Columnist Paul Sutherland offers his personal experience living abroad to shed light on the question.
Reader Question: My husband’s and my fondest memories are of traveling and meeting people overseas, and we have more Facebook friends abroad than friends at “home.” Now we’re asking ourselves, “Why do we live in the USA?” What should we be thinking about?
Paul Sutherland: I have always traveled so much that I run out of pages in my passport before it expires, and our home safe includes currencies from dozens of countries, collected so we don’t have to search for a currency exchange when our (cheap) red-eye flight arrives at 3 a.m. and we need cash for a taxi. I used to travel mostly for business and to feed an insatiable curiosity and love of cultures. But that shifted 12 years ago when I met my wife, Amy. I think about this because traveling through life is now one big adventure for both of us, as well as our children. Our nine-year-old is already working his way through the pages of his fourth passport.
Now living in Uganda, we sigh, but no longer shudder, as we wipe blood from smooshed bed bugs off our necks, or swallow deworming medications I used to think were just for dogs. We inspect funny-looking “mosquito bites” to see they are really maggots from a tsetse egg that escaped the hot iron on our underwear (yes, we do iron our underwear). When we find a maggot, Amy dabs the spot with Vaseline, and after a while the little critter can’t breathe and she gently pulls it out—still wriggling—with tweezers. Are you squirming yet?
We are used to guns and 24-hour guards who sit in our driveway watching, overhearing, and participating in every facet of our family life. We have electric blackouts, tap water that comes out brown or gray, and friends who talk local politics with much less reservation on our front porch than they do in restaurants. Diarrhea, rashes, and a host of unforgiving diseases are present here—against which we’re immunized as fully as possible (yet our children have had fewer colds and common illnesses than they had in the USA).
But it’s not as if we’re roughing it. Billions of people on our little earth live in conditions like we do. We are not doing anything out of the ordinary, at least to our neighbors and local friends.
We are here in Uganda on a mission (no, not a religious conversion one), and feel we are meant to be here—right now, in the now of the moment, accepting each moment as an interesting, fascinating, wondering-what’s-next kind of adventure. Thankfully, I can say with understanding and experience that the present moment has all the past in it and all the future too, if it is accepted without judging it as good, bad, or neutral, but just surrendering to its reality. An “in-the-moment” awe is helpful to you as a long-term traveler or resident abroad.
Wonderfully, it sounds like you too love the adventure and are not simply seeking to escape the USA. We meet people who are escaping the USA because they “hate” it, or get aggravated by the simplicity of their neighbors, or the pettiness of the culture, or the current political climate—and they find exactly the same thing abroad. The Germans will be too “unhappy,” the Italians too “comfortable,” Argentinians too “family oriented,” Ugandans “two-faced,” and the list goes on. My Buddhist training has taught me that activity, travel, and happy events are just “a blanket of happiness we place over our sorrows.” If we have not reached happiness without travel, then we are merely losing ourselves in these pursuits, much like compulsive shopping, eating to excess, or using drugs and alcohol. We reach happiness by realizing three simple things: Suffering exists; we can do something about the suffering; and we can live a spiritual life.
(That said, if you hate your life, it is better to try to do some good with your skills and fake that you’re a happy, joy-filled, emotionally intelligent, spirituality adept human being. We all fake it till we make it.)
And there is nothing wrong with exploration, collecting photographs and passport stamps, and making a travel bucket list simply because it sounds fun. We are all searching for that perfect mix of fulfillment, ease, joy, connection, environment, friends, family, partners, and places to nurture our DNA and spiritual essence. You might feel truly connected when you’re sitting with a bunch of happy people in Plumb Village in France, or hanging out with Caroline Myss at a Findhorn Foundation event in Scotland, or being kept awake by hippos and monkeys as you lie under a mosquito net in Botswana. But you might feel ever more connected holding a few-days-old HIV-positive infant in an orphanage or fighting for justice in Burundi. And that is no better or worse than serving your neighbor at the church soup kitchen down the street or fighting for justice in Charlottesville.
It is important that when we consider making big changes in our lives—moving abroad being one of them—we do so with intention and a sense of excitement and purpose to use our skills better because of that change. In all my years of helping clients achieve their retirement dreams, I’ve never found one who was content to spend his retirement living in a vacuum. Make sure that while you are considering what you are moving toward, you also carefully consider what you are moving away from—and whether you are resting your happiness on an illusion of a life abroad instead of being happy wherever your now places you.
In the March/April issue Paul will cover taxes, real estate, income considerations, visas, and residency permits, and will give tips to help save you money and grief.