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The Potential of Time Abroad. . .

Eurocentric, sure.  But it's nevertheless a neat illustration to include with this post.

While time spent living abroad -- not as a short term tourist but as a long term resident -- does not necessarily make one a more stylish person in the classic sense, it can't hurt.  At the very least, time studying, working, and living in another part of our still, in some ways at least, vast globe OUGHT to provide a broader perspective about oneself and the world.

Time spent living elsewhere, Norway in my case, provided me with a different view of US society, as well as a more realistic, somewhat less idealized version of Scandinavian society and culture. More important, after a year away I was able to perceive the more favorable aspects of my home culture as well as its less than savory features in ways that I had not noticed before.  While there is much that is admirable about the United States -- our fabled can-do attitude for one -- relative to much of the rest of the world, many of our priorities and attitudes seem horribly out of step with regard to empathy, humaneness, and general quality of life in my view.  Lots of people reading this will take issue with that point, but there we are.

As a middle-aged, college-level educator, I’ve noticed an interesting and somewhat troubling trend among many undergrads lucky enough to spend a semester or year abroad “studying.” For too many of them, it’s 6-10 months of party time and the like with other young Americans.  Listening to their accounts after the fact, there seems to be little interaction with the natives outside of classes/lectures and a lingering unwillingness on the part of many to consider that maybe The United States does not have a monopoly on the best of everything.

Invariably, Mom and Dad appear after a few months a couple of times during the academic year for everyone to travel around together in a cocoon of hometown clad in Northface or Patagonia, which does not seem to promote part of what study abroad is intended to achieve: linguistic proficiency, self- and cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity, thinking on one’s feet, and becoming a more independent and capable adult better positioned to function in and successfully navigate the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.  Quite a few young Americans can’t seem to handle being responsible for themselves in another country and are home again after a few weeks, citing all sorts of external reasons for their crash and burn besides the most obvious.   I’ve seen that a few times too.

Sure, there might be classes in the target language with other non-natives, field trips to culturally significant sites, and maybe some "intercultural exchange" with a temporary boyfriend or girlfriend to stave off loneliness, but there seems to be little interaction with the target culture beyond the confines of the host institution.  It's very like a vacation in Cancun or Cozumel, which are not really Mexico but rather shopping malls with some beach lined by dive bars.  In view of this peculiar approach, it seems like time abroad and the terrific potential it has to offer is nevertheless lost on a lot of people regardless of age or life stage.

As for adults who decide to set up shop in another country, I'm not certain if people envision emulating people like Hemingway, Henry Miller, or Anaïs Nin on the left bank, Diane Lane’s character in Under the Tuscan Sun, or The Durrells in Corfu but once the initial romance of living abroad wears off, daily life is rather different.  Intending to write The Great American Novel that will sell millions of copies in a short time and be on the New York Times' Bestseller List for two or three years once your container of household goods arrives from the U.S. is fine.  Eventually, however, you've got to establish a routine for the more mundane day-to-day tasks.  

Likewise, I’m not really sure how much personal insight into and  learning about oneself actually takes place beyond the usual cliches like “There’s good bars there” (grammatical error intended) or “The people were really snooty and don’t like Americans."

On that second note, we Americans seem to have difficulty in cultures and societies where people are generally more reserved and less in your face than here at home where everyone knows everyone else's business, sharing the most intimate of details, a mere five seconds after meeting for the first time.  Know what I mean?  That's a bit of intended overstatement, but you take the point I hope.  My goodness.  Let's leave something for later people.  It's worth considering that maybe that charming young woman behind the concierge desk at The Hilton, The Marriott, or The Radisson in virtually any foreign capital is not necessarily interested in hearing your entire life's story in two minutes as you adjust your backwards baseball cap while she changes your Dollars for Euros.  She might just be too polite to say it.  "Step off, George!  Just Step off!"

 Tony The Mimbo, one of George Costanza's many infatuations from the 1990s TV series Seinfeld, which besides being very funny and well written had quite a few penetrating insights about people.

In addition, it strikes me that some -- though certainly by no means all -- who venture overseas with the intended purpose of establishing a life somewhere outside their home culture are looking for something that they could just as easily find at home if they opened their eyes.  And without the expense and personal upheaval of journeying halfway around the globe.  Others might also be running from something in themselves.  Perhaps both?  Of course, one’s problems do tend to catch up somewhere down the road even when we feel we have successfully evaded the issue(s) for the present.  Changing physical locations might work for a while, but it rarely solves things in the longer term.  The problems, whatever those might be, always find you in the end.  

Been there, done that in a younger, less informed life.  

To wrap up today's latest long-winded pronouncement on how others should live their lives, though I still believe there is something to the various points I make here, an extended period living abroad as a resident rather than a short term tourist can be an amazing, eye-opening, personally enriching, and life-altering experience.  If the opportunity to establish residency in another country presents itself -- whether for study, work, or pleasure -- consider it by all means.  But be well aware that living as a resident elsewhere is not without its challenges and might not be the best choice for everyone.  

As my brassy old mother, who lived in Mexico for 18 years before returning to the U.S. in 2018 observed not too long ago, “How many more times after your first year of living there do you want to watch the spring breakers and other tourists cavort to the incessant beat of a drum circle in the zocalo?” 

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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