In recent years, traveling has become more accessible than ever before. We can fly, drive, or take a train to all kinds of exotic and exciting destinations in just a few short hours—for a price, of course. Until college, the furthest away I had ventured from home was a nine-hour car ride to Florida. My single mother simply couldn’t afford to jet us off to Europe or Mexico for the holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed and appreciated our summers at the beach, but I grew up longing to see the world for myself instead of through the dull flicker of a small TV screen (4K Ultra HD wasn’t a thing back then!)
Finally, after my twenty-first birthday, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan. That experience single handedly changed everything. At first, my nervousness almost overpowered my excitement. I’d never been that far from my family and friends before. How would I make doctor appointments, order food, and navigate public transportation? I can remember the butterflies panicking in my stomach as the plane touched down in an entirely different country. However, I couldn’t back out of my decision. I had to see it through.
While I didn’t realize it at the time, each day I spent acclimating to Japan’s culture was changing me for the better. I was forced out of my comfort zone on a regular basis and became more social despite my anxiety. Living in an international dorm with shared common spaces, I had the opportunity to discuss Brexit with students from the UK, and I learned how some Japanese people felt about American politics. There were never any real arguments, just passionate discussions and laughter. Even better, we swapped and shared tidbits of our daily lives back home: party games, songs, stories, and superstitions. It was everything I thought it would be and more. I fell in love with airport coffee shops, trying foods I’d never tasted, and fumbling over new words until they rolled off my tongue with ease.
I grew up so much in my first year abroad due to both my successes and failures. Things didn’t always go according to plan—they actually fell apart several times. While my reading skills were still developing, I ended up lost more times than I’d like to admit, but those were the moments that taught me patience and perseverance. The solo trips I was brave enough to embark on bolstered my confidence and independence more than any of my other prior achievements. I knew no matter what sort of strange situation I found myself in, I could get out of it on my own or with the help of a kind stranger.
Eventually, I overcame my fears and reservations enough to try new hobbies and foods I otherwise would have never been exposed to. Although I probably won’t eat pig’s foot again, I’m glad I forced myself to take a bite. Additionally, I learned to appreciate the unique elements of Japanese culture that once seemed strange and even gained a new appreciation for home and my loved ones. And while there were lots of bumps in the road, seeing my progress made every struggle worth it.
When people ask if they should travel for a job, take a gap year, or study abroad, I always say yes. We simply don’t have as many opportunities to advance ourselves if we stay put in life and never accept any new challenges. Sure, you may like your comfort zone, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is important to find ways to ensure you’re still growing.
Even if you don’t see yourself ever moving overseas permanently, just two weeks in a different culture can ignite a spark in your life. Figure out how to communicate in a new language, navigate through a strange city with signs you can’t quite read, and befriend someone you’d otherwise never speak to. Allow yourself to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Navigating these new obstacles makes us tremendously self-sufficient and deepens our connection to the world we are fortunate to inhabit.
Although I encourage travel for its numerous benefits, it is important to understand that an airplane ticket alone will not fix your problems or fill the void in your life. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for years now, and while I’ve worked on developing healthier coping mechanisms, I once thought leaving home would help me escape some hard realities. My hometown was full of painful memories I could “forget” while overseas. Surely, I thought, a change of scenery would be enough to provide me with the joy I was missing. However, spoiler alert, this was not the case.
I realized I was carrying around my heavy emotional baggage everywhere I went even though there were no extra fees. Sure, I gained some new tools to help me carry my load, but it was still there. Despite my wishful thinking, I had to be proactive in my healing process and continue working on myself in therapy. You don’t leave your problems behind when you clear security, but from way up in the air you can gain some new perspective. It’s just important to be realistic with your expectations and keep an open mind. Be honest with yourself and with your feelings. If you need support, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for it. Now, I’ve started to come to terms with my baggage and it doesn’t seem nearly as heavy as it once did.
Also, despite what Instagram would like you to believe, traveling isn’t always a vacation. In my times outside of America, I’ve witnessed devastating typhoons, outbreaks of deadly disease, and the effects of child abuse and extreme poverty. Less than a month into my study abroad, I lost a loved one very dear to me, and I was unable to attend the funeral due to my university’s attendance policy and the cost of flights. This was a dark time for me to overcome. I almost quit my studies and returned home, but I met with a therapist instead and we worked through it together.
Be prepared to face adversity on your journey. Horrible, unexplainable events occur every day all over the world that are outside of anyone’s control. Equally painful family tragedies may also happen in your absence. While abroad, you can’t just turn off the news and pretend everything is fine. You can’t teleport home during an emergency. Life in a foreign country can be difficult and isolating even when things are generally going well, but in times of crisis it can be much harder to navigate your feelings without a strong support system.
Now, as the world turns upside down amidst the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, I continue to exercise caution in my daily life while harboring the unsettling fear that friends and family back home and members of my adopted community will become ill. I’ve lost so many loved ones that circumstances like these trigger my anxiety. However, I’ve learned now I can’t ignore these feelings or banish them through mere distractions alone. While escapes and getaways provide temporary stress relief, they are not solutions. My self-care system has evolved to allow me to feel ok with my sadness, fear, anger, and grief.
Sometimes, to heal we need to move forward. And other times, we need to be still and reflect instead. As several of my upcoming trips teeter on the verge of cancellation, I am trying to be optimistic about the time I will have to journal and rest. Maybe all of this is a sign we need to slow down.
How has traveling positively affected you? And how are you handling social distancing and staying in? Please stay safe and share your thoughts below!