5 Lessons Learned from 5 Years Abroad

Adventure Travel, Travel

As of July 28, 2017, I’ve been living abroad; working and traveling; for five years. It’s been five years of struggles, triumphs, tribulations, and ultimately, strength. I’ve lived and worked in three countries, I’ve traveled through 15, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I’ve cycled around Cambodia. And I’ve come through it all a more complete version of myself.

To mark this milestone in my life, I decided to compile a list of five hard-earned lessons I’ve learned in five years of living abroad.

Chinatown Incheon

Visiting Incheon’s Chinatown in South Korea 2012

1. Live Your Life By Your Own Rules

Don’t live your life according to other people’s rules. Don’t listen to the guilty voice in your head telling you what you “should” be doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Instead, do the things that give you purpose.

When I first moved to Korea I had all these ideas about what it meant to be an expat. I wanted to be a “real expat” and not a “fake expat”, whatever that meant. I ate only Korean food, I didn’t own a fork, I slept on a pallet bed, I tried (poorly) to learn the language. I rarely ate western food and tried to only go out places where Koreans were going out.

I looked down on people who spent all their time in the foreigner neighborhoods and scorned those who felt the need to eat bread instead of rice. And what did I get for all this superiority? Crushing culture shock and mental stress. It took me a little over six months to realize how much happier I was overall if I let myself enjoy some time in the foreigner neighborhood.

So, if I want to go spend money on a fancy American style meal, I’ll do it. If I want to go to the expat bar on Friday nights and hang out with other foreigners who speak English fluently, I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to living my life abroad, immersed in a foreign land.

The same thing applies to travel. I used to feel guilty if I spent a whole day doing nothing, lying about in hammocks. Or guilty that I went to Indonesia and spent the whole time climbing volcanoes instead of surfing or diving.

But this is my life and my trip. I get to do what I want to do with my time. I’m not beholden to other people’s bucket lists or preconceived notions about what “Travel” involves.

This lesson applies to so many things in life, how your spend your free time, what career you pursue, whether or not you attend university, who you spend your time with. In the end, we only live once, so it’s best to remember:

Your life is yours and yours alone, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.

Buying a Donkey in Peru

Meeting my donkey, Chana, for the first time, 2015

2. There is Happiness in Solitude

I’ve always been an introvert. But when I was younger I didn’t appreciate that side of myself. Not valuing my desire to spend time alone in bed with a good book, I thought this inclination toward nights in made me anti-social.

Life abroad has shown me the strength that comes from introversion. Because of this side of my personality, I’m comfortable doing things on my own. I’ll go to restaurants by myself, go to bars by myself, even go on 7-week long bike rides by myself.

Sometimes I wish I made more of an effort to find a partner in crime for all my adventuring. But that person will come along eventually. Or maybe they won’t. For now, I’m perfectly happy exploring the world solo.

If you are unafraid to experience life as a solo traveler, you’ll find so many more adventures are waiting for you.

Annapurna Circuit Manaslau Pass

Crossing the Highest Point of the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, 2014

3. When Facing Disaster: Stay Calm

I have a confession to make: I’m a panicker. Sometimes that panic comes in the form of sleepless nights spent agonizing over something left undone. Other times, it’s the kind of frenzied panic that takes over in the face of a disaster.

Travel, especially solo travel, has taught me the futility of panic. It seems like life is teaching me this lesson over and over again. Like on my first night in Korea, when I accidentally took a bus to the end of the line and had no idea where I was.

Or when I was walking across Peru with a donkey and I walked myself all the way to exhaustion. Facing a full day of climbing, I collapsed on the hillside in tears.

Or when I was cycling around Cambodia and got lost for the 3rd time that day, I burst into tears and shouted “I can’t do this!” at the sky.

But over the years, these stressful experiences have taught me something: crying doesn’t get you anywhere. Panic is pretty useless. And 9 times out of 10, everything works out in the end. Take a few deep breaths, sit down, and look at the situation calmly. You’ll find a solution soon enough.

Touring in Kyoto Japan

First visit to Japan, 2013

4. Be Patient – Things Worth Having Take Time

This was probably the most difficult one for me to learn. I am not a patient person by nature. I like instant gratification and getting free stuff. But life doesn’t work like that and we don’t all get to live in fairy tales.

This lesson came to me recently, during my seven-week bike ride around Cambodia. I bought a bicycle in March 2017 and intended to get in shape then begin my epic bike tour in April. That plan was dashed when I ripped a tendon in my foot at the end of March. No more cycling. No activity at all. I spent all of April resting in my apartment.

Then May 1st came and I couldn’t wait anymore. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling. I was completely out of shape. I hadn’t ridden a single kilometer in over a month! On my first day, a 77km ride over some hills almost killed me.

But over the next 7 weeks of cycling, my body slowly started to change. 70km went from nearly impossible to easy. I was shocked, two weeks in, to find that a 93km passed by in a flash. By the end of the ride, I was tackling 140km days.

This strength didn’t happen overnight. It happened because I worked at it slowly and consistently.

This applies to just about everything in life. You want to travel for 6 months? Start saving now, little by little.

You want to work for the UN? Start working with smaller NGOs now. Build up your experiences and resume little by little.

Whatever your goals are, break them down into little bits to get there. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work out. There were days I thought I’d never be able to cycle around Cambodia. And yet by the end, I felt I could’ve done the whole thing again.

You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a little persistence.

Hiking the Alpamayo Circuit Solo

Hiking in the Alpamayo Circuit, Peru, 2015

5. If You Have A Passion: Chase It

Whatever makes your heart beat faster and your imagination soar, chase it. Not everyone is lucky enough to know what their passion is. Most of us have no idea. But if you do figure it out, get after it. Start now. Today.

Start small, what first baby step can you take to get there? Make a plan for yourself, and be willing to let that plan change.

For me, the dream has always been writing. I’ve known since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Narnia Chronicles that I wanted to be a writer. There were months, even years when I thought this would never be possible. I was a talentless fraud. Writing wasn’t really what I wanted. Writing is not a real career choice.

It took me a few years to get over all that negative self-talk and begin actively pursuing that dream. I’m not publishing novels yet, but I am working full time as a freelance writer and content creator. I’m on my way, and it feels right.

Five years ago, as I set off to teach English in South Korea, I thought I had no dreams. Being a writer seemed like a childish passion. But here I am, five years later, a professional content creator. People are paying me to write.

Three months ago I launched this blog, Into Foreign Lands. It’s not one of the top travel blogs on the web by any means but it’s mine, I’m dedicated to it, and I love every second that I get to work on it.

I’ve got further to go and more baby steps to take but this process of living abroad has shown me that I have the strength to get there.

My point is this: whatever your dream is, chase it. Even if it feels so far away you may never get there, start now. Start today. One year ago I was working a 40 hour/week job in Cambodia and coming home each night to work on writing and freelance assignments. It sucked and I was always tired but it means that now I can work freelance and make my own schedule. I have time for my creative pursuits.

If you feel that you have no dream, have no passions, if you’re feeling lost and listless, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I felt that way before I left for Korea. I’ve felt it since then in moments of self-doubt.

But think of it like this: because you don’t know where you want to go, you can go anywhere! Start trying different things, anything that you get the opportunity to try. Start running, take boxing classes, sign up for a book club, apply for a job that sounds interesting but you’re not qualified for. (Worst thing they can do is say no!). Start traveling. You never know what will trigger your imagination and set your heart soaring.


Before I sign off sounding like I’ve got everything figured out, let me just add as a caveat: I’m often re-learning each of these lessons. As soon as I think I’ve learned “don’t panic” for the final time, I end up in some bad situation, bursting into tears and trying not to panic.

BIke Tour Through the Cambodian rice fields

Cycling through the rice fields outside Battambang, Cambodia, 2017

Travel isn’t necessary to experience this kind of self-growth. It just happened to be what triggered it for me. This is what travel has taught me and I’m so thankful to be on the path that I’m walking. If you’re not on the right path for your life, I can’t encourage you enough to start making small changes today. Even if that means adding a second job. Even if it means taking a massive risk.

Your life is your own, and you only get one.

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5 Lessons Learned from a Life spent living abroad, working abroad, and traveling across 15 countries

Skiing in South Korea: High 1 Resort

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

 

My first winter in Korea was my first winter in 5 years. The initial adjustment was difficult, dare I say bordering on traumatizing. But thankfully my 18 years in New England came through for me and I adjusted. Buying some thermal leggings and knock-off ugg boots helped as well. But god damn it was awful at first. Los Angeles, I hope you realized how very blessed you are.

Aside from trauma and freezing cold feet, winter does have its benefits. Primarily: SKI SEASON!!

Yes there is tons of skiing in Korea. Like, tons and tons of it. This whole peninsula is covered in mountains so it makes sense that they’d cut some trails into a few of them. I managed to get out skiing a couple times, which was pretty miraculous considering how exhausted I was after a week of teaching Korean school kids how to speak English.

The first weekend I went to a smaller resort in western Korea. For those who do not know, let me take this time to illuminate for you the geography of Korea.

635px-South_Korea_location_map_topography_with_taebaek_mountains_marked
Map of Korea with Taebaek Mountains in Red (wikipedia

In its western half  Korea is more “flat” which by Korean standards means peppered with small mountains. Then as you drive east the mountains get bigger and bigger and you enter the Taebaek Mountain Range. In there the towns are smaller, you finally lose sight of the army of huge apartment buildings that cover this country, and the landscape becomes breathtakingly beautiful.

So the first weekend I went skiing in the west. The resort was tiny, 6 trails and about as many lifts. Only one real expert slope, and to be honest it was an east coast (of the US) blue square. Still, I had a BLAST and in 3 hours of skiing I got in so many runs and was exhausted the next day.

 west korea ski
View from the Top of the smaller Resort (Western Korea)

By the way, skiing in Korea is ridiculously easy. Many resorts have free shuttles to and from Seoul, you can rent all your kit for less than $30, and you can rent pants, a jacket, and goggles if you need. It’s really absurdly easy. And Korea is so crowded and overpopulated that they are GREAT at dealing with crowds. Even at a small resort there are almost more lifts than trails, so you never really have to wait in a long lift line. And you can buy lift tickets for just 3 hours, instead of purchasing a whole day and wasting half of it in the lodge!

So then this past weekend, I made a longer trip out to a resort in the Taebaek Mountains in the East called High1 Resort. I stayed in a hotel nearby that was really nice. Check out the view from my 11th floor window!

east korea ski

I was lucky enough to have a friend at work take my only Monday class, so I stole a 3-day weekend for myself. I traveled on Sunday, and skied in Monday, so there was almost no one at the resort!

 me ski
Me rocking rented jacket and goggles

The lodge of the resort was located in between 2 mountains, and there were lifts going up both and trails coming down on either side of this valley. On the one side were some advanced and intermediate trails, and that lift was slightly crowded. But on the opposite side there was a lift that only accessed 3 expert trails. They weren’t very long but they were super steep, wicked fun, and there was nobody on the lift. I almost had the trails to myself!

 east ski 2
View of the other mountain, from the top of the expert zone

I spent the entire day on those 3 trails, only going on the other side once, decided it was boring, and went back to my private expert only zone. It was amazing!

Just to be clear: Skiing in Korea is hassle free, and awesome fun.

  • You can easily rent all your gear, including snow pants, jackets, and goggles, for less than $30.
  • You can buy a pass for the number of hours you want to ski, or for a whole day.
  • There are free shuttles from Seoul to the nearby ski hills.
  • There is night skiing.
  • There are no lines, even when there are crowds.
  • It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s fun.

Alright so there is a recap of my skiing experiences. I have one more story to relate. High 1 Resort is also the location of Kangwon Land: the one and only Casino in Korea that lets in Korean Nationals.

That’s right.

There are casinos all over Korea, but they only allow in foreigners like me.

Except at Kangwonland. So of course I had to check it out.

First shocking fact: no alcohol. So in Korea, you can drink to excess, and you can gamble, but you cannot drink to excess and gamble at the same time. I even had to blow into a breathalizer before they let me in!

Once inside, no pictures allowed. So unfortunately I have no pictures for this part of the post.

The atmosphere inside was kind of dark and tense. Picture hundreds of Koreans all packed around tables looking really intense and losing all their money. If you know Koreans at all, you know that they are really tight with their money. It makes sense when you think about it; the nation only became wealthy recently. This is a people who are used to poverty and hard times. So they all seemed angry or at least upset, but at the same time… they weren’t cashing out.

Then on top of that, I was the only foreigner in the place. I was traveling with a Korean. My daily life includes people staring at me everywhere I go. It has become normal now and I don’t really notice it anymore. But being in this Casino was like my first week in Korea all over again. Every time I turned my head I made eye contact with a curious and possibly hostile Korean.

But the upside of this strange experience was that I gambled for the first time in my life. I played a slot machine and won the equivalent of $5. So ha ha, Korea, I win.


me garden

Megan xx