Top 3 lessons from living abroad

1. Don’t underestimate the power of “the way things are done” to inform your behavior. You’ll find yourself and others doing surprising things–some good and some bad–because that’s how it’s done. An example of the good: I’ve found that I’ve picked up a number of frugal habits that previously seemed crazy–like showering with 30 seconds of water at a time–because frugality is very Israeli, out of necessity. An example of an inconceivable thing that has started to seem normal: two teachers for 35 three-year-olds in full-day preschool.

2. When you change where you live, even radically, you don’t get to change who you are. Sorry. You can change a huge amount of how you act (see #1) and even how you think based on your environment, but you’re still you. Any challenges or struggles you’ve had in your personal development or relationships, any personality faults you’d like to wipe away–you’re still going to have the same ones no matter where you move. They might even be magnified as you struggle with new challenges.

3. Non-Americans tend to think America is a very cheap place to live, and it’s valuable to look at our society from a foreign perspective to see to what extent that is true. We are living here in Israel quite comfortably but with far fewer conveniences, on less than we did in America. Sure, consumer goods are cheap and abundant in America, and that’s all foreigners see. What they don’t see is that there is more social pressure to buy the newest and shiniest gadget, or the trendiest bubble wrap for children. That’s easily avoided if you’re smart, but other things are less avoidable. People can usually afford two cars, so two cars have become a necessity in many places as the bus system erodes and cities sprawl. Health care is expensive. Not to mention saving for college (now there’s a bubble that’s going to burst). If you value a Jewish education, there’s the cost of day school. The social safety net is smaller, so you have to be responsible and save more, which can be a trap for high-income earners living above their means.

I don’t mean to be a downer or complainer when I make the point about America not being automatically “cheap” even though it appears to have a higher standard of living than most of the world. Part of living abroad is realizing what could be different about your life (see #1) and life-hacking appropriately. I think it’s no coincidence that I started to realize the value of financial planning, a previous blind spot in my understanding of money and how the world works, while living abroad.

Now that I think about it, the lessons above can be boiled down to one simple maxim: The main benefit from living abroad isn’t what you learn about the other culture; the main benefit is the light that is shed upon your own.

Most importantly, you learn to distinguish what you do because you are you and what you do because of where you live and who you associate with.

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