We’re three weeks into vacation and our time thus far has been totally consumed with the necessities of our wedding and move abroad. Yesterday, as we sold off much of our furniture and watched our carefully organized apartment dissolve into boxes and piles, a not-so-little part of me was thinking: Why? Why demolish this happy life here to move halfway around the world?
We want to move abroad for a dozen reasons, but fundamentally it is because we both realize that without living abroad, we will always see the world only through our tiny Californian sliver of a perspective. Without living abroad, we will always live our lives through our Californian routine. We want to know more of our world and be better people for it.
Traveling lets you taste other countries and cultures, but really digesting a place and a people, forever gaining their perspective in your look about the world, requires a more thorough experience. Visiting Zurich, Paris and Rome last year taught me that real life is defined by the mundane, even in the most refined and densely interesting of places. The differences between places and their people are rarely determined by anything listed in a Top Ten guidebook, but instead by the simple features of life which make people happy or drive people crazy. No matter how many UNESCO sites you pass on your way to work, life is still about the routine, about where you eat and when you sleep, about commutes and conveniences, about shopping and cooking, about washing clothes and taking a walk. While traveling, I could only grab glimpses of the real life I was missing, ---a single shop at a grocery store, posters in the buses, a trip across town at rush hour, an accidental walk through an anonymous residential neighborhood. By living somewhere, the real life of the city becomes my own.
I realize that we clearly can’t “live like the Chinese,” as we will be working and interacting primarily with expatriates. Just as certainly, I realize that many parts of adult life are universal, like paying bills and washing dishes. But by living in Shanghai, we will be forced to learn a whole new routine, one structured by another country and culture. Certainly, there are basic aspects of my life there that I can read about, anticipate and imagine, like living without a car or bargaining for goods, but the more valuable experiences will be those I can’t predict. All too naturally, we become slave to our assumptions. Trapped in the routine of daily life, small changes seem very significant and big changes seem impossible. Eventually, we can’t imagine it any different and so it never is.
Finally, I feel there is a need for me, the person I am and want to be, to live abroad. As an American, especially a privileged white American, I have always lived in an imagined world with me at its center, with my life and my perspective incessantly validated as normal. By moving abroad, I can chip away at that self-centrism a little. I can see a little of how life is lived by immigrants everywhere, outside of the mainstream of their host country, in their small eddies of expatriacy. I can understand a little of how it feels to be inescapably marked, by color and culture, as “different.” I can watch daily news, and even a summer Olympics, without my own country at the center.
So, why am I doing this?
I am moving abroad to stretch my mind and open my eyes.
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