Since being back in the US I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to people what I’ve been up to for the past four years. This entails me listing off the places I’ve lived while trying not to sound like I’m bragging (I’m not, I promise!) and then usually launches into a discussion of how I afforded it, what my favorite places were, and what I’m doing in Kentucky.
Reliving these experiences while settling back into what is considered a normal American life has gotten me thinking about what I’ve gained from the last four years, and how these experiences have shaped me as a person. There is no doubt, I am a very different person than I was when I first moved abroad in January 2009.
Throughout college I suffered from depression and anxiety, something I don’t often talk about on the blog, and in the months leading up my departure for Rome I was having very frequent anxiety atacks. I always say that Rome saved me and in a lot of ways it did. Living in a foreign country forced me to change a lot of things about myself, and the ways in which I thought about things, in order to do day to day things.
My journey since then- from living in Korea, traveling around Southeast Asia, and getting my Master’s degree in London- has continued this personal journey, each place presenting its own set of challenges that has allowed to grow into a happier, more confident person.
I’m still working on of things, including my chronic low level anxiety, but here are some of the ways traveling the world has changed me.
I am more laid back
I spent a large part of my life constantly on edge. I planned every single little detail of things and if something deviated from the plan I would feel sad, mad, or anxious. I hated when people canceled plans. I hated when things didn’t go my way. I built up expectations for things and then when they weren’t met I felt disappointed. As you can imagine, this isn’t a fun way to live. In fact, it was probably a key contributor to my depression and anxiety struggles.
Living abroad, especially in Korea where I couldn’t speak the language at all, forced me to loosen my grip on the world around me. I couldn’t communicate basic needs or wants. My job was a cluster where things were cancelled, changed, or added at the last minute. In order to be happy I learned to just accept what I was given or what I needed to do. I soon realized that life was a lot more fun like that.
I didn’t need to plan everything. A trip was okay if I didn’t see every sight. If I ate at a restaurant I didn’t really feel like going to, I would most likely still enjoy my dinner. When I didn’t have really high expectations for people or places, I was more likely to find the little things that made them special.
I judge less
It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I used to be really judgmental. About a lot of things. I would judge people’s choice of clothes or hairstyle. I would judge people if I thought they were getting married too young or too fast, if they didn’t go to college, if they liked . One day a few years ago I thought about the life decisions I’d made, particularly the decision to live abroad and travel rather than stay in the United States and work toward a more traditional career path. This was met with a lot of questions and some pushback from people I knew. I thought to myself, “But if it makes me happy and doesn’t effect you, then what’s wrong with it?”
Proverbial light bulb.
If people want to get married at 18 or wear clothes I don’t like or only eat chicken because it makes them happy then who I am to judge?
I am constantly restless
While travel has changed me mostly for the positive, there is one negative: I can’t sit still. Even though I spent a lot of the last few years living abroad and not constantly traveling, I still spent a lot of time exploring new places. While living in London and Rome it was easy to take weekend trips in country or around Europe, and in Korea I spent a lot of time exploring other Korean cities when I had the time. I’ve been in Louisville now for 2 months and it’s the longest I’ve gone without traveling in years. When I spend a lot of time in one place I feel stifled and trapped. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be able to live in the constraints of 10 vacation days a year.
I care less about what others think about me
Do you know how exhausting it is to always worry that someone is judging you? Really fucking exhausting. Until my early 20s I was constantly worried about what people were thinking about me. Will that person on the street who doesn’t know me notice that I’ve doubled back two times because I’m lost and think I’m stupid? Does that stranger who I will never see again think these shoes are ugly? Does the waitress think I have no friends because I’m eating lunch alone?
I’ve learned that most people really don’t give a shit about you. In the best possible way of course. Most people in the world are friendly. People on the street will give you directions if you ask and not think you’re stupid and other hostel guests won’t think you’re a huge loser because you’re alone. Basically, I had to get over myself to realize everyone else never cared that much.
I am resilient
For most of my change crippled me. Anything from the change of a school year to the change of seasons caused me to become upset. When I moved back from Italy after being an au pair I was incredibly unhappy. I lived in Philadelphia, had no friends, and worked a job I hated. I couldn’t deal. I cried constantly. But I did nothing to really change my situation.
I then moved to Korea alone and started teaching, something I’d never done. I was scared, but I realized that I had the power to determine if I could make it. My trip in Southeast Asia had me constantly moving. I think the longest I stayed anywhere was 5 nights in Pai. This involved getting to know new cities, learning words of a new language, sleeping in a new bed, and meeting new people. I found out that I actually thrive in these kinds of situations. While they might be scary at first there is something rewarding about powering through, making the best of it, and finding it enjoyable.
Now, drop me off anywhere and I can feel at home in a few days. I didn’t want to move to Louisville and I thought it would be hard. But because I know I can survive anything I went into this with the right attitude and I’ve thrived. Thank you, travel.
How has travel changed you?