If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much.
– Lewis Carroll
What will your mother say when you tell her you’re going to move to another country and live abroad? Will all your friend automatically think international living is cool?
I doubt it. Resisting the force of others’ negativity is one of the toughest pre-departure tasks you must complete. That’s true if you’re taking a year-long trip around the world, even more true if you might not ever be moving back.
In 1902 a man named Owen Wister published a novel called The Virginian. It is widely credited as the first true “western” and had a huge influence on a whole class of books, movies, and TV shows that followed. Although this launched Wister’s writing career and he spent the rest of his life publishing other books and living a life of celebrity, he never wrote another western. This fact is glossed over without any explanation in most biographies, but apparently it was a scolding from his mother that was the reason. She reportedly thought it was beneath his talents to write that kind of trashy story and she reprimanded him for the frequent violence in the book. With that one rebuke, Wister stopped doing what had broken new ground and return to doing “normal” writing again. He went on to write four more novels, 11 non-fiction books, and a large body of short stories.
It is that one revolutionary book that Wister is still known for today though. None of the others came close to selling the 200,000 copies—in 1902—that The Virginian did its first year. Five movies and a TV series have used it as the basis of their story and it has never been out of print.
When you do something that seems different or radical to others, you can expect lots of resistance. Perhaps even contempt. A whole mix of emotions erupts when someone else freely embraces a drastic change. So when you excitedly announce your plans to move abroad, your mother may not approve. Don’t expect everyone to be universally excited for you. Some will get downright hostile. To your face or behind your back, you may be called a deserter, a runaway, a slacker, a coward, a communist, a kook, or worse.
If the TV news channel you watch all day keeps telling you that you live in the greatest country in the world and everyone wants to be like us, sooner or later you start believing it. In an article I read about the ten most popular countries for Americans moving abroad, the nasty comments underneath it included gems like this.
I ALREADY LIVE IN THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD WHY WOULD I WANT TO GO ANYWHERE ELSE!! EVEN AT OUR WORST WE ARE WE ARE BETTER THAN THE REST!!! (Typos corrected, screaming capitals left.)
Well now anyone who is on the run from the Law knows where they can ESCAPE to, as you put it. Bye, maybe we can empty the prisons and send them to these places.
Read any article online about moving to Mexico and you’ll find a large number of comments that are hateful, paranoid, ignorant, and just dead wrong. Most of the people writing them haven’t traveled out of the country or if they did, it was on a safe and predictable cruise ship. They ignore the troubles in their own town as if they don’t exist, but proclaim to be experts on all the troubles you are bound to encounter if you go live in Mexico. Hey, they saw it on TV.
While the rah-rah USA types are the worst, you’ll also get strong resistance from people you are close to if you’re moving from Manchester to Porto or from Toronto to Trujillo. Some cultures are more open to moving abroad than others, especially if you’re only doing it six months a year, but that doesn’t mean your blood relatives and close friends are going to be thrilled that you’re abandoning them. They’ll pile on the guilt about you being eight hours away by plane.
The Emotions Behind Resistance to Going Abroad
If you understand why people are not happy about your grand plans to move abroad, it gets easier to deal with the criticism (or wall of silence). Then you can just say, “Excuse me, there’s someone over there I need to talk to” when someone starts criticizing your plans instead of getting red in the face and telling them off.
1) They haven’t traveled much.
Most people who don’t understand why you would take off around the world for a year or move to another country haven’t spent much time outside their own country. (In many cases, that’s a good thing for the rest of the world.) If they have traveled, it has been on a secluded ship, in a secluded resort, or a very tightly organized bus tour with no pesky locals. They don’t know much about real costs and they probably don’t believe things are as cheap where you’re going as you are telling them. Or they think if your rent is $250 a month, then you must be moving to a cave with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing.
2) They’re envious because their own boring life is all mapped out.
“Going on an adventure” is a depressingly rare event for nearly all the adult population of my home country. Vacations are strictly planned, and time off is a too-rare commodity that can’t be spent spontaneously. The race for more stuff and more money to pay bloated health care and university systems saps the life out of most people who have managed to land a good job and keep it. Ask them how their life will be different in five or ten years and they may not be able to think of anything. Or they’ll just say something weak about a hoped-for promotion, retirement, or their kids going to college.
For a majority, the closest they’ll get to an adventure is having an illicit affair with a co-worker or staying up all night “getting crazy” at the next convention in Vegas. They are slaves to routines, commutes, the kids’ activity schedules, and the big-screen TV. They’ll say, “I wish I could do what you’re doing” and will have plenty of the usual excuses as to why they can’t. It’s all mapped out, pre-ordained, set in stone. They have responsibilities. There are two car loans to pay off, a big mortgage to keep paying, promises to keep, ladders to climb, plus they just got that new riding mower for the lawn… They’re in a jail of their own making but they don’t realize they have built it themselves.
You represent a threat because you’re showing them it doesn’t have to be that way. And that’s as scary as the revelation in The Matrix. Every time you tell them about your adventures abroad, it’s going to be a reminder of what life’s like on the other side. The life they may have dreamed of before than put on so many shackles and chains. They won’t tell you all this. They might not even be able to recognize it and verbalize it. But you are likely making them feel some negative emotions without you even knowing it.
3) If you’re leaving, that means this place is not perfect
If you’re in some kind of membership club and people start dropping out, that makes you wonder what’s wrong. If the star performers in your company start taking jobs elsewhere, you’re going to think that’s a bad sign. You may feel like a sucker for still being there.
If someone tells you they’re moving away from where you live and that they think this whole lifestyle they’ve been living in your town is not the best they can do, how’s that going to make you feel? If they moved away because of a great job offer, that’s perfectly logical, but to move just because there’s a better life somewhere else? That’s..well…”different.”
Some will just think you’re nuts and they’ll feel okay because you’re obviously off your rocker. Some will feel envious and maybe a bit bitter (see #2). Others will start wondering if this club they thought was perfect may not be so great after all. This life they’ve been told to pursue, the one that’s supposed to represent fulfillment, is not feeling so fulfilling. Now here you are saying there’s a way out and you’re hopping on a plane to take it.
Maybe they already had a nagging feeling that this land of opportunity they’re in is not so full of opportunity anymore, that getting ahead financially is getting tougher every year. They might have even bought into the idea that a savior is going to make their country “great again” like it was in the 1950s when any warm (white male) body could get a high-paying job. Now you’re regaling them with tales of half-price living in a place with better weather, better health care, and less stress. They might be happy for you, but you’re not making them happy. Because they’re stuck in this place that’s looking a lot less perfect now.
Empathy and Strength
You don’t want to hear your mother say, “You’re an idiot for doing this and you should feel guilty for leaving me.”
But then again, hearing “We’re so happy for you” while seeing a dark cloud pass over your friend’s face is not so great either.
Understand that your radical decision (in their eyes) can spur heavy emotions and soul-searching, no matter how much that person knows you’re going to have an amazing time. You’ll be told you’re naive. People will say, “See you back here in six months!” with a laugh and a pat on your back. Some will ask if they have electricity yet where you’re going. Just smile, keep making your arrangements, and then post lots of photos seven months later.
Understand why you may meet resistance and don’t let it get you down. Empathize with their position, but be extra resolute about yours. This is your life and doing what other people tell you is “normal” is probably going to put you on a treadmill that’s not going anywhere. It’s your decision to make and it’s a good one, so lock the storage unit door and go!
Surround Yourself With Different People
One good solution to all this if you’re not getting much support on the home front is to find new people to talk with. Join up with groups of like-minded passport holders who are thinking of moving abroad or are already doing it. My Cheap Living Abroad groups are a good solution of course, but you can also find destination-specific listservs, message boards, and Facebook groups to drill down further and make new friends where you’re going. When you take a trial run in a city you’re considering, you’ll probably make 20 new friends in two weeks.
They’ll understand what you went through back home.
This is an excerpt from the book A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. It’s available in paperback, audio book, and e-book. See the Cheap Living Abroad site for more details.