Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Thoughtful Perspective on Living Abroad by Alexander Harling

Twenty years in Durham, NH. A town I know all too well. I had no shortage of compassion for the area that raised me and is home to countless memories; but there was a growing spite for my familiarity and routineness that had my life.
Freshman year at UNH felt too close to a fifth year of high school. Same town, similar faces, the regular parties. Although I felt ready to leave and start a new life in a fresh town, staying was worth it.

 Two large suitcases and a backpack was all I had. Everything that was important and of value I was holding. The walls were white and bare. The bed was no more than a futon mattress, or as the French say, a “click-clack.” The room was empty except for the bed, night-stand and bookshelf. It would have felt lonelier when I first entered, but it was starting to fill with the countless possibilities and experiences that were surfacing with each passing moment.

I won’t say this has been the greatest time of my life. My life has been blessed with many amazing experiences. Albeit, this has most certainly been my biggest adventure. Life changing and perspective altering. Americans are quite sheltered. We are all blessed to be living in a free country full of countless opportunities. Our nation of 330 million is powerful and safe. Our shear largeness, occupying a quarter of the world, has made some of us blind to the rest of the world.
In comparison with the rest of the world, Americans take relatively short vacations.
Europeans believe it takes time, meaning more than a weekend to a week, to truly see a place. Marcel Proust, a French writer, once wrote… The journey of discovery lies not with seeing new places, but with seeing with new eyes. 

How long does it take to see? It has taken me four months and an absence of the culture I have known for 20 years.
To see new shores you have to look away from yours for some time.
I am five months in to my seven month journey. Thirteen countries and more to come.
Culture shock is not exclusively seeing unfamiliar things and being completely shocked. More often it is observing something unfamiliar, and learning how to understand its cultural importance as well as how it can be embraced.
Adjusting to French lifestyle was very difficult. Schedules and discipline are an important part of my life. Not every French person feels the same. Learning to adjust to French life was not just about me learning a new culture, but learning how to keep my values and understanding their practices.
Smoking, the late nights, and regularly drinking did not fit into my lifestyle. This is a big part of French culture. Eventually I realized these practices were just a part of the French’s passion for social life and leisure. After realizing this and learning how to participate, in a manner that matched my values, I began to see and feel differently. Comfortable in my skin. Ready to take on new challenges. More willing to learn. I was changing.
The US news commonly reports on a growing disdain for Americans. The western lifestyle and diet is feared. We appear to lack culture and tradition. American television and music are saturating foreign media outlets, eclipsing domestic art. I thought everybody hated Americans.
Europeans love us. Yes they are aware of the stereotypes. Our obesity rates, eating practices, and disappointing comprehension skills are well known. My roommates and I joked about all this regularly. What was shocking was how much the younger generations had embraced our culture. They viewed America as large and powerful. New and exciting. It was still the land of opportunity in their eyes. Everyone wanted to visit New York City or see the beaches of California. Some people were reticent initially coming out, but eventually their interest was expressed and wanted to talk and learn about the US.
Many Americans, including myself, when embarking on a living abroad experience, expect to immediately fall in love with the new area and to hate the culture that raised them. The opposite happened. I became very proud to be an American. With all the surprisingly kind words about our culture, I began to see home differently; even miss it.
People often say how small the world is. Relatively speaking and in the context of certain comparisons within our universe, us, the earth is quite small. I began to see things differently. The more I traveled, the bigger the world got. I kept learning about new places I wanted to see and meeting new people who had so many experiences and interesting stories. There is so much out there to be felt and seen. I had only experienced the tip of the iceberg.

The world didn't feel small; but more accessible. As though anything was possible. You could go anywhere. It was easy traveling to a nearby country only a few hundred miles away. I truly realized this after mustering the courage to travel to Asia. I decided to go to Vietnam and China. One of my greatest adventures. Humbling and eye opening. Visiting two communist countries will alter your life.
I am currently working in Italy at the World Expo in Milan. 20 million people are expected to visit. I interact with 100s of people a day. I am missing home but I do not want to deny myself the experiences and opportunities still happening every day.
There is so much to see and learn out here. For the first time I have seen who I am. Learned who I want to be. I will continue to travel and learn right up till when I head home in two months.
Traveling is valuable. Few people will contest that. The value depends on you. Opportunities are more apparent now. Challenges less difficult. My values have become more meaningful.

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