Why Living Abroad Made Me A Better American

Why Living Abroad Made Me A Better American

All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it. – Samuel Johnson

I am generally not the most positive person about America.  I think we’re largely fat, uncultured, and incredibly self-centered.  Whenever I go overseas, these beliefs generally become stronger as I see them in contrast to folks in the rest of the world.  While I don’t go quite so far as to pretend to be Canadian, I am most definitely an American apologist when I’m abroad, and I try to avoid associating with other Americans, to avoid giving locals a negative impression.  In Switzerland, I even went so far as to learn a degree of Swiss German so that I could avoid some of the more obnoxious groups of tourons by pretending not to speak English.

However, that said, I feel that traveling, especially living abroad as an expat, has helped me become a better American.  The best way to gain perspective on something is to take a step back from it, and while traveling and living abroad, I was able to see the USA in a different light than I had before.  Below are a few ways that traveling and living abroad has made me a better American:

Crawfish boil at a family friend's house.

It made me more aware of the value of our own customs and traditions.

The more I travel, the more I feel that the quote “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” is incredibly apt.  It is all too easy to ignore and even discredit our own cultural traditions in favor of more “exotic” ones abroad.  In reality, American traditions are just as fascinating to a Russian or a Nepali as their traditions are to us, but since we are surrounded by them our entire lives, we begin, over time, to devalue them.

Living abroad made me realize that people everywhere feel like this.  My Korean students were bored to tears at the thought of being made to watch a presentation of traditional Korean drumming, just as I used to think that things like fireworks and BBQs were “quaint”.  No matter where in the world you live, you eventually become blind to the more interesting aspects of the culture you live in, but traveling can help you to open your eyes.

Not only do I now appreciate American traditions considerably more, but I also am always on the lookout for unique bits of American culture.  When I grew up in the Texas/Louisiana area, I used to see crawfish boils as “culture-less” undertakings.  I now see that in fact, it is quite the opposite – they are celebrations of Cajun culture, a unique facet of the American south.  There are thousands of really awesome traditions and customs of American culture that most of us barely even notice, and traveling abroad can help bring those into focus.

I’m more political and follow world politics more.

I was never all that big on politics.  Sure, I was registered to vote, but as a rather staunch liberal, I never really bothered to do all that much research on candidates, nor did I pay all that much attention to international politics.  When I was in Europe during the Bush administration, I found myself frequently having to explain that no, not all Americans are conservative, gun-loving, pro-war nuts.  Being forced to explain our political system made me pay attention to it all that much more.

Living in South Korea got me into international politics, as it’s hard to live next door to a place like North Korea without being at least somewhat interested in the machinations of all the countries involved.  South Korea was also going through something of a political upheaval at the time, which I began to follow.  Even after I left my life as an expat and returned to the USA, I found myself following international politics much more than I ever did before.  Considering how important it is to understand politics if you live in a democracy, and how little most Americans pay attention to it, I feel that my increased interest in politics due to my time abroad has made me a better American.

Lifting up part of my floor.

I learned to appreciate goods, amenities and services that I took for granted while living in the USA.

Thanks to the Korean concept of “bali bali”, Koreans are good at building things quickly.  Unfortunately, they’re not all that great at building them well.  Even after my apartment on Jindo was renovated, I continually had problems like mold, ants, and at one point, my kitchen cabinets falling off my wall.  Before it was renovated, it was a moldy, smelly pit lacking truly modern plumbing that I had serious doubts about spending a whole year in.  The flooring wasn’t even attached to the floor!  The building was built in the aftermath of the Korean War and was built quickly to answer a need for more efficient housing in the area.  Unfortunately, speed and cost were the two main concerns when it was produced, and most Korean construction even today tends to be of a considerably lower quality than one would find in the USA.

I also learned just how privileged we are in the USA to have the variety of goods available to us that we do.  Most grocery stores in the USA have an “international” section, and Americans eat a wide variety of cuisines on a regular basis, ranging from Italian to Chinese to Indian.  Even in non-Seoul major cities in Korea, I was hard pressed to find any non-Korean food in stores, and outside of Seoul you’re pretty much out of luck for non-fast food restaurants.  While I did enjoy some aspects of Korean commercial practices such as a heavy usage of free delivery and the ease of purchasing goods directly from local farmers, shopping in the USA is a much easier process.  To this day, American grocery stores stir a degree of awe in me.  Living abroad made me realize just how good we have it here, something I took for granted for most of my life.

It gave me the perspective necessary to see how my own country could improve.

When I got the crap torn out of my leg by a dog in Korea, my four hospital visits, shots, stitches and all, cost me a whopping total of around $80.  I got four cavities filled for around the same cost (it could have been cheaper, but I went to one of the top dentists in the province).  It boggles my mind that we do not already have universal healthcare here in the USA.  I know that it’s “on the way”, but we should have had this a long, long time ago.  A healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and I can’t believe that so many Americans don’t understand that correlation.

Likewise, while I’m not necessarily for extremely high, protectionist import tariffs, seeing the economic benefit that Korea got from being relatively self-reliant has made me really question the opposite reliance that the USA has on imports from places like China and India.  I understand that budgets are important, but I also believe that the focus on domestic production that most other places in the world seem to have (at least those I have traveled to and lived in) can really help boost and protect the national economy.

While living abroad and traveling has not put all that many new ideas into my head (though the import/export issue mentioned was new to me), it has at the very least made me all that much more aware of how they affect America, and how we compare to the rest of the world.  As much as I like the USA, we’re not #1, but traveling abroad has really made me see and understand some of the changes that I think could help us become a better country.

In short, while I don’t think that traveling abroad can completely change opinions, I think that it is a good way to gain the perspective necessary to truly understand one’s own country and culture.  In the long run, being away from our homes can make us appreciate them all the more.


23 Comments


  1. Great post. Insert your own nationality above as travelling & living abroad opens everybody’s eyes, irrespective of nationality.

    It simply broadens your mind which is great if you can handle it, but dangerous if you rather keep living in a box :)

  2. Living abroad definitely helps one discover and appreciate customs, food, attitude, whatever about one’s home country. I’d also say that when you return, you notice a lot more – good and bad. On my current visit home to the United States, I’m shocked at how so many roads and public transport systems seem to be falling apart at the seams. However, I’m amazed each day by the diversity of people and cultures. I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit in the States, but also frustrated by the situation of health care. There is good and bad everywhere, but getting away helps to look at it with an objective view.

  3. Beautiful post – truly. Traveling does give one a unique perspective that is otherwise unattainable. Funny, I’m actually preparing a post on why politics is important to people who travel. (oh, and thanks for the touron link!)

    • Traveling has really made me so, so much more political than I was before. Not only has it made me more political, it has also made me increasingly aware of social issues and the bearing they have on our society.

  4. You’re making me want to go to a crawfish boil. :) I have to say, I never tire of our Independence Day fireworks, but I think it would be fun to experience the fireworks at Chinese New Year sometime.

    • Being abroad for holidays was always one of the more surreal things about being an expat. Holidays like the 4th and Thanksgiving came and went and I didn’t even notice.

    • You only need one Chinese New Year on the mainland to get your fill. Imagine two to three weeks of non-stop artillery fire. And by non-stop, I mean at all hours of the day and night. It was worse than living in an actual war zone.

      • I’ve definitely heard similar stories from other friends who have lived in China. I’m glad that my home leave fell during the lunar new year celebration for the year I was in Korea.

  5. Great post! I have spent 8 years living abroad (mostly in Australia and Taiwan) and I can definitely relate to many of the points you brought up here. I still feel that more Americans need to travel more and experience life abroad, but I also feel that more foreigners need to come to the United States. It is a two-way street and I have encountered a lot of stereotypes about Americans.

    • I have always felt that one of the reasons that Americans are so stuck in their ways is that they have never experienced other ways.

      And yes, I feel that America does indeed get a bad rap.

  6. I really loved your post, especially the “things we take for granted when home” part.
    I feel the same: since I started traveling I’m more politically aware and see my Country from an external point of view. Many pros and many cons – but I feel like I know more about it now than before.
    Thank you for posting this:)
    G

    • Yes. I feel like I’m able to be more objective about living in the USA, having now lived abroad. I was always willing to decry its faults, but I rarely looked at their origins. Now I do. Also, whereas before I had very little to say that was positive about living in the USA, I am now able to see that while it may not be the best out there, it does have a lot of good sides.

  7. How timely that your post appeared on the DCBlogs list on the very day that I’ll leave our shores for the first time! I’ll have to reread it upon my return and see how much my perspective has changed.

  8. I concur! I have taught in Asia for 8 years now. High five, expat sista!

  9. Well put! I hope to retire to a different country. I love the US and I’m grateful for all that being born in the US has provided me. At the same time, every country has its strengths and weaknesses. A steady diet of traveling has made me yearn for a different experience. God bless not just the United States of America… but every other country on earth, too!

  10. This post is fantastic! I feel as though o walked away from my own abroad experience with the same feelings and reflections. Plus, it’s just plain awesome that you described my opinion of my home sweet home country in three simple words ;) it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one. Take care! I shall go explore your blog more now…

  11. Nice post, I especially like the first point. I love visiting small villages when I travel, but for a long time, I would write off similar places here in the states. Now I’m more open to the little towns in the U.S. and it’s led to some great experiences.

  12. Great post. I totally agree. I stumbled across your blog while searching for a picture of a Mongolian deel to show my grandmother what I decided not to buy her on my recent trip to Mongolia. I sent her a scarf instead which I think she is more likely to wear in California.

    I think living abroad has made me more patriotic as well. My students (patent attorneys) would always ask me detailed questions about American politics and history, which gave me a very specific reason to read the news carefully. When I first taught English to recent immigrants in Berkeley, we did an exercise on the 4th of July based on the song, “What is America to me?” My answer: freedom, diversity and family. I wrote their answers on the white board, and a photo of that white board is still on my wall here in Beijing.

    I look forward to reading more in the future!
    Leslie

  13. Great post! I love the honesty. As someone who has lived abroad more than once, and grew up doing so, I can totally relate to this. Growing up bi-cultural also has a way of leaving your heart a bit torn, for there are things you love, in different places. I have also found, however, that sometimes just leaving the comfort of my own city for another city or state, gives me a better perspective of the my daily life here. I grew up telling “Americans” that there country was not #1, albeit great in many ways, but no one ever seemed to believe me…so refreshing to read so here, while still being able to share your appreciation for the same.

    PS: Your “floors” cracked me up.

  14. Korea references reminded me: You know Korea is your home when…
    • You’re no longer tempted to reach into the fish tanks outside of restaurants and grab one.
    • When you instinctively know which can is for trash and which is for recycled.
    • All the palaces look alike.
    • When you don’t move for the car but you move for the motorcycle.
    • When you know the choreography to any K-pop song.
    • When Korean women stop looking anorexic.
    • When you accept Konglish and stop trying to fix it.
    • Going to Itaewon is a culture shock.
    • When pink isn’t just for girls anymore.
    • When you look both ways before crossing the sidewalk.
    • When toilet paper isn’t just used in the bathroom.
    • When you have mastered the Korean squat.
    • If you prefer the Korean squat toilet to the Western-style toilet.
    • You’re no longer surprised by the TV’s in vending machines, buses, or subways.
    • You can actually make a call while on the subway, in the subway station, in the elevator, or while on water.
    • When kids walking or riding the subway by themselves no longer worries you.
    • When an American holiday passes and you barely even notice.
    • Seeing a woman wearing flat shoes almost looks weird.
    • You leave Korea and actually miss K-pop.
    • You chase the guys in suits away to sit in the plastic chairs outside of convenience stores.
    • You can type in hangeul better than English.
    • You understand Konglish better than English.
    • If you’ve ever had more than one ‘dangly’ thing on your cell phone.
    • Can instinctively find the English language section in any bookstore.
    • Watching drunk ajosshis stumble down the street is a form of entertainment.
    • You can name more than 3 brands of ramen.
    • You’ve memorized how much your favorite drink and snack cost at the convenience store. [Author's note: 2,350 won = 500ml Coke and that small box of stacked chips...]
    • American businesses around you (Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King) stop surprising you.
    • You take bathrooms in stairwells for granted.
    • If you no longer groan when climbing the stairs to your favorite 3rd floor bar.
    • If you play with the Korean kids without a second thought.
    • You miss the freedom and sensation of driving, but wouldn’t dare to drive in Korea.
    • If you love the watery eyes of flushed look when Koreans drink.
    • Hearing any language other than Korean or English almost shocks you.
    • You’ve ever thought about marrying a Korean just to get the F-2 visa.
    • If you can name three Korean newspapers in English – without the word ‘Korea’ in it.
    • If you happily eat soup from a shared bowl.
    • If you’ve figured out how to eat cake with chopsticks.
    • See someone welding or cutting metal on the sidewalk barely merits a second glance.
    • You think fecal smell while walking on the sidewalk is normal.
    • Your English has actually gotten worse while in Korea.
    • You stop picking off corn or sweet potato on a pizza.
    • You’re no longer surprised that Koreans can dance the Swing, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, or Argentine Tango.
    • You become immune to the ajumma stare.
    • You become oblivious to Korean staring at you
    • When you actually understand the entire subway or bus announcement
    • When you jostle for a subway seat with the best of them
    • When you think it’s fashionably acceptable to wear a shiny tie with a shiny suit
    • If you can make a two-transfer subway trip without ever looking at the map
    • If you’ve ever offered a Korean directions
    • People spitting on the streets is something you’ve gotten used to
    • Women hiking in heels no longer seems dangerous
    • When you crave Korean food but need someone to go with you
    • When you drink beer while walking on the street (BONUS POINTS: while dressed in the same clothes you taught in)
    • You’ve caught yourself about to say something in Konglish
    • You’ve ever found yourself running to work – and you’re not alone.
    • If you take pictures of your food before you eat.
    • If one of your passwords is a Korean word or uses Korean letters.
    You stop and realize how fast ‘normal English speaking speed’ really is.
    • A Korean ever says “you use chopsticks better than I do!”
    • A Korean tells a joke (in Korean) and you get it.
    • When women in their twenties no longer look like teenagers.
    • If you’ve discovered a great response to being told ‘When in Korea…’
    • If you’ve figured out how to watch TV on your cell phone.
    • If you can’t remember life before kimchi.
    • Your gadgets / technology make a Korean feel inadequate.
    • You’re better at cutting things with scissors than a knife.
    • When you finish your kimchi and ask for more.
    • You know the location of every trash can at the subway station.
    • You know a two-transfer trip across town will take exactly 47 minutes.
    • The event you went to last weekend was one your Korean friend had never heard of.
    • You have zero moral guilt about hopping the turnstile to change directions.
    • You can tune out any subway seller.
    • You hit your legs or hips to loosen them up.
    • You naturally wake up right before your subway station.

    • You think you look good wearing a shiny tie.
    • Your camera has a foot-long lens.
    • You’ve fought with an ajumma for cardboard boxes.
    • You prefer the 300 won coffee from a machine to the 4,000 won cup from Starbucks.
    • If you’ve ever played ‘chicken’ with a motorcycle on the sidewalk.
    • If, on second thought, you decide to type in English instead of hangeul.
    • If you own more English / ESL / educational books than your school.
    • You think seeing teenage girls in school skirts at 10pm is normal.
    • You say ‘my friend’ instead of ‘my Korean friend’.
    • You see a group of foreigners and conclude they look fat.
    • You win an argument with an ajosshi.
    • It’s normal to see kids walking on the streets unaccompanied after 10pm on a school night.
    • Pigs promoting pork products no longer seems unusual.
    • You argue with a restaurant’s staff over why they can’t serve you something – in Korean.
    • It takes more than a minute to think of something you miss from home.
    • While out with friends, you notice the sun coming up – then follow them when they go for breakfast.
    • You see a Korean woman with B-cups and think ‘My God those are huge!’
    • You go to a Western restaurant and ask ‘where’s the kimchi?’
    • You have no idea who or what a Snooky is, or why ‘The Situation’ is capitalized.
    • You create your own Korean slang.
    • You see a product with no Korean on it and you do a double-take.
    • You actually begin to get along with the ajumma.
    • You use more Korean curse words than English ones.
    • You keep a toothbrush in your desk at school.
    • You unconsciously correct the English of complete strangers.
    • You can transliterate an English word to Korean without a second thought.
    • You’ve learned more about the English language than you ever learned in school.
    • You enjoy the smell of kimchi wafting from your downstairs neighbors.
    • You use the sound of construction at 8am as your alarm clock.
    • People stop complimenting you on how well you read hangeul.
    • When the staff at your favorite restaurant know your order without your even saying it.
    • When your knowledge of Korean history makes a Korean gasp in amazement.
    • Your shoes get slipped off faster than the Koreans you’re going out to eat with.
    • You know how to make kimchi without needing written directions.
    • You walk around the naked part of the jimjilbang with total confidence.
    • Taking a sick day means you’re giving birth or you were run over by a car.
    • Someone asks you where you’re from and you say somewhere in Korea.
    • Your eyes light up whenever you see a new product from your home country.
    • You move home and begin to miss the ‘four distinct seasons’ Korea used to offer you.
    • The kimchi you made is preferred to your Korean friend’s mom’s kimchi.
    • You wear a short skirt out in the cold, then put on your significant other’s jacket.
    • You accept the fact that seven-year-olds often have nicer cell phones than you do.
    • The wine selection at E-mart looks like a treasure trove of possibilities.
    • Korean beer starts tasting good.
    • You accidentally use more than two Korean words while talking with friends back home.
    • You consciously avoid using the red marker for anything other than negative numbers.
    • You eat noodles with a 70-year-old woman and twigs found in the forest.
    • You find it almost impossible to walk a straight line unless you’re following the yellow footpath.
    • Almost every appliance or electronic device in your apartment plays a melody.
    • You end up at a Nigerian bar with two Iranians and a Filipino at 6am.
    • You can hum all six or seven standard Korean cell phone ringtones.
    • Not knowing your blood type is considered unusual.
    • The ‘homeless’ person sitting on the stairs in the subway has a touch-screen cell phone and a brand-name pair of shoes.
    • You’ve mastered the art of eating a cake with chopsticks.
    • A ‘grand opening’ involves more flowers than four weddings and a funeral combined.
    • You advocate the use of ‘same same’ to your friends back home.
    • You’re oblivious to the ‘no smoking’ sign right next to the ashtray in the bathroom.
    • Your grande Caramel Macchiato cost more than your average Korean lunch.
    • You write something out in Korean hangeul in order to remember how to pronounce it properly.

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