Five Expat Life Lessons We’ve Learned from our Roving Retirement

One of my wife Sharyn’s and my favorite sayings as we travel around the world, is “Every day’s a school day.” I’m not talking about the barrage of information, facts, figures, news, and events we’re bombarded with on the internet and nightly news; much of which we forget instantly. I’m referring to the new environments and challenges that provide lifelong lessons.

There are certain points in time where our experiences have completely changed our thinking and reasoning about deeper issues. One of the first things we learned while traveling was not to generalize, but our roving retirement has revealed some interesting universal life lessons.

Here are five things we’ve learned about the world in almost ten years of traveling.

1. People are the Same Everywhere.

Now, how can that be? It seems counter-intuitive. There are so many different races, religions, and ethnicities, surely they can’t be the same? After all the media has no problems applying stereotypes of who’s good and who’s bad. But after wandering the streets in hundreds of places across the globe and interacting with the locals, we’re astounded at the degree of similarity across the board.

Regardless of race, religion, or economic status, the same character types keep popping up wherever we go. The majority of people are friendly, generous, helpful, honest, and kind, with a small minority who don’t give two hoots about us, and fewer still who are unpleasant. There are the extroverts and the introverts, comedians and stoics, those seeking change and traditionalists who never will. Almost everyone loves their family, is proud of their country and hometowns, and are excited to show off the best to guests in their part of the world. Once we came to this realization, traveling to new countries and seeking new experiences become less daunting. We get to immerse ourselves in a new culture, safe in the knowledge we’ll also make meaningful and genuine connections with the people if we make an effort.

2. A Smile Makes a World of Difference.

Smile, and the world smiles with you! Psychologists say smiling is like throwing a feel-good party in your brain; it activates neural messaging that benefits your health. Not only is it good for you, but it also has the same effect on others.

We’ve found that people in less developed countries can be quite shy around foreigners, and although they are curious, they won’t engage until you make an effort. Many a time we’ve given someone with a deadpan expression a big smile and had it reciprocated, turning an impersonal experience into a connection that acknowledges each other as human beings.  That communication, albeit small, shows courtesy, respect, and a positive mood and creates an opportunity to engage that you wouldn’t otherwise have had.

In our time living in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, we have become popular in our neighborhood, even though we only have a few words in Vietnamese. It’s because we are willing to engage with our neighbors, even if it’s on the smallest of scales. Everyone gets a smile, no matter what kind of day we’re having. We try, and it gets rewarded many times over.

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3. There’s a Surprise Around Every Corner

We’re often asked if, after a decade of traveling, we get bored. After all, how many mountain views, incredible sunsets, world-class museums, and bustling local markets can you experience before it becomes a bit “ho-hum.” Well, we can honestly give a resounding “No.” As long as you keep your eyes and ears open and a keen sense of curiosity, there’s always something amazing to discover, even on the most ordinary day.

In our early years of travel, there was no internet or Google Maps to show us around and tell us about everything. We quite literally stumbled across the most amazing things—an ornate doorway with hundreds of years of history, a local artisan who was creating the same wares his family had for generations, life in the back streets of a residential neighborhood that revealed more about a country than any museum. We felt like real explorers, there was so much to see and do that wasn’t in our basic guidebook.

How could we forget our chat with a Nepalese man who was serving us tea in a guesthouse? He was so humble, polite, and hospitable. It wasn’t until we looked at the photographs dotted around the modest room that we discovered that he’d summited Mt Everest, not once, but several times. We were invited for tea at a local’s house in Giza, Cairo, which we accepted because we were curious to see how the locals lived. After finishing our tea and making polite conversation, our host summoned us up to his rooftop. Low and behold we were staring straight at the pyramids. Imagine having that in your backyard, to admire every day.

Nowadays many things are documented on a blog or on YouTube which is excellent for researching the must-sees in a destination. But we still like to seek out things for ourselves. Put down the smartphone and take a wander and get lost and see what we can see.

4. Haggling isn’t Hard

Haggling is a necessary skill when traveling in many countries. Everything has a price, it’s discovering what the real one is that’s the challenge! At home, prices are marked, and we expect to pay whatever’s on the sticker. But when you’re in developing countries, that’s often not the case.

The most critical aspect of haggling is context. If we’re in a remote Asian or African village bargaining for a bunch of bananas, we take a completely different approach than if we’re in a tourist market in Ho Chi Minh city choosing a souvenir. In the first instance, we’re likely to be haggling over a tiny amount, and we ask ourselves, who is going to benefit most by a difference of a few cents? Certainly not us, but it could be the difference between a family having enough to eat that day and not. In the second instance, we know the price is likely to start at two, three, or even more times the real value of the article. Vendors expect to bargain, if you don’t they’ll love you, but they’ll also think less of you.

The second thing with haggling is that once you name a price and begin the process, it’s GAME ON. The article is yours, you just need to agree on a price. It’s bad form to back out once negotiations have started and if you do it will probably cause a scene.

Our golden rule is always to smile and keep the process agreeable and friendly. It’s not life and death, and getting angry, upset, or aggressive will work against you. There’s a bottom line the seller won’t cross, and you’ll never get it for less. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to get as close to that price as you can.

More often than not showing a little interest in the object and then walking away (before you mention a price) is enough to lower the starting price. NEVER lead off the haggling unless you’re very sure of the value. Let the vendor start proceedings so at least you know what you’re up against, and when you counter bid, start off well below what you’re prepared to pay. After that, it’s small increments until you meet in the middle. Patience is your friend.

While haggling can seem strange at first, the more you practice, the easier it gets. Many of our shopping expeditions have made their way into our most treasured memories. As long as you remain friendly and remember these simple rules, you’ll have fun and end the transaction with a handshake, a smile, and a keepsake you’ve paid a fair price for.

5. Treat Everyone with Respect

Treat everyone with respect and your experience in a new country will improve exponentially. That seems logical, but, even now, we are often surprised by how rude and uncaring people can be to others, both as tourists and as “superior” locals.

In our travels, we especially show respect to elders. A smile and a nod of your head will undoubtedly get noted, and not just by the elders themselves. Anyone in the vicinity will automatically assign you brownie points and set you apart from the usual tourist, especially in places like Asia where older people are revered.

Speaking rudely to serving staff, tour guides, or those doing menial tasks is one of our pet hates. A simple thank you, smile, and general politeness can make a person’s day, and we’ve found we get better service and attitude when we do. More than once someone has thanked us for being so lovely and lamented that not everyone is so kind. If we return to that place, we’re usually remembered and treated preferentially.

Another way we show respect is to show an interest in people and listen to their stories. We listen well, remember what they tell us, and follow up on those topics each time we meet—a son who’s just had his first baby, a daughter who’s studying in another country, a person’s favorite football team winning the league. People are impressed and flattered that you care enough to do so and you can learn a lot about a country and its customs by engaging in these interactions. More than once we’ve returned to a place after a lengthy absence and people have remembered us fondly, even greeting us with hugs.

These are just some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way during our travels. Without a doubt, they make our travel experience better and help us make deeper connections with the locals, no matter where in this world we are.

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