15 Things I Learned from 10 Years of Living and Traveling Abroad

Writer and life-long expat James Baldwin once wrote, “I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.”

In the last decade, I’ve traveled to nearly 40 countries and lived in five, in Disney World and on a cruise ship. And while I’ve learned a lot about the world, I’ve found that the most profound insights I’ve gained over the years haven’t been about a specific country or culture, but rather, myself. The following are some of those insights.

1) I’m good enough as is (frizzy hair and all)

Whilst I’d grown up being told to “just be yourself” by parents and well-meaning guidance counselors, I never thought of it as more than a cliché catchphrase until I visited Asia. Until then, I’d always worn my naturally curly hair straight, spending hours fighting my curls into submission with a flat iron.

After seeing straight-haired Japanese friends spend their paychecks on expensive procedures to achieve the curls I’d spent most of my life trying to hide, I realized how foolish I’d been.

As Judy Garland said, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.” I learned that it was better to be my messy and wild-haired self than an imperfect imitation of one of my friends.

Me, rocking the curly blond hair-do and two of my Japanese friends, at a club in Tokyo, Japan.

2) Being alone is okay

Dining out or going to the movies alone is not the scary, humiliating or lonely experience I thought it would be.

3) I can be my own best friend.

There were many circumstances in India when I had to depend on my own smarts and inner strength for survival. Whether it was fighting off attacking monkeys and would-be-muggers or navigating entire cities with only a map for company, solo travel taught me the importance of self-reliance.

4) Live in the moment (even if the moment involves being dirty, wet and lost)

From nauseatingly bumpy bus rides to wasted hours spent in hot and dusty bus stations, traveling can be a fairly miserable experience . . . if you let it. Over the years, I’ve learned that fighting the present moment and wishing it different frequently makes a bad situation worse.

I’ve found that, oftentimes, making the best of a situation is as easy as grounding myself in the moment and shrugging away my irritation with a simple, “it is what it is.”

As author Greg Anderson said, “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” Photo by crlbvi.

5) There is such a thing as too many choices (and American supermarkets are proof of that)

After living in Germany, where I only had two or three cereal brands to choose from, I now find shopping in super-sized American grocery stores to be a needlessly stressful experience.

While having a lot of options is usually considered a positive, when it comes to grocery shopping having so many choices can be overwhelming. Photo by Artbandito.

6) The only problem most people have is that they have no problems

India and Nepal taught me that with the exception of war or famine, most of the situations people view as problems are really just inconveniences or minor set-backs. Instead of feeling fortunate and content, though, many of us in the West seem hellbent on creating, in the absence of any real-life catastrophes, self-induced drama and chaos.

Travel gave me perspective and taught me that there’s very little in life that’s worth worrying about.

7) I don’t need a flat-screen TV to be happy

After happily living off of only the meager contents of a single suitcase, I’ve realized that I need very little to be content in life.

Though I often feel the pressure to collect more material possessions, living out of a suitcase for months at time has taught me that I need very little to be happy. Photo by WarzauWynn.

8) While I may always have a type, I can fall in love with anyone (regardless of cultural background or ethnicity)

I used to have a long list of attributes potential boyfriends had to have in order for me to consider dating them and “shared beliefs and outlook on life” were at the top of that list. But as living abroad has taught me, everything you think is important can go right out the window if you meet the right person.

9) Even sea cucumbers can taste good (if you’re open-minded enough)

You can learn to like even the most bizarre of foods, if you’re willing to stay open-minded long enough to give it a chance.

10) People are basically good

I once found myself stranded penniless in Paris. My credit cards had been canceled, my debit card wasn’t working and I had nowhere to stay. An American business man, overhearing my dilemma, gave me 200 Euros so that I could get a room for the night.

The number of times strangers have helped me and not expected anything in return (from offering up their bed when a missed bus left me stranded in rural India to giving me a ride when I got caught a rain storm in Nicaragua) far outnumbers any negative encounters I’ve had.

11) It doesn’t matter if I don’t have everything all figured out (I’m not supposed to)

Belting out a Madonna song during karaoke in Tokyo, Japan.

12) It’s okay to make a fool of myself . . . People will like me better for it

Traveling in a foreign culture has an uncanny way of making even the most self-composed individuals look like bumbling idiots, and I’m no exception. Whether it was stuttering through a speech in Japanese in front of hundreds of strangers or trying to convey in broken German to a male store clerk that I needed a box of tampons, I’ve blushed and stammered my way through many a humiliation while living abroad. But though I still cringe at the memories, those experiences taught me how to laugh at myself and for that, I’m grateful.

13) I can live pretty much anywhere, so long as I have friends and Wi-Fi

This is the room I lived in when I first moved to Tokyo, Japan.

14) The best trips are ones that I don’t enjoy until I return home

Two weeks of relaxing on a beach in Tahiti is nice, but the vacations I’ve gained the most from are ones that were the most difficult. Between stomach troubles, muggings and narrowly avoiding being hit by lightning atop two different volcanoes, the four months I spent in Central America were some of my most miserable but also my most life-enhancing.

Though at that time, my friend and I were wet, cold and exhausted from our climb to the top of a volcano in Guatemala, we learned a lot from the experience (i.e., check the weather report for thunderstorms before attempting to climb an active volcano).

15) Traveling isn’t for everyone

Although traveling has had a monumental impact on my life, I’ve learned that it isn’t the answer for everyone. Trying to force it on those who have no interest is pointless and won’t win me any friends.

What life lessons have you learned from traveling or living abroad? Let me know in the comments below.

If you liked this article, you might also like: 9 Things I Learned Tracing My Roots in Romania.

Unless stated, all images author’s own.

34 thoughts on “15 Things I Learned from 10 Years of Living and Traveling Abroad”

  1. Great article and photos. I lived in Paris for a year, so I can really relate to what you learned. I wrote a book about my year in Paris, which was like re-living it. Wonderful time. Great memories!

  2. Good on you girl! I agree with everything you said [but not the sea-urchin thing]. You have definitely got it all together and your outlook is terrific!

  3. Great post! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Even though I’ve only lived abroad for 2 years, several of your points resonated with me. Turks are more than willing to help you out 9.5/10 times even if there’s a bit of a language barrier. Being open minded is very important! And a smile can go a long way too.

    Cheers from Istanbul!

  4. I always thought I was adventurous until I started my blog and reading others posts.

    now i just have to redefine my level of “adventure”. We do what we can….

  5. I loved your post! I am planning to travel soon and I’m researching everything I can to be ready on the road. I am also a solo woman traveler and this will be my first time. So any tips you may have for me would be great!

    Oh, I’m planning to travel to the Far East (do a tour to different countries), South America (Chile, Argentina, Paragua, Brazil with a friend, Peru), Costa Rica, and Europe (Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Holland).


  6. This is an excellent article that contains an important messages about being and loving yourself and living in and appreciating “the moment”.

  7. I’ve learned so many thing, many of the same ones you’ve written about, but here are a couple I want to share now:

    1) The world is full of people just like me, and it’s a beautiful thing. Not that my best hope is to find that everyone is like me, but that we are all essentially the same when it comes to hopes, dreams, jokes and laughs.

    2) It is possible to break down in the middle of nowhere without breaking down. And it is good for our children to experience this.

    3) Travel stretches us in ways we would not otherwise be stretched. As we are stretched by travel, we become more comfortable in our large, beautiful world.

    And so on. Great job, Rheannon. You inspire me to not only save my pennies so I can take more trips, but also to write.

  8. You don’t really find out who you are until you are on your own in a place where no one knows who you are.

  9. I fully agree with what is stated after such a wide and varied experience in life of a traveler. In Hindi there is a tradition of saying a very big experience in a sentence or two. Regarding Tourism they say “USNE GHAT GHAT KA PANI PIYA HAIN” means he is very rugged and experienced because he has drank water from all the way from all the water bodies on the way. Again they say in same way ” USNE DUNIYA DEKHI HAIN” means he has seen the whole world and so is very knowledgeable & experienced.

    Vibhuti Kashyap

  10. One thing I’ve learned is that things always work out… wherever you are in the world. Things don’t always work out exactly as you planned, but they always work out in the end somehow.

  11. really great article – i’ve learned many of these lessons but had a hard time putting it in words. i think the hard part is grounding yourself and remembering these lessons in every day life when you get home…

  12. Thanks for the insights. I’ll be backpacking for the first time solo in a few months and I can’t wait what it will bring me. I’m already trying to constantly live and embrace the moment whether it is a stressful or enjoyable moment. You never know what can happen when you out of your normal environment and comfort zone but that’s what makes it fun!

  13. All great points! I find that we are teaching these exact same things to our children as well as learning them ourselves.

    Aren’t grocery stores in America just flat out overwhelming?! I can’t stomach them at all anymore:)

  14. Well done!!! I like people that travel solo and have a great experience. The amount of things you learn while travelling are the best. I am originally from Greece and I have been living in Australia for few years. I went back to Greece in 2008-2010, got a job at a small Greek island with 2.500 permanent residents. I stayed and worked at this small island for 2.5 years. The best time of my life..I learnt so much…I discovered me…It was school of life. Amazing experience.
    Last year I went to Spain for seven weeks and I enrolled at a Spanish Language School. It was an amazing experience. To get to Spain itself was an experience. My flight got cancelled, so I flied from Melbourne to Athens, Stayed at the airport for 10 hours, then flied to Barcelona, I stayed at Barcelona airport overnight for 10 hours, then I flight to Alicante airport. Then I had to take a bus to rich my destination in Spain. It took me 3 days…Funny Experiences……
    We need to have open mind at all times and I agree we do learn through hard times.

  15. Interesting observations. I know exactly what you mean about the supermarkets. When I returned home after traveling about Europe after I left the Army I felt overwhelmed by the supermarkets. That’s something most people can’t understand unless they’ve lived in another culture.

  16. Ah, the American supermarket. 57 brands of cereal, but you can’t find the wholemeal flour… I’ve lived there on and off and it’s still overwhelming, even the English ones are a bit much.

    Nobody needs that much choice! In fact, I think we’re much happier when stripped back to something a bit more essential and can focus on friends new and old, taking in the world around us, and our family.

    Travel does that very well.

    Anyway, great post.

  17. @Jack – I couldn’t agree more. As much as I’m a fan of modern technology (teaching English in a village in rural Nepal taught me to really appreciate hot water and electricity) sometimes I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction. Life used to be far, far simpler. I wish we could go back to that.

  18. It’s easy to deride the American supermarket and its vast array of choices. However, I’d much prefer to have a range of options than be limiyed to one or two bland offerings…more is more.

  19. I have spent the last year travelling North America, Central America & Europe I’m just about to head home to Sydney and I was writing a list of all the things i have learnt about myself this year, so when i did arrive home in my usual surroundings with the same people i didn’t slide back into that way of thinking and feeling- (taking life & people for granted etc)I looked up to see what others had written and your post is so wonderful, it brought back so many memories and feelings of my own.
    I cant wait to get back and be the person I truly am and look over this list.
    Thank you again for your post!

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