As we are now well into the 21st century, ideas of isolationism are as outdated as the rotary phone. Although xenophobia still clings to society like a rotting corpse, our success and happiness (and in some ways our very existence) now depend on pluralism and exposure to the life and ideas from faraway places. Not that there are any “faraway” places anymore, thanks to our planetary communications system (i.e. the Internet). The world is right there waiting for you to become acquainted with it. And since the economies of the world have become irrevocably intertwined, it is in the best interests of everyone to experience firsthand some of the societies coexisting outside our own national boundaries.
First, let us explore, explain, and cast out the negative aspects of this endeavor. Fear is a very large obstacle for many, however fear can be minimized with knowledge and by taking a few important steps. Social networking is perhaps the greatest resource for the traveler, as other expats and travelers create websites and Facebook pages dedicated to assisting each other. Open your web browser and search for nearly any city you are considering along with the word “expat” and you will find a few pages to connect you with people who are already living in that city. You will not be alone in your travels, unless you purposely try to be. The other negative is, of course, culture shock.
Culture shock is becoming a more ambiguous phrase with every international experience we read and write. We can find lists of symptoms of culture shock, and some of the items on these lists are absurd. For example, feeling sad, lonely, shy, insecure, vulnerable, lost, and/or confused are all listed as symptoms. Of course a person living in a culture quite different to the one they grew up in would feel these things, however I experienced all of these feelings when I moved from the Midwest to New York City for grad school. So these are not symptoms of culture shock as much as they are simply the feelings we might experience in moving to any new place. The so-called physical symptoms of culture shock also exist in a grey area, and if a person is experiencing headaches, allergies, insomnia (or its opposite), then that person should visit a doctor since all of these could be caused by a change in diet or factors in their physical environment. However, idealizing ones own culture, or becoming obsessed with the host-culture, or feeling homesickness, or questioning their decision to move in the first place… All of these are truly issues that most expats or travelers experience.
Again, obtaining as much prior knowledge as possible can help lessen these feelings, although most of these feelings are rather natural. Of course we are going to compare our birth-culture to our new host-culture, just as some will attempt to adapt to and fit-in and might become completely obsessed with their new society. And feeling homesickness and wondering what insanity made us move in the first place also are natural. However, the idea is to be as objective as possible in our comparisons, and in the things we miss. And like most things dealing with emotions and the human mind, there are useful tricks we can employ to help us.
Before you leave your home on your adventure, make 3 lists. On the first list, write down all the reasons why you are going in the first place. On the second list, relate everything you wish to accomplish while you are abroad. And on the third list, take your time and honestly write all the things you dislike about your home-country. Before leaving the US 4 years ago, I never made these lists, however once I began to experience rather poignant feelings of negativity towards the place where I now live, I wrote down all the reasons why I moved my family to a foreign land on the other side of the planet. This list contained all the aspects of the US I would change if I could, all the things I did not miss, all the problems I experienced in work and in society at-large. After making this list and consigning it to memory, whenever I would jump to criticize an aspect of my new home, this list would be right there for comparison.
And yes, at times I would decide that the US is quite more adept at certain things than this other society (building logical roadways and freeways is one that springs to mind), but all the other reasons for leaving the US were right there to temper my criticism. At other times, I would find my new home to be quite original and more thoughtful in their planning (widespread and inexpensive WiFi, for example).
So now that we have cleared away our fear and minimized our culture shock, that just leaves one important question to answer: Why? JFK once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” If we are to adapt to this new and ever-changing world, if we are to become positive contributors and participants rather than mere spectators or detractors, then we must first become one with the changes in the world, or become the change we wish to see in the world. Moving either temporarily or permanently to a new country might seem rather drastic, however that is our archaic conventionalities speaking. The idea that it is somehow pleasantly quaint to be born, live, and die in the same town is one now meant only for historical movies. Again, isolationism is a fetid swamp, a place where the poisons of xenophobia and nationalism are born, and nothing productive can come from such a swamp.
Our economic futures lie in the world market, and we must know the intricacies of this market in order to survive in it. There are obvious professions that can benefit from international experience, such as teaching, politics, marketing, manufacturing, banking, etc. However, there is also a benefit to be gleaned by people in positions where ties to the international community are not so easily visible. Varied experience is what drives innovation, and innovation is what is needed… or rather required in all fields.
And so it is time now to expand your borders and to expand your mind. Otherwise, you will be left behind by a worldwide society that mirrors the universe itself, by rapidly expanding and increasing in speed at every moment. Cast your fears and doubts aside, and search until you find that place that is in fact searching for you.
DS Peters earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, and obtained his BA from UW-Milwaukee. He writes speculative fiction, earthbound fiction, poetry, and odd bits of non-fiction. He is a traveler, and currently resides in South Korea where he works as a professor and observes human behavior.You can find him on his website DS Peters.
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