Friday, September 21, 2012

The Thirtieth Tale: Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist

Recently, my friend Kate asked me to contribute some quotes or my thoughts on traveling in order to help her give a presentation to a group of high school kids about traveling.  She informed me that most of the kids have never been outside Missouri, and she is trying to stimulate their interest in traveling. 

Originally, I was thinking of grabbing a few of my favorite quotes and jotting down some stories from my travels.  However, there's so much that encompasses all that I've been through within the past few years that I figured I'd share just a little bit of everything.  Now, I'll share it with you.  Here's my little unintended (slightly cheesy) op-ed.  Enjoy! :)

“Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.” 

When I went to Paris by myself for the first time, I was lost.  No, not just mentally, but physically-- I was lost at Charles DeGaulle Airport.  I was frantic, pouring sweat, carrying what seemed like 300 pounds of luggage while running like a rat through a maze of never-ending hallways.  And, I was about to cry.  

It seemed that the shuttle bus that I was told to take to my cousin’s apartment was no longer running after 10pm, and I had to take the R.E.R., or late night train.  I had never taken the subway before, and I had never been alone in a strange city at night by myself halfway across the world without an easily accessible cell phone.

Suddenly, a group of giggling girls appeared from behind the corner, and I distinctly recognized an American voice. I leapt at the opportunity to ask for help.

“Hey, so sorry, you wouldn’t happen to know where the late night train is?”, I asked.

“Oh girl, we sure do--we just came from there.  It’s just down that way, keep goin’! It’s so easy and the people are so nice.  Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.”  The girl smiled, the brightest, most wonderful smile I had ever seen.

“Thank you so, SO much,” I said.  “Where are you from?”

“St. Louis, Missouri.”  She replied.

For me, that felt like divine intervention.  I eventually found that train, and even made it to my destination with a lot of help from others.  Since that time, I have been pick-pocketed in Italy, had bedbugs and broken my arm in Korea, almost been thrown up on in a plane by an anciently old German man on the way to Greece, gotten lost in Japan and in scary neighborhoods in England, had a roommate who snorted his boogers on my shampoo in Spain, and cried in just about every country.
Needless to say, as someone who has traveled and lived in eight different countries, there have been numerous challenges.  There have been many, many times where I felt homesick and lonely and culturally isolated and horribly miserable, but through everything, I have survived.
Not only have I survived, I  have LIVED.  I have lived through the generosity of the people I have met; through the profound kindness of strangers, and also through learning how to trust myself when things simply don’t feel right.  

        Sometimes, I am sitting around doing something (or nothing) and it just hits me: the life I have lived so far has been amazing.  Absolutely, fantastically amazing.  It may sound a little like conceit, but I am so proud of myself for getting through these challenges and learning, through them, how to be independent and truly care for myself.

When I think about my life so far, I am often reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies, “Good Will Hunting”.  In the movie, Robin Williams plays a therapist who is upset by something that his patient, an orphan and an abuse victim named Will Hunting, says to him.  He says, “I thought about what you said to me the other night, about my painting.  I stayed up half the night thinking about it.  Then something occurred to me, and I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep and I haven’t thought about you since.  You know what occurred to me? You’re just a’ve never been out of Boston...if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on just about every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him...but I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in The Sistine Chapel; you’ve never actually stood up and looked at that beautiful ceiling, seen that.  If I asked you about women, you’d probably give me a silver sea of your personal favorites...but you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.”
Traveling and living abroad is like that.  You can look at pictures and read books about places and imagine what they might be like, but until you experience them, the amazing things along with the bad, you have no idea what they’re truly like.  

        Even I can’t tell you exactly, but this is what I can say about my own experience: I am so grateful that I have seen the sparkly sapphire blue mediterranean and felt the white stones tickle my sensitive feet in Greece.  I can’t believe that I discovered a gorgeous, yet isolated temple at the steps of a mountain which seemed to lead directly to the sky on a cold, grey day in South Korea.  I am amazed that I tasted real, greasy and wonderful Spanish tapas and wandered the crowded, drunken streets at 3 AM in Spain.  I was honored to teach students from all over the world in England and learn from them about their countries, their experiences; to hear the passion or disgust in each of their voices about things I never, ever knew or could have imagined being or happening in this world.  

         I am a traveler, not a tourist.  When living in a different country, I have the responsibility of being an ambassador for my own culture every day.  Every day, I learn something new about the culture I live in and the people whom I meet.  Yes, I may be an English teacher, but the people I meet along the way are the real teachers.

Don’t trust me?  Fair enough.  Find out for yourself.  Or, better yet, find yourself.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Twenty-Ninth Tale: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Hey all,

Welp, this blog's been a' brewin' for quite some time!  After having been so neglectful of this blog for so long, I have had a recurring theme present itself lately that I feel needs attention from the world.  Usually, if more than one person asks me about a certain subject or it's something I've been discussing a lot, I feel the need to draw attention to it.  So, here goes.

As many of you know, I've been traveling and teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) these past few years (I started my journey in 2008, with stints back and forth in the U.S.).  I have had the opportunity to talk with many people on the subject of teaching and traveling, both those who have the desire to do so, and those who are already doing it.  Something I have discussed with both of these groups of people is the length of time one "should" stay abroad.   Many of the people who teach ESL (like myself) start doing it primarily as a means to an end, simply a way to travel; most of the people I speak with express a desire to return to their home countries at some point or another.  The interesting thing is that there are many, many people who end up really enjoying some aspect of this kind of work, whether it's the kind of lifestyle it affords, the cultural experiences, or teaching itself.

Due to this unexpected phenomenon, an existential question seems to arise: even when people end up really loving this kind of work and are perfectly happy being here (or in whichever country they work),  why do many of us feel we must at some point return home in order to start our 'real' lives; and, what does a "real life" mean to us, anyway?  Is the kind of a life we have envisioned for ourselves possible without returning to our home countries? It seems that in addition to many other expectations we have set for ourselves, we often believe that we must give up the things that bring us joy in the moment in exchange for what we feel is a more 'adult' lifestyle. I tell you what, though- I am CERTAINLY not mocking this notion; I have had the same expectations for myself at one point.  The thing is, it's a persistent question that we travelers/expats face.

Okay, let me just pause here briefly to explain what I am thinking of as a 'traditional' life path; please correct me if you think I'm wrong.  It may look a little something like this:

1) Go to Kindergarten/Elementary/High School, hit puberty and deal with adolescence
2) Go to University
3) Get higher education degree (optional or can be exchanged with #4)
4) Get a steady career 
5) Meet someone, get married (can be exchanged with #s 3 and/or 4) 
6) Have babies, experience parenthood
7) Retire from working
8) Die

I can understand how people in the states or other home countries could see traveling and teaching as an impediment to a traditional lifestyle, and there is some truth to that.  After all, as I mentioned before, many of the people who leave their host countries embark on the journeys to seek challenges and adventure.  There are many challenges in living apart from one's home culture, whether it be the inability to create and/or maintain social relationships, deal with legal bureaucracy, adapt culturally, or the main one--being away from friends and the family unit back home.  I can see from an outsider's perspective that it may seem damn near impossible to follow a more 'traditional' life path here.  I'll tell you what, though; I am here to debunk the myths that the things we expect from a 'traditional' lifestyle aren't possible whilst living/working abroad; that we can still follow what we think of as a 'real' life here, if we are only willing to accept these challenges.  

Here are my thoughts on each myth:

Myth #1: Teaching English as a Second Language isn't a steady career.

The majority of those who travel would go abroad before step 3 or 4 on the life road-map above, mainly because in most countries, even having temporary work requires some kind of college degree.  This is the point before you are supposed to find a steady career, before you decide what you want to do with the rest of your life.  So, what happens if you find you love teaching ESL, and you happen to love teaching it in another country?  Many people still don't take this profession seriously.  For me, it wasn't until I accepted the fact that I loved teaching English that I realized I want to do this for a living, and that it is perfectly possible to do so.  It may not be the "steadiest" of careers in terms of the physical workplace; depending upon the type of institutions you work for you may work on contract from year-to-year.  However, in terms of a profession itself, English is still the "international language", and there is still a growing need for teachers in the world at the moment.  Also, you can do it almost anywhere in the world, and enjoy good benefits while you're at it.  I'm not sure if it will always be this way, but it's about as stable as any career out there at the moment (and more considering the amount of countries you can work in).

Myth #2: You can't have a serious relationship abroad.

I really believe this depends on your own personal attitude.  Okay, so I haven't had a serious relationship while abroad, it's true.  Still, I can't say my prospects of having one at home were much better!  All I can say is that if you're willing to accept cultural differences, it's quite possible you can meet someone from the host culture.  If not, there are still foreigners abroad.  While it is true that you would be operating within a smaller pool, that doesn't mean it can't happen for you.  I have personally known a lot of people who've hooked up over here.  It really depends on timing and meeting the right person; I have no magic formula to achieve that!

Myth #3: You can't have babies and be a parent here.

Au contraire, mon frère.  I have several friends who have had babies/are parents here.  Imagine being able to raise your kids to learn two languages, and to have an international/multi-cultural lifestyle?  Sounds like a wonderful, advantageous opportunity to me for any child.  Of course, like always, there are challenges, but it's definitely possible.

The main challenge that I have personally with the idea of staying abroad forever, and that many others have, is being away from my family and close friends.  I am not going to lie--it is very hard at times. That's the only challenge that may bring me back to my home country at some point, I believe.  Yet, no matter where you go, there is the possibility to build up a community; that's one of the beautiful things about life.  You just have to stay open.

So...for those of you dealing with the question at hand, "should I stay or should I go?", my advice is this:  ask yourself if you are happy where you are.  Are you doing something that makes you feel fulfilled?  Are you generally happy with most aspects of your life where you are?  If the answer to either of these is no, seek more truth, whether it's inside yourself or out.  

That's all for now.

Much <3,