Growing up, I was always a good student. Teachers loved me; other kids called me names for it. I didn’t care. I loved learning, especially about art and history and languages. There were so many places in the world to see. I couldn’t wait to get out there. To speak to as many people as I could.
I went to Europe for the first time when I was 20. I’ll never forget the way it felt to step off the plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was so massive. The hallways were wide and endless, with the highest ceilings I’d ever seen. People rushed all around pulling their suitcases, speaking in foreign languages. Getting through customs and finding the baggage claim was a defiantly proud moment. And then there was the excitement of hopping on a train to Annecy, where I would be studying for the next four months. Gare du Nord, the architecturally stunning Parisian train station, looked more like a Catholic church than an Amtrak. Platform after platform of long silvery bullets. I’d only see trains like that in movies. But there I was, boarding my TGV and watching the green countryside of a foreign land stream by my window. I couldn’t have felt luckier if I’d landed on the moon.
My French was horrible at first but the locals really appreciated the effort. As the months passed, I improved and even started to think and dream in French. Then one day while making small talk with a store clerk I had a realization — I was now able to talk to people who didn’t even speak English. That meant I was able to communicate with 40 million more people (in France alone) that I could never have communicated with before! It was eye opening.
And it wasn’t just a language I was learning. It was a culture. A way of life that was similar in some ways but very different in others to the life I had back in Missouri. To give a small example, I’d had many salads before, but it would have never occurred to me to add potatoes, green beans, and tuna to a salad (a traditional salad nicoise). This is a little culinary trick I brought back with me from France, among so many others. On a more serious note, I learned about the unemployment problems in France. Met people who proudly scammed the welfare system. Observed a dozen union strikes. Saw teenagers choosing to live homeless, even when education is so accessible. I also experienced affordable health care, and learned how to fight off a cold without the use of prescriptions drugs.
There’s no denying I learned a lot in school. I had some amazing teachers that imparted knowledge to me and left a lasting impression. But the majority of my learning came from traveling. It started in France back in 2001, and later took me to so many other places. I’m still learning everywhere that I go. I’ve found that insight into other people’s lives is by far the best way to acquire empathy and understanding.
Travel and Intelligence
Traveling definitely opens your mind, but does it make you smarter? Let’s get into the simple science of it. Traveling offers a plethora of new experiences, which forces us to adapt and think in different ways. The term neuroplasticity refers to changes in neural pathways due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions. When you travel, more neurological connections are formed in your brain, making you quicker to react, think logically, and problem solve.
Language learning is a similar process in the brain. It speeds up neural processes and improves response rates. The great thing about learning a second language is that it benefits you at any stage in your life. Research has shown that young bi-lingual children fair better in mental puzzles than their monolingual peers. Switching back and forth between languages seemed to give them a greater ability to monitor their environment and react quickly. Meanwhile, learning another language in adulthood has shown a reduced risk in dementia among seniors and later onset of Alzheimers.
Quick-thinking isn’t the only benefit of going travel. William Maddux, a professor at INSEAD, is renown for his research on the correlation between travel and creativity. He found in his research that students with international experience where not only better problem solvers, but also more likely to create new business and find jobs after university. The reasoning is exposure to new ideas. For example, A French furniture designer who has spent time in Asia has had exposure to different styles, enabling more artistic expressions in his or her own work.
Travel and Perception
This past year living in Thailand, I learned how unnecessary it is to own a lot of things. You really don’t need to own more than a suitcase full of clothes at anytime. Not if you wear things until they fall apart and then replace them with new ones. You don’t need hairdryers and curling irons, or a lot of shoes. You don’t even need hot water (although it’s nice sometimes). And truthfully, living with less feels liberating.
I also came to realize how world news depicts situations and how things actually are in a foreign country can be very different. With all of the political unrest that happened in 2014, Thailand was still a very safe and welcoming place to visit and live. (In fact, when you’re in another country hearing American news, shooting after shooting, you actually start to find it ironic that friends and family worry about you.)
From living in Europe and Asia, I learned that racism and classism is not only an American problem. In Northern Thailand, I encountered many local people that expressed prejudice towards Chinese tourists. It was surprising to me, as so many Thai people are Chinese descendants from many generations back. (In fact, over 14% of the Thai population are ethnically Chinese.) Chinese are not the only ones who suffer, it is also difficult for Africans traveling in Thailand and for villagers from the rural areas of Thailand who move to the cities. These types of prejudices exist in every country. And with increased travel, it is easy to see just how hindering they are of peace and progress.
A study performed at Tel Aviv University, found that people who “believe that racial groups have fixed underlying essences”—beliefs the authors termed “essentialist views”—performed significantly worse in creative tests than those who saw cultural and racial divisions as arbitrary and malleable. Moreover, they determined that it wasn’t necessary for people to travel far to become more socially accepting. Simple taking the subway or visiting another city can have a significant impact. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Can traveling really cast out racism? It could be that the underlying element is simply trust. A professor at the University of Southern California found in her research that people who have traveled in other countries have an increased sense of “generalized trust.” In other words, as we have positive experiences with people of diverse backgrounds it increases our sense of trust and faith in others.
(I use the word “travel” loosely, but it should go without saying that a week-long Caribbean cruise won’t make you smarter (tanner, maybe), but a month-long stay with locals in a foreign country will.)
The World Citizen
In truth, when you spend enough time overseas you become a world citizen, linked to other people from anywhere in the world who live the same lifestyle. These people become your fellow citizens — the people you can relate to the most. As of 2015, there are an estimated 50.5 million expats worldwide. And as remote work opportunities continue to rise, this number rapidly grows.
Often times people tell me they admire my choice to live abroad, but couldn’t possible do it themselves. Work or family prevents it. Or money. Or fear. Most of these barriers are in the mind. One thing that is consistent with many of the other expats or nomads I’ve met living in Asia is that there journey started by “letting go”. Releasing the illusion of a barrier. There are a lot of great writers and resources out there if living abroad is something you truly want to do, and perhaps I’ll create a shortlist for my next post. For now, check out Nomad Matt’s blog, one of the most popular out there. He went from being a young guy traveling the world making some funny videos to being a family man living abroad and sharing his experience (as well as how-to advice) with the world.
For me, there is no better education than a travel education. Books are great. Professors can be inspiring. Having a degree will certainly help in finding a job. Still nothing replaces the richness of new experience. My acceptance of others, my humility, my compassion have all improved as a result of extended travel.