Living abroad can be much like travelling for an extended period of time, especially if you are a serial “liver-abroad” like me. You take a contract for a few months or a few years. Perhaps you settle permanently somewhere along the way, somewhere that has some pull, or not – you continue moving, from one contract to the next; from city to village, from palm trees to penguins. Is this a purely pragmatic approach to diversifying one’s skill set and opening oneself to new experiences? Is it about wanting to live an eclectic life (aka live outside the box)? Or is the desire to keep moving about escaping the “ordinary world” – the one that exists in each of our native countries – because we are simply unsatisfied with what it has to offer?
I have had this conversation with a good friend several times. She has travelled far and wide and each time she settles she, like me, is happy for a while and then feels bored and longs to travel again. It is the traveller’s cross to bear: once you start, needing to stay in one place for work or any reason makes you feel like a spoiled 3-year-old who can’t have her way. Talking to friends and family after periods of travel is no antidote to this either. Hearing about the exciting (yawn) details of mortgages, babies, and home decorating spurs me to action: where to go/what to do next? What sounds really great now? But perhaps what sounds exciting (travel/living abroad) is not and what doesn’t sound exciting (ordinary life) is… kind of? The grass is always greener… and if you’re not living in Bali the grass is really, really green there!
The life-is-what-you-make-it cliché is actually kind of true (clichés are clichés for a reason). Life doesn’t exist “out there”… it is what you create for yourself. Dissatisfaction with life is probably less about location and more about inner restlessness and a need to do something great. Steve Jobs said, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work and the only way to do great work is to love what you do”. So how does one get there? If you’re still looking for it then I will apologize because I don’t have an answer, solution or road map. I will likely only add fuel to the fire that ignites the traveller’s spirit.
I have luckily experienced being a real-life-r, a tourist, a traveller, and a living-abroad-er. Recently I have realized that these experiences can all occur simultaneously. I live abroad, which I see as different from ordinary life but often feels like ordinary life. When I have holiday time I trade in my living abroad status and I become both a tourist and a traveller. I once read something that differentiated them as such: “A tourist sees what he came to see. A traveller sees what he sees.”
Travelling takes practice. I believe we all start out as tourists. We leave to see something different, something special, something that will upset our worldview; therefore, we are looking for something. After a while a change happens. The world becomes a pallet upon which to paint your perspective instead of a pre-existing artwork to be captured in a photograph or judged. And isn’t this life? It is not set out before us, it is not written, it is not drawn or painted or previously created… it is in the making (which of course depends entirely on your metaphysical map).
When you are travelling and you take a picture, what do you see? My late father-in-law always said that taking pictures was a way of looking at the world. When I researched for my thesis one of the most important things I learned was to look at the data rather than for something in the data. When you look for beautiful, for amazing, for different you will surely find it because you are looking through lenses labelled “beautiful”, “amazing”, “different”: the ones you have always worn that help you to classify everything you see as such. But what happens when you look at things for what they are, without judgement or critique or a label… what do you see? Hard to describe, right? This is the feeling part and feelings are not easily translated.
When I start out a holiday I always start out as a tourist and then quickly, because I have had a lot of practice, I become a traveller again and the tourist trap starts to irritate me – the one that calls out “take my picture”, “buy me” – and is immediately chided by the traveller’s voice reminding me to explore and experience. The traveller’s voice tells me to not look at what the vendor is selling, but to look at the person selling, at her eyes and at her hands, to listen to her voice rather than her words. It reminds me not to follow all the signs leading me down the paths well worn by a thousand others. Sure maybe there is something great to see there, something that can be captured for a later framed 4×6 in my living room. Or maybe the less-beaten path offers something else entirely, a totally different experience. I believe that both paths are equally promising depending on how I look at them. On the well-worn path however, seeing beyond that which is expected can be difficult. How does one create a totally original painting over top of one that already exists? Perhaps this is the true art of living?
I always notice the foreigners-living-abroad when I travel. They look so comfortable, they interact easily with the locals, they own the businesses that make all us tourists and travellers hungry for that what-if cracker. I feel it every time I go somewhere new that I love: What would it be like to do such-and-such in a foreign country and then I remember I am doing such-and-such in a foreign country… it just doesn’t seem as exotic or romantic or delicious. It feels unsatisfactory, almost boring. So living abroad gives me the opportunity to explore the unexplored, which I do but the subsequent travelling makes me hungry for more, it unsettles me a little further, it leaves me feeling like I am missing out on something by remaining in one place for too long. It makes me feel like I am chasing something I will never quite reach – the elusive something that makes life satisfying but that prevents me from seeing – and importantly, fully appreciating – things just as they are. I am hoping this is how the dots will connect down the road: travelling = creating.
“Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs