According to Pew research “nearly four-in-ten [Americans] — have never left the place in which they were born.” Only 30% of Americans have a passport, and only a fraction of those passports are used to travel somewhere other than Canada or Mexico. This creates an American bubble of ignorance so dense that among Americans aged 18-24, 63 percent could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East (after America invaded that country while broadcasting highly censored images of it all over our national television).
International travel, which does not have to be prohibitively expensive, could obviously help to ameliorate those startling levels of ignorance. But that’s not the only benefit of international travel. It can profoundly impact your life for the better, and today I want to outline some of the reasons I think spending time abroad might improve someone’s life.
Reason #1: Food
Food in America is delicious (think Texas BBQ), but variety is the spice of life. While traveling, you will run into cuisines that you have never encountered. Here in China there are delicious green vegetables I’ve never heard of or seen before. There is the occasionally revolting food item that crops up, but everywhere you turn there are unique flavors, sensations, smells, tastes, colors.
Just ask Anthony Bourdain if he regrets wandering the globe sampling the best foods that different cultures have to offer. In China, the culinary diversity that exists is mind boggling. You can find scrumptious noodles for like two American dollars.Most places in the Middle Kingdom will have a restaurant that does up a Beijing Roast Duck that would make you swoon. And if meat is not your thing try the tofu dishes. There’s something for everyone. If there is one thing that motivates me to travel, it’s food. The thought of eating at a legit churrascaria in Brasil.
Having a glass of red and stuffing my face full of carbs in Italy.
Indulging in a cheap cocktail bucket and eating Pad Thai on a beach somewhere in the paradises of Thailand.
A fat German sausage. Some stinky French cheese. A fiesta of Ethiopian meats and vegetables on spongy flatbread called injera. Spicy Indian curry on the Ganges. A falafel in the cradle of civilization. I won’t have the money/time to make all the lavish food journeys I dream of, but it’s certainly a goal to try as much as possible in one lifetime. Food in America will always be there, waiting for me to come home.
People of the world, give me your foods so that I may feast upon your greatness.
Reason #2: Language
Learning another language creates alternate networks of meaning in your own brain, changing the way it operates. Thinking in a foreign language has been proven to help economic decision making, increase brain density, and reduce your risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. But more than that, it will permanently open your mind to new ways of interpreting the everyday world around you. Studying does not have to be made overly mundane, and it is possible to learn a language to fluency in under a year’s time. The delight of understanding someone who is not speaking English will motivate you to keep learning. Personally, I think that studying a new language can be pleasurable in and of itself. Listening to new music, watching foreign language movies set in another place and time, reading a novel you’ve read before and seeing it as if for the first time again.
If you can speak to someone local in their own language it will open up doors of travel opportunity you would never have imagined. I’ve been to beautiful places I didn’t even know existed simply because I struck up conversation with a young Chinese traveler who was riding the train with me. I’ve eaten food that I couldn’t find an English translation for. One time I found the translation too late and wound up eating bull’s penis (when offered it I understood only 牛 [cow] when my hosts had said 牛鞭 [bull penis] and I wrongly assumed it was just beef).
Reason #3: Stories
When you return to America you’ll have plenty of great conversation pieces, like that time you ate bull penis by mistake. After all, some of the best travel stories are about failure. A portion of Christopher Ryan’s podcast, affectionately dubbed “Talking Out My Ass,” is just a collection of epic travel tales from his many years of vagabonding. When I was in college I can remember people being interested to hear about what my life was like going to High School in Jakarta, Indonesia. When mingling at a packed house, half the battle is just standing out. You’ll be significantly more memorable if you have a few yarns to spin about the time you went backpacking through rural areas in Nepal or built wells for the Mbuti Pygmies in the Congo. I’m sure Justin Wren loves to show people the cute video of his hair being braided by his Pygmy family in Africa. After all, there are scientific studies that have found that people are happier spending their money on experiences rather than things.
Reason #4: Time Wealth
Time is wealth, and you only have so much of it. The fact that you are an impermanent being is inescapable, and as we age we get less capable of long term travel. Don’t put off dreams of traveling until you are too old to enjoy it fully. Retirement is too far off and it’s not guaranteed to everyone. So plan a mini-retirement. Get a low pressure gig teaching English or find some freelance work to sustain your travels. There are plenty of ways to get around, you are only limited by your time on Earth. Don’t waste it.
Reason #5: Beginner’s Mind
Traveling to a new country and pushing reset on the language button puts you directly back into the mindset of a child. And like childhood, it will be much simpler/quicker to make friends with your fellow travelers. Anyone sitting in your hostel is now an immediate companion. It’s another era of play time together. Everything is new. Unfamiliar settings force you to re-learn the simplest things, and there will be a re-kindling of passion for considering novelty and being absorbed completely in the present moment. Something older, more in touch with the animal soul, bleeds back into your everyday consciousness as you are confronted with new input on every level. Verbal, visual and audial reality are inundated with an influx of new. Old fears, delusions, ideologies and programming are broken down. You can now see the relativity of cultural systems. Beginner’s Mind is the state that ultimately led Richard Alpert to travel to India and write the book Be Here Now, which profoundly influenced many people including Steve Jobs.
Reason #6: You are the exotic foreigner
Women like men with accents. And it’s no secret that men like foreign women. Something about the unfamiliar excites both the sexes. Cross cultural relationships may have obstacles, but I love dating someone from another country. My girlfriend’s life is endlessly fascinating to me because she was raised in another culture. I constantly learn things about her country and background. She teaches me her language, customs, dances, traditions etc. The novelty of beginner mind keeps our relationship fresh, and we continue to grow together.
Reason # 7: History
In Beijing there is a museum exhibit about the Korean War with the title, “War to resist U.S. aggression and aid North Korea.” Everything about history exudes political bias. Whether it’s America, France, China, Russia or Vietnam, every country is looking at similar historical facts through a different prism. Understanding these differing opinions is like a historical trig formula. By taking account of each point, you can triangulate a new equation to describe the system. During the Korean War, despite America’s noble rhetoric, we committed horrible atrocities including the bombing of civilian dams.
North Korea’s main irrigation dams were destroyed in the spring of 1953, shortly after the rice had been transplanted. “The subsequent floods scooped clean 27 miles of valley below. . . . The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian—starvation and slow death.” Interestingly, in the Nuremberg trials (held just a few years before) the US had held Germany guilty of a war crime for opening Holland’s dikes: an action essentially identical to the bombing of North Korea’s dams by the US.
Sometimes being taken out of your country can give you a new sense of compassion for people around the globe, including those who have fallen victim to the many wars that Americans feel are justified. Feeling bonds of friendship and love that extend past your countries borders seems necessary in an age of rapid globalization.
Vagabonding can add entirely new dimensions to your life, and traveling abroad for a period should be encouraged. There are many benefits to be had from living outside your comfort zone, and the experiences you accrue will never be forgotten.