By Ashley Hinson-Dhakal
I literally felt like I had stepped into another world when I arrived in Nepal almost two and a half years ago.
It was nothing like any other place I had been. This, as you might expect, led to some situations from which I’ve learned a great deal. I’m going to share a few of those moments with you now, and the important lessons to take away if you’re thinking about moving abroad.
For the first few months living in Kathmandu, I was hesitant to go out alone– not because it was unsafe or I wouldn’t find my way home, but because it felt very uncomfortable to be a “foreigner,” to be stared at with a mix of confusion and curiosity and have little to do but awkwardly smile in return. My initial strategy was to try and blend in as much as possible, but as you can imagine, that only got me so far. As soon as two words came out of my mouth… busted! So, when there was nothing left to do, I embraced it. I’m different. It’s ok. Everyone feels like an outsider somewhere, and that’s what is amazing, and humbling about travel.
Relationships are important everywhere, I think we all can agree. One of the best ways to build relationships is through communication. So, if you find yourself living in a new country without knowing the language, it can be difficult to create those relationships. I’m a firm believer in the universal language of a warm smile, but after a few months where rudimentary language skills allow you to exhaust all conversation about food and how to get around, you may find yourself wanting to discuss something deeper. For this, you should know that learning a new language means learning to accept making mistakes. Sometimes, it means embarrassing yourself in front of people whose opinion you care about. But it’s the only way to learn. And the only way you’ll ever get past the equivalent of conversations about the weather.
One of the most amazing things about travel, whether across the United States, or the World, is the variety of food. I never imagined I would eat rice twice a day with my hand, but that is exactly what I’ve come to know and love. When it comes to cooking, improvisation has become a most valuable asset: during Thanksgiving for example, roasted turkey becomes chicken curry, and cranberry sauce becomes boiled cranberry juice with a quarter cup of cornstarch. There are new traditions of course: learning to make homemade dumplings (momos), celebrating festive occasions with sweets made of cashew and cardamom, and sacrificing an entire goat for the most festive occasion of Dasai.
This probably goes without saying, but the third thing that is nice about living abroad is that it illustrates the many possibilities for living one’s life. One thing that I love about Nepali culture is that work is not everything. People work of course, but their work is not necessarily how they identify themselves – a person’s role in the family is, in my observation, more important than, or at least equally as important, as their work. I’ve realized, after living in a family-centric culture, that happiness means doing things for others, being there for family and being part of a team.
Now you may feel, after spending a significant amount of time in another country that it begins to feel like home. Having more than one place to call home is an awesome thing, but sometimes it can also feel like no place is really home. This is the point, I suppose, where it starts to become clear that the people around us create a sense of home – location is secondary. But for those moments when you need to remember where you came from, photos and Skype are your best assets.
If you’ll allow me to get philosophical for a moment, I’d like to share one last thing.
Traveling confirms a truth that I think we all know deep within.
That is, that we as humans are all fundamentally connected. Regardless of language barriers, cultural differences, or food preferences, we all share some of the same values: family is important, good food and communication are key, and when all else fails, a warm smile is all that’s needed to make a connection.
Ashley Hinson Dhakal grew up in Calais, Maine and has since lived in seven cities and three countries. She teaches online courses in social entrepreneurship through the Centre for Executive Education at the United Nations University for Peace, and has run a graphic design consultancy business since 2008. She now lives in Kathmandu, Nepal with her husband and his family, including Mom, Brother, three Sisters, and four dogs. Ashley is a founding member of The Curiosity Library.