There are many articles out there where people share how their life changed after travel or living abroad, discussing how their perspectives widened, they learned new skills, or gained confidence. While this article will discuss a similar topic we are going to dive into it a bit differently.
I want to use this time to look at how we can define and understand culture in a globalized world and how novelty affects our psychology in a way that presents the opportunity for change and cultural shift.
Finally, I asked on Twitter if others wanted to share their stories about aspects of their lives that have changed since traveling or living abroad. Everyone shared truly transformative experiences that they had while outside the boundaries of their home.
Defining culture in a globalized world
Defining culture seems straight forward but to be honest, it isn’t. The simple definition is the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. Although it does not define it by geographical space, the way we discuss it would suggest otherwise. Often it is defined by geopolitical boundaries (e.g. Italian culture, American culture), or be bounded by religion, race, or sex.
This is a disingenuous discussion.
It disregards our individual experiences of culture, or our ability to cross, blur, or change these boundaries. It disregards the experiences of those who are forced to cross these borders or those who simply live along them. And certainly, it disregards culture as a process that is not static.
Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, who are asking similar questions, suggest looking to the borderlands to complicate the idea of culture being bound by space. It is true that these localities occupy a complex world that negotiates two cultures that are entangled. I lived along the US-Mexico border for 2.5 years and experienced it for myself. Southern New Mexico was attained by the US later than the northern half, and thus the locals in Las Cruces would tell me that the border crossed them. They explained how they are and always have been Mexican. This story can be told countless times around the world again and again.
Political borders are not etched in stone and certainly cannot contain culture. We live in a world that is constantly connected from smartphones in our hands to cheap flights to anywhere in the world. We can now transcend the previous geographical boundaries of culture with a simple click.
For me, that complicates the definition and understanding of culture. I believe there is a lot more influence, personal preferences, and psychological or genetic aspects that we don’t completely understand yet.
How novelty influences our psychology
Research done in 2018 looked into how living abroad might affect one’s sense of self and found that there was an increase in “self-concept clarity” caused by living abroad. This simply means that these individuals have a more confident, stable, and clearly defined self.
The reason? Self-reflection.
If your customs or culture are not challenged in your daily life then what is there to question?
You might not consider it, but many of your daily habits are part of your culture. When you decided to eat, who cooks, what foods do you eat, how do you style your hair or clothes, down to how far away you stand next to a stranger in public? If everyone around you does these things the same, then there is nothing to discuss.
Now imagine you are traveling to a place you’ve never been before and suddenly your daily habits are interrupted and have to be completed a different way. This break in the automated cultural processes you developed presents an opportunity for change.
This opportunity for change can be temporary or permanent and can happen during travel or living abroad. This is due to your environment and location changes. Research shows that the novelty of travel or moving to a different country is exciting for the mind and allows it to “re-wire” old habits. This is so strong that even moving house a mile away can present a new enough environment that habits can be altered with ease. (Source 1 2 3 4)
I have now lived in 5 different countries, in many different cities and homes, and can confirm that these cultural shifts happen even without you noticing. For example, I lived outside of Rome back in 2013, but yet in 2021, I am still using a Moka to make my afternoon espresso just as I learned there. I prefer to have long meals out and socialize rather than the American way of eating and leaving as fast as possible.
I buy so much less of everything. The houses are smaller, the stores aren’t pushing things you don’t really need, and it just isn’t that important here as it was in the US. I also now eat foods that I would never dream of eating back in the states and even my perspectives about health care are being challenged regularly.
Even my language has changed. I lost my American accent and I use a lot of British English words in my day-to-day life due to my time living there. I even learned new languages that I blend into daily use (when appropriate).
The novelty of these new places allowed my mind to reject what it always knew and to try something new. Some of these new habits or customs I hope to keep with me always and others I have already chosen to reject.
The beauty of travel exists in these opportunities to share our ideas and culture and to have conversations about what we consider to be the status quo and challenge it.
Travelers share their experiences after being abroad
Thank you so much to everyone who contributed to this post. There are a lot of fascinating stories below around how traveling or moving abroad has changed people’s lives. If you find yourself reflecting on this idea for yourself, leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Adam from Explordia became a minimalist after traveling to Cambodia
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It was a beautifully warm tropical morning in Siem Reap (Cambodia), and as usual, when I travel, I’d gotten up with the sun to explore the town.
With no destination in mind, I wandered through the streets with nothing but my camera gear and curiosity.
After a few hours of aimless wandering, I came across a coconut vendor. Coconut in hand, I walked over to a nearby bench to sit and enjoy a cool drink. The bench was located in a large courtyard of what was possibly a school or government building, I never did find out.
In the courtyard were three young boys playing a lively game of soccer, but instead of a ball, they were hitting around a styrofoam box with sticks with the courtyard benches substituting as goalposts.
The sheer fun and delight on those kids faces was infectious and I ended up reminiscing about my own privileged childhood full of the latest DVDs, video game consoles, and all manner of “must-have” items cluttering the house, and I couldn’t recall a time when all that “stuff’ had brought me such joy.
I don’t know why, but this thought really hit home and made me start to think a lot more about what possessions I owned VS possessions I required, and I soon after found myself downsizing my life and minimalizing my possessions.
Even now when I contemplate buying an item, I think to myself, do I actually require this item or do I just want it? And most of the time I end up leaving it on the shelf and go back to enjoying my clutter-free, minimalist lifestyle. Inspired by a few kids playing in a Cambodian courtyard many years ago.
Lannie Travels cures homesickness through fast food after living abroad since 2008
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As someone who has lived or worked abroad off and on since 2008, I’ve always loved exploring the local culture. It’s easy to find me off the beaten path, exploring places dubbed as hidden gems, not in any guidebook. This curiosity fuelled exploration extends to my interests and excitement of exploring and tasting local foods. There is nothing more special than sitting with a group of locals, over a big meal or small tastings of their favorite dishes, telling you its stories and how it came to be.
But traveling for long periods of time has its downsides. When I did my graduate studies in Vienna, I can’t even tell you how many wiener schnitzels I ate. There was one night in Vienna when we had a long day at class and everyone was exhausted. And I knew, one of my Brazilian friends would never turn down a McDonald’s for the exact same reason that I wouldn’t. The smiles on our faces after our meals was as if we just finished a feast of epic proportions.
There comes a time when all you want is something familiar – something that reminds you of all the things you love. For me, this homesickness is often cured by global, franchised restaurants.
Now, before any judgment is passed, let me just say, I’d eat haggis in Scotland, street food in Asia, or ika mata in the Cook Islands any day of the week. But when most of your meals are out, sometimes isn’t a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish a little bit satisfying? A little reminder of home or childhood or some other delightful memory?
Will I change terminals at the Dubai airport just to eat a Shake Shack? Is that what I look forward to during my layover there? Absolutely! Sometimes life is so stressful that the familiar gives you a little smile, with the quality and experience that is been tried and true throughout the years.
For me, I have a few go-to global franchise restaurants – Din Tai Fung (Taiwan’s famous juicy pork buns), Ippudo (Japanese ramen that has never missed the mark), Five Guys or Shake Shack (because American burgers are great), and yes – McDonald’s. I’ve eaten at these franchises in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, London, Dubai, Glasgow, just to name a few. And they leave me with a smile every single time.
Steven on the Move is a “no shoes in the house” convert after living in Japan
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Living overseas often leads to people changing, not just aspects of their lives, but who they are as a person. After living in Japan for three years, I have changed a LOT. Some in really big ways, like becoming a runner and running my first marathon (I ran the 2021 London Marathon as a charity runner for The Change Foundation). Some in smaller ways, like expanding my food choices and incorporating new-to-me Japanese foods like nattō into my regular diet.
However, the biggest change that my wife Katie and I have made because of our time living in Japan is taking off our shoes once we enter the house (or a hotel room). Entryways to Japanese houses, apartments, and other buildings are called genkan (玄関). These are recessed areas where people take off their shoes and store them either on the entryway floor or in a dedicated closet called a getabako (下駄箱). The primary purpose of these areas is to take off your shoes and prevent dirt from outside the home from being tracked through the residence, similar to a mudroom in some American houses.
We were introduced to this practice while house hunting and took off our shoes and used indoor slippers when visiting different houses and apartments. We ultimately adopted the practice because it made sense that we did not want to track dirt and other refuse through the house and because our lease required us not to wear shoes in the house. While visiting family and friends in the United States the past few years, my wife and I continued taking off our shoes when entering a home. We also remove our shoes when entering a hotel room, as is customary in Japan.
As we settled into our new home in Nebraska, we purchased a large shoe closet for the front hallway. Not only does it keep our house cleaner, but it also provides much-needed storage because our 100-year-old house has a shortage of closet space.
David from Man Vs Globe stopped planning and started living after backpacking South America
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It’s a bit of a cliché that ‘travel changes you’ or helps you ‘find yourself’. It’s an idea that I occasionally roll my eyes at but as I ruminate on the year that I spent backpacking South America, I can’t help but feel there is a lot of truth in this.
That year was the best of my life; I road-tripped through the desolate Salar de Uyuni, hiked for days through the Peruvian hills to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu, and partied until dawn on Ipanema beach with newfound friends for that week during Rio Carnival. It gave me a new sense of freedom and a new outlook on what it actually means to be alive.
I look at the months before the trip and how stressed I was. My work life was stagnant and overbearing while the actual trip preparation involved meticulous planning, stressful packing, and going through my itinerary with a fine-tooth comb. I wanted the entirety of my year planned so that I would hit every country and major city, while my backpack was loaded with tools and equipment for any eventuality.
It took only a month of traveling for this to change. I began to shed excess items from my luggage and my carefully-planned itinerary went out of the window. I’d meet fellow travelers that I would connect with and stay in cities for longer just to spend time with them. Usually, when they left for a city that I hadn’t ever planned on visiting, I would hop on a bus and join them on a whim. Within months, I had no plan. Instead, I started to live my life day-to-day and moment to moment, just doing what I would consider being the most fun and interesting thing at the time. There’s particular freedom in this and I came to realize that true happiness comes from living on your own terms.
But how does this relate to my day-to-day life now? Since traveling, I’ve continued this philosophy and learned to live a day at a time. I no longer over-plan or worry too much about long-term goals. Instead, I am much more likely to say ‘yes’ to last-minute opportunities or experiences. For me, this is what brings happiness. The more open I am to experiences, meeting new people, and connecting with them, the more joy I will have in life.
Travelling Jezebel newfound coffee appreciation after traveling the Balkans
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Something that my travels through the Balkans changed in me was my coffee drinking habits, or, more accurately, my attitude towards coffee. I’d always used coffee as a necessity. I needed it to wake up in the morning, I needed it to get me through long days of writing and researching blog posts, and I couldn’t have cared less about quality – give me the cheapest instant coffee from the supermarket and I’d be happy.
When I visited the Balkans, that all changed.
Not only is Balkan coffee (more commonly known as Turkish coffee) absolutely delicious, but the coffee culture in the Balkans is like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Everybody associates Italy with coffee drinking, but Italians prefer to stand at the bar and gulp down an espresso at lightning speed before swallowing a pastry whole. People in the Balkan countries will linger for hours over a single cup, and no business deal, first date, catch up with friends, or even break-up is done without coffee.
Balkan coffee culture is a huge part of the Balkan cultural identity, and it is a way to build relationships, enjoy a slower pace of life, and emphasize the importance of community.
Since returning from the Balkans, I have changed my relationship with coffee. No longer do I gulp it down blindly, barely even tasting it. I savor it. I give it the same respect that Balkan people do, heating it on the stove and punctuating every single life event with it, no matter how big or small, and almost every time I drink it, I’m reminded of that slower, more simple life that I enjoyed for some months in the Balkans.
Eva from Not Scared of the Jetlag was forever changed by desert life in Merzouga, Morocco
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After a desert hiking trip to Oman in late 2016, I had a bit of an existential crisis. I wanted to get out of corporate life, live abroad and enjoy life more than I did at that point. So, I started saving to be able to quit my job when the time was right. And after a trip to Morocco in late 2018 I did just that. I had hiked through the Sahara for 16 days with a lot of time to think. And a guide whom I found really fascinating and got along with well.
So, two months later I started traveling the world, first stop Merzouga in Morocco. And it became clear fairly fast, that I enjoyed being there and could see myself living in the desert long term. I still traveled in the summer of 2019, Italy, the Balkans and Indonesia. But I returned to Merzouga and am still here.
And my life couldn’t be more different from my former life in Germany. The village is small, everyone knows everyone else. The next supermarket with proper cheese and chocolate is 2 hours in the taxi from here, as is the closest hospital. None of the local women speak anything but Tashlaheit (the local Berber language), so I am learning that; it’s hard. I bought a camel. I only work when I want to and have a lot more free time than before. Although part of that is due to the pandemic, as tourism is still really slow here; my partner and I are in the process of starting a desert hiking company.
So, all in all, the biggest change I think is the simplicity of life here. And I became much more relaxed. From the very German “You are 2 minutes late! What happened?” to “Ah well, the taxi still needs 3 people to go, so I will just have an orange juice in the café over there and wait”. And I do not want to change back!
Susanna from Curiosity Saves found herself back at her Alaskan roots after moving to Germany
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I grew up in Alaska, a place where the sustainability of resources was interwoven into my childhood. As I grew older, though, I took a deep dark dive into the world of heavy consumerism. I purchased things I never used, or needed. I drank water from tiny plastic bottles. I bought cheap new clothing – way more than I needed, and I would take long drives in my car to destress. I rarely – if ever reduced, reused, or recycled. That all changed when I moved to Germany. I came full circle back to a mindful lifestyle rooted in sustainability.
I think this happened for several reasons. First, when I moved to Germany, I didn’t speak any German, and I was scared to go out and buy things or figure out the process it would take to buy something like a car due to the language barrier and all the red tape. Second, the systems in place essentially force you to recycle. My apartment building has a bio/organic compost bin and a paper bin – and just down the road, I can recycle all my glass, aluminum, and the very little plastic I end up using here. Additionally, Munich essentially operates a circular economy in many ways.
The pfand system allows you to return all drink containers to the beverage company for rebottling. Using a similar system beer gardens and Christmas markets serve drinks in reusable cups instead of plastic. Finally, while I pay higher taxes in Germany, I see exactly where my money goes. The bike trails for commuting and leisure and the accessibility of public transportation means I haven’t owned a car for five years. Instead, I walk or bike almost everywhere. When I’m stressed I can hop on a train or go for a long walk in a nice clean park. Living in Germany has made me slow down and appreciate a more mindful life. I now get excited about composting, recycling, and reducing consumption – as it is just part of daily life here. I’m so thankful for this new day-to-day life and know I will take it with me no matter when I move next.
Riley Hope is more community-focused in her new home of Scotland
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Visiting Scotland seemed like a faraway dream for me. I always had dreams about visiting Glasgow since I was a preteen, but as I grew older that dream seemed to drift further and further out of grasp. This want was strengthened by my first job, where my supervisor was based out of Scotland. I was nearly halfway through my undergraduate degree when I started looking into graduate school in the USA for digital marketing. The programs weren’t as established as I’d hoped, costly, or didn’t focus on any social responsibility of the ethical assets I’d hoped for in a program. I got an urge to go back to my dream of visiting Scotland. After a series of virtual tours, research, video calls, and more events, I finally booked a round trip flight and a month-long rental room.
Late fall of 2018, at 19, I spent a month touring several universities around Scotland alone. I’d never truly experienced feeling mostly safe in a city at night, much less a train until I visited. I stayed in Glasgow and went across the country using public transport. Seeing university life in Scotland compared to the United States solidified my decision. While COVID-19 prevented me from going in person, I ultimately decided to attend the University of Stirling’s Social Enterprise program.
The program switch to digital marketing was inspired by the cooperation that I felt in Scotland between local businesses and their communities. While there were the massive corporations, there were more small businesses and community help than I’d ever experienced in the USA. I now use my digital marketing skills to help revitalize communities and help small businesses. I also believe that businesses should add value back into their communities. I felt more connected with strangers in Scotland and got to hear amazing stories. Scotland in four short weeks taught me to be helpful when I can and empathetic. I integrate social enterprise aspects into my freelance practices and now have a master’s degree from a great Scottish University.