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I've Spent My Life Immersing Myself in New Cultures. Here's How It Made Me a Better Person.

by Ana Montano Jul 5, 2017

I’VE SPENT MY LIFE immersing myself in new cultures. I have a background in psychology, which has many theories to explain human behavior. Experts generally cherry pick the ones they like best. It’s a reasonable approach to a soft science, and in my experience, it’s also been an illuminating approach to life. And having had the opportunity to live many different lives on my travels, I’ve picked the parts I like best, the ones that have made me a better person.

Cuba taught me to rely on community

I was born in Cuba, where the government rationed our weekly foods — and even determined what you were going to do for a living. My birth country is a place where people have very little, but everyone supports one another. In Cuba, as a young girl, I learned the value of being able to rely on your fellow human beings when societal protections were lacking. When I was sick, the local doctor would agree to see me in his house, even in the middle of the night. And the neighbors would pitch in their potatoes and chicken so my mom could make me a hearty soup. Cuba taught me to see the good in people and to trust that people will be there for you when you need them most.

The United States taught me to rely on myself

When my family and I immigrated to the US, I learned the value of choice. Grocery stores were massive palaces of options that I had never dreamed of seeing. And as I grew older, I learned that I could choose to do anything, be anything, and think anything without interference from the government or anyone else. I studied psychology in Washington, DC, among lawyers and up-and-coming politicians, because that’s where I wanted to live at that point in my life. And since I came from a place where that never would have been possible, I’ve never taken my choices for granted.

American culture also taught me the importance of self-reliance. I no longer lived in a collectivist culture where I could rely on my neighbor. In fact, there are U.S. places that I’ve lived in for years where I’ve never known my neighbors. I learned to be self-sufficient and independent. I found myself using a butter knife to put a desk together in my first apartment. And I cherish those moments, because despite being ill-equipped and alone, I built that desk. In the same way, I worked hard and carved out some degree of success for myself, without relying on anyone else’s help. This is the quality I credit most with developing my wandering spirit.

England showed me a little sense of humor goes a long way

I had gotten up before dawn and found myself on the longest and most boring all-day bus ride I’ve ever taken to go see Stonehenge. I’ve seen a lot of impressive ruins in my life, but Stonehenge is not one of them. On the way back to London, I was enjoying some mulled wine in a Bath Christmas market when a local started chatting me up. When he asked me about the tour, I didn’t want to offend or sound like a stupid American who doesn’t appreciate history, so I shrugged and gave a generic response about it. To which he replied, “It’s just a bunch of stupid bloody rocks, isn’t it?” I laughed and admitted that I thought Stonehenge sucked.

London was the first place out of the country I ever visited as an adult and the first place I went to solo. There, I learned it’s not insensitive to have a sense of humor. In the US, we are taught to be politically correct about everything in order to avoid offending. The people of England know that taking the piss is not the same thing as being disrespectful. In some cases, like with the recent terror attacks, it’s a sign of great resiliency. Being able to laugh in the face of tragedy is a symbol of strength.

Japan rekindled my sense of wonder

As adults, some of us tend to become jaded and think we’ve seen everything. When you spend a day in the bright streets of Tokyo, you quickly learn that this is not the case. The Japanese play in arcades and enjoy delicious and unique types of candy. It’s like a society built by people who remember how much fun it was to be a child. In Japan, it’s easy to feel as though everything is new again. So, when I traveled to Japan, I let myself get swept away by the culture. I stopped at every arcade I could find so I could play my favorite arcade game, the taiko drums. And I was awed (and a little jealous) of how much better the locals were at it.

The Czech Republic taught me to relax and be more direct

When I moved to Prague last year, I did it because I was fed up with working two jobs just to pay exorbitant Miami rent. I knew there had to be a better life out there. And in the Czech Republic, I found it. It’s a place where every day is casual Friday and every Friday is a half day. People live first and make a living second. I don’t live in a constant state of stress over work. I get up with the sun and make breakfast with fresh ingredients from the farmer’s market. I make time to travel often, and I’m surrounded by people who travel more than I do. I’ve learned to relax and be at peace and not let my career dictate everything I do. Because, for me, when my morning eggs are just perfect, I can let everything else slide.

The Czechs have also taught me directness. I grew up shy, then was raised in the US, where criticism is usually couched in a cushion of praise so as to not be too harsh. In Prague, people aren’t afraid to say what they mean, which is refreshing. People aren’t nice just because they’re expected to be. So, if the florist asks me how I’m doing, it’s because she wants to know, not because she feels obligated to ask. Despite my sometimes facing a language barrier, it’s easier to have more genuine and meaningful conversations in Czechoslovakia.

Thailand taught me to live simply

By the time I went to Thailand, I had quit my job in the US, and been living and traveling abroad for six months with nothing but a rolling duffel bag full of possessions. And occasionally I would think of the joy of owning a car or playing the guitars I had left in storage or seeing the artwork I no longer had up in the house. But in Thailand, I was surrounded by people who had much less than I did. In some small villages near Chiang Mai, which don’t show up on Google Maps, I saw the tiny homes people lived in and their tattered clothes drying on a line outside. I saw the young kids running around playing with the animals because they don’t have iPads. And they seemed to be some of the happiest people I’ve ever encountered. I realized I didn’t need a house full of things I never use. In fact, there’s a lot of freedom in having very little.

Peru taught me endurance

Fighting against a brutal altitude that made me physically ill, I spent a week in Peru climbing mountains. As someone who gets winded walking up the six flights of stairs to my apartment, the endless stone stairway up to Machu Picchu Mountain seemed insurmountable, but getting to the top was wonderfully rewarding. From the highest peak in Machu Picchu to the 16,000 feet of Rainbow Mountain, I learned that I’m far more physically capable than I gave myself credit for.

I hope to continue growing and learning valuable lessons from new places and cultures for many years to come.

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