I want to reflect with you some life lessons I’ve learned while living abroad and on the road for the last 2 years.
2016, I married the love of my life (Cindy) and then after a wonderful honeymoon in Mexico City (highly recommended), we flew out to Vietnam and lived there for about a year (8 months in Hanoi, 2-3 months in Saigon), and more time living on the road in Japan (Kyoto and Tokyo), then more time on the road in NYC, Berlin, Marseille, Lisbon, London, and now here in Boston.
Here are some life lessons I’ve learned:
1. Living abroad versus traveling abroad
The big thing was that while Cindy and I were living in Vietnam, we weren’t traveling much — we pretty much stayed put in Vietnam, and lived there like locals, instead of moving around and traveling around.
The first lesson I learned is that living abroad is a far more richer, more fulfilling, and more interesting experience than traveling.
When we were living abroad in Vietnam, I actually had the opportunity to learn how to speak Vietnamese. This is because I was able to interact with local Vietnamese people everyday, and learned Vietnamese by necessity (desire to communicate with locals and joke around with them), instead of forcing myself to learn Vietnamese. By living in Vietnam for about a year, learning how to speak Vietnamese was quite effortless (meaning, I didn’t need to force myself to speak Vietnamese, it just came naturally). I didn’t take any Vietnamese courses, I picked it all pretty much from making small talk with taxi/Uber drivers, talking with baristas at the coffee shop, and restaurant workers.
The problem with traveling is that you don’t have the opportunity for depth of experiences. By living abroad, you can have deep and meaningful experiences which change you for the better, and help your self-development.
Bringing me to the next point: the benefit of living abroad and on the road is that I’m less distracted by local politics, news, and distractions in the media.
By being away from home, I was able to focus on myself, and focus on my own self development.
For example when I was living in Vietnam, I was immune from all of the Donald Trump drama back in America. By walling myself off, and going into zen monk meditative mode, I was able to develop my interests in music, poetry, literature, and philosophy that I wasn’t able to do with the distractions back home in the states.
I finally had the focus to read a lot of ancient literature and philosophy. I finally read The Odyssey, all the works of Horace, The Life of Jesus by Jefferson, poems by Virgil, the plays of Seneca, poems by Ovid.
I also had the opportunity to start teaching myself how to make music, with simple beats and loops in Apple GarageBand on the laptop.
Therefore the practical lesson is this:
Leaving your home country, walling yourself off in a foreign country (with good coffee and fast WiFi) can help your artistic self-development.
I honestly think that Vietnam (Hanoi/Saigon) is a Mecca for digital nomads. When Cindy and I were living in an apartment in Hanoi, it was only $350 a month in rent, and food costs were little. In Saigon we stayed in a nice hotel for less than $30 a night. This meant less financial stresses and worries of everyday living, which allowed me to pursue more of my artistic interests.
I do genuinely believe if you graduate from college or take a break from working, spending a year or so living abroad in Vietnam, Bangkok, or other cheap southeast Asian countries is a great opportunity for self-introspection, and the chance for you to develop yourself as an artist.
3. Life without Amazon prime
I’m an Amazon prime addict, but spending time abroad has helped me detach myself from stuff. Why? Because traveling with physical objects that are heavy is painful, and we keep our bags to a minimum (one duffel bag, and two backpacks between Cindy and I). This means when we are in transit, we don’t need to check in bags. Everything is carry on for flights, which saves us time and money.
Life is better with fewer possessions. I jump out of bed everyday, and wear the same all black outfit (Black merino wool T-shirt, Black merino wool leggings, merino wool socks, black shorts, and black Nike fly knit shoes). Less worrying about my clothes is more focus on what is important to me: creative work and creative productivity.
By not having easy access to buying stuff on the fly, it has helped me be more creative with the few possessions I do have. I’ve been able to make great photographs with my RICOH GR II, with an iPad Pro 10.5 inch (more or less has replaced my laptop), and using Cindy’s old MacBook Air for video editing.
4. Creative constraints
Living on the road and abroad has helped me become more creative, for example:
- No extra hard drives meant that I didn’t have much storage space. Thus instead of shooting RAW, I started to shoot only JPEG. And I’ve discovered the benefits of shooting JPEG over raw (smaller space, faster file uploads to the cloud, and simplified photography workflow).
- No access to gym membership: more yoga at home, chin-ups at the park or inside bathroom stalls, push-ups at home, and one-legged squats. Enjoying the benefits of body weight exercises, and the time saved.
- Simple diet: buying lots of eggs at the grocery store, eating cheap meats (chicken legs, chicken hearts, pork knuckle). Saving a ton of money no longer buying hipster Berkeley foods (like Avocados, Almond butter).
- Downloading more free PDF textbooks online on subjects which interest me, rather than ordering books on Amazon prime.
Living abroad and on the road means you need to be more flexible to your local environment. But I’ve found these creative constraints as a fun thing. There is less predictability when living abroad and on the road, but life is more interesting, novel, and fun.
5. Less stability
I’ve learned with Cindy: a lot of people desire security, safety, and predictability in life, and they think this is the secret to a happy life.
I’ve discovered for myself, it isn’t the case. I prefer adventure, unpredictability, chaos, randomness, and I’m starting to wonder — is this a more interesting way to live life?
For example, a lot of people think that once they make $100,000+ a year, own a BMW, own a home, and all their kids are in private school, they will be happy. But based on what I’ve learned, these people (who obtain “financial freedom” and security/stability in their lives) actually suffer from something worse than anxiety and fear —which is ennui, boredom, and lack of zest or interest in living.
I actually think that boredom, existential dread, and nihilism is worse than stress and financial anxiety.
I think we all need something to drive us, to keep us sharp, motivated, hungry, and to aspire for more. When you achieve perfect balance and stability in your life —why be motivated to do more, or to become more?
7 Distilled life lessons
To sum up my life lessons on the road and living abroad:
- After traveling the world, I actually prefer American culture the best: the culture of hard work, industry, productivity, and not worrying so much about failure. I like the American ethos of entrepreneurship, risk taking, and strong individualism.
- Possessions and status symbols are overrated. More fun and interesting to work on challenging and fun creative projects, and to actually create and produce stuff.
- Simple diets are the best: less heavy on your wallet, cause you to lose body fat, and feel more vigorous and energetic during the day.
- I prefer working at coffee shops with fast WiFi instead of working at home or in office spaces.
- For me, a lot of my own mental well-being depends on me walking enough everyday, having some sort of variation of my surroundings, sunlight, and creative activity.
- I don’t desire to own a bit nor expensive home. I would prefer the flexibility of traveling, living abroad, or using the money as a financial cushion so I can just focus on my creative projects.
- Living abroad and traveling abroad won’t make you a “happier” person, but it will give you more free time and fewer distractions in order to focus on your own artistic self-development, which can make you feel happier.
Conclusion: “Should I travel or live abroad?” (It is up to you)
If you’re reading this, you might be wondering:
“Should I travel more or live abroad for a certain period of time?”
If you have the opportunity, hell yes! If not, you’re also not missing out much.
If you cannot travel or live abroad, some ideas:
- Add more novelty, randomness, and unpredictability to your daily life: go to different or new coffee shops, check out new restaurants or bars, and just spend less time at home and less time watching Netflix.
- Walk more whenever possible.
- Explore a new part of town (almost equivalent to traveling abroad in terms of the novelty factor).
- After work, use that time to experiment with any artistic experiments you have in mind. Pick up woodworking, drawing, computer programming, music production, poetry, or anything which interests you creatively.
But as a thought experiment, ask yourself:
“If I knew that I could never travel or live abroad (ever), could I still life a happy, purposeful, and meaningful life?”
And the other question,
“What is holding me back from traveling or living abroad? Is it practical fears or financial issues holding me back, or something else?”
The best “bang for the buck” places to travel to
A list of my favorite places to travel to, which aren’t that expensive:
- Kyoto (much cheaper than Tokyo)
- New Orleans (more interesting than Paris to me)
- Lisbon (the most underrated city, super adorable)
- Vietnam (Hanoi, Saigon, Sapa, Dalat)
For flights, I use the cheapest flights I can find on kayak.com, and I always stay with friends, family, or find cheap Airbnb’s.
Decide For Yourself
Realize traveling and living abroad is within reach, but also realize that you shouldn’t feel like you must travel abroad or live abroad before you die. Living abroad and traveling is a good experience that can help you have more time to introspect and make art, but isn’t 100% necessary. And it’s not for everybody.