5 Ways Travel Has Changed My Personality

5 Ways Travel Has Changed My Personality

Changin' through Travel
Changin’ through Travel

I know.  I disappeared for a month.

I wish I could say that I did something cool, like randomly bought a one way ticket to Iceland and partied in Reykjavik for 30 days straight–but alas, my life is not that exciting.  The last month was mostly sucked up by a web design class that taught me little, but did force me to build a website (I actually constructed a website for the boyfriend that should be up soon).  I also spruced up The Ruby Ronin a bit in hopes that it will inspire and motivate me to write on a regular basis.

Like one of my favorite bloggers Rosie mentioned on her recent post, when you fall into monotony it’s hard to find inspiration to write.  That’s exactly where I was–but I hope it will not happen again.  I apologize, my readers.

Anyway, this post isn’t about the broken state I’ve been in for the last month–it’s about change.

After one year of living in the states, I’ve not only noticed differences in my new American surroundings, but also in myself.

Thanks to my life abroad, I can now…

1. Stand up for myself (thanks, China!)

Standing up to the Winds in San Diego
Standing up to the Winds in San Diego

In America we smile, say hello, ask how your day is and mind our manners by saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”  In fact, almost all pleasantries end with the sentence: “Have a wonderful day.”

In China?

Pff, yeah right.

When meek Mary first went to China, she was kicked and tossed around like the newb foreigner she was.

My ‘please’ and ‘thank yous’ in Chinese were met with a grunt and a snort.  When Chinese people cut in front of me in line, I sulked and let them butt in.  When the taxi driver took the scenic route to up the meter, I merely paid the extra fee with a tear in my eye.  The Chinese knew my weakness, and exploit it they did.

Chinese people are highly aggressive.  Unless you put your foot down and stick up for yourself, they are not afraid to nickel and dime you.  If you don’t persistently demand for your rights in China, then you simply won’t get any.  Teary eyed Mary learned how to fight with the cab driver, she got the courage to tell the lady cutting in line to scram, and she even learned how to barter for discounts on fruits, vegetables, and her cell phone bill.

So now in America, instead of letting the server get away with charging gratuity when it clearly wasn’t stated–I get mad.  I shove the bill in their face and say, “What the hell is this?”

Before, I would have waved the problem away and said it wasn’t worth the fight.

But China taught me that if you let people step all over you, then you’ll be at the service of others and never yourself.

2. Be More Considerate (thanks, Japan!)

Puttin on My Japanese Face
Puttin on My Japanese Face

When it comes to manners, Japan reigns supreme.

Although no one in Japan taught me how to be hospitable, I caught myself copying the Japanese without even thinking.

Always prepare a snack, tea or beverage when guests come over.  If food is served, spoon out and distribute rice and other dishes immediately for the guests.  If your friend/colleague’s beer or wine glass if empty, fill it up.  When grabbing food from a communal dish, use the back end of your chopsticks (it’s more sanitary and polite).  When in an elevator, push the ‘open’ button to let everyone else out first.  After eating a meal at someone’s home, clean up (even if they insist you don’t have to).

In Japanese, there’s a phrase called “omotenashi“… which basically means: damn good hospitality.  No one else is as considerate as the Japanese.  They can read your mind.  They know what you want.

Now that I’m in the U.S., I still find myself practicing these habits (and more) that I picked up in Japan–and I’m glad I did.  It always pays to be kind and considerate.

3. Improvise in Any Situation


When you travel frequently, you have to be quick on your toes.  Trains to the airport booked solid?  Try a taxi.  Rainy day ruin your tour to the temple?  Find a show or museum to go see in the city instead.  Can’t read the medication you need to buy?  Call a local friend, or use your dictionary and limited English to work with the pharmacist at hand.

My ability to improvise has proved to be a golden asset here in the states.  I can usually handle any curve ball thrown at me, mostly because living in a foreign country was like being hit with twenty curve balls on a daily basis.  Whether it’s going to the doctor, paying your phone bill, or finding a new apartment–everything is a challenge where improvisation is almost always needed.

4. Learn to be at Peace with Solitude

I walk alone, I walk alone.
I walk alone….

When I moved to middle-of-nowhere Japan at the tender age of 22, I lived alone in a large apartment surrounded by rice fields, spiders, cockroaches and crickets that roared (yes, roared) through the night.

It was my first time living alone, and I was deathly afraid.

The loneliness I endured in Japan was tough.  I was the only foreigner in my village, with my closest western connection being a McDonalds that was  2 hours away by train.  I came to Japan with no friends.  I spent many nights and weekends with only myself for company.

Yet I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, because it made me one tough bitch.  Once lonely and self-conscious Mary is now able to waltz into a bar solo, take a spot in front of the cute bartender and chat it up in Japanese.  I’m now comfortable going to a restaurant alone, with nothing but myself and a book.

More importantly, I was able to travel solo and discover who I am, grow as a person, and become an independent and confident individual.

5.  Be Open and Compassionate

Compassion, Kindness, Courage... there's a character for all of them words!
Compassion, Kindness, Courage… there’s a character for all of them words!

Moving to a new country feels much like being a puppy lost on the streets of Manhattan.  It’s a big world, there’s people out there to get you, and nothing is familiar.  It’s pretty damn scary.

So now that I’m back in the states, I try to help out those from other countries so that they can settle into this big, scary place called America (cause god knows it still scares me).

I can’t even count the number of kind souls that helped me out in China, Japan, and all of my travels.  Without them, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the experience alive.

While I don’t live in China and Japan anymore, or even travel half as frequently as I used to, the experiences from these places have forever changed me for the better.

How have you changed from living abroad?

17 thoughts on “5 Ways Travel Has Changed My Personality

  1. Yeah I can relate, especially about standing up for myself. I used to be a pacifist, but now when somebody tries to take advantage of my short stature and babyface, I let them have it. I wasn’t like that before despite I lived in New England. (I’ve heard it’s a Shanghai thing rather than a China thing per se). On the plus side, I no longer laugh at antisemitic jokes and hide everything about me to make OTHER people comfortable. Yeah, I am not here to cater to bigots anymore.

    I’m more con.siderate because of Taiwan. How you described what you learn from Japan is basically the same with me when it comes to Taiwan.

    I can relate to 3 and 4, but especially 5: I wasn’t very expressive and open while I was growing up in New England area. I now smile now and become more welcoming. I’ve always helped people who are from another country, but now I feel I want to go far and beyond after what I went through overseas.

    1. No one should EVER put up with antisemitic jokes! That’s terrible!

      I think in America we try too hard to be pleasant and nice to others to keep up a good image, but all of the polite manners and fake smiles has gotten to me. Although Chinese people are considered ‘rude’ by many Americans, it’s kind of refreshing for me–because they’re real. Honest. I almost prefer that.

      Taiwanese people seem very polite and friendly. It seems like they share many similarities with the Japanese.

      I’m in the same boat as you with no.5. I always wondered why my mom was so weird and different growing up, but after living in Asia I realized that for her to move to the USA must have been so painful and challenging. I have a whole new level of respect for all immigrants to the USA–it’s not easy to move to a new country.

  2. Yay! She’s back! I missed your entertaining and informative posts. Enjoyed this one.

    It’s hard to think of two countries with manners as different as China and Japan. Our area of LA has a huge Japanese population while Chinese nationals are buying up houses in our area like crazy (we also have plenty of first, second, and third generation Chinese-Americans). There’s a middle school across the street from us. Pick up and drop-off are mayhem, with parents using driveways and even the middle of the street to let out their kids before gunning their engines and nearly running over other people’s kids in the crosswalks.

    If I come home/ leave during school hours, I find more and more Chinese parents blocking my driveway, parking in my driveway, or leaving trash on my lawn. Of course, my driveway has also been blocked by white, African-American, and Latino parents in the past, but now it’s the Chinese nationals exclusively. Other neighbors complain to me about the same thing. I prefer to avoid conflict and I only call parking enforcement when I have to, but after reading your post, I think I might just go start yelling. We tend to think that everyone else thinks like us when we “play by the rules,” and your post is a nice reminder that those rules are different in every culture. Do you think I should get out the hose, or is that going too far? 🙂

    On the weekends and in summer, a Japanese school and soccer camp take over the school. Japanese parents stand on street corners with signs, they direct traffic into an orderly queue, and the parents never block anyone’s driveway. And then the only parent speeding through crosswalks or parking in my driveway is the second or third generation Japanese-American parent blaring music in a BMW.

  3. Awwww Autumn you’re so sweet! I missed your comments, *sniff*

    Yeah I think you should tell those Chinese people who’s the boss. Maybe you don’t have to scream and shout at them, but talking to them about it might help. That’s the thing with Chinese people–they’re horrifically inconsiderate. They don’t think about the other person. That’s why so many of my Chinese friends are shocked when they come to the USA and find that Americans hold the door open for others, apologize when we bump into someone on accident, or automatically start to line up despite not receiving any orders to. They’re always stunned, because in China, anything goes.

    Japan is the exact opposite, and it’s much more pleasant to interact with them. They always take the ‘other’ person into consideration. For example, one of my big shocks in Japan was–they actually watch the movie credits in the theater! When I lived in Japan, I went to see a movie and when I saw the credits roll I stood up to leave, and everyone in the theater gave me the stink eye (so I sat right back down). My Japanese friend said we should watch the credits to pay respect to those that put so much work to make this movie happen. I was really floored.

    Such an interesting comment Autumn! Even in LA you get slices of Japan and China right at your driveway, haha.

    1. THEY WATCH THE CREDITS?! Wow. Americans only do that if they know there’s a little teaser at the end, like in “The Avengers.”

      I love it. I learn new things even in comments.

  4. Thanks for the shout out Mary!

    Of course, living in China has changed me. I don’t think I was necessarily a pushover before, but I think I’m more assertive now. I’m not afraid to negotiate in most situations and that was something I loathed pre-China.

    I think I’ve also become better at getting along with people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Particularly living in a small town, I’ve had to socialize with people I wouldn’t normally. I’ve even come to like people I initially couldn’t stand. In the US, I would have probably just avoided them or at least wouldn’t have made an effort to get to know them, but in China, sometimes I didn’t have much choice.

    1. Hi Rosie!

      I hear you when it comes to associating with people from all different backgrounds (and in my case, it’s usually fellow Americans or other foreigners in China). I’ve met so many people in China and Japanese where I always asked myself, “would I be friends with this person in the states?” But I guess living abroad opened my mind and gave me a more open and tolerant heart. I hear you there.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Mary, you are back! (This time for good, I hope ¬¬)

    China has made me less shy, that’s for sure. I also yell 不要插队!!sometimes 😀

  6. Mary, I gotta tell you, this post was so helpful today — I have some whiter than white relatives at the Grand Canyon, and they were SO UPSET about being pushed shoved, and repeatedly cut in front of by Asian tourists. So they called and were like, “Wah, we feel awful, we think we are total racists, and we never want to go to Japan.” So after I quit laughing, I directed them to this post and told them that the busloads of tourists were undoubtedly Chinese and that they would love Japan.

    They felt much better after reading about the differences and stopped taking it so personally.

  7. Haha, I’m glad my blog post was so helpful and timely! I’m also glad I cleared the good name of the Japanese. I bet the bad manners of Chinese tourists have inadvertently tarnished the good name of Japanese travelers.

    My friend just went to the grand canyon and she said all of the Chinese women were basically wearing burkas in order to shield their skin from the sun. She showed me photos and I was really blown away. Full on face visor with two layers of clothing, along with a scarf wrapped around the head leaving only an opening for the eyes (which were covered up by sunglases of course). They had an umbrella too.

    Ah, gotta love the Chinese!

  8. Developing the Silent Observer has been a meditative, healing and profound experience. It opens the door of awareness, be still and listen ………… simple instruction but how easy is it to follow it through when the School of Hard Knocks and reality checks weave in and out of one’s life and surroundings. I have now reached out for the Higher Self and allow it to guide me and be part of the Whole.

    As I negotiated the hairpin bend, your colourful blog draws me in; it’s lively, captivating, salient, sanguine and evocative. Yes, I note the new look on your blog, love it.

    I, too have lived abroad, not too long ago, where I took the road less travelled by, to an ultra conservative corner of the Arab world. It was my first overseas posting, most people viewed it as the ultimate hardship post; the restrictions pertaining to dress and demeanour and the lack of public entertainments. A reluctant commitment, it was not. I knew what I had let myself in for as I signed along the dotted lines, so I thought.

    The Journey started with a Call to Adventure on account that I had completed all the challenges within my remit whilst I was washed-up on this island, many moons ago.

    The road not taken

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveller, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that, the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood and I,
    I took the one less travelled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    Robert Frost

    An urgent email landed in my inbox. I was to fly to the Middle East in 3 days time, baggage allowance was 25 kg , relocation package was rescinded and there were changes to the terms and conditions in our employment contract. The decluttering was a marathon of an activity, I had amassed a lifetime of belongings.

    Just before I flew out, I promised myself that if I could receive kindness from one individual whilst stationed in the Middle East, I would be more than happy. What followed suit as I arrived at my final destination was an extraordinary experience.

    With its wings folded, the plane taxiied into the runway. My colleagues and I donned our black abaya and hijab. I took a deep breath and I said to myself, ‘this is it.’ I picked up my hand luggages (yes, hand luggages), negotiated a flight of stairs or two whilst I maintained some decorum as I lifted the hem of my abaya which trailed over floors and headed for immigration clearance. We wound our way through bright intersections, down the stairs and into an opulent part of the building. For the next 3 hours, we waited patiently for our immigration clearance. The indoor temperature was in the 90s. This was mid-August. The local time was 8.30 pm.

    At 11.30 pm, a colleague and I made our way to the luggage carousel. I told her it would be funny if my luggage was busted. My suitcase was ripped open. I then spent the next 3 hours being passed from pillar to post; no one was interested in my mishap. I had to drag my tired body, from one airport terminal to another and back again, up and down the stairs in some places. One Immigration Officer asked me to speak in Arabic. Bone tired, I couldn’t take any more, the time was 2.30 am. I noted a couple of missed calls and a text message from my local contact on my foreign phone but I couldn’t make a call nor send a text from my phone. Men casted their eyes upon me, I averted my eyes. I ignored social convention and asked to borrow a phone from a local guy at a booth. There was panic at the other end, a foreign, male voice! How did I feel? I was glad to be alive.

    We boarded the coach in the plush compound where we had stayed for the night. A 4 hours journey awaited us. The desert stretched out into the horizon; shrubs, trees and grass dotted here and there. The sun was high up in the sky, it was bright, not blue; this is the sky without colour.

    A large complex with high walls and barbed wires loomed in the distance. Within the vicinity are square, boxed shaped buildings and a much smaller complex. Soon after, we arrived at our compound. There was a small eatery, local convenience store, Western amenities e.g large BBQ pits and a nondescript coffee shop that whipped out the best iced coffee and mint and lemon cooler this side of town. We had a choice of studio or a shared 2 bedrooms flat. In our apartment were pillows and cases, duvet and cover, saucepans, chopping board, cutleries, toilet brush and a bag of basic foods (some bread, butter, tea bags, milk, kit kat bar and instant coffee).

    Our first port of call was a visit to the supermarket in the shopping mall that evening. Shops etc are closed at prayer times hence shopping trips and eating out for instance had to be time managed. A sea of black greeted us as we entered the shopping mall. At the supermarket, a colleague and I circled the vegetable stand. Some rotted and sprouted onions stared at us. We voiced our displeasure and looked at the rest of the vegetables with great dismay.

    Thankfully, the quality and variety of fruit and vegetables improved in the coming weeks. Local potatoes redolent of my home grown veggies, fed with seaweed meal were full of flavour. Baby courgettes / zucchini with the flowers intact were a regular sight in the summer; this was two for the price of one, stuffed courgette flower or dipped it in seasoned beaten egg and pan fried, were a summer favourite.

    It wasn’t long before words reached the locals that there were a new batch of foreigners living in this part of town. Yes, we were told.

    The challenges abounded in Life Behind the Wall. Never had I been challenged on all levels. Here, the night did not walk with the stars trailing behind, the moon with its bright light was my comfort blanket. The rain, when it arrived was warmly welcomed.

    Life Behind the Wall during the Eid holiday was very quiet. Sitting by the pool one sunny day, the soundlessness finally hit me; my whole world came crushing down around me.

    I walk a lonely road
    The only one that I have ever known
    Don’t know where it goes
    But it’s home to me and I walk alone

    Green Day – I Walk Alone Lyrics | MetroLyrics

    I had plenty of time to think, eleven full days and a short break in Dubai. To survive, I had to change my mindset. Speech is silver, silence is golden. One made choices in life (well, most of us do) and choices came with consequences.

    As time went by, I sought solace outside The Wall. I could now see the beauty in the desert. I walked alone.

    Colleagues recalled their horror of being hissed at and mimed (or told to) to wear the niqab. Some wore the niqab and yet they were troubled. Some got into a spot of bother with the religious police. I was warned by many that the religious police were a ubiquitous presence, a force to be reckoned with. They are tasked to enforce Sharia law. While others got themselves into tricky situations, I was with the incumbent on the day but it was never directed at me. Yet, I didn’t wear the niqab and I had open toed sandals with bright nail varnish.

    I had never seen a religious police nor had I never felt threatened, harassed or had unpleasant encounter on my own whilst in the Middle East (except for my broken suitcase). The locals and expat workers from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines were kind and generous towards me. Some of the men (locals) addressed me as ‘sister’ when they talked to me. These experiences have left me forever changed. It has opened my heart and mind to many things.

    I was at my happiest in a dhow, in the spice market and in the wet market where rows of assorted fresh vegetables, fruits, dates (from different part of the Middle East), fish (including dried) and seafood piled high on makeshift tables and tiled platform. In the spice market, there were dried fruit, nuts and spice galore. Almonds came in four different grades, sandalwood resin to sooth and perfume the body, the finest Persian saffron were just some of the treasures one could get from the spice zouk.

    I may not have gone where I intended to go but I think I have ended up where I
    intended to be.

    Douglas Adams

    1. Thank you very much for the long and thoughtful comment. Your comment was like a blog post in itself! I would love to hear more about your journeys to the middle East (I’m guessing Saudi Arabia?), so please, start a blog!

      I really respect you for going through with such a decision. I currently work with a lot of middle Eastern students and staff and the culture gap between us feels like a giant crevice. Whereas Asian culture felt familiar to me, it’s really hard for me to find any middle ground with the Middle Eastern students. I have many friends from that region from high school and college, but it would be a very trying effort for me to throw myself into their culture and survive there while abiding by their societal rules.

      I can imagine that the rush from the cultural onslaught must have been intense. It definitely doesn’t sound like an easy path, but it sounds like a damn, fine interesting path to choose, indeed. Like I said, you should totally write your own blog about the journey. It’s very interesting to see an expat’s view of the middle east, especially from a woman.

      Thank you for the comments about my blog (and the design, yay!). I’m glad you spoke up and I’m happy to know I have a reader as interesting as yourself.

  9. Thanks Mary for the lovely words.

    Yes, I lived in the Qassim region in Saudi Arabia (SA). Saudis are generous people. I grew to like the people and the country. Perhaps my view may differ if my experience was negative.
    SA is not for everyone. One has to work with the system and not against it.

    In fact, the people in the Middle East are well known for their hospitality.

    There’s a lot of work in starting a blog but I also have a burning desire to do so. In the mean time, I’m taking in as much information as I can from other bloggers.

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