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The Difference between Travelling and Living Abroad

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

So begins George Orwell’s essay, Shooting the Elephant. He continues,

I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

George Orwell

Such a text may be met with revulsion towards the author today, for very clear reasons. Imperialism is strongly frowned upon in the 21st century, and in most modern literature dealing with the imperialist period, the English are seen as the racist, egocentric bad guys who used “going native” as a derogatory phrase. However when I read Shooting the Elephant, I felt a strange closeness to Orwell.

The opening paragraph is followed by the story of how he, as sub-divisional police officer, was called upon to manage a situation where an escaped elephant was tearing through the town. By the time he arrived on the scene, the elephant had become calm, and he knew that the ethical thing to do would be to wait for its handler to catch it. There was only one problem: he was being watched by an expectant crowd of Burmans, eager for meat and for excitement. The story relates how, against his own ideas of the morality and legality of killing the animal, Orwell chose to do so in order not to lose face, and even to gain respect from the natives who had formerly treated him with such contempt.

This attitude may seem incomprehensible to many young travellers today, who, wearing enormous backpacks, smile for photos in iconic places and return home with shining faces to recount their experiences. To them, “other cultures” are wonderful, and hold so much to learn from, and so many facets of truth by which to see and judge their own culture from a fresh perspective. The natives they meet are “just like” people from their own countries, only somehow better.

Then you have expatriates, people who’ve chosen to live abroad long-term, and suddenly the picture changes completely. You find a group of sour haters, who meet together to pretend they’re still in their home countries and avoid associating with natives at all costs. They spend these meetings talking about how much they miss their home country and how much they hate their country of residence, elaborately illustrating their points with appropriate horror stories.

These are two opposite ends of the living abroad spectrum, but unfortunately a lot of people fall into these extreme categories. Here are a few reasons why:

It takes at least a year or two to “know” a place. If you are visiting a new country for a few days, weeks, or even months, expect to see things through rose-colored glasses—this is of course assuming you are a positive person; some will always see the bad from day one, and far out of proportion, but if you are going with an open mind and a willingness to learn, you will be fascinated by the diversity you encounter. It’s only after “the honeymoon is over” that you will start to notice the integral faults and wrongs of the culture you’ve chosen to live in, and the frustration of knowing you can’t change it.

Being different can make you an automatic rock star. People may be eager to talk to you, children may clamor to hug you, and you may feel really special. After a while, you will get tired of always having the same conversation:Where are you from? Why did you come here? How long are you staying? You may realize that children are hugging you because they presume you are rich and may give them something, and that your hugs don’t really make a difference to fill their stomachs. You will wish it wasn’t so obvious that you are a foreigner, because you will just want to be normal.

It’s not possible to “go native.” Despite what you might have read on hip young travel blogs about being culturally relevant and speaking the language, there is an invisible line you will never cross, no matter how willing and eager you are to do so, or how long you stay. There will always be people who will discriminate against you, especially if you look different from the natives or speak the language with an accent. Notice how Orwell played football with the Burmans, but that didn’t make him accepted, and it got “badly on his nerves.”

You will discover immense loneliness.I would recommend every would-be-expatriate to read Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette. It will give you a realistic idea of the kind of emotions you will encounter when you are far away from your country, home, friends, and family. Even if you are very good at making new friends, you may find natives willing to know you only on a superficial level, and other travellers you meet may just be passing through—this is especially true of the world’s “great” places that have a high level of tourism.

So, all this being said, please don’t think I am trying to discourage you from living abroad. It is just important to give yourself a reality check, both in long-term and short-term travel. Either way, your challenge will be to strike a good balance between optimism and actuality.

For short termers:
  • Try to be a learner. Don’t take yourself too seriously, or think that you have all the answers. Don’t think that what you are doing will be able to accomplish in a few weeks what others haven’t been able to accomplish in decades, or even centuries. Don’t put over-importance on what you do.
  • Don’t shun compatriots. You may wish to get as much as possible from your short time in a foreign country by immersing yourself in the “real” language and culture. Then you may find that there’s someone from your own country who’d really like to talk to you in your own language. Don’t assume they are lonely because they won’t make friends with natives; they might just need a break from trying to make themselves understood.
  • Try to have a great time. Build some memories. Make some friends and keep in touch with them. The experiences you share will be an invaluable resource when others fail to understand what you are so excited about.
For Long-Termers:
  • Understand what you’re getting yourself into. It’s not a short-term trip, and it’s not likely you’ll be able to just run home if you’re unhappy. Realize that things will be different from home, and that some things will frustrate you. Everyday tasks may become difficult upheavals.
  • Be open-minded, but realistic. If something the natives do seems really stupid or strange to you, try to figure out why they do it. Ask them. Try to understand. Try to do things their way as long as it doesn’t compromise your morals or ethics. Neither over-glorify nor despise or ridicule them.
  • Try to create a network for yourself. Take part in community, both native and expatriate. Engage in activities that you enjoy. And do bring things with you that allow you to have a piece of home away from home.
  • Read books by the great expatriate writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce. You will not only enjoy a deeper understanding of them than before; you will also gain comfort from knowing others have done what you are doing, and not only survived, but achieved greatness.
Whatever you do, best of luck to you on your journey.
By Stephanie Spicer