I recently came across an article which, on the surface, had nothing much to do with expats. Rather, it was about philosophy. However, as I’ve found is so often the case, life as an expat provides the perfect backdrop to the philosophical viewpoint discussed.
Every philosopher, so The Wisdom of the Exile went, could benefit from being sent into some form of exile at least once in their lives. They should be “exiled, displaced, deported – that should be part of their training… For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas.”
Substitute “person” for philosopher, and “expat assignment” for exile, and there you have what has become my firm belief: Having lived as an expat at least once in your life will make you a more well-rounded person. Of this I have no doubt. To become such a person, you have to have an open mind. And to have an open mind, you have to be shown, again and again, that your preconceived notions about places and races and cultures are probably wrong. Or if not completely wrong, so at least very incomplete.
When you first arrive abroad and don’t have the first clue as to how things work, you have to rely on helpful people around you to show you the ropes. You immediately accept that they know more than you, no matter what their level of education might be, and that you best listen and learn. If you don’t, you probably won’t have an enjoyable expat experience. You learn that what you thought you knew wasn’t even close to being enough, you learn to be humble and listen, you learn to go with the flow and accept imperfection, you learn to find beauty in unexpected places.
If you never leave home, you “envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what’s under your nose… Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything.” I’d say that is particularly true to those of us who’ve grown up in a comfortable Western middle class life. What an awakening it is when you first go out into the world and realize how pampered you’ve been, and how petty your First World Problems seem by comparison. But it works the other way too. Upon returning to the U.S. from South Africa, I noticed bits and pieces of American culture that never really stood out to me before, just because I hadn’t been surrounded with them for a while. Had I not written about them quickly, while they were still fresh, they soon would have faded back into the commonplace.
“As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways.” Don’t you think that’s a beautiful sentence? This is what being an expat blogger comes down to: Essentially, you’re retelling the same story in many different ways. The story is always about life, love, failure, perseverance, betrayal, and redemption. And expat life provides a treasure trove of different hooks into that same story, new paths springing up in front of you with each move you undertake. Without being uprooted from your old world and dumped into a new one, more or less stripped naked to the core, you might never get the chance to get to that new level of seeing things.
When you go abroad, you also get a tiny chance to reinvent yourself. Because nobody knows you there, nobody has pegged you to be anything other than what they see as they’re getting to know you. “Selves can be re-made from scratch, reassembled and refurbished.” Don’t you love the idea of Refurbished You, You 2.0, or The Story of You 2nd Edition? As scary as it seems, as inconvenient as it appears, getting a chance to remake yourself into something new and better should be appreciated for the incredible gift it truly is.
Quite apart from all this philosophy talk, and even if you have no desire to become a better person, never leaving home would be terribly boring, don’t you think? It would be like being stuck at Level One of a video game, completing the same tasks over and over without any challenge. Of course no one lives their life like that. There are plenty of challenges along the way, no matter whether you leave or stay put. I don’t want to belittle the rocky road many people find themselves on. But becoming an expat has a way of speeding up your life, of making it more flavorful, of helping you evolve faster, and of perhaps making some challenges go away altogether – if only because you find yourself redefining what constitutes a challenge and what doesn’t.
And finally, as for that “increasingly thicker veil of familiarity” you might eventually suffocate under if you always stay in the same place – the same can be said of an increasingly thicker pile of “stuff.” Most of my friends groan about garages and attics that have to be uncluttered from years of unfettered accumulation. They turn green with envy when I tell them I have none of that. “Exiles travel light,” and so do expats. Part of it is necessity – you are forced to purge or your container won’t close – but another part is the realization that stuff is not all that important.
We don’t need stuff, we need friends. And memories.
So, even if it might not have made me into a better person, I can definitively say that my expat life so far has given me an uncluttered garage, plus friends and memories for a lifetime.
Who can ask for more?