5 lessons from living away from home
Leaving everyone and everything you know behind to move abroad alone can be the most terrifying decision you will ever make. I grew up in a small town in West Bengal, India and lived at home with my family until I was 18. I went to the nearest city (Calcutta) for college and work, but still just an hour away from home. Deciding to move to another Indian city for a job was hard enough for me. Deciding to move to New York for grad school in 2008, and to stay in the US for a career, was probably one of the toughest decisions I had made in my life. Yet the time I have spent living, working and traveling in the Western Hemisphere has built a deep well of experiences for me to draw from for the rest of my life. It has been a journey in personal growth — to become more self-aware, self-reliant and empathetic towards others.
#1 Your life skills and horizons broaden fast
My mind craved the comfort of familiar experiences. I had never lived in an apartment with complete strangers, had no idea how to keep my living space clean, wash and iron my clothes, get proper nutrition, and to balance doing all this with school work and socializing. It was overwhelming, I missed home and the tender comfort of family where everything was somehow magically taken care of. I was also surprised by how quickly I learnt to cook and clean and take care of myself (my mother still has trouble believing that I can do all this). I also found myself relaxing and building connections as I opened my mind to the new experiences — the food, people from all over the world, the music and culture. I found willing mentors across borders — my African landlady, my Indian colleague at work, my Greek professor.
#2 People are the same everywhere
As I traveled, I verified the hearsay that people were fundamentally the same despite differences in color, language, culture, religion or anything else. There were Jews who would get up and sit somewhere else if I sat next to them, and a Christian man once called me a dog because I wasn’t Christian. Yet there were many many more who invited me to Sunday masses, Sabbath dinners, and iftars (besides of course Hindu and Sikh festivals). I entertained people from numerous countries and backgrounds, and built trusting relationships with them. Countless people guided me in airports, train stations and streets without speaking a word of any language I knew, and wished me happy journey with genuine smiles. I met people with lifestyles and belief systems very different from my own, and even though I could never understand them, I learnt to empathize with them and became a more mature person in the process. When I marry, I will happily adopt my wife’s language, culture, religion and anything else she cares about, and I hope she will do the same for mine! My parents had done the seed work to give me an open heart, living abroad gave me the opportunity to cultivate it into a blossoming tree.
#3 You learn that life is about self-creation
I had lived in homogenous culture with preset expectations. It had never occurred to me to look at myself from outside and from the future to decide what kind of a story I wanted my life to be. Once I felt for a sustained period of time what it was like to be an outsider, I also realized that people I met were interested in who I was, where I come from, and where I was going. It helped me prioritize what was really important for me, and define a stable purpose for my life. It helped me crystallize my principles and goals, to learn what truly made me happy, and take actionable steps to create the story I want my life to be. You also learn to be a better friend, to ask questions, to give and share what you have when someone needs it. The universe has a way to give back to you exactly what you need and when you need it.
#4 You need a lot less than you think
I grew up with the unwritten expectation that I needed fashionable clothes and a nice home and a big car to differentiate myself as successful (and happy) from others who were not. Being fortunate to earn enough to travel around, I visited remote locations in Alaska, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. I lived in resorts, but also in places with no electricity, cars, running water or TV, and observed how people still lived happy fulfilled lives. It reminded me of my childhood experience of visiting with my mother the homes of poor tribal farmers who tilled our lands. They had so little, and yet were full of happiness. Another surprise was the broad difference between how rich people live in the east and west coasts of the US. Without generalizing too much — in the east, the rich dress in suits and flaunt their designer watches and shoes; in the west, the rich are usually happy to wear t-shirts and jeans and spend their money on gadgets and cars. This taught me that we do not need things to be happy. I still hang on to a lot of my material comforts and I think it is fine to do so if it contributes to one’s happiness, although I also gave away more than half of it. Once you get accustomed to living life with a little less, you find more meaning by focusing on building meaningful relationships and experiences and spending your money on those instead.
#5 You learn to build and contribute to your community
The biggest challenge in living abroad is to rebuild the support system that you leave behind, unless you are traveling with your spouse. At home, you take your support system for granted. The biggest skill I acquired was the ability to build a community of like-minded people around me, with whom I could share meals and thoughts, participate in activities, and build meaningful relationships. I learnt to arrange events to get people together, to request someone to join me when I needed company, to join and contribute to causes I am interested in. I learned to differentiate solitude from loneliness. This challenged me to be self-aware and aspire to become the best version of myself. Often I built these communities in an effort to learn new skills. I discovered that I forged better friendships in classrooms or by talking to people I took a genuine interest in, instead of bars or clubs.
After the first few years of excitement in school, jobs, traveling, and friends in a new country had passed, I found myself thinking more and more about my direction in life. These lessons trained my mind to always be open to new experiences. You learn to self-regulate, and live in the now, not in the past or future. If you cannot, there is simply too much at stake because you are on your own. You expect that almost every plan you make will probably have a slightly different path and outcome than what you envisage, and that’s completely fine. The most important lesson (not listed above) is to always prioritize your family (the one you came from and the one you build) above everything else. They are the only ones who will always love you unconditionally and do everything they can no matter how far away they are. As I prepare to leave the US and move closer to home, I will carry these lessons with me.