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March 13, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

Expatriation 2.0: Living Mindfully Abroad

In his essay “The Alien Home“, the British writer Pico Iyer describes Japan as “the place I like to treat as home.”  This phrase wonderfully encapsulates both the goals and limits of expatriate life.  Born and raised in the United States, I’ve had two places that I’ve liked to treat as homes in this way.  During my college years in Ireland, the fact that I blended in physically and linguistically at times made me feel as though Ireland was home..  I’ve lived a less integrated existence but much more comfortable existence here in Korea.  I put this down to technology and the sense of mindfulness it has coincidentally helped to facilitate.

Although the Ireland I inhabited supposedly had the highest rate of mobile phone ownership in the world, internet access there somewhat lagged that in the United States.  A home connection was a rare luxury and the speeds available at the time wouldn’t permitted most social media, even if they had existed then.  I can’t say this was necessarily a bad thing in that it forced me to engage more with Irish culture than I otherwise would have.  By contrast, the cushion provided by Korea’s ubiquitous broadband internet and social media made my transition here smoother than some of my moves between American cities.  I’ve remained in touch with friends at home through Skype and Facebook, made new ones here through Meetups, and continue to find like-minded (like-mindful?) people through blogging.

Six weeks before traveling to Korea, I attended my first meditation retreat, at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  Although I didn’t learn a specific technique, the eight days I spent in the noble silence allowed me to approach the experience of moving abroad to begin my teaching career with equanimity.  The retreat also introduced me to Dharmaseed, a collection of freely available dharma talks.  Listening to them has both helped me to keep meditating and at times has constituted my entire mindfulness practice.  That practice has been both my anchor here and the gateway to some wonderful friendships.  The greatest challenge I’ve encountered as an expatriate has been a desire to make my surroundings fit me.  Being mindful of things as they are has reminded me of my responsibility to fit within them.



Leave a Comment
  1. humanrescuesdog / Mar 14 2013 8:51 am

    Thanks for the ‘like’ 🙂 Mindfulness is hard, but so rewarding. I’m practising a little bit of it every day. Today, I tried being mindful on a packed train (once I got over wanting to kill everyone there ;)) By the time I walked off the train, I was in a completely different frame of mind.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Mar 14 2013 8:57 am

      My pleasure! 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to read and for your thoughtful comment. I think you describe both the challenge and potential benefits of mindfulness beautifully.

  2. ninjapencil / Mar 15 2013 11:06 pm

    This post resonated with me more than you could possiby appreciate. I am a (somewhat homesick) English ex-pat living in Providence RI, USA, but don’t know if I could go back, having gone through the last 9 years of unbelievable life-changing and soul / brain-enriching experiences in Rhode Island. (The unknown is my favorite place by far.)

    Having read this, I fully intend to learn more about the place in Barre, MA. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences – I have bookmarked all the links in this entry for further exploration.



    • A Mindful Traveler / Mar 15 2013 11:51 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind comment CC, I’m really touched! By the way, two books I think you might enjoy are Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom by Joseph Goldstein. Not only do they give advice on how to practice, they’re very calming and centering to read themselves.

      I also absolutely *love* your blog! Your variety of references, sardonic wit, and its wide ranging nature were a delight. I couldn’t stop scrolling which is the electronic version of not being able to put it down. I’m looking forward to reading more!

      Have a wonderful day!

  3. tiramit / Mar 16 2013 12:38 am

    Yes, it’s about how we relate with our surroundings – mindfulness arises from this. We do what we can to integrate into the host society; make some headway with language, cultural and the cognitive difference. But we are always outsiders. Maybe we become remote, a distance enters, neither one thing nor the other, and eventually there’s no going-back to ‘the old country.’ I don’t know what happens after that. How do you see it?

    • A Mindful Traveler / Mar 16 2013 12:56 am

      Thank you for your wise comment tiramit! In the past, I thought of the challenge that arises when returning home as a sort of personal cultural mixing. For example, 11 years after I moved away from Ireland and 9 years after my last visit, I still use quite a number of Irish phrases.

      But I like your formulation of there being a distance much more. Even though I’ve only lived outside my home country for 18 months this time around, I feel as though there are an increasing number of things that leave me feeling I can’t fully go back, even if and when I do so physically.

      This isn’t so much a reflection of my adoption of Korean culture; indeed the vast majority of my friends here are expats and my knowledge of the language is very basic. Rather, I think it’s more that being away from it, I see my old home more objectively and with clearer eyes.

      I’d thus build on your formulation of distance saying that it’s forced me to consider my home with more clarity and less attachment to it. I’d like to think this builds the factor of alobha in a sense, but I think it perhaps presumptuous to claim that. Nonetheless, I’d venture to say that living abroad does help me see more clearly and thus (I hope) brings me a tiny bit closer to nibbana.

      • tiramit / Mar 16 2013 2:15 am

        As you say, we can’t fully go back, and the distance thing is okay, it fits in with Buddhist principles just right. Seeing everything with clearer eyes is what it’s about. I like the word alobha, I think of it as a real letting-go, to the point of giving everything away; more like generosity.


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