The Value of Living Abroad

3 Lessons From 3 Years in China

Alex Zito-Wolf
May 20, 2019 · 6 min read

I am an American who has been living and working in Shanghai, China for more than two and a half years. My time outside America has been invaluable for me in many ways, so I wanted to try to document the more generalizable perspectives that I was lucky enough to gain after living outside of my home country.

Living abroad feels like getting a birds-eye view on roads, cities, and landmarks that you only knew before at street-level. Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Hopefully this post can inspire people, especially fellow Americans, to leave the comfort of the states, or at least to think more deeply about the topics raised here.

So without further ado, I present 3 patterns and perspectives that you will cultivate by living abroad.

1. Thinking about how your options rank globally, not just locally

Man walks on street in Shanghai. Photo credit: Unsplash.com

Being abroad forces you into contact with people from so many different places, it makes you see the types of pressures that can be put on people and freedoms that can be given, the range of advantages and disadvantages that humans can be born or thrown into.

In short, it gives you a worldwide perspective on how your options rank.

Possibly in your home country you have great weather, but few job opportunities. Possibly the education system is fantastic where you are from but there are very few modern conveniences like on-demand delivery. Understanding what advantages and disadvantages exist where you are from and in other places allows you to make smarter decisions on whether to settle or to strive for something better.

Below are some examples of primary life choices that you will need to make, all of which will be hugely different around the world.

Living Expenses: Cost + Quality

Quality of Life: Amenities, Standard of living

Salary/Economy: Growth, Opportunities

Environment: Clean Air/Water/Food

Education: Cost + Quality

Safety: Crime rates, Firearm regulations etc.

Healthcare: Affordability/Insurance, etc.

Unemployment: Reimbursement, Support

Community: Stability, Inclusiveness, other social factors

It may seem a bit obvious that you should strive for a full understanding of your options before making decisions, but most people make decisions from a limited perspective, comparing options at best at the national level. They only see the context that they know, and judge their expectations based on what they can see.

When thinking about their salary: “What is my neighbor, or aunt, or cousin making, I guess that’s probably the market rate for my job”, or when judging the crime rate in the district they are planning to live: “2 murders per year in this county, I guess that’s better than the national average — I’ll take it.”

When it comes to small things like the price of your purchases online, this doesn’t make a huge difference, but when it comes to larger things like healthcare, retirement, and education, your awareness of the broader world makes a HUGE difference. If you are an American who chooses to go to college in Europe, for example, you can probably expect to save about $20,000–30,000 (roughly the downpayment on a house), an amount of money which could alter the course of your life. If you choose to take your medical procedure abroad you could receive the same care for thousands less, or improve your medical outcome.

Some examples of relative advantages across the world:

In the Netherlands, if you are unemployed the government pays you 75% of your previous salary for several years (think around $37,500 USD per year). They also cover high quality healthcare for all citizens, and have a guaranteed and substantial pension plan, the average pensioner in the Netherlands having a disposable income of $62,000 USD.

In China, healthcare is available at an incredibly low rate (a CT scan, uninsured, will cost you around $45 USD and an uninsured trip to a professional, around $5–50 USD). This makes medical tourism a real thing, with Europeans and Americans spending thousands to come to China and East Asia for procedures.

In Spain, you can get a masters degree for the equivalent of 2 weeks at a US institution. (3,079.80 €). The prices across Europe are all relatively equivalent. If more Americans thought globally about their education decisions, we would have far few young people burdened by crippling debt.

2. Understanding the scale and impact of global changes

The world is changing. Power is shifting, human perceptions are changing, people are learning and forgetting languages and building and disposing of culture. This is happening all the time.

Presidential Dolls. Photo credit: Unsplash.com

When you grow up through cultural or political change, you are immersed in those changes, and so you do not see the contrast between the before and the after. Growing up through the ’70s in America to my parents felt like this was a natural progression of the times, not the massive social/political upheaval that we read about now in history books.

Living in a foreign country will give you a clearer view of cultural, political, and economic changes, primarily because you are by default a bystander to another countries culture and history.

You will inevitably begin to be interested in the history of your new country, who the people are and where they come from. You will be curious about cultural references, or want to understand why the city architecture is so different. You will want to understand why you can or cannot say certain things that would be allowed or forbidden in your own country.

In short you will get a perspective on the history and future of a society, which will allow you see more clearly, and not take for granted that everything will be the same forever.

Everything that we feel is stable and immutable is really temporary if you are able to look at a long enough timescale.

Some examples of changes that will be written about in history books for our children

Major world alliances are changing. Russia and China are becoming a more unified front again, just as during the Soviet Union.

The United States is having a Nationalist revival that is isolating them from the rest of the world politically and economically.

China is moving more into the global spotlight by using anti-competitive practices to generate huge amounts of GDP growth.

African countries are being Neo-colonized by Chinese and other investors, and new massive trade routes are being built between Asia and Europe.

The power and allure of American cultural media is declining, and Asian media (Korean, Indian) is on the rise.

3. Appreciate consistency, cherish the mundane

It’s hard to appreciate the tedious day-to-day box that you live in, no matter where you are in your life. This is why people do things like traveling 3 times a year, quitting their job to go surfing, or buying gaudy sports cars after their first kids go to college.

Cozy Home. Photo credit: Unsplash.com

People go to great lengths to mix up their lives and deviate from their everyday experience. Travel and living abroad can often be a way to fulfill that mission.

After a while though, your new experience becomes just what you were running from, another routine, and only then can you really do an adequate comparison to your former one. Finally having the stability to make this comparison will allow you to realize the value of your old routine, most of it thanks to the inherent value of consistency.

For me, what I noticed was missing from my routine were my strong support network + professional network, some quality of life components like clean air + water, a washing machine, as well as some professional/career advantages.

What you will soon realize after looking at this list is that most of them are formed through consistency + repetition. For example, your friends and acquaintances will only be there for you if you are there for them. Professional opportunities only come from relatively stable career experience, and generally speaking, that also requires some degree of consistency.

To get those things back into your routine, you need to just be there, time and time again.

Exploring the world is vitally important, but remember that one strong and purposeful life is better than a hundred short adventures.

Thanks for reading ~

Alex Zito-Wolf

Shanghai

大城市,小故事。

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