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I've spent hours flipping through old photos, reliving all of my once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. However, I never sorted through all the lessons travel has taught me. Every new country and city was an opportunity to question and redefine who I am. This post is a reflection on my growth and gratitude.
1. There is no one “right” way to live
Our ideas and perceptions about the “right” way to live are defined by our culture and history. Each country, city, and village defines success and comfort in its way. American productivity and hustle culture is not reflected everywhere else. In Spain and Croatia, for example, meals last for hours and schedules make space for social and personal lives. I admired Croatian people's ability to spread a single cappuccino over four hours. I respected Spain’s view of food as a shared experience: dishes like paella made to be shared and enjoyed. Cultural norms are not a hierarchy.
In my life now, I choose to value myself and others over a professional agenda. I choose to be present during social outings. I find comfort in silence; I no longer view it as an invitation to excuse myself. When I encounter difference, I approach it with curiosity and not judgment. The principle of “different, not less” is the foundation of my identity as a global citizen. Instead of instantly judging something different as less, I greet it with wonder. If I experience judgment, I acknowledge it and dissect the origins of that judgment: euro centricity, bias, ignorance?
2. There is so much I don’t know and never will
Throughout my travels, I had the privilege of listening to and talking with scholars, tour guides, experts, and locals. Each of these lovely people shared their knowledge, stories, and experiences, passing down their expertise to a childishly curious foreigner. Within these interactions, I often realized there is so much I do not know and never will. I will never learn every language; the history of every place I visit; the intricacies of cultural customs and traditions; the skills or wisdom of indigenous artists and land protectors; or the knowledge to appreciate all the natural and human-made beauties of the world.
Finally, I will never know or understand the hurt, trauma, and wounds of the problematic economic, political, and yes, cultural practices that are in place in other countries. A one- or two-month stay does not capture the whole picture of a country, its history, and its nostalgia. The problem with travel is that it is often superficial. Usually, the country purposefully presents an image they want foreigners to perceive: the beauty, wonder, and shiny things. And although I strive to avoid it, I cannot fully escape the tourist draw. There is so much that I will never know, so perhaps I will appreciate some things in blissful ignorance. Other times, I will just listen.
3. Choosing to be an outsider fosters my sense of belonging and identity
Leaving everything I know behind continues to be one of the best life decisions. Every new country and city is an opportunity to question and redefine who I am. My concept of beauty and history expands as I study diverse artistic and architectural styles. Listening to people of different tongues, shades, and features broadens my global perspectives, and encourages me to reconsider my life timeline. I do not have to settle within the boxes society draws for me as a woman, educator, academic, and young person.
I nurture my identity as an explorer with each new location. I have always been curious, and travel has further developed my natural curiosity. Many a time, I’ve marveled at architectural treasures, people-watched, or investigated the history of the place I visit and wondered, “Why can’t it be like this everywhere else?”. Some countries seem like well-oiled machines.* The systems in place work almost flawlessly; they could easily be a model to others. If only they would look beyond the edge of their nose!
Ok, now I’ve gone on a tangent for too long. The truth is, I’ve felt the most at home in a place that breathes rich history, creativity, and beauty. I want to live in a place whose individuality fosters my own.
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As I continue to travel, I will likely add to this post. With each trip, I discover more about myself and the realm of possibilities. Travel allows me to dream beyond what is in front of me. There is so much to learn from staying in a new place, starting a conversation with a local, and taking the jump to explore.
*For clarification, see the second paragraph under "There is so much I don't know and never will."
Meghan Hesterman (she/her) is a child advocate and education blogger. While a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), she created Journal of a Future Teacher to share her journey in becoming an early childhood teacher.