unexpected lessons in living abroad

I returned¬† from my trip to Wellington after living for 7 months in Queenstown. Seeing it again at the begining of an other summer has brought me full circle. I have been here for one year. I believe a flaw of mine that causes more grief than any other is my knack at conjuring the most idealized, unrealistic expectations for every big experience I anticipate. Some would call it optimisim. But it would be more accurately identified as a horrible habit that damns me into a constant sense of under-achievement. This is what New Zealand was supposed to be: An amazing adventure where I would fly in, flash my extravagant post-graduate, experience-less CV at any employers, and choose from a plethura of professions. I would impress everyone my boyfriend introduced me to. We would lavish in our young professionalism, taking regular holidays and want for nothing, oh and be engaged soon enough. I would know in a years time what master’s degree I wished to pursue, and be sorting through which countries would be the best to study in. Then we would be applying for visas and taking language courses, all while my mother and sister, happily problem solved the best way to tackle an international wedding in the next 12 months. The ridiculousness of this “casual” plan would be made more humorous if I could only portray to complete stangers over the internet how terribly unorganized I am by nature. I should never plan. Never. Especially since they tend to come out this incredibly ostentatious… It has been a Year. And none of the above happened. Not one thing! This reflection is what really happened, and what I learned instead- photo(5) Living abroad is hard. Yes, we all knew it would be, but it turns out it is actually really hard. I never thought courage was one of the essentials that day at the airport, along with my passport, visa, and boarding pass. In hindsight, it did take a lot to uproot from a place of extreme comfort in order to try out a new life in a completely foreign place. Steering wheels are on the wrong side of the cars, and you don’t have your friends or family available for dinner or coffee. But the truth is when you make this move, you collect rich experiences, met wonderful people, and learn the real stuff that sticks with you for life.

My first lesson: The less money you make, the less money you need. Working abroad, I have skipped to and from seasonal jobs that pay close to minimun wage. In the beginning, my fear of not being able to live so frugally felt like a shadow stalking me, just to rest her chin on my shoulder and deliver perpetual mutterings of my short-comings. I envied peers who also recently graduated, and were working entry level jobs in the feilds they studied. I felt embarrassed I was not doing the same, not earning more money in a “qualified” position. The pay I earned in a new currency, far away from the Mom and Dad Rescue Bank, became my first true test in budgeting. And… It turned out to be so easy! Every other week I transfer most of my check to my savings (aka travel fund), a few hundred to living expenses, and whatever small amount left is for guilt-free spending throughout the next two weeks. After a few months of this I felt financially comfortable and happy the majority of the time, much more often infact, than the same peers who were earning more than I was. I listened to my flatemate’s complaints about financial stress one morning, and came home to package on the door step that afternoon from yet an other one of her favorite clothing companies. This phenomeon happens simply because money is relative. The more you earn the more you spend. Our society is driven by corporations feeding messages to the public to perk up our economy through mindless spending. We perpetually assume we need more and more stuff. When you simply can’t afford that stuff because you would rather save your money for a plane ticket, and wont have room in your suitcase for more crap anyway, you break free from the cycle. You wake up to realize that materials do not assist you in achieving lasting happiness. To have found this revelation through practice rather than theory is liberating, and has drasitically altered the way I perceive needs, wants, money, and work oriented life-styles.

Second Lesson: People who focus their lives on travel are the most admirable people in the world. Yes, we love their instagram feeds, their blog posts, and facebook pages. But it goes deeper than what they portray on social media, because we all know social media is a lie that only shows the 5% most perfect moments of our lives 100% of the time. Remeber, I have already disclaimed that living abroad is FLIPPING hard at times. People who travel are amazing role models because they are optimisitic, they are problem solvers, they are dreamers, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. Never before have I been surrounded by as many inspirational people as I am in Queenstown. There are people here from all over the world who are truly living and acknowledging each individual day. When they are ready for a change they pick the next destination and work out how to get there. And they will get there, regardless of visa issues or job insecurity. They achieve hundreds of life goals every single year, while most “normal” people are still in the area they grew up in, working on that one goal: the car, or house, or marriage. It is the small events that make a traveler’s life rich in moments instead of materials. The walk on the beach, the multipitch climb, the meditation course, the excitment of exploration. I love talking to people about where they have been and where they are going. To hear about adventures articulated in various accents. It motivates me to map anything I can imagine into my life, knowing I can achieve it. These people are easy to talk to, because they are genuine and friendly. When you are transient you have to make friends quickly. I love how open-minded and accepting so many of these people are. Regardless of history, race, interests, or culture, they all seem so eager to spend time with eachother, so welcoming of new faces. That is a beautiful thing, something we should all strive a little more for. I have learned to judge less, accept more, and spawn better adventures.

Lesson Three: Luck has nothing to do with it. An outdoor shop in town arranges a few days in the season for women to ski tour in the backcountry together. There was of course a wide variation of background and personality amongst these women, and we enjoyed a day of chatting and getting to know eachother as we skinned and skied. One woman, who has worked on and off on yachts for several years was recently offered a job on a boat heading to Antartica this summer. The job sounded adventurous and glorious. One of the other women in the group, equally impressive, said, “Wow you are so lucky you get to do that–wait no, let me take that back. Good job, you make good choices.” She continued to explain how people often tell her she is so lucky to be in Queenstown working as a rafting guide. “I didn’t just magically appear here with this lifestyle,” She explained, “I chose to be here. You could do it too if you wanted.” It is so true, and I feel as though I notice this occurance all the time now. People always dream of living somewhere completely new, they talk of how lucky an old friend is that they got to go there, they talk of how they could never do it themselves. The truth is you can. But you have to chose it, and you have to make sacrifices rather than excuses. It seems big, if feels daunting, but it is amazing to make that leap, to taste that sweetness that comes only from living outside of your comfort zone. We are all lucky, because we all have the tools we need to create a life we want. Knowing that it is a choice, not a chance makes me feel empowered. I know I can be anywhere I want to be, doing what I love, I just have to be brave enough to choose it.

So no, in the end, the big things I thought I would tackle this past year remain untackled. And I have figured out that I am ok with that. What did happen this year, although unplanned, is so much more important than that. What I wanted was generic, predictable, and indefinate. Those things are still to come… But I am happy this year has added a spice to my life that I would never have receieved any other way. I feel as though I have broken from a mold I needed to escape, and now I can move forward in my own unique way, and how exciting does that future sound? Dont worry, I am not jumping to exquisite expectations, not just yet.

a hitch-hiker’s heartbreak

I have hitch-hiked myself only a handful of times, but I can boast of a record of extremely short waiting time with my thumb in the air before getting picked up. Of course the usual response is something like, “Well duh, you’re a cute girl of course you get picked up right away…” This however is not the case. The truth is simple: Karma. I pick up hitch hikers whenever I can. I love it. One of the great things about the South Island of New Zealand is that it is rich with humble hitch-hikers from all over the world. And if you chose, you can share that extra seat in your car with someone in exchange for a short story, their story.¬† It belongs only to them, and you only get to hear because you delayed your travel time by 3 minutes to help out a fellow wanderer.

Today I learned Rosa’s story. This morning on our way through Wanaka there was a young woman walking along the side of the road with her arm out. Her mustard coloured ski bib gave away that she intended to get to the same place we were. My adorably introvertered Kiwi partner, well familiar by now with my love of hitch hikers, slowed to the side of the road.

Rosa is originally from Holland. However she hasn’t lived there for a while now. She has been in Austria, Australia, Canada, and now New Zealand. She is chasing her passions. Learning to surf each summer, skiing and snowboarding in the winter, taking life as it comes, seeing more of the world than most people I have ever met, and that is because I am American.

There is a wonderful thing that happens between more developed countries all over the world that the States chooses to miss out on: The Working Holiday Visa. This visa allows young adults to move to an other country to find work and travel for one year. I am fortunate enough to be on a Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand, especially since the USA does not offer this Visa to Kiwis. There is this funny thing about foreign relations I have realized during my time in New Zealand, and that is if you treat other nations nicely, other nations will return that kindness. When it comes to visas, it is well known that the USA doesn’t play nice. And we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Because the States does not give working holiday visas to anyone, I can get a working holiday visa in four forgiving countries: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Singapore. Not too bad… until your Partner talks about working a ski season in the French Alps and you realize you can’t tag along. But because he is from New Zealand, he can chose to go just about anywhere. As a matter of fact he has, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Czech, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lativa, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Phillipines, Poland, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, OR Vietnam to choose from. My list doesn’t feel so generous anymore does it?

The United States, more than any other country in the world, needs this program, for the same reason they chose to neglect it: The USA (excuse the generalization) is a narcisstic, xenophobic, nation, that is still riding on the high that once being a super-power offered them. We choose to deny these young people like Rosa access for 12 months to our country, and it is a big loss for us. The people who are traveling on this visa are our generation’s thinkers, doers, adventurers, wanderers, and problem solvers. They are not just dreaming, they are making it happen. Regardless of where they came from, these men and women are inspirational, and we need to learn from them. At the same time, they can learn from us. We American’s need to represent our nation and break down our negative stereotypes while learning about other cultures in Europe, in Asia, in South America, in Oceania. We need life experiences in new places imbedded into our culture if we want to succeed in the evolving challenges of our globalized world.

Rosa’s story was not exclusively about fun and adventure. She had an American boyfriend she traveled with for sometime. They intended to be together long term, until his Mother became sick. He returned home to help his mother and she couldn’t follow. This part of the story stayed vague, and I couldn’t bring myself to pry for detail as her somber tone told of the frustration she felt at a circumstance that puts being with someone beyond her power. I couldn’t help but feel especially angry about this. About how unfair it is that someone as sweet and hard working as Rosa is not welcome into my country because she was not born there. It almost makes me more angry when people like Rosa talk about how much they would love to see the wonderful landscapes and cities we have in the States, because they are so forgiving and accepting of the fact that they will never be able to do it. Most can not afford to travel there if they are not earning an income simultaneously. It is ridiculous and we need to demand change.

We live in a world where traveling is easier than ever before. Multi-culture is imbedded in New Zealand’s culture. This small little island state is so well aware of the rest of the world it would blow most Americans away. They can distinguish different regions of accents from various countries without a second thought, they know about politics and history of other places, and they welcome all different nationalities who want to enjoy the amazing scenic landscapes they call home. Kiwis grow up expecting to spend a significant amount of their lives traveling. They save more money for plane tickets than materialistic waste. Its a beautiful way to live. I wish America could try to be a little more like this. We have so much to learn from one an other. Nothing is better than learning about and experiencing a place through someone who calls it home.

In the States we live with so much fear of forgien immigrants. It is pumped into our system through the media and politicians. Yes, I wont dishonor horrible events such as the Boston marathon. Many would argue is a reason to tighten our boarders and restrict young immigrants. But the truth is we do more harm than good when we stop millions of amazing, loving, diverse people from living in our boarders for a year in hopes of preventing just one potentially dangerous person. Have faith. Relax. Know that all people are inherently good. I wish I had the power to convince our country to make this change. Would it be overwhelming? Maybe initially as visa applications flood the system. Would it be startling for your barista to have a thick Dutch accent? For some, possibly. Would it be worth it? Absolutely. We forget that ours is a nation of immigrants. Why do we feel like we have the right to stop our own distant families from sharing the new world with us (and just for a year!)? Imagine the country we would become if young Americans spent more time learning and engaging with others overseas. Imagine the world we would become as our generation becomes congressmen, business owners, doctors, professors, artists, designers, envrionmentalists, etc. with education and life experiences rich in influence of various cultures.

Please. Have this discussion. Share these thoughts. Lets get our people out amongst the world. Lets get Rosa to the United States she so longs to see, to her love she was forced from. We need more Americans in the world, hitch-hiking, sharing stories, and making change.