I remember saying this to many of my compatriots when I was still in school: “You should totally leave the country.” At the time I was attending a big university in western Massachusetts, and the sorts of friends I had had never left the surrounding areas, believing Boston to be a major cultural hub (no disrespect, I’m a Bostonian). And I believe my friends were of a rather intelligent breed. The response I got from them, though, was discouraging.
Unless I’m mistaken, most American folks are hell bent on getting to some metaphorical finish line professionally, financially, and otherwise. I remember that feeling, well, the “rest of my life” looming over my head not even halfway through my undergraduate education. Coming to Spain, then, was the best thing that I could have done, but not in the ways you’d think. I still proudly proclaim I’m American, regardless of the flack the States receives in Europe (and I assume the rest of the world).
Being an expat offers a lot in terms of personal growth, as well as surprising professional and creative wisdom. The first lesson here is that you can never truly alter your personal origins. An American will always be an American, and it’s far better to accept it and find the positive than constantly criticize the place that raised you. An individual can grow into quite an amazing creature, but no one can be biologically born again. It’s a humbling experience, and brings peace to some of each individual’s turmoil about identity.
Also, being an expat means that the dominant culture surrounding you is valuable and there to be learned from. It may be impossible to alter genetics, but it’s possible to gain a wealth of knowledge that informs decisions and changes the way you understand your own culture. The more languages and cultures vacuumed up in quotidian experience, the better. Being an expat for a while, though, is more valuable than trying to consume culture as a vacationer. Having to respect and enjoy other cultures as a (more or less) citizen is an exercise in expanding the toolset by which we engage in daily activities and communicate with other folks. It’s rad to follow along in a ritual (by that I mean, well, going to a Spanish disco or being the only expat in a family gathering) that makes you shed preconceived social notions.
Another important lesson learned from being an expat is how to achieve success, but also, more importantly, how to measure it. Trying to live in a completely different country means that you have to ponder your own personal parameters for success, not the ones passed down from parents or professional circles. Spain and the United States, for instance, measure success rather differently, and my friends back in Boston will often wonder how I can be super damn happy living several pay grades beneath them. It’s all a matter of perspective, which you gain by the boatload if you throw yourself alone in the deep end of a whole other set of cultural, social, and economic standards. Every country is different, each offering a specific fresh way to weigh the importance of certain things the States holds in such high regard.
Lastly, being an expat forces you to make connections with people you would possibly never even speak to in American society. On the one hand, you make friends with Americans you’d never meet because you’re all treading about in an alien situation, and on the other you appreciate the effort of making friends while having to speak another language and drop conventions you may have from socializing a certain way for too long. Being an expat is an extremely valuable commodity in one’s life, and should be attempted at whatever the cost, especially when it’s difficult. A vacation begins and ends with very few things learned, but living as an expat usually redefines you in all manner of rad ways.