Reflections on Life Abroad: How to Live with No Regrets

 

When I turned twenty five, I was a volunteer English teacher in Chilean Patagonia. My host family threw me a big party, and my host mother, Maria Teresa, had a few things to say. “When I was your age,” she announced to my friends and me, “I had two sons. I had a house. I had farmland. And I had a truck. What do you have?” Maria Teresa was very perplexed by my lifestyle, and she sometimes had a funny way of expressing it. I smiled back at her and said, “I have amazing friends and experiences.” I’m not sure Maria Teresa appreciated my response, but I was speaking my truth, and that birthday in Patagonia (It snowed! It was June!) was one of the most memorable ones of my life.

Seven years later, at thirty-one, I returned to live in the United States after a long stint abroad that included living in Patagonia, Buenos Aires, and coastal Ecuador. I reconnected with my high school friends, only to discover that they had lovely homes with big yards, busy jobs, nice clothes, and in some cases (gasp!) kids. Me? I had just moved back in with my parents and was still driving the same pickup truck I bought in high school. Gulp. It was tempting to think, “What went wrong?”

Spending years abroad was never a conscious decision for me. It just happened. I spent a summer semester in Mexico during college. I wanted more. I volunteered as a TEFL teacher in Chilean Patagonia after graduating. Then I landed a job that eventually sent me to Buenos Aires. Whenever I saw a chance to go south, I took it without hesitation. I was curious and hungry for experience. I never thought about what I gave up. Living with a suitcase worth of clothes and a few books became my norm. Everywhere I lived I would accumulate things, only to get rid of them when I left. I still see photos on Facebook of friends wearing my clothes in Buenos Aires.

When I left Buenos Aires, my closest and dearest Argentine friends, those who had become a de-facto family, threw a party for me. It was Sunday, and they cooked a big pasta dinner that we ate outside on a terrace. One friend, who was a fellow rock climber, gave me one of his carabiners so that “I would always be supported.” The love I felt on that day was overwhelming and it continues to overwhelm me now, even as I think about it. Experiences such as these are hard to transmit. All I can say is that loving and being loved in a foreign place will radically transform you. I’ve been in the United States now for about a year and a half. As I rediscover life in my own country, I realize that my experience is a treasure. I’m starting a new business and everything I do is informed by the time I spent abroad. I care about my home community more than ever because of the people I met, loved, and lived with in different countries. I am clear about what I need to be happy because I’ve lived with limited resources. I know who I am because I’ve tested my values in different cultures.

So my invitation to you is this: ask yourself right now what matters most to you in your heart.

Got it? Now, go find it. And if your heart yearns for travel, don’t ignore it. If your stomach feels a little queasy at the thought of it, good! Go there! Dare to live beyond the edge of your comfort level.

One more thing. Forget sacrifice.

Remove this word from your vocabulary. I could say that I “sacrificed a fancy car, house, and job in order to travel.” I’d rather say, “I chose to travel.”

There are so many possible paths across the plane of your existence, and you only get to choose one. This is not sacrifice! It is choice. It is your power and potential as a unique individual. It is your right to follow your calling. You are here for a limited time. Make the most of it.

Read more about the positive impact TEFL can have on a teacher’s quality of life.