Stories of Men

Why every man shouldn’t live with the regret of not travelling and living abroad

Why every man shouldn’t live with the regret of not travelling and living abroad

What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve ever received and how did following that advice change your life?

For me, it came about 16 years ago when I was in my early 20s. I was on an entrepreneurship course at Lancaster University and we had been separated into groups of 4 with each group having a business mentor.

Funnily enough, I don’t remember much of what our mentor actually said, what I do remember is speaking to one of the other groups and asking them what they learned. They told me what their mentor had told them and it was this: Get out of this country while you’re young. Go travel!”.

I very much took this advice to heart as later that year I did a Summer Camp in the US teaching football and other sports. I then went to New York on an internship programme for a year. This experience changed my life. Here I was, a kid who experienced his formative years growing up on a council estate in Tyldesley, greater Manchester, on a course where 90% of those who were on it with me had been to private school.

But none of that mattered now. We were on the same journey together. It made me realise one crucial thing:

‘It’s not about where you’re from, it’s where you’re at’ – ultimately, it’s about where you’re going.

My lust for experiences abroad continued and I went to Nepal in 2010 on a government-funded charity programme, I then went to Hong Kong in August of that year and started teaching English. This is where I started my business, Swoosh English, which I run to this day.

One of the things that I thoroughly enjoyed doing abroad was learning languages. I started learning Mandarin Chinese while living in Hong Kong before realising that I was better off learning the language in a place where most people didn’t speak a completely different one…(in Hong Kong they speak cantonese).

So I moved to Tianjin, a city about 30 minutes away from the capital of mainland China, Beijing, where I could immerse myself in the language properly. I ended up doing this in a convent of all places. I know, pretty random. There was a nun there who sold bibles and she agreed to teach me Chinese in-between dealing with customers and doing her other nun-related activities.

Why didn’t I just pay a teacher to help me? The answer was that I didn’t have the money.

Surprisingly, they let me sit and eat with them at lunchtime. I also got to hang out with the nuns and the priest during lunch breaks and even got free food too. I ended up doing this for 4 months and spent very little money. Who says you’ve got to be rich to live abroad?

In return, I helped the nuns out with their English. But I also had the opportunity to become completely absorbed by the new world I was in. I joined a gym and started doing boxing training and got involved in sparring. I was living a life that was completely different to what I’d experienced before.

The 5 ft 5 stocky, Wayne-Rooney- kind-of-build boxing trainer used to love sparring me as I was tall. He hit me so hard on the temple one session that I was concussed and had a permanent headache for 2 weeks – not the healthiest thing I could be doing in China!

Beside the concussions, such immersion was great for my language skills, particularly my listening, which was always my Achilles heel. But there were drawbacks too.

One was that I began to become isolated. I was so focused on learning Mandarin that I purposefully avoided the company of other English speakers. There was also the issue of money. Despite the free food I was getting, my funds did begin to run out so I started working in a language school to earn a bit of cash.

To hear another story about some amazing travels abroad, travels which started with a solo-trip at the age of 13, listen to the award-winning photographer, Nick Danziger, here.

My foreign adventures didn’t end there. I also spent time back in Hong Kong again after my time in China. Again, I was teaching English, probably the best avenue to being able to live in a variety of countries all over the world, in my opinion.

I remember going for dinner with a Korean couple, Mike and Gina, regularly while I lived in Hong Kong. They were around 20 years older than myself and they were full of so much wisdom and life experience. I was amazed at the time that I had been able to come so far, all the way from a council estate in the UK to speaking to these fascinating people in Asia.

Funnily enough, a lot of the people I met found meeting a British person pretty interesting too. A lot of it was because of how interesting people find England generally and our international reputation. Particularly our international football team (is it coming home this time lads? Probably not, eh…)

In all seriousness though, there is a privilege that comes with being from the UK. Not least being that we are native-speakers of English, a language that is basically a global language. Having access to people like us is a dream for a good number of people living around the world.

I think the biggest benefits I’ve experienced from living abroad are, firstly, what I’ve been able to learn about myself. I’ve heard it said that you learn 3 times more about yourself living abroad than you do if you never leave your country of birth.

There are also the stories you can tell your kids or grandkids. One-off experiences of the like of which most people will never have and will never be able to share. I’ve met many people in my life who haven’t travelled and they’ve often regretted it. Isn’t it funny how so often we regret the things we haven’t done? As the famous saying goes:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Another benefit is the connection you get to experience with people of other cultures. It helps to promote empathy. You realise how similar people are, despite the outward differences.

Then there are the cognitive benefits of learning another language. It helps to open up new neural pathways and can delay the onset of diseases that affect the brain such as dementia. There’s also just that buzz you get of being able to have actual conversations with people who speak a different language to your own. To find out more about the benefits of learning another language, click on this article.

I also like to know that I have options outside of the UK. So many of us feel wedded to this country and feel as if we need to put up with life here no matter how crappy it can get. But, having lived abroad, I know that this isn’t true. If I’m not feeling fulfilled here or if the opportunities aren’t presenting themselves, I can go elsewhere. I’ve done it before, so I can do it again.

This makes me think of my friend, Claude, who decided to spend 4 years travelling around the world and living in different countries. In fact his daughter was born in the Amazon Rainforest on a bathroom floor. Now what a story that’ll be to tell the grandkids! For more stories from Claude, listen to this.

On top of this, I can’t neglect to mention the sun. Living in hotter climates during winter is good for the soul. It improves mood and means that you’re getting that vital Vitamin D which so many of us lack during the colder months. There’s no chance of experiencing things like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) when you’re on the beach somewhere taking in the rays.

In fact, this past winter was the first time I’ve stayed in the UK during the cold season since 2019. Normally, I’d be off somewhere, probably in Latin America, where I’ve found so many people who are friendly and chatty and open to have conversations.

I will say, though, it can be a bit of a shock to the system coming back to the UK, especially when you’ve been away for a while. One of the things that never fails to surprise me is how little changes. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’ve not been away at all.

But spending time away from the UK has made me appreciate it more when I’ve come back. Like the ancient story goes, there are diamonds and pearls in your own backyard. But, in order to see that, sometimes you need to get away first.

On that note, read ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Coelho – great book.

Have you ever spent time living abroad? If so, what did you learn from the experience? If not, what are you waiting for?

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Laura is the mix engineer for the Stories of Men podcast. She has a BA in Music from Nottingham University and an Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering from Abbey Road Institute. Alongside working for Our Voices she is a freelance sound designer and technician. Her highlights include sound design for JK Rowling audiobook ‘The Christmas Pig’, and sound effects editing on The Outlaws, on the BBC.

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