.

  8. Miles

    Though I also can’t say I’ve ever moved to another country, I can say that visiting another country does make you into a better human. The more places you visit, the more you can appreciate the world at large.

  9. FridayGuy

    Anyone interested in learning more about life in Dublin could do worse than check out, which captures the social aggression, hectic pace and tribal mentality of the city through a series of overheard remarks which may initially seem linguistsically inventive but ultimately descend into repetitive vulgarity. Bollocks indeed!

  10. Comfort, Discomfort and Living Abroad

    […] I’ve said this before, but when I first thought about living abroad, back in 2000 or so, I thought I knew what the tricky bits would be. I thought we’d get tripped up by driving on the other side of the road or dealing with a foreign currency. […]

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