Expat · Writing Memoir

Coming of Age through Travel

Journeys are the midwives of thought.  – Alain de Botton

In 2009 I packed my belongings into a barn-converted house in Northern Alabama, unsure of when I would return. After 9 months in Thailand, I sold my car to those Northern Alabamans, so I could go to Ecuador. It’s now the end of 2013. I’ve been back in Thailand, and I must say I have no intention of living in the United States again.

These days many people are using travel as their coming of age experience, that is to say, as their way of finding meaning and nourishment in life and living.  It feels like folks aren’t just looking up to one or two role models anymore, but instead turning to the world for knowledge.  We’re digging to China.

There is now a generation of nomads carving out their own growing-up/breaking free stories, many of which begin like, “I left a good job, and sold everything to travel” – and what’s interesting is this is often a difficult decision, and not necessarily one that society embraces or encourages. I mean for every world traveler (blogger)/expat, you can be sure there are many more citizens battling it out culturally and financially back home.

It used to be that heading to Europe for the summer or even enjoying a gap year was the extent of our American overseas travel experience. A box to check off, a done deed, and then we headed back into modern society as we knew it, to find a good job, house, husband and kids.

But we are the first generation to earn less than our parents did. We are “after the Boomers,” crushed by our own educational debt, nibbling on a steady minimum wage penny, and tuning out our nation’s crippling credit score. For these reasons, it’s become common to hear of a friend (or two) still living with his parents, or going back to live with his parents, and essentially delaying – social and financial independence.

Because of the circumstances we live in, I feel that coming of age, or growing up, doesn’t happen as it traditionally used to, or necessarily along with a house and 2.5 kids. Many of my Gen X cohorts have children, but many of them have chosen to have kids later in life, and many of my generation don’t have children at all. I use children as a modern day example of coming of age from childhood to adulthood because of the heavy responsibility of caring for a child. (I find raising children more of a milestone that forces change/growth than graduating, marriage, or a first job, but this is not to say those things are not important.)

This leads me to believe that we intuitively understand that we are not getting what we need from our previous sedentary lifestyle. I liken it to the settling of the Wild West in America, where a group of perceived crazies wanted a new beginning and adventure – different than what was the norm or expected. Although some of us living abroad are indeed out here for financial reasons. Many places afford a more comfortable living than can be had back in our passport country.

But beyond finances, there is the call to adventure (as Joseph Campbell referred to it), for the hero in each of us, the desire to reach out of our comfort fly zone, and take a chance on fortifying ourselves by finding just what is out there. Not unlike the 15th to 17th century explorers, driven to discover, whether for fame, fortune, trade, or Me-first reasons, we are a growing tribe dissatisfied with what feels like stagnation, lack of personal growth, and meaninglessness in the status quo.

The United States, I feel is well on its way to becoming a Monoculture Disneyland where it seems our cities and towns lose their identity for chain stores and strip malls. I remember driving through Southern California and feeling like everything looked the same. I miss “mom and pop stores” and unique businesses, not just visiting the next Wal-Mart or Olive Garden in the next city or state.

I think for those of us, who recognize this white plain existence, we’ve decided to pack our belongings in search of grittier, edgier, and messier. I can’t say it’s easy and sometimes it’s downright ordinary, but I like the resistance, the freedom, the friendships and the treasures I find along the way.

Some folks might see travel/nomadic/expat living as never growing up, the very opposite of coming of age, but then again, they probably aren’t the ones doing it.

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8 thoughts on “Coming of Age through Travel

  1. I have grabbed the rope swing and taking a giant running leap I am yelling Wheeeeee!!!

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  2. Never one for wanderlust, me. She who birthed me was a nomad, which made me a junior-nomad-in-tow, which probably explains my comfort in planting roots and leaving them planted (well, the “leaving them planted” in one spot is a bit of a stretch, but I used to be able to contain it to the five boroughs of the Big Apple).

    Hopefully, you’ll never completely come of age, and you’ll continue to globe trot and post pics and blog about so that we mere rooted mortals may live through you.

    Oh, and the United States asked me to give you a message: “We understand you need your space to grow and we miss you. Please write and let us know you’re doing okay.”

    It was signed, “Unsolicited Mama Bear.” The states said you’d know what that means.

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    1. Are you sure the United States didn’t talk to my mother?

      I’m actually not really much of a globe trotter. I like to visit, but then I like to come home. I enjoy nesting, being domestic and being comfortable. It just feels like there are a LOT of bloggers out there who have that “left a good job to travel story” and it got me thinking about how folks are looking for something new and nourishing. It probably helps that the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are looking for better answers.

      Oh and tell Mama Bear, I’m fine. Really. 🙂

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  3. I like how you compared it to the 15-17th cent explorers, I have described it to someone like this before, but I only got a blank stare. lol. I really enjoyed this post!

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    1. Haha, thanks! Yeah, I recently had to do research on explorers for my students, so all of that was fresh in my mind. Cheers 🙂

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  4. Love love love this! You share my sentiments exactly. Especially about the US becoming a monoculture. I love the States, and will always call myself an American proudly, but once you’ve seen how deep and satisfying it can be to live in a culturally identified place…it’s hard to go back. I lament our lack of a real heritage, and the fact that Wal-Mart and McD’s have become our identifiers. Ugh.

    I think many young people do realize how easy and accessible travel is, but I wonder how long this fad will last. I get worried sometimes about my own future – was my gap year just that, and will I find excuses to stay at home forever more? I want to move again, but will it really happen? Thoughts like that…you know.

    Our human history turns in stages, and we’ve past the Post War era and are now in the era of Globalization, Debt, Fast Living and Materialism. In the West, mostly, but it’s creeping South and East too. Those of us who realize it may just find our sanity by seeing a bit of the old world still alive and kicking, where good food and good friends is more important than riches.

    Well, no matter where we’re headed, I’m glad that we all have fellow travelers around the world – a shared community of adventure seekers.

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    1. It’s hard to know where we are headed, but I do believe that we will return to a state of balance. It feels inevitable. There are just too many things in “crisis” for us to continue on this path. I will remain optimistic, although we seem to have to dive into the dumpster before we decide to climb out…

      Here’s to the journey. Thanks for crossing paths and stopping by. See you around 😉

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