Why not just have a holiday?

This is a question I get asked a lot when I explain to some people my activities over the last year. It’s a good question, I guess, why not just visit a place and enjoy the touristy stuff? Why uproot your whole life and try to live and work in a totally alien environment? It’s a question that doesn’t have a simple answer, put simply, because it’s not a simple question. So, why be an expat, for a bit, for a while, or forever? Okay, I’ll stop asking questions now and try to answer some for you.

It’s life, only, different

So, holidays are awesome, aren’t they? Whether you’re the sort who sees them as opportunities to unwind, indulge and do as little as possible, or plans every minute with uptight precision making sure you take in every sight and sound, either way, you’re stepping out of the daily grind and into something new, interesting and (hopefully) enjoyable. One of the best holidays I ever had was spending Christmas in Amsterdam. It consisted of days of just wandering around festive markets, sitting in coffee shops, eating amazing food and being waited on hand and foot. It was fantabulous. And it’s a world away from what I’m doing now in New Zealand.  What I’m doing here now is exactly like what I did in Vietnam, which is the same as what I was doing in the UK, living and working. Okay, both of these trips have involved some sightseeing and touristy type things, but for the most part, I’ve been living on a budget and doing the same life things as I had to back home, paying bills, going shopping, and going to work. So if it’s the same, where is the value? Why do it? The value is in the difference. It’s interesting, really interesting, to try out new ways of living in different cultures. It helps you to realise what you do and don’t like about your own culture. You appreciate things you never expected to miss and recognise the value of attitudes and lifestyles that you could never conceive of before. Admittedly, living in South East Asia was a massive culture shock for me, and I don’t think I could settle somewhere like that long term, but I know that my experiences there were important and that they will inform the person I am for the rest of my life.

I do feel that having to live somewhere, navigate public transport, deal with employers, find economical ways of living when confronted with various mitigating factors like language barriers, significant cultural difference and sometimes even prejudice, leads to you understanding a place in a manner that you just can’t get from visiting it. But this means that you will experience a lot of negative things along with the positive, and it can be really hard at points. But that’s life, isn’t it? That’s what I’m trying to say, it’s life, only different, and there is value in experiencing difference, especially if you’re the sort of person who didn’t have a set life plan or goals at the outset.

photo 3It forces you outside of your comfort zone

I’ve always deferred to others when it comes to making decisions about my own life. I hate confrontation and I really don’t want to hurt people, but I’ve been aware for some time that living my life for other people will only make me unhappy in the long run, and I don’t want to end up all bitter and resentful as a result. One of the biggest boosts to my confidence was teaching English as a foreign language in Saigon. Teaching put me in situation where I had to think on my feet, take charge of situations, and be an authority, while still being relatable, empathic and at points, fun and funny. Teaching forced me to confront a lot of my issues, including, the question of whether I can relate to kids and whether they could like me (this is linked to my hesitations over having children) and confidence in my own intelligence and ability to deal with situations without looking to somebody else for guidance. On top of that, I was, and I’m still being, constantly confronted with new people and circumstances whereby I have to contextualise all of my past experience and apply that to my read of new situations while still being open minded and ready to expect the unexpected.

The bits that are harder to describe are the ones that are really and truly, just so alien to the experience of living in a western country that I’m not sure I can adequately explain it or get you to visualise it. The daily journeys on the Saigon buses, the heat and the dirt, the people being sick into bags, the danger of hurting yourself every time you get on or off a bus due to the people pushing and the buses rarely stopping… I think it’s the fact that it was every day is the reason why it has had a lasting impact. It wasn’t a one-off, it became my reality for a while, and it has made me endlessly grateful that I was born into a country where I didn’t have to fight as hard as that, all the time, every day, just to get by. I created coping mechanisms to deal with it, under it all I knew that it was only for a finite period, and ultimately, it was my choice. It was also a challenge that I felt I needed to live up to, because falling apart would have been a massive personal failure. But I don’t feel resentful that I had the experiences I did, certainly not in retrospect. I think everybody who has come from a westernised country should experience it at least once in their lives, because it makes you appreciate everything you ever took for granted, and it shows you just how stupid you are for ever wasting the opportunities you do have, that you’ve never really had to fight for. On top of all that, the number of times I was on my own in that city, lost, phone battery dying or dead, destined for another unknown scenario, surrounded by people who didn’t have a clue what I was saying or were often not inclined to help even if I could make myself understood… Well, I dealt with that. ME, on my own. This gave me a sense of achievement, a feeling of capability, so when people do run me down or underestimate me, I know that they’re wrong. I know that when I’m pushed to the limit of temper, tolerance and feeling very alone, I have myself to fall back on. Myself, and no one else, and this is okay.

photo 1It’s pretty damn cool

So, living abroad can be stressful, lonely, hard and tiring, a lot of the time. You will have the same problems as before, and likely your support system will be far away, living their lives quite happily without you. But, here’s the awesome bit, every single thing you do is different. Whatever happens in your life, the ability to be able to say ‘that time when I lived in Vietnam’ or ‘while I was working in New Zealand’, these are epically incredible things that I would never have got to experience had I not done this. I’m going through some big stuff personally at the moment, and as hard as that can be at points, the very fact that I’m going through it with a back drop of stunning mountains, next to the sea, watching sun rises and sets that almost make me, as a dyed in the wool atheist, believe in a God, well, yeah, that does make a difference. It reminds me daily that the sacrifices I’ve made and the pain I feel, is not all for nothing. Everything is a novelty, everything is new, and everything is exhausting, especially in a workplace, because you’re constantly taking on and analysing new things. Even though New Zealand’s culture is, on the face of it, very similar to that of the UK, it’s still different in many, many, often subtle, ways, that catch me out constantly. It’s all a learning curve, and it is all still teaching me what I like about the difference and what I miss about the mother land. What I’m beginning to find somewhere in between all this difference and observation, is a growing opinion about where I might fit and what I might want. And working out who you are, well, there is not much in life that’s cooler than that I don’t reckon.

It teaches you how insignificant and important you are at the same time

Our lives have absolutely no meaning and mean everything at the same time, that’s an opinion I’ve held for as long as I can remember, and I believe it more with every passing day. One thing I’ve learned is that, I’m a Brit, and I will always be a Brit, wherever I end up living. It’s in my blood, in my humour, in my life perspective, and not only am I coming to terms with that, I’m proud of it. I really do think that the UK produces some excellent personalities, possibly some of the best personalities (ahem, apologies, biased much?) but, I felt mitigated in the UK. I felt like I was always fighting against something, whether it was some corporation or my employer or some other thing, I really struggled to find my value as person within that environment. I do feel that many of my friends have grown up with this feeling also, and it’s an poor legacy for a country that is widely regarded (as you find when you leave it) to be one of the best on the planet. One thing that Vietnam and New Zealand have in common, strangely, despite their extreme difference, is a feeling of freedom. The people I’ve met in both countries do not seem as held back by the same dogma that Brits hold ourselves to. The level of personal accountability is higher, but so is the level of opportunity, of independence of thought and action, for better and for worse. But no other country can replicate the people I love, they are unique. There we are again, back to the balance. We all have ties that bind, but to let that stop us from experiencing a bigger world, that’s a disservice to everyone, especially the people who love you, the people who want you to grow and find what you want out of this crazy, messed up world.

When I left the UK, a friend of mine gave me a card with the following quote written it:

‘An adventurous life does not necessarily mean climbing Mountains, swimming with sharks or jumping off cliffs. It means risking yourself by leaving a little piece of you behind in all those you meet along the way.’ *

This never fails to make me cry every time I read it, because I felt that already, knowing I was leaving my home, and it’s only stood to become truer with every step I’ve taken. I guess this is the reason why I would advocate living abroad for a while, over only having holidays: it’s the adventure that matters. Don’t get me wrong, holidays can include amazing experiences, and adventures, but I think most people would agree, it’s when things go a little bit or a very lot wrong, that’s when it really becomes an adventure. If we’ve learned anything from Indiana Jones or The Goonies, for an adventure to have a lasting impact on you, danger, risk and loss are all part of it, as well as the wins and the good bits. The best way to ensure this experience, is to just live, and allow all that comes with living to be a part of it.

I’m a romantic at heart, and I like to think that our lives follow some kind of narrative, but the logical side of me knows that’s wishful thinking. We’re thrown into the chaos of other people’s worlds from the moment we’re born, and somewhere within that, we have to find a life to live that is our own. We can’t change the world, we are here for a blink in the eyeball of the universe, but the macro and micro are actually all the same thing at the end of the day. We’re a part of it, and all life must be experienced, good, bad, ugly and otherwise. If we’re lucky enough to have a life that affords us a random collection of experiences, why not have an adventure? Because once all is said and done, we always end up where we’re meant to be, and you might just pick up some stories to tell along the way.

But that all being said, I could really do with a holiday!

*Shawna Grapentin

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