How Life Overseas Enriches You…

I visited San Miguel de Allende recently while working on a video project, and I had a chance to catch up with an old friend from when my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I lived there back in 2007 and 2008.

It pleased me to find him doing well and to hear that his two children were growing into handsome, intelligent young adults. Part of the reason for that, he told me, were the chances they’d had to travel.

They’re local San Miguel kids that he and his wife adopted when they were very young, and he’s given them every opportunity he can to go abroad because, as he explained, the more you see of the world, the more complete a person you become.

This is an old and familiar concept, but we tend not to think much about it today because it’s so easy to “go” places virtually. A few hours on YouTube can transport you around the world and immerse you in almost any culture you like…or rather, transport your eyes and ears and imagination. You yourself will have done nothing, really, other than sit there for a few hours exactly where you began.

It’s tempting to confuse these virtual experiences with the real thing. Some people actually do. But the passive act of watching a documentary on the tribes of the upper Amazon or the tango culture of Buenos Aires is not the same as being there yourself. It doesn’t have the same effect on your personality and character.

For instance, watching a video about the delicately spiced and slow-cooked Yucatecan pork delicacy, cochinita pibil, will never require you to wake up early on a warm Sunday morning in Merida, Mexico, to get down to the Plaza Mejor to make sure you get a seat at your favorite food booth.

It won’t require you to greet the proprietor of that booth and to order your breakfast tacos in a way that she’ll understand and that will produce the breakfast that you really want instead of her best guess.

It won’t require you to ask for your bill when you’re done—because you’ll never get your bill if you don’t ask for it—and to pay the proper amount of pesos rather than dollars.

And a video certainly won’t give you the glow of saying goodbye to the woman who spent the entire night before preparing the cochinita for your breakfast tacos and hearing her say that she’ll look forward to seeing you again next week.

Likewise, watching documentaries about Ecuador won’t let you feel the difference between an angora and a regular wool sweater, or sting your nose when a load of dried fish is delivered to the mercado or tell you where to find the best plumber in town, or direct you to the right window for paying your property taxes.

Those are the things of life abroad…life lived with people who aren’t exactly like you and haven’t done things exactly the way you have all their lives. Those are the things that challenge you, get you outside of yourself, and require you to be more engaged with the world on a daily basis.

As children, every day was like this; each day presented a new experience, a novel concept, a challenge to our ability to figure it out, to make it work, to complete the task, to understand.

Some people think that growing up means having it all figured out and never having to figure out anything else ever again. My friend in San Miguel has a different take on things. He believes that giving his children the exposure to new and novel ways of life and helping them remain more childlike in their curiosity and sense of wonder will improve them as adults. Make them more “complete” if you will.

I and a lot of expats I know would agree. I think we’d also agree that it doesn’t matter what age you happen to be…the more you bump up against the unfamiliar, the more you have to use your brain and body and intuition to navigate new situations and get along in new places with new people, the more “complete” you become.

It’s a strange concept. It’s almost as if the less you feel that you have everything nailed down and figured out, the more complete…and the more childlike…a person you are. But it makes sense to me.

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