Tuesday, September 9, 2014

My move from local yokel to expat

**Note: technically, a "yokel" is someone who is considered a redneck or a country bumpkin, but in my story, I'm using it to describe myself as one who hasn't experienced much of the world.**

As a child and a young adult, I had never had much interest in settling outside of my home state, much less out of the region. However, things quickly changed as I began traveling internationally. I went from being a local yokel to morphing into an expat with itchy feet (and not from foot fungus ;)

The roots of my previous frame of mind were influenced by my environment as I was growing up. My hometown in Michigan has somewhere around 200,000 residents so it is not, by any means, a small town. However, being located in the west side of the state, it is somewhat conservative, as that area is strongly influenced by Christian Reformed mores.

My parents brought us up in a neighborhood that was predominantly white. I attended private school and "racial diversity" mostly resulted from the different western European origins of one's forefathers (i.e. were you of Dutch, German, or French heritage?). My parents didn't bring us up to be racist or closed minded, but we also didn't have many opportunities to meet people of different races, cultures, or travel much outside of the Midwest in our earlier years. On the other hand, we were definitely encouraged to be nice to everyone.

Even looking at where of many of my high school classmates have ended up as adults illuminates the "feel" of my hometown: the majority of them are living close to where they were raised, spending time with the same people that were their friends from high school, doing things almost exactly the same way they did as when they were young.

As a result, I think of my hometown as a place that's pleasant enough but not full of people who are the most cosmopolitan bunch around. I counted myself in that group. As an 18 year-old, I wanted to attend college an hour from home (which gave me plenty of time to return on weekends to spend time with my boyfriend and friends whom I had met in high school). Then my plan was to move back to my hometown and get a job there, marry, have 1.5 children, the white picket fence, and all those trappings of middle class suburbia.

However, that all changed as I began traveling. When my Dad retired from a branch of the service, he made the happy discovery that he was eligible to take his family on "Space Available" flights from the Air Force. There are regularly scheduled flights to Air Force bases around the world. Sometimes there is room for military members/retirees and their families to use extra seats on the flights for personal travel. Of course, seats on the flights aren't guaranteed; it's a lottery system to see if one can take the flight (and a pretty interesting adventure, too!). My Dad has an adventurous soul and offered to take our family on trips. When the airfare is free, European travel is quite reasonably priced. I lucked out and was able to take many trips with Dad while I was a dependent in college.

I think that these early trips were the gateway to my addiction to travel. We started with a trip to Germany. The preconceived notions I held about Germany were completely ridiculous and unfounded, I realized. I liked being abroad so much that I signed up to spend a semester studying in England (ah, the safe choice where I didn't have to learn a new language, but there was still plenty of culture shock to shake up my world in a good way). After that experience, I decided that one day, I would be an expat. Many overseas trips followed and in 2013, I became an expat, as I had hoped all those years earlier.

Now, looking back at my 18 year old self, I can't help but reflect on all the changes. I'm not sure that I could resettle in my hometown. It's a pleasant place to live but I think I'd be bored there. I am no longer interested in the middle class vision of domestic bliss. I want to travel, explore, and test my boundaries instead.That's the beautiful thing about travel: it really helps to expand one's horizons, dispel unfairly held assumptions, and introduce one to the wonders and beauty of the world.

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