Honoring the dead: Gin Salat, Lamphun, Thailand, 2012

My friend, who is somewhat newly moved to Thailand, was reflecting on what it’s like to be an expat: the culture shock, and then the struggle of not wanting to complain and feel culture shocked. As I walked to work, I thought about how much I had changed since living abroad.

You become aware of other ways of doing things – that work. When we live in our own country, we can’t help but believe that things operate a particular way, and when we discover that they don’t? Oh, dear. We suddenly become aware of our own culture, and we learn how flexible or inflexible our minds can be.

You can exist in a completely different world with different rules. I swear, being an expat sometimes feels like you’ve been transported onto a different planet. Not only are the way of doing things different than what you know, you can get used to it. I’m not saying you have to like it or agree with it, but you do learn new rules to the game.

Kids driving the boat: Kampong Khleang, Cambodia, 2016

You become much more aware of how many people there are leading normal lives. I remember one of my Cambodian coworkers suddenly saying, “Not all Cambodians are poor!” And when I asked why he was saying this, seemingly talking to his computer, he explained, “I’m tired of seeing photos of poor Cambodians.” Good point. Reminded me of the time I saw a group of tourists crowding around a boy in a field with his buffaloes. I suppose everyone was going for that “NatGeo” photograph.

But once you travel outside your little bubble, you can discover a middle class in countries typically portrayed as “third world”. In fact, I’m willing to wager many are mildly shocked to discover this or fail to recognize it.

Sometimes we just gotta get out of our own world… Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011
Phayao, Thailand, 2013

When you live in your own country you think of it as the center of the universe, and when you live in another country, you realize this the center of the universe for all these other people. For this reason, I think reading or watching the news leaves a lot to be desired. It’s easy to crop and highlight an event without getting into the complexity of the story. Three second sound bites can’t really do justice to world events; censorship is also commonplace in many countries around the world. And for most the us, everyone is doing the same thing you’re probably doing: going to work, paying the bills, cooking, cleaning, and spending time with family and friends.

Hey, I can appreciate his beautiful vintage truck as much as he does, right? Cuenca, Ecuador, 2010

After I left the US, I realized how much I had taken for granted. Growing up, I was taught to question authority and challenge my government. But I was also keenly aware that I was receiving college financial aid from the US government because my father died while still serving in the military. My family and I enjoyed free to low-cost medical benefits, too, thanks to the Veterans Association. As a result, this presented two sides of my government to me.

Visiting Dad at Punchbowl Cemetery, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2015

Then I moved abroad and experienced other forms of governments. This widened my telescope on what people endure around the world. It put my own country in perspective. Ironically, I left to escape America’s dead end politics, but I see it differently now. This isn’t to say we’re become best friends, but I appreciate the opportunities my country has given me, and continues to give me now. What can I say? It’s complicated.

You might discover that you fit in better someplace else. I love being part of an international community. Despite the challenges of being an expat, making friends from around the world is worth it. I never felt as though I belonged in America, so I embraced this, and left to join the band of outsiders around the world.

Collage from celebrating 7 years abroad in 2016. You do the math for this year! 😛


Has living abroad or travel changed you?

22 replies on “How has living abroad changed you?

  1. It sounds like you have a broad perspective on things, Lani. ‘when you live in another country, you realize this the center of the universe for all these other people’ That makes you realise that your world isn’t entirely THE world and your world certainly isn’t everyone’s world. For me, it’s hard to define ‘living abroad’ since I’ve lived in Australia and parts of Asia throughout my life. Right now Australia is my base, but it hasn’t been and definitely wasn’t for a long time.

    I’ve never felt like I’ve fit in, be it in the international group or the local communities. Making friends has always been hard for me, and I think that’s partly because of my introverted personality. Living in different cities and countries, it’s quite interesting to note that you tend to obey the law and local practices almost right away when you discover them. It helps with blending in and it helps with looking less like a sore thumb.


    1. Yes, good point. There’s this idea of “going native” or “turning local” in an effort to blend in. I’ve seen this in Hawaii many times over. And when I visited NYC, I was told not to look up at the tall buildings because it made me look like a tourist, but I didn’t care, they were so so tall! Another friend told me to wear black so that I’d blend in 😛

      One of the reasons why being an expat works for us is because it’s easy to make friends when you are part of an outsider group. You naturally run into the same folks, meet other people who are from the same area, I mean, I’ve had people ask me if I know so-and-so because he’s also from Hawaii, that kind of thing. Expats recycle home goods, and pass along important information, there’s forums and groups, and many situations where you’re thrown together where you can start talking and commiserating like waiting at Immigration!

      On the other hand, being back home, I find making friends much more challenging. You either meet them at work or knew them from high school. Folks are more leery of strangers striking up a conversation these days. You can meet friends of friends, but I think you really have to make an effort – and most people will think you’re desperate or crazy. Or, let’s face it, on their phones anyway. No wonder there’s online dating!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is true that making friends is harder if you aren’t part of a certain group or have nothing in common with those around you. People like similarity a lot as that often means knowing what to expect from the other person or group, comfort.


  2. Living in a different country and culture definitely changes us…we learn to accept many things as part of life. Asian culture is so different that it might scare some people away but there are other attractions, which are new. Only by living amongst different people do we really learn to blend into their culture, which may seem strange in the beginning.
    We have to embrace the place as it is, only then can we be happy in new surroundings but it takes time to get used to a place that is drastically different from where you grow up. You seem to have adjusted quite well Lani. Stay blessed!


    1. I believe the “accepting” ebbs and flows. Sometimes you feel like you’re really hit your stride, while others, you are agitated by everything all over again. I notice this within myself and with other expats; funnily, they get all nostalgic when they are getting ready to leave. But I think that is part of the accepting, too.

      The most drastically different a place is for you, the more it will have a lasting impact on you. And of course, time plays a big part in the change.

      Thanks for the insights, Balroop! Always the poet 😉


  3. Wow. Just…I can’t even pick a favorite part to talk about because you brought up so many good points. I think my favorite was how we all think our country is the center of the universe. I was reading an article about Americans and how we think other countries think about us all the time, because we’re supposedly so influential on the global political scale. But honestly, most people don’t think about America at all. They think about their own lives, taking place in their own countries. Their own stories. It was the same when I lived in Korea. I heard about Trump here and there in passing, the same way I heard about North Korea in America; in bits and pieces. But the majority of the time, what was trending in America didn’t really matter to the Korean average citizen. News falsely leads us to believe that so many things matter globally…when often, they don’t.

    Aghhhh! I just can’t pick what I love most about this post! Great job!


    1. Hey, thanks! I’m glad the post made sense to you. Yeah, Americans. Hahahaha. We all have outdated views of how we are perceived and what is perceived for sure. When Trump was elected most people seemed amused, as in, “you finally got a crazy leader, too; welcome to the club”. And as you say, they don’t really care! I mean, my students care more about Selena Gomez and Justin Beiber or who Taylor Swift is dating than they do politics!

      But at the end of the day, we all are trying to survive and thrive. Speaking of, I’ve got to go teach 😛 Besos!


  4. The longer I live overseas, the more I believe there are two kinds of people in the world: 1) those who love where they’re from and want to stay there forever and would never consider moving anywhere else; and 2) those who just want to live somewhere else, for reasons they themselves don’t totally understand, regardless of the circumstances at home. (Of course, these two groups exclude the huge majority of people in the world who have no choice whatsoever where they live, because of poverty or other circumstances.)

    I fall into the second category and I guess you do too. I also never really felt comfortable “at home” and feel so much more myself now that I live in another place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there is a big difference between a person who voluntarily migrate to another place for greener pastures and a person who is unfairly or cruelly pushed to seek a home in another place through no fault of hers or his.
      I think it is up to every individual to feel at home wherever he or she is or find out where he or she would feel most comfortable and happy living in.
      Travelling can be fun but at the same time it can be unpleasant, exhausting and stressful. Experiencing different cultures can be an interesting experience but I think ultimately, many of us would very much prefer living long term in a similar culture that shares our values.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think Heather was talking about extreme circumstances or people under duress. In any case, there are negative expat and traveling experiences, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to write about, as well. There are both sides, for sure.


    2. It’s interesting when I’m in the classroom, I’m confronted with those two kinds of people, too! And I’m always surprised by the folks who don’t want to leave their home, who don’t want to go anywhere new, but then I put myself in their shoes and I understand.

      As for you, I feel like you really have found your place, and truly thrive in South Africa!


  5. Great post, Lani! When you said living abroad made you realize how much you took for granted, I can relate. Moving to China made me realize all the hardship that my friends have to endure to even get a tourist visa to the US, much less move here. Most of them couldn’t even afford a plane ticket; and doing something like backpacking around the world was out of the question. It made me realize how the passport I held in my hand–the mere circumstance of where I was born–gave me so much privilege and power that I was oblivious to. Just by having an American passport I have a wealth of freedom and privilege that most people in the world will never have access to.

    At the same time, in Japan I realized that America (my home country) was not the center of the world. I also realized that there is no ‘best’ country. America brainwashed me well and made me think we really were the best country on Earth–but living abroad made me realize it’s all a matter of perspective.

    I relate to you. I get along better with international expats. I feel more at home and alive when I’m in Asia than in the USA. I hate people that say living abroad is just running away. It’s not. Some of us are better suited for it.

    Anyway, my comment is super long, haha, sorry! It’s cause you wrote on such a great topic! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, thanks, girrrrrl.

      And YES! I was totally ignorant of how lucky we are to have an American passport. The Thai gov’t is afraid of their people going to the US and never returning. SUCH a huge pain the the A to get a visa. Even my friends who were married were rejected in the visa process.

      And my friend who’s from South Africa, well, she gets treated differently, too! She had to take the IELTS test to say she’s qualified to teach English, after years of teaching English and she’s a native speaker. Hilarious. Going through immigration is also interesting for her, as well, with the amount of ignorance that abounds.

      I, too, find the “living abroad is running away” thing insulting. And what if it is? Who cares? We’re lucky to have the freedom to do so. ‘Nuff said. 😛


  6. The mention of the tourists taking pictures of the boy with the buffaloes reminds me of an idea many people still have of China: rice paddies and people with cone hats. In my previous job, when some colleagues from Spain came to visit the Suzhou plant, they were amazed: “I wasn’t expecting the city to be so modern and with so many tall buildings”. It seems their stereotypes of China got stuck in the 70s! But, let’s be honest, children with buffaloes make for a prettier image than suited up people leaving the office, I guess xD


  7. Great points here…. I like when wou mentioned that living abroad “You might find you fit better somewhere else”. It seems to be very conclusive reason. Many times people feel as if they had recovered some sort of inner (lost) freedom when they move to other country. However, the culture shock and , in many cases, the language bareer could be hard to sort out … especially at the beginning I guess.
    An enlightening post… Thank you Lanni. Love & best wishes 🙂 ❤


  8. Being an expat broadens your understanding of the world, and at the same time, for some of us, it made us part of a small, rather close-knit community: a friendly community of expats. The people I lived with were from all over the world. But no matter where we all came from, in a way we had more in common with each other than we did with the host country nationals. They were our friends, but they also had family dinners to attend, and old school chums to visit. We cared about the host country, but not with the same feeling of ownership that they did. No matter how much we understood, enjoyed, and appreciated the culture, we were still expats. I enjoyed living abroad, and I also enjoy living in my own country. They were simply two different experiences. I’m glad I lived both ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know! It’s like you’re automatically part of a community because you are an expat. And I think this is rather nice and welcoming especially these days when it can be challenging to meet people.

      I remember someone pointing out how these days you might not even know your neighbor – and this is considered very normal. But back in the day, you’d be introducing yourself and your family – it was a different time, and it had a more acceptable feel.

      Yes, I, too, am grateful for both experiences.


  9. Long ago, I lived in Korea for a few years. Was fluent in the language by the time I left. The language, the culture, the experiences transformed me. I gained a whole new perspective on the USA because I now had contrast. I was fully in love with the food and culture and life there. Took the good with the bad.

    I returned to the USA and never quite fit in. I was among a lot of people who still only had that one perspective, that one-dimensional view of the world having never been anywhere and never really became fluent in another language, as language does affect thought patterns, your views on the world, how you solve problems.

    My wife is Thai and our eventual plans are to move to Thailand in the very near future. We like the USA in a lot of ways, but we also feel the pull to live in Thailand for a variety of reasons – aspects of culture, cost of living, living in Asia, the weather for farming… I guess we’ll always feel like vagabonds, regardless of where we live, even if living in a permanent location, due to our exposure of living in another culture and being transformed and being a full member of any one culture.

    There’s a film about a conquistador, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who ended up traveling across the American southwest for several years meeting all kinds of peoples. Some kind, some with barbaric rituals and so on. At the end of the movie, I’ll never forget, he’s found by a new group of conquistadors who have arrived to take him back “home” and he looks at them like “who are you?” He was no longer one of them, but had grown and changed in his many years in the Americas. He no longer identified with being a Spaniard, a conquistador from that faraway continent he’d come from.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Language learning can be a huge door opener, for sure. I was just getting good at Spanish when I left Ecuador. (Bummer!) And even though I’m not fluent or particularly good at Thai, it has helped me in many ways: create conversations, understand my mom better, understand the mistakes my Thai students make, the struggle of being an outsider + learning a new language, and so on.

      At this point, I’d say living abroad has created its own education for me. It’s like the college years continued. And while I do recognize who I was when I was younger, I can say I’m grateful that I’ve grown, too. Thanks, Patrick for sharing your story!


  10. I’ve never lived in another country. For the first time this summer, I will be visiting Asia…(Japan, Seoul) for only 2 wks. I may be in for a big surprise. Most likely feeling lost.

    I grew up learning English only when in kindergarten even though born in Canada. So I do appreciate what an immigrant feels like and saw the opportunities and benefits of being a Cnaadian citizen and living in Canada through the eyes of my immigrant parents and several relatives whom we guided as adult immigrants.

    Most likely I am inflexible re areas of censorship in other countries, our living standards re environmental awareness, food safety, etc.

    I do feel I belong in Canada because of possible discomfort I now as an adult later in life in various countries, would find it hard to adjust. I like my peace, clean air/water and food safety. I also probably take for granted growing up and functioning in a multicultural society..even though English or French language must dominate.


  11. It struck me that I would not enjoy living in France, Germany or any of the non-English language countries in Europe. I enjoyed vacationing there, but at heart would not feel I belonged. And most definitely would have to master the local language well. But still am not convinced that would solve problems of feeling like an outsider.


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