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.