In January 2015, I hopped on a plane to Bangkok and went travelling in Southeast Asia. What was intended to be two months of travelling quickly turned into two years of living in Vietnam. And, for the vast part of that time, I believed I was a better person just for simply being there.
Friends and family congratulated me on my bravery to move away. Others voiced their jealousy of my ‘exotic’ life. Those who visited me told me how incredible it was that I had managed to set myself up in a new country. Without really realising, I quickly gained a certain amount of arrogance about my new-found identity as an ‘expat’, which brings me to the first way that living abroad made me a worse person…
1. I called myself an ‘expat’.
In Vietnam, most of us foreigners don’t have residency cards, but we live here. Most of us don’t have working visas, but we work. Most of us don’t have Vietnamese driving licenses, but we drive. And, we get called ‘expats’, a term that most of us are proud to identify as.
In the UK, foreigners who live, work, and drive legally are almost always called ‘immigrants’, no matter what. As many immigrants know, this term isn’t always a welcoming one.
Calling myself an ‘expat’ was not a crime but without proper care that term can give you a sense of superiority, and that’s exactly what it did to me.
2. I thought being in a different place would make me a different person.
For every person who thinks they’ll drop their bad habits simply by moving away, that is not how it works. It didn’t for me, at least.
I was proud that I managed to move somewhere new, get my head around a new culture and get to know a new place. However, achieving these things didn’t mean that I had solved the problems that I had when I left my home country. Moving abroad gave me temporary relief from anxiety and stress, but these things don’t disappear.
I stopped working on dealing with my personal problems and instead distracted myself with the everyday challenges of living abroad. This only lasted so long, though. A problem here is a problem there.
3. I believed everyone could move abroad.
Before I went travelling, I had a full-time job, low enough rent to save some money, and no responsibilities tying me to my home country. Once I saved up enough money for a flight and a few weeks of living in Southeast Asia, I was all set. It really was that easy for me and I assumed it would be that easy for everyone else.
I have repeatedly been guilty of saying, ‘go travelling, move abroad, anyone can do it!’ It only occurred to me how totally wrong I was when I used this off-hand line with one of my Vietnamese friends. Then, she reeled off a list as long as my arm as to why it really wasn’t that easy for her to travel, as I went redder and redder with embarrassment.
4. I became even more privileged.
I’m a white, middle-class, university-educated woman from a first-world country. It goes without saying that I’m privileged.
Now, put me in Southeast Asia, and I’m rich (my British pound goes further and I’m paid more than locals), beautiful (pale skin is perceived as beautiful by lots of people here), and hireable (a native English speaker). In other words, I’m even more privileged.
I was getting hired for jobs I wouldn’t be able to get in the UK and living in apartments that I wouldn’t be able to afford. And, I believed that I was more successful in Vietnam because I was getting better at what I was doing. I was moving up in the world! My talent was being recognised!
I’d like to think that improving my skills was part of the reason I got good jobs and earned good money. However, as much as it hurts my ego, I’ve also got to admit that I was afforded a great amount of privilege in Vietnam and much of my good fortune has to be attributed to that.
5. I did not integrate into society.
I’m embarrassed to say that in my home country, there were times that I rolled my eyes at people who lived in the UK and didn’t speak perfect English. Then, I moved to Vietnam and I sure as hell did not speak perfect Vietnamese.
I tried a few Vietnamese lessons, I decided it was too hard and I gave up. I withdrew into a bubble of English-speaking people. I told myself that it was no big deal because locals liked to practise speaking English with me. Put simply, I did not integrate into society.
6. I judged my friends at home.
This can be a two-way street when you change your lifestyle in a big way. You can’t see why your friends are living their life one way and they can’t understand why you’re living your life in another way. You start to feel distance from each other, you start to see their decisions as ‘wrong’, and vice versa. With every step that I became more open-minded in one area, I became closed-minded in another.
So, what’s my point? Don’t travel? Don’t move abroad? Don’t be a bad person?
No, not at all. (Well, maybe the last one.)
My point is that moving abroad doesn’t automatically make you a better, more open-minded, more well-rounded person. Just being somewhere else doesn’t necessarily change you for the better.
Making positive changes, be it at home or in a foreign country, takes mindful effort. You may leave some bad habits in your home, but it’s easy enough to pick up new ones in a new place.
So, my point is, if you move abroad, appreciate that you’re lucky to have the option to do so. Don’t judge others that don’t or can’t do the same. Accept that you are privileged. Don’t stop working on improving yourself. And, try your best to become part of society. This all sounds very obvious. It is obvious, but, believe me, it’s easy to find yourself forgetting.