Tonight I walked down a street in Chiang Mai I’ve been down a hundred times before. I’ve been down it a hundred times because I’ve now been based here for four years. It’s the longest time I’ve had the same “home” since high school and feels like a lifetime ago that I was working in Seattle and living at home saving money to move abroad.
Since then I’ve lived in three places in Chiang Mai, had multiple jobs, acquired one dog, only been in one motorbike accident, been to 15 countries (most while traveling solo), flown back and forth to the U.S. four times, taste tested endless plates of street food, met too many fascinating people to count, visited literally hundreds of temples throughout Southeast Asia and eaten more MSG than I care to think about. My living situation, travel style, work and priorities have all changed.
Simply put, I’ve experienced and learned more than I ever could have staying at home.
When you Google “lessons learned while traveling” you come up with a ton of posts like, “29 Life Lessons Learned in Traveling the World for 8 years”, “20 Unforgettable Lessons You Can Learn From Traveling”, “50 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Traveling” and, my favorite, “108 Little, Yet Important, Things I’ve Learned After 1000 Days Traveling Around the World”. I could go down the same route, detailing every minor piece of advice or personal realization I’ve had over the past four years, but honestly just reading those titles makes me a little anxious and exhausted. Fifty “lessons” is a lot to take in and, when it comes down to it, I’ve really only learned or reinforced my belief in four things…especially numbers 3 and 4…
I never thought I would be in Thailand this long. I have never had a pet before and never wanted one. I never anticipated I’d be freelancing and not be in a “real” 9-5 job. I never thought I’d be comfortable not having the security of a full-time gig and benefits. I never expected some people to fall out of my life and others to stick around. I never thought I’d be in a relationship with someone so unlike myself. I never imagined being comfortable living in a place where it’s “cold” at 75 degrees. But all those things have happened. Though you might like to think you do, you really have no control over what happens in your life, where a path may lead you or how your beliefs, desires and perspectives may change.
Though I’ve never been one to accumulate things or want the latest whatever, my time living in northern Thailand and traveling around poorer parts of the world has just strengthened my position on living simply. (Though in the big scheme of things, my lifestyle and belongings are still far more complicated and expensive than most others. I’m unbelievably fortunate to have any power over my lifestyle at all.) Money-wise I make much, much less than everyone I know from home. If I had stayed working in Seattle I would certainly have more money, savings and possessions than I do now. However, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to put the money that I do earn toward experiences that mean more than things and create a simple, yet still very comfortable, lifestyle where I am free of the restraints of possessions, including the cost and responsibility that comes with them, and rich in the ability to control my own time, invest money and effort in things that I truly enjoy, and able to appreciate relationships and experiences over objects. Life is complicated and messy all on its own, don’t add to your stress by collecting stuff that you then have to work more to take care of and pay for. It’s a neverending cycle and one of the most backwards concepts I can imagine.
There are a million and one ways to do things. From how people work and make money, to how they interact with their families, to the food they eat and even how to do seemingly universal tasks like sweeping the floor or washing laundry, the same things can be done entirely differently. I’ve met people who have an apparently “typical” or “normal” life compared to the stereotypes and expectations I grew up with and then I’ve met people who are living a life, working a job, or practicing a belief I would have never, ever expected or thought of. I’ve also learned how to do new things I never would have at home, like drive a motorbike while carrying several groceries bags and a dog, or how to do things differently, here I slice the limes differently than the limes found in the U.S. – who would have thought? The more you travel and see new things, the more you realize you really don’t know or have seen much at all. The ways to live are infinite.
Aside from knowingly hurting someone, there are very few things I can think of that are truly 100% right or 100% wrong. No situations in life are black and white. There is a lot – a lot – of gray area and where I might have judged before I now bite my tongue or where I may have felt I had the correct point of view, I now realize that may not be the case. You can’t anticipate how you will react to a situation until you’re in it and can’t judge others for the decisions or actions they made for circumstances you’ve never had to deal with. A dream job won’t be perfect and a difficult time may make space for positive changes. The way you look at or handle a particular situation depends on your past perceptions, experience and acceptance that most things come with their own complications, drawbacks or tradeoffs. Nothing is completely good or completely bad.
Photo by: Kimberly Lauren Bryant // kimberlylbryant.com
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
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I love this post. Its crazy to realize how much living abroad can change you, I can’t imagine what its like for you after 4 years. I get the 4rth piece a lot. Before I went to china I had so many opinions about things and I do definitely feel like there are a lot of “wrong” things that have happened and are happening (murder and torture are definitely wrong) but I did start understanding why China is like that and why people don’t do anything to stop it. I wouldn’t say I walked in anyones shoes, but I got a glimpse of the shoes they do walk in and realized how different they are and how complicated countries and cultures are.
#s 3 and 4 are what have really stuck with me too.
being abroad does afford such a unique perspective. i travel to a lot of poorer parts of the globe and the frequent reminder of simplicity is something i am grateful for, but often struggle to integrate into life in the states.
There are more choices and options in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world which is fantastic, but it does make it more difficult to keep things cheap and simple.
Love this post. Great insight and depth. I’m glad that I get to read about your life and see what you’re doing. Sounds like it’s way hotter in Thailand than Florida but you know I’m getting used to the heat finally and I’m loving it! It feels good to be warm and get a tan all year round. After school is over for Chew we really want to travel a lot more. Hoping to create new memories and a new lifestyle. 🙂 maybe we’ll bump into eachother someday. Love ya girl!
Ha – it’s always hot here…I’m more used to it but still sweat and complain everyday 😉 Good luck with the travel plans and thank you so much for reading!
I loved this. I eagerly look forward to my upcoming first experience living abroad, and the expanded worldview that will come along with it!
The most important thing that traveling taught me was that it’s okay to be alone and do things on your own – not just when it comes to going to the movies alone and dining yourself out without friends, etc, but just living your life alone, for yourself, and for your own good. It’s super challenging for me most of the times, but that’s a severe reality! But when you accept that and stop feeling depressed about it, things somehow change!
Thanks for sharing, Olga!
Great post. No matter what you do in life, I can share that my many years of travel have given me flexibility, adaptability, creativity, and confidence in everything I’ve pursued. I love that you learned to live life simply at a young age, and appreciate the cultures and environments around the globe. The breadth and variety of Asia and Africa are not to be missed! Every trip and volunteer abroad only deepens my appreciation for the right (not better) things in life.
Thanks for reading, Jon!
Excellent points! We’ve lived in Turkey and Poland for the past 5 years and are getting ready to move on to Melbourne next. It’s a crazy adventure and I never thought I’d live in any of these countries, much less outside of the U.S. I never thought I’d learn how to speak Turkish and Polish, but I’ve tried. I never thought I’d not miss living in the U.S., but I really don’t.
This really hits home and I’ve often thought of the same thing: “The more you travel and see new things, the more you realize you really don’t know or have seen much at all.” The more I travel, the more I want to see. The world is a really BIG place! 🙂
It’s funny how the more you see the less you know…
Really loved this post! After almost 3 years abroad, I can relate to all of these, especially that there is no right way to live– something that many Americans are trained to think otherwise! It’s been such a refreshing experience to be immersed in such a different culture.
I have to ask though, and hoping this question is not too forward, but one ESL teacher to another living in a country where the currency is not worth so much when taken out of it: how do you afford your plane tickets to visit home…. is it tough to manage with your salary there or pretty manageable?
I’m not teaching any more, but when I was making about $700-800 per month. I lived really frugally, going out for a coffee was a splurge, and had come over here with savings. I lived off of what I made, even saving a little, then used my savings when I needed to.
after 8 weeks abroad..Philippines-Singapore-Thailand-Canada & back to San Francisco to reality & work..reading this reinforces all my nights of sweaty hawker stands..West ANDAMAN Sea sunsets & brisk cool sunlit summer Calgary evenings!
..can’t wait to fly out next trip! I like your four simple rules & will try to abide by them on my next big trip..2016 tour of cherry blossom laden Japan! Will subscribe to ur blog! Still gotta getti Chiang Mai! Ciáo (luckily sister lives in Rome!)
Thanks for reading! (And it’s always best when you know people in different places…make the most of that Rome connection!)
“You can’t anticipate how you will react to a situation until you’re in it and can’t judge others for the decisions or actions they made for circumstances you’ve never had to deal with.”
This is such a great perspective and incredibly valuable piece of advice – something that everyone, traveler or not, should live by. Personally I’ve never lived abroad for any great length, only traveled for up to a few months at a time throughout Asia/Far-East, but this is one of the main lessons I learned that has stuck with me. You are right, life is but many shades of grey. It reminds me of a quote I once heard: “It’s not the things that happen to you, it’s how you react to what happens.”
Anyway, I’m currently considering whether to move from England to Chiang Mai – experiencing the customary anxieties and reservations. Thanks for your advice and sharing your experience. It certainly makes the (inevitable, lol) move less daunting.
Glad you’re finding my posts helpful!
I love this post — it’s so honest — and I love your writing in general. Now that I’m in Chiang Mai, I am re-reading a lot of your work. It’s so relevant to me, and so useful, too. Thanks a million for being such a dedicated blog writer for so long. I realize your website’s focus has shifted, so I’m all the more grateful for these older posts. Also, by the way, I love your photos.
I need to do another one of these…8 things from 8 years living abroad! 😉
22 Comments on The 4 Things I’ve Learned from 4 Years Living Abroad