Today marks the 3rd-year anniversary of our big move from Cape Town, South Africa. We’ve lived out a number of exciting and unique experiences over the past few years that include travel a number of cities and villages of Thailand, working in the China, travelling to Savvannakhet, Laos and Penang, Malaysia as well teaching English to some of the most adorable children in Asia. We’ve made memories that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.
This adventure has been incredibly fun, but it has also taught me a number of invaluable life lessons: lessons that have opened my mind and my heart; lessons that have changed me; lessons that I’m quite certain I would have never learned in my home country. Conveying all of them would require me to write a book, but for time’s sake, I’ve decided to include the most valuable of the lot:
How to deal with anything
I’ve thought of myself as a well-adjusted person, but moving abroad definitely pushed that to its limits. Is this a positive thing? You bet it is! Learning to “be okay with anything” while preserving your core set of values is a fine line to walk, but perfecting that balance is a great life skill to improve upon.
Whether it’s smiling through bites of extreme spicy food or bizarre-looking sea creature that you are served for dinner, or learning to remain calm the first time a giant flying cockroach decides to move in to your room, or having to communicate your clogged toilet to your landlord via charades, the best route is always just to be okay with it. While many things you encounter may be scary, different, or just plain bizarre, that’s something to celebrate! I am thankful for all my strange experiences in life because they equip me to better deal with future strange experiences, and they make really great stories along the way.
What’s really important
In learning to be okay with anything, you quickly learn what’s really important to you. Getting over my ‘type-A’ tendencies has been one of my favorite ways that I’ve changed since moving to Asia. Stores don’t sell my favorite brand of shampoo? This should surprise absolutely no one, and who on earth cares, because it’s not really important. I’ve learned to be thankful that I HAVE shampoo, and also hot water coming from all my taps (in my new apartment at least). And although it almost goes without saying, I’ve also learned the value of relationships. Native-speaking friends that will go with me do mundane tasks, students who recognize when I need a hug, and a manager who understands that sometimes life as foreigner in Thailand isn’t always easy. And even though they don’t sell my favorite kind of deodorant in Thailand, there’s always that friend who laughs and says here, try this it smells like coconut!
How much amazingly delicious food there is in the world
In my two and half years living in Thailand, I have maybe eaten more delicious food that I have in the rest of my life COMBINED. If the stereotype is that Asian life revolves around food, then I’m totally on board with that stereotype, and for good reason: the food here is better than anywhere else on earth that I’ve lived and travelled. And I’m not just talking about the dumplings and fried rice. Phuket has better western food than I’ve had IN THE WEST. The food here is in fact so good and cheap that there is literally only one thing I miss from home and that is horse racing. Yes, literally everything else is available in Thailand and it’s probably the best version of that thing you’ve ever had. I’m not talking fancy food either. Some of the best food in the whole country comes from little food carts in night markets or random shops tucked into quiet allies. And the best part is that Phuket is one of the most walking friendly cities I’ve been to, so those delectable, very affordable eats never even make it to your waistline.
How to befriend anyone
Before I moved abroad, I had a very small group of friends. Not great on making new friend or even having very close friends. When you move abroad, you’re thrown head first into a place where you are instantly bonded with a group of people who have one thing in common with you…they’re all foreigners too. This group inevitably contains people from all over the world, from all walks of life, all with different stories to tell. Many of the friends I’ve made in Thailand are the kind of people I never would have met or even been interested in meeting back home, and this has made my life here incredibly rich and diverse in a way that I never could have imagined. In learning to find ways to relate to such a diverse group of people, I’ve realized how easy and wonderful it is to make new friends. It’s not a scary ‘letting someone into our group’ type of situation when you realize how interesting everyone can be, and how much they can teach you and make you a better person. Learning to befriend anyone has been the single best lesson living abroad as a foreigner has taught me!
How important independence is
Independence is wonderful, but I’ve learned that strength can also come from the willingness to recognize where the boundaries of my ability lie. And these boundaries, of course, are not absolute. For every situation where help is required, I’ve learned something. I’ve learned what to say to the landlord the next time the toilet is clogged, learned how to order that particular dish in Thai, and learned where to go next time my phone bill is late. Learning to ask for help has ultimately made me a more knowledgeable and independent person, and when the next generation of newbies arrive in my beloved adopted country, that will be my time to pay it forward!
I’ve never been busier in my life since moving to Thailand, which is a choice I make simply because there’s so much to do and see here. Never has my life so embodied the idea of ‘work hard, play hard!’ I’ve learned that the days can be infinitely long if you use your time wisely. On any given day after working full time and tutoring extra, there’s still running to do, movies to catch, dinners to attend, parties to stop by, lessons to plan, and of course always time for a drink at my favorite local bar. All of things I could have done in my home country, but the fact is that I didn’t. Living abroad gives me a certain energy that I never back at home. Perhaps that comes from the subtle realization of the passing of time when you’re time in a place is limited, or maybe it’s because it seems like my city never sleeps so neither should I! Either way, I’ve become great at managing time and living each day to fullest.
Learning to ask for help
I’ve always enjoyed my freedom, independence and I absolutely love helping others and being the go-to person when there’s a problem to be solved. However, asking FOR help was always something I avoided. Moving to a country where I spoke two words of the language changed everything. (I know how to say hello, Sawasdee, and Thank you, Khop kun kap. Useful, eh?) To order food at a restaurant, I first had to ask someone how, memorize, and repeat. To find an apartment, I was totally reliant on others giving up their free time to help me. Buying a simcard, airtime or paying rent or calling the landlord for repairs, things I’d never thought twice about, were suddenly ask favors from my friends.
That me and you have plenty to offer other people
One day I met this dude. We didn’t have much in common, but we got talking on the beach about where I am from and life in general and as our conversation carried on, I recognized that this guy had something to say. I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t recall his name and I probably wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a crowd, but I’ll never forget what he told me: “It’s our job to help others to realize their greatest potentials. Because if we don’t do it, who will?” I only had the pleasure of chatting with this guy for may be a hour, but a year later, I remember his words as clear as day.
An open mind is essential for growth. I was never aware of how naive I was about the world until I dived into it, inhibition-less and wide-eyed. Having grown up in an ultraconservative homogeneous community, my exposure to the world was limited. I took everything I learned from my parents, my friends, my teachers and even the news at face value, never once questioning their logic’s validity and failing entirely to think for myself. It didn’t take long after my move for me to realize that everything I had learned my entire life was all relative and that in order to grow, I had to challenge my own thoughts and beliefs.
Most importantly, I’ve recognized that just because a culture does something differently, it doesn’t make its people inferior or repulsive or backwards. In fact, diversity is what makes our world such a beautiful place to live, explore and discover.
The universe opens up doors (and windows and gates) when we put ourselves out there. Traveling isn’t just about seeing landmarks, flirting with the locals and sampling regional cuisine. (Though, don’t get me wrong, those are all added bonuses.) Traveling is about the people we meet, the experiences we encounter and the misfortunes we overcome. It’s about the lessons we learn from others, about life and about ourselves. The world is our classroom; travel teaches us more than we could ever expect to learn in the comfort of our homes. We just have to be ready and willing to let it happen.