Not only was I curious about my ability to adapt, long term, but I wanted to "get below the surface" of cultures I had only observed from the outside. I wanted to get in on the inside. What little I had learned up to that point with my foreigner-friends had become the most mind and soul-expanding knowledge I had ever happened upon. I wanted more.
Traveling as a businessman and tourist to 30 countries didn't satisfy the urge, only deepened it. Finally, desire, time and opportunity married and I took the plunge into a foreign culture. Among the seven or eight cultures I had been closest to, I knew the least about Thailand. Therein lay the challenge I wanted.
Three years later, in retrospect, it was the best decision of my life. It has been like being "born again." New ways to talk, read, eat, think, sleep, bathe, keep house, shop for food, relate to people, work--and the list could go on to include all the variety of human life. Yes, it's mind-expanding and deepens the soul. Yes, it shows one how very limited his world and life view has been up until then. Yes, it's sometimes frustrating. Yes, it's sometimes exhilarating.
Have I rejected my old culture? Of course not. My students are eager to have that "foreign" contact, and I need to preserve that opportunity for them. Rather than rejecting my native culture, I have simply embraced a new one as well. I am becoming a child of two cultures. Both cultures contain things to embrace and things to reject. I hope to be wiser for integrating the best of both, and jettisoning that which doesn't edify.
The zenith of this experience is to really "connect" with other human beings from diverse ways of life. In some ways they seem like absolute extra-terrestrial aliens. Especially when caught by suprise in an unfamiliar situation, you often think you've landed on another planet.
Yet in many more ways, you are reminded that the Family of Man has undeniable traits that are shared by all. They appear to all be made in the image of a central alpha figure. You get below the exterior and you find the same dreams, fears, hates and loves you've known since childhood. Amidst all the strangeness, it adds a familiar comfort.
Karen Conelly, in Dreams of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand, says it best:
"I now conceive of travel, and more particularly of living abroad, as responsibility, neither a right nor a privilege but a profoundly human act. To slow down, to listen more carefully, to watch the surface until we glimpse what is underneath, to learn from people who know well what we do not know at all: these are choices, steps towards dismantling the barriers that separate not only nations and strangers, but neighbors, too."